The Mystery Defined

Posted by Guy Magar on

Mystery and detective fiction comprises a literature of questions. Who done it, of course, is the classic question. There's also what was done*? How was it done? Why was it done? An even more fundamental question, though, is this: what is a mystery?

Like many seemingly simple questions, this one is remarkably difficult to answer. Every mystery reader would probably answer it differently. We can agree, however, that all mystery and detective stories involve a breach in the social order, followed by an attempt to repair that breach and restore order. The breach usually involves a crime, although it doesn't have to. It could as easily be a marital crisis or the political intrigue behind a university promotion or artistic jealousy.

Beyond that, the field is wide open. That diversity is one of its strengths. We have maiden aunts solving murders over cups of tea, and we have high-tech forensic investigators poring over strands of carpet fiber in shiny laboratories. We have wise-cracking, hard-boiled private detectives lurking in alleys, and we have earnest police investigators traversing the political minefields of City Hall. We have medieval herbalists, pre-war Egyptologists and the wives of Victorian police officers. We have everything but a pirate with an eye patch, a peg leg and a parrot on his shoulder. And it all somehow fits within the genre.

There's no universal classification of the sub-categories within mystery fiction. Any attempt to impose order on the genre ultimately collapses under the weight of arcane arguments, like medieval debates on the number of angels who could dance on the head of a pin. For discussion purposes, we'll divide the genre into six loose categories: 1) private detective stories, 2) legal thrillers, 3) cozy mysteries, 4) police procedurals, 5) historical novels and that classic catch-all 6) miscellaneous.

Private Detective Stories
The private detective story revolves around a professional investigator who is NOT a government agent. The 'private eye' is an iconic American figure...the lone figure, an outsider, often cynical, alienated from society yet working to protect it. Historically, this figure is a descendant of the American cowboy who, in turn, is a descendant of the frontiersman. Take away his trench coat and Sam Spade isn't that different from Natty Bumppo of 'The Last of the Mohicans.' Modernized and more sensitive, the Kinsey Milhones and Spensers of modern P.I. fiction remain true to that tradition.

Legal Thrillers
It's not surprising legal thrillers are popular in our litigious society. Lawyers are the modern equivalent of alchemists and cabalists. They belong to a closed society that uses abstruse language to do things ordinary folks can't. They're meddlers, saints, villains and saviors. We love them and hate them and can't stop reading about them. John Grisham hasn't become fabulously wealthy by accident. And John Mortimer's irascible Rumpole of the Bailey allowed him to retire from the English bar (although, to be accurate, the Rumpole stories aren't legal thrillers; they're legal charmers).

The Cozy Mystery
The cozy mystery surfaced in England during the 1920s, and its soul remains there still, frozen in time. A classic cozy revolves around a small village, an amateur sleuth (often faded aristocracy), herrings that are not only red but positively scarlet, and a bloodless murder committed in some arcane fashion...a rare poison from Paraguay or one of the laird's collection of commemorative letter openers. The offender is always caught, and order is always restored. The modern version of the cozy follows the tradition while updating it. Instead of the country village, the vicar and the squire's widow, we're likely to see an ashram, a Buddhist monk and a lesbian travel writer. The concept remains the same: a closed, insulated community and a puzzling crime. Although the cozy is much mocked, it remains astonishingly popular.

Police Procedurals
These are more clinical works, often written in an almost documentary fashion. They follow an investigator (or team of investigators) through the travails of solving a crime. There's often no mystery in this sub-genre; the tension comes from the process by which the offender is caught. The police procedural is an international favorite. In the U.S., we have Ed McBain and his 87th Precinct novels and Tony Hillerman's brilliant Navajo Tribal Police series. Sweden gave us Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö with the Martin Beck series. From the Netherlands, we have Janwillem van de Wetering's marvelously zen Grijpstra and DeGier novels. Action, tension, psychology and methodology...what more could a reader hope for?

Historical Mysteries
These increasingly popular novels are a relatively recent arrival in the genre. They're actually examples of the other sub-categories set in an historical context. The Brother Cadfael series, written by Ellis Peters and featuring a medieval monk, are essentially cozies. Lindsey Davis' novels about Marcus Didius Falco are hard-boiled detective novels set in the Rome of Emperor Vespasian. The Judge Dee books set in ancient China are exotic police procedurals. Although medieval and renaissance Europe are the most common settings for historical mysteries, there are also series set in such diverse times and places as Japan under the Tokugawa Shogunate and Egypt during the reign of Tutankhamun.

Any category labeled 'miscellaneous' is, by definition, a hodgepodge. This is where we jam everything that doesn't fit conveniently in the other categories. Here we have Donald Westlake and his caper novels, Lawrence Block and his thief and hit man series, the socio-political novels of George Higgins, the comic Florida-based mysteries of Carl Hiassen, the serial killers of Thomas Harris, and Minette Walters with her psychological novels of suspense. Here too we have those writers whose work transcends genres...Elmore Leonard, John Gregory Dunne, Walter Mosely.

The scope of the genre, however, doesn't diminish the craft involved in writing it. Working within a genre, contrary to the opinions of some literary critics, doesn't require any less skill. A good detective story is still a good story. The constraints of the genre are self-imposed constraints. Just as some painters choose to work in watercolors, some photographers elect to work in black and white film, or some weavers rely on naturally dyed fibers, we've chosen our genre. We're mystery writers by choice.

A Brief & Biased History of the Genre

Mystery and detective fiction is usually said to have begun in the 1840s with Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Murders in the Rue Morgue.' Some genre historians will argue that the first mystery was written fifteen years earlier by Francois Vidocq. Others claim Voltaire's Zadig, published in 1748, was the first true mystery.

But that's all quibbling. For the general public, the genre really got its start in 1887 when Arthur Conan Doyle introduced Sherlock Holmes. Here we have the archetypal detective. Detecting is his job, not just something he does for intellectual amusement. He goes about it rationally. He's quirky, but effective. Like a lot of modern detectives, Holmes is alienated from society and has an occasional problem with substance abuse. Most significant, though, is this: Holmes gives us the first example of the detective. A little arrogant, a taste for the darker side of human nature and an unrelenting determination to solve the case.

Holmes inspired a host of imitators. For the next few decades, mystery fiction consisted almost entirely of variations on the Holmes theme...amateur detectives solving arcane crimes using their vast store of esoteric knowledge. Dorothy Sayers was the inheritor of this school. In her first novel, her protagonist, Lord Peter Wimsey, is dangerously close to a caricature of the Prissy Detective. But over the course of ten novels and twenty short stories, Sayers found the courage to inject some humanity into Wimsey, making him a truly three-dimensional character.

Despite Sayers, the genre continued in a delicate, bloodless fashion until 1930, when a former Pinkerton detective with bad lungs turned the mystery world on its head. Dashiell Hammett, it's said, took murder out of the drawing room and dropped it back in the street, where it belongs. With the publication of 'The Maltese Falcon,' Hammett forever changed detective fiction. Hammett's protagonists weren't effete intellectuals; they were street-wise common men who didn't mind getting their hands dirty. In fact, at times they actively enjoyed getting their hands dirty. Their morals were questionable. Their ethics might not be for sale, but they could be rented.

Doyle, Sayers and Hammett. The Mystery Trinity. They have the full spectrum of the genre covered. And each of them wrote in both novel and short story formats; that's the writing equivalent of being ambidextrous.

The current state of mystery fiction is built on the foundation these three created. Inspector Morse is Holmes with a pint of stout and a bad temper. Easy Rawlins is Lord Peter Wimsey as a working class African-American in 1940s California. V.I Warshawski is Sam Spade with breasts and without the trench coat. Yet we still see new writers create original characters in startlingly fresh situations, all firmly within the bounds of the genre. The elasticity of the genre is remarkable. No matter how much we stretch it, it never seems to break.

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