Friday, July 2, 2010

The History of Mystery

by Jean Henry Mead

Edgar Allen Poe started it all with his first detective story, but “What’s happened to the mystery since Holmes hung up his deerstalker hat and started keeping bees?” Carolyn Wheat asks the question in her book, How to Write Killer Fiction.

Wheat says that mysteries have been split into three distinct strands: the classic whodunit, the American hard-boiled detective story and the procedural. She divides up the whodunit category into the regional mystery, historical, comic relief, You gotta have a gimmick (or niche mysteries) and the dark cozy. Her book was published in 2003, and a number of subgenres have since been added to the list, including the science fiction mystery.

I love niche mysteries such as Carolyn Hart’s series featuring a redhaired ghost who returns to earth to solve murders following her own death in a boating accident. And former NASA payload specialist Stephanie Osborn not only taught astronauts what they needed to know about space travel, she wrote a mystery involving the disappearance of a space shuttle after her friend was killed in the Challenger explosion.

The American hard-boiled detective story has certainly evolved from The Great Detective who solved crimes with his intellect. The list isn’t complete without the books of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross McDonald, Elmore Leonard and Lawrence Block. The plots take place in urban areas where murder and mayhem happen on a regular basis. You’d be hard pressed to find a hard-boiled detective story set in Cabot Cove, Maine, or St. Mary Mead, England. Or as Chandler once said, “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished or afraid.” The phrase epitomizes the hard-boiled detective story that's alive and well in any number of currently written series.

The police procedural evolved when writers came to the conclusion that the majority of crimes were actually solved by detectives who used scientific methods to track down and apprehend criminals--much like Sherlock Holmes with modern equipment. They weren’t bunglers like the cops in Agatha Christie’s St. Mary Mead or mainly corrupt like the cops in Bay City, California. No one seems to know who first wrote procedurals although the genre was influenced by Wilkie Collins’ Sergeant Cuff in his book, The Moonstone, published in 1868, and TV’s Sgt. Joe Friday of the LAPD of the 1950s. Joseph Wambaugh and James Ellroy later refined the subgenre and placed a spotlight on the corruption, violence and racism of the Los Angeles police.

The dark cozy has lightened considerably in this country. I still love Christie’s sleuths and have written a few of my own, adding comic relief to my Logan & Cafferty senior sleuth series. The dark cozy came into being with Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, the first novel to use fingerprinting as a method of detection, long before they were used in real-life police work.

With all these great subgenres to choose from, which do you prefer?

(Mysterious Writers
is a collection of many mystery subgenres written by some of the best writers on the planet.)


Robert said...

Got to go with the hard boiled detective. Lawrence Block's Mathew Scudder is one of my favorite characters in fiction, But Hammett, Chandler, MacDonald, got me started, and more contemporary writers and characters such as , Connelly's Harry Bosch and Walter Mosely's EZ Rawlins keep me going.

Beth Terrell said...

I also prefer the detective novel. As Robert said, Lawrence Block is great. Robert Crais is one of my favorites. I'm also fond of books whose protagonists are not true PIs but who fit the PI mold--like Jonathan Kellerman's Alex Delaware (although he works as a consultant with a police detective, they seem more like PI novels than like procedurals), William Kent Kreuger's Cork O'Connor series, and Tim Hallinan's Poke Rafferty series. Poke's not a true PI, but the books seem more like PI thrillers than anything else.

Jean Henry Mead said...

I would have loved to have been able to interview Hammett, Chandler and McDonald, but at least I was fortunate to interview Lawrence Block: (who doesn't like to be interviewed). :)

Beth Terrell said...

I heard Lawrence Block speak at a little conference in East Tennessee once. It was a high point in my life. Great speaker. His books on writing are very good too.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Characters and writing styles continue to evolve. When I saw they put Magnum PI and Hawaii 50 back on the air, I watched an episode of each. Compare that to CSI and it's apples and oranges. The same is true when comparing Poe's writing style to Michael Connelly's. The most important thing is to create engaging characters. If you can do that, it really doesn't matter what category you fall into.

Bill Kirton said...

I actually find precisely that the variety you describe prevents me opting for a favourite. In a way, reading a procedural is a 'rest' from reading a 'dark' - cozy or not - and vice versa. I think I'm inclining more and more, though, to those which have at least a flavouring of humour. The ones I don't like are those which con readers by using some absurd coincidence or deus ex machina that we could never have foreseen, however acute we were. (And a secret confession - I've never liked Agatha Christie. There's no doubt she's very skilful but I need there to be characters I care about.)

Jean Henry Mead said...

I appreciate your candor, Bill, and agree that a little humor is important in any subgenre.