Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Mystique of the Mystery

The origins of the mystery are a bit cloudy, but let’s see what we can uncover on the genre. Webster’s Dictionary defines the word ‘mystery’ as a piece of fiction usually dealing with the solution of a crime. Of course there are several other definitions of the word so let’s focus on the fiction aspect and where this genre got its start in the literary world.
The history of the mystery is a grey area and its origins are argued across the board by many. Some believe that the mystery dates back to the original text of the Bible, while others think that the first mystery came from Chaucer, others believe that A Thousand and One Arabian Nights is the originator. In western culture, it is widely accepted that the very first literary mystery written came by way of Edgar Allen Poe. But where did Poe get his inspiration for the story and what separated it from those that proceeded it?
The Murders in the Rue Morgue is believed to have been influenced by another short story written in 1819 by E.T.A. Hoffman. The difference in Poe’s story and all the others was, very simply, the introduction of the detective. That man or woman who set out to solve a crime and changed the way the world viewed literature also introduced us all to the ‘mystery’.
As such, mysteries have only been around for 179 years but their impact on the literary world has been immeasurable. During the short time the genre has been around it has seen its fair share of change and sub-genre spin offs.
Some of the most famous of all mysteries were written by Arthur Conan Doyle and gave the literary world its very first hero detective…Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle wrote four novels and around 56 short stories that featured the quirky detective in all his glory. Most ‘Holmes’ novels were in a narrative style and were told from the point of view of Dr. John Watson; Holmes’ trusted assistant and friend. It could very easily be argued that Watson was quite the detective in his own right, but never took much credit for any of it and was considered a biographer to the events that took place around him. Elementary!
Throughout the 1800’s and into the early 1900’s, the mystery genre would remain dominated by male authors, but a stirring change would soon take place. During the 1920’s and 1930’s, the world would embrace the period that would come to be known as ‘The Golden Age of Detective Fiction’. It was during these years that men would take a backseat and women would emerge as front runners in the mystery genre.
We were introduced to the ‘Queens of Crime’: Dame Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham. All of these women would, as we all know, make a massive impact on the mystery genre and leave behind legacies that are still brightly burning even today. As the mystery genre continued to define itself, the detective fiction genre was being standardized and guidelines established that would distinguish it from all other genres. The key element of detective fiction became… a detective unraveling a mystery. Along with this standard for detective fiction came other guidelines which would eventually spawn the sub genre ‘Whodunit’.
Dame Agatha Christie quickly emerged as one of the most popular writers of mystery and whodunit as she introduced her heroes, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, among others. Christie’s novels included Murder on the Orient Express (1934), Death on the Nile (1937) and And Then There Were None (1939). She is also credited with over 80 other novels and is to this very day, listed as the best selling mystery fiction author of all time with over 4 billion books sold.
In the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, the literary community would see a huge influx of popularity in ‘pulp magazines’. This rise in mystery magazine sales increased interest globally in the mystery, whodunit and detective fiction genres. The outpouring of new mystery fans would be quickly curbed with the introduction of the television set. Sales and interest in the magazines saw a massive decline and what had begun as numerous pulp magazines, was reduced to just two. Both of those magazines are still available today.
The staying power of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queens Mystery Magazine are often credited with keeping America interested in the mystery genre.
During all the years when the mystery genre was fashioning and separating itself from other genres, many novels would be translated onto film or stage. Bella Lugosi even played the key role in the black & white screen version of the first mystery, The Murders in the Rue Morgue which debuted in 1932.
In the late 1940’s the mystery genre would receive a new boost from a most unlikely source…a family board game.
In 1949 Waddington’s Toy Company in Leeds, United Kingdom introduced ‘Clue’, a board game where the players become the detectives and attempt to solve a crime. The game was later purchased by Parker Brothers Game Company and distributed worldwide. Now, an icon of the Hasbro Industry, the game of ‘Clue’ is a worldwide phenomenon with over 20 versions of the original game, TV shows, movies and even a line of books. All of this sprang from a simple, mystery money maker.
The mystery genre has come a very long way in a short amount of time and it appears, much to the delight of its readers, determined to go with us into the next century.
During the television detective era, viewers around the globe were turned on by an array of shows where the main character’s goal was to solve a crime. It was during these years that we met Barnaby Jones, Remington Steele and Jessica Fletcher in Murder She Wrote. Three of the most popular detective shows were Perry Mason, Magnum P.I. and Matlock, all of which featured a unique twist on the mystery/detective genre in television.
Today you need not look far to see the influences of the mystery genre all around us. There are countless movies & TV programs in which the central theme revolves around the genre. We even have entire television networks devoted to uncovering the truth to some of the oldest mysteries known to man. These networks also come complete with a whole slew of fans who tune in on a daily basis, searching for the answers.
You can scan the channels and find a host of shows that spotlight new and unusual twists on the old concepts that define the mystery. Psych, House, Medium, Castle, Dexter and Monk are just a few of the shows with a fresh new take and a quirky new interpretation on the modern day detective.
Since its beginning, the mystery genre has spun a ton of sub genres that include, whodunit, amateur detective, private detective, cozy, hard boiled (noir), police procedural, crime and caper. Of course, this list may vary from one writer to another.
In 2010, the mystery genre made its mark on the literary landscape when some of the best selling writers of our time hit the best seller lists. Stieg Larson, Dennis Lehane, John Grisham and David Baldacci are just a small handful of authors whose presences in the mystery genre are being greatly felt in this year.
As long as there are unanswered questions in the universe, mysteries looming or even murders that go unsolved, the mystery genre will be there to pull its readers and viewers along on nail-biting journeys. Perhaps one day we will get the answer to that ages-old question…Was it Colonel Mustard in the library with the candlestick?
From the files of literary history it is hard to gauge the exact year and origins of the mystery. Though there are countless clues and many a detective willing to search for the answer, the origins of the mystery genre remains, fittingly…a mystery!!

CK Webb for Suspense Magazine