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This month's theme: Mysteries

The History of the Mystery


Fran Joyce
























The development of the mystery genre is often linked to the First Industrial Revolution (1760 to 1840). Great Britain and most of Europe were transformed in the mid-eighteenth century thanks to James Watt’s improvements of steam power and his collaboration with manufacturer/engineer Matthew Boulton to create the rotative engine.

As population shifted to industrial centers, a different type of law enforcement was needed. In local villages, people knew each other and were familiar with village events. The constable or sheriff could easily determine the perpetrator of almost every crime. People from diverse backgrounds living in close proximity to each other and the anonymity of large cities caused crime to increase. Criminals became more sophisticated and harder to catch.

In addition to the development of police forces, specially trained individuals were needed to investigate more complex crimes…the detective was born. Edgar Allan Poe’s Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) is believed to be the first detective character to appear in literature.

In 1860, Willkie Collins’ mystery, The Woman in White, was published in Great Britain, and in 1968 Collins published The Moonstone, regarded as the first true English detective novel. Collins’ works were deemed “sensation novels” the precursor to the mystery genre. TS Eliot credited Collins and not Poe with the creation of the detective genre possibly because The Moonstone was a novel whereas “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” was a short story. Novelist Dorothy L. Sayers referred to The Moonstone as "probably the very finest detective story ever written."

In 1878, Anna Katherine Green’s The Leavenworth Case became the first detective novel written by a woman.

These events all predated Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation of master sleuth Sherlock Holmes and his assistant Watson in 1887. Conan Doyle wrote four novels and 56 short stories about Holmes. Movies, television programs, and plays have been created about Sherlock Holmes. Several writers have attempted to write new detective novels about his adventures or have fashioned characters in his image.

Agatha Christie (1890-1976) wrote 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections during her 50 year career. Her characters Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot have delighted generations of readers.

Dorothy L. Sayers’ published Whose Body? in 1923. Her character, Lord Peter Wimsey, was a British aristocrat and amateur sleuth. Sayers wrote 11 Wimsey novels and several short stories featuring Wimsey and his family. She often used Wimsey’s wealth and position to poke fun at the aristocracy. In an interview, Sayers claimed to live vicariously through her character by allowing Wimsey to make lavish purchases such as fancy clothing and expensive cars.

Also in the 20’s and 30's, the “hard boiled” detectives Sam Spade created by Dashiell Hammett, and Philip Marlowe by Raymond Chandler appeared and were eventually immortalized in film during the golden age of Hollywood.

Author Gertrude Chandler Warner introduced the first book of her classic mystery series written for children, The Boxcar Children, about the adventures of Henry, Jesse, Violet and Benny in 1924.

Publisher Edward Stratemeyer introduced Nancy Drew Mysteries and the Hardy Boys Mysteries for children and young adults in the early 1930’s. In 1933, Erle Stanley Gardner introduced, crime solving attorney Perry Mason. Mason, along with characters, Paul Drake – a private investigator and Della Street – Mason’s loyal secretary, proved his client’s innocence while exposing the real murderer much to the annoyance and amazement of his rival, District Attorney Hamilton Burger. In 1957, Perry Mason became a television program. It lasted 10 seasons and inspired other legal programs and police procedurals.

I, the Jury by Mickey Spillane introduced detective Mike Hammer in 1947. Also during the 40’s, radio programs such as “Suspense” and “The Shadow” delighted thousands of eager listeners.
Mysteries have continued to grow in popularity in part because of clever television shows and Hollywood adaptations of classic mystery novels. Readers can enjoy variations of the detective mystery, legal thrillers, medical thrillers, cozy mysteries, paranormal, science fiction, or dystopian mysteries as well as true detective/crime novels.


Fran Joyce is an author and co-publisher of This Awful/Awesome Life.


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