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Mystery Fiction: Definition, Books & Authors

Instructor: Bryanna Licciardi

Bryanna has received both her BA in English and MFA in Creative Writing. She has been a writing tutor for over six years.

First appearing over 200 years ago, mystery fiction has since become one of the most psychologically popular of the literary genres. Read about what makes the genre, as well as writers who have helped it become what it is today.

Definition of Mystery Fiction

Maybe as a kid you remember reading Nancy Drew mysteries or The Hardy Boys. These stories were well-liked because of the mysteries they solved. Most who appreciate the human mind can appreciate a good mystery, and, in fact, that is how the mystery genre came about. Mystery fiction is a genre in literature that focuses on someone solving a puzzle or a crime. It is also commonly referred to as crime fiction or detective fiction for this reason.

The genre includes novels and short stories that are written for a special kind of audience, because people who read mysteries expect the standard rules for the genre:

  • A realistic, yet suspenseful plot with a lot of twists
  • A shocking, yet realistic crime
  • Foreshadowing evidence
  • False leads
  • A crime solver, aka the protagonist or detective
  • An unexpected villain, criminal, or culprit
  • A last-minute resolution to the plot
  • An expectation that the situation will work itself out

Over the years, the mystery genre has been divided into a few sub genres. Hardboiled mysteries are those that are gritty and violent. Soft-boiled mysteries are just as realistic as hardboiled, yet more optimistic and humorous, and without the gory details. Cozy mysteries are light and less violent, with amateur crime solvers in small or tight-knit towns. Police Procedural mysteries always follow a professional detective or police officer who solves crimes. Locked Room mysteries are those whose crimes seem impossible to have been committed. And the most recent edition to the genre is the thriller, or compelling mysteries where the protagonist is put up against extraordinary odds (sometimes by supernatural means) that keep viewers on the edge of their seats.

In any mystery story, however, just remember that there are three basic questions to be answered: 'What happened? How did it happen? Who did it?'

Books

Mystery fiction first made its mark in the 1800s, with Edgar Allan Poe and his character Le Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin from 'The Murders in the Rue Morgue' (1841), 'The Mystery of Marie Roget' (1842) and 'The Purloined Letter' (1845). These stories, considered locked room mysteries, followed the intelligent amateur detective as he solved seemingly impossible crimes by getting into the psyche of the criminal. Poe was one of the first writers to move away from mystery's supernatural and more towards the intellectual. His writing began to focus on the mind of the villain or culprit rather than rely on 'strange' and 'spooky'. Thus began the mystery genre's shift towards realism.

Illustration of Dupin from The Purloined Letter, published in 1864
Auguste Dupin sketch

Of the most popular men of mystery are the brilliant Sherlock Holmes and his friend Dr. Watson. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a total of four novels and fifty-six short stories, many first appearing in magazines, between 1887-1927. The tales of Sherlock's fantastical mystery-solving abilities grew so popular that they permanently influenced the mystery genre. The name Sherlock become synonymous with 'mystery', while Watson, the benevolent and less clever sidekick, became a classic literary character. Sherlock's focus on the science of psychology to solve crimes rather than forensics sparked a trend. During the 1900s, crime psychology began appearing in many mysteries. Some of Doyle's Sherlock story titles include A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four, The Hound of Baskervilles, and The Valley of Fear.

Sketch of Sherlock and Watson from The Adventure of Silver Blaze, published in 1892
Sherlock Holmes sketch

John Dickson Carr's novel The Hollow Man became the textbook for the perfect crime novel, after it was voted the best 'locked room' mystery in 1981. It is to this day used in many classrooms and lectures. In the story, an illusionist approaches a professor and claims to know men who can walk through walls. A few nights later, a masked man appears at the professor's house and the two men lock themselves in his study. Later, when the door is broken down, the professor is discovered dying on the floor and the other man disappeared. The professor manages to point the finger at the 'brother' before he dies, but it's unclear how the mysterious man escaped the room or who he actually is.

Cover art of The Hollow Man
Hollow Man cover

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