A History of Mystery
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A History of Mystery

CSI, Law and Order, House, the Mentalist and Bones: so many of the top shows on right now could be considered crime fiction or mysteries. If you consider the genre to be ‘mystery’, not just ‘crime fiction’, the list expands even more. People love mysteries. They love crime fiction. But CSI and House are nothing new. Mystery stories have been around almost as long as people have been telling stories. Here is a brief history of the crime fiction and mystery genre, it’s roots and origins.

Newgate Calendar

1776 onward

While there have been mystery stories much longer, I am choosing to start my overview here, in 1776. The Newgate Calendar was one of the first instances of writing that was truly focussed on crime as a subject. Newgate was a prison in London and the Newgate Calendar published the stories of the prisoners held within. These stories were technically non-fiction, but were often embellished. It wasn’t truly ‘mystery’, since the crimes had already been solved, and there was no single detective or team of detectives working the case. The focus was on the criminal, what they did and why.

Murders in the Rue Morgue

Edgar Allen Poe

1805

The first crime stories to feature a detective solving crimes were written by Edgar Allen Poe. These stories, including the Murders in the Rue Morgue, introduced concepts such as the Great Detective, His Sidekick, the Locked Room (in which the murder takes place) and something Poe called Ratiocination. Ratiocination is the act of finding out who committed a crime by rational and logical analysis.

Sherlock Holmes

Arthur Conan Doyle

1887 onward

No history of mystery would be complete without mentioning the Greatest Detective, Sherlock Holmes. Holmes took Ratiocination to new heights, solving crimes through tiny pieces of evidence that others missed. The success of Holmes spawned a formula of crime fiction, still in use today in shows like House.

The Whodunit

Agatha Christie and others

1920 onward

The 1920s to the 1940s are often considered the ‘Golden Age of the Whodunit”. Most of these novels were set in cozy English Manor houses where a murder takes place. A great detective happens upon the scene and the audience follows them as they gather clues. In fact, the board game ‘Clue’ is essentially a game-version of the whodunit novel.

The Hardboiled

Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammet and others

1930s onward

Hardboiled or noir fiction started as a reaction to the cut-and-dry, clue-based mysteries of the whodunit. If the whodunit is black and white, the hardboiled is shades of grey. In the hardboiled novel, the detective does not usually find ‘clues’ that lead to a murderer. The hardboiled detective finds things out by talking to people, asking questions, and diving into the seedy underbelly of society.

The Police Procedural

V is for Victim

Lawrence Treat

1945

The police procedural is perhaps the most popular type of mystery fiction today. CSI, Law and Order and Bones are all examples of this sub-type. The focus here is on the police and what they do to solve a crime. This includes gathering evidence, talking to witnesses and suspects and usually includes locating and arresting the criminal.

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Comments (3)

interesting how mystery has evolved over time. which would you say is or was the "golden age" of mystery?

Personally, I'm a big fan of Sherlock Holmes, but I'd say the Whodunit from th '20s to '40s was the 'Golden Age' of the mystery. It is the only subgenre to spawn it's own board game (Clue).

Great article! The Newgate Calendar is online and it's fascinating.

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