As we all know, my Malcolm/Ives families started out in historical romance, took a wicked right turn at the Victorian Age, and crossed over into the contemporary market. With my new Psychic Solutions series, they took another zig-zag and ended up in mystery. I’ve done romantic suspense, so it isn’t a total departure. But romance is where my heart and soul have been for so long, that I can’t quite let it go. So, of course, romance wraps its way around the mystery because it makes me feel good.
And I miss my historical research. I probably should have missed it enough to dig into the roots of detective fiction so I had a clue of what genre I was actually writing, but my characters are gonna do what they’re gonna do. So I probably saved myself a step.
Since we’re all book readers here, I figure I can use the research to give you a down-and-dirty view of the development of our 21st mystery genres.
While some sources believe One Thousand and One Nights was the first detective story, (I disagree) most of the sources conclude that the modern mystery genre dates to Edgar Allan Poe’s 1841 locked-room short story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, with the world’s first fictional amateur detective, C. August Dupin. Note, beyond London’s Bow Street Runners, professional detectives didn’t have a major place in society yet (the American Pinkerton Agency didn’t come along until 1850), so Poe wasn’t exactly a bestseller, and even though the story has been rewritten and filmed well into the 20th century, no massive copycat genre ensued at the time.
It wasn’t until almost twenty years later, as urban centers and police forces developed, that Wilkie Collins published The Woman in White (1859), which is considered the first mystery novel, and The Moonstone (1868), generally considered the first detective novel. (There is some dispute that The Notting Hill Mystery, published in 1865 under the pen name Charles Felix, was the first, but it didn’t have the immense acceptance of Collins.) These books were so popular that they can probably be called the stimulus for the genre.
I will note—a French writer, Émile Gaboriau, also began writing detective novels in this period. The first one included a romance: L’Affaire Lerouge (1866). I can’t comment on what I haven’t read, except to say our romantic mystery stories are not new., and mystery fiction was international, popping up in many countries.
The late Victorian era saw a prolific growth in detective stories. Despite their lowly status in society, women didn’t stand in the shadow of Collins. American Seeley Regester, a nom de plume for author Metta Victoria Fuller Victor, published The Dead Letter, a full- length work of crime fiction in Beadle’s Monthly Magazine in 1866 (of which she was editor). She went on to write more than 100 dime novels (and probably is the basis for a lot of historical romance novels about women dime novelists, although her life seemed quite boring). Anna Katherine Green followed in 1878 by writing the first American detective and bestseller, The Leavenworth Case
My sources conclude that Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, published in 1886 and sold as a ‘penny dreadful’ in the UK and US, is the first classic mystery (a detective, a criminal, a victim). I’d call it a thriller since Hyde was a chemically enhanced monster, but genre rules hadn’t been established.
And then Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes hit the market with A Study in Scarlet in 1887 (he was only 27 when he wrote the first story), nailing detective stories as a mainstay in the fiction market. By this time, cities had real detectives, including Scotland Yard, which Holmes plays against much as modern sleuths do local police today. Instead of suspects, the Doyle plots focused on clues, red herrings, and plot twists.
The popularity of these mystery novels during this time period wasn’t precisely coincidental. There was a huge explosion in “mass media” which included dozens of magazines that serialized fiction. We all know that addiction!
While both have a puzzle to be solved, mystery and detective fiction are theoretically considered two different genres (so, fine, I am now combining more genres than we can count). Detective stories focus on the detective and how the crime was solved (ie: the brilliant Sherlock Holmes and his deductions). Mystery stories are about amateur sleuths (ie: Agatha Christie's Miss Marple and her intuition). Mysteries concentrate on the suspects and how the crime was committed, not necessarily how it’s solved. That’s a fine hair to pick.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was still writing his Sherlock Holmes detective stories well into the early 20th century. In 1908, Mary Roberts Rinehart (I should take on a third name if I get into this mystery business—three names sound so authoritative) published The Circular Staircase, a classic amateur sleuth mystery. I can remember gobbling up Rinehart when I was finally allowed downtown to the library, scarfing up armloads of her mysteries every week. I had no idea they were that old! Books were timeless to me at the time. I should go back and try one now. . . She outsold Agatha Christie, having sold ten million copies by the time of her death. And this is when most books were hardback!
And then we come to the first cozy mysteries. In 1911, G. K. Chesterton published a collection of short stories, The Innocence of Father Brown where the principal solves mysteries with well, basically, empathy and understanding. Now we’re talking! To heck with forensics and blood spatter. . .
And voila, now we’re in the Golden Age of mysteries: Dame Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham. . . the list goes on. These were most often cozies or another branch, country house, mysteries, where we delve into a rich well of fascinating characters in a small setting. These are the mysteries I cut my young teeth on (before the wisdom teeth came in <G>, which, they never did, come to think of it!). I don’t know what the call of a narrow setting and deep characterization is, but I’m apparently not alone in my lack of interest in violence and DNA.
But with wars and depression, the world became a grimmer place. Male writers jumped in to write detective noir and potboilers. Hard-boiled detective fiction mostly developed out of 1920s prohibition when the good guys battled organized crime in a legal system as corrupt as the gangs. Pulp magazines proliferated, commercializing the genre, if not the authors. Filmmakers loved the action, so this new genre of crime fiction flourished. Writers such as Sara Paretsky, Robert B. Parker, and Sue Grafton carried the genre well into the 21st century, popularized by the development of paperback novels in the 1930s. (that’s a whole ‘nuther research story)
And in a way, those grim novels caused the return of the gentler mysteries, the ones beloved by readers of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, where the amateur sleuths are lovable and fallible, and any violence occurs off screen. Yes, it’s escapism. If I want facts, I’ll read the newspaper. Fiction is my relaxation. So I want my heroines to be delightful and quirky and my mysteries to be solved with clues from the setting and people around them.
Where I do start running into problems these days is that the cozy genre is becoming claustrophobic. Bookshops, bakeries, knitting–cozy, and limiting. Fiction shouldn’t have rules! I originally didn't miss the lack of sex, violence, and foul language in genre cozies—but escapism eventually lapses into boredom without originality. If a body falls on your head, I’m guessing you won’t say Oh sugar! We may need to take cozies out of the 1950s and into the 21st century just a wee bit!
Do you read mysteries? Do you have a favorite author or genre? Do you prefer that your genre stick to the “rules”?