Mystery genres: part one
“What’s in a name?” Juliet asked the velvet night. A rose, after all, would delight us with its scent no matter what we called it.
Mystery is the original and classic of these genres, invented by Edgar Allan Poe with his 1841 short story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” These are detective stories, where a crime’s been committed and someone must figure out whodunit so that justice may be served, and the reader’s fun lies in pitting wits against the book’s main characters, the detective and the villain. Arthur Conan Doyle made these stories popular in Victorian times with his celebrated consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes, and a slew of brainy writers made them the most fashionable books to read in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. In the United Kingdom, everyone was reading Agatha Christie (first published in 1920) and Dorothy L. Sayers (1923). In the U.S. Ellery Queen brazenly told his readers when they should have solved the mystery, if they’d been paying proper attention. (This “Challenge to the Reader,” introduced in 1929, was a page near the end of the novel where the author stated that only one solution was now possible.)
But even as these writers perfected the classic mystery tale, the genre began to shatter. These brilliant stories, so perplexing and challenging, were also cerebral and unrealistic. Murders happened, but in the most bizarre of manners and always (always!) offstage, with no visual violence to mar the serenity of the tale. They happened in locked rooms, where no one entered or left, in theater companies, in art galleries — in civilized places rather than dark alleys. Amateurs drawing on their life’s experiences out-detected police professionals, usually in English country villages or Manhattan parlors. And would a murderer really hang around the scene of the crime long enough to strip the victim and replace all his clothing the wrong way around? (The Chinese Orange Mystery by Ellery Queen, 1934. All the furniture in the room was reversed, too.)
Dashiell Hammett didn’t think so, and he was a Pinkerton operative so he should know something about this. In 1923 he began writing a different type of detective story, one with a focus on police stations, private detectives, forensics, weaponry, and the law. He was followed by other writers who felt the same: Earle Stanley Gardner, Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane. Their stories were dark, violent, often stark commentaries on modern city life, and distinctly American. Although these stories fascinated a different audience, they became just as popular as their gentler counterparts.
Today these two different categories of mysteries form the two ends of a genre spectrum. On one end is the so-called cozy, with an amateur detective and the violence covered by a lace tablecloth; on the other end is the hard-boiled police procedural, with autopsies on cold metal slabs. Most modern mystery novels fall somewhere between these bookends, with varying degrees of realism, police involvement, and on-screen violence. Cozies tend to focus on the puzzle, with the story’s climax coinciding with the revelation of whodunit, while police procedurals may reveal the criminal’s name earlier and instead focus on the take-down and evidence collection. Female readers tend to lean toward the cozy end of the spectrum, male readers toward the hard-boiled end, but like all other generalizations, this one shouldn’t be considered absolute.
"To Dr. Lee McClain of Seton Hill University's Writing Popular Fiction Program, for insisting I learn all this no matter how much I whinged."