One of the favorite sports of mystery critics, historians, and scholars is trying to determine when the mystery genre began, who invented it, and what is the first story or novel in the genre. The second favorite occupation is initially defining what a mystery is.
I’m not keen on being sucked into the first controversy, where some have claimed the Bible, especially Cain, who kills Abel, as the first murder story, though not much mystery is involved. Others point to Shakespeare, especially Macbeth, but murder and confusion also appear in other of his plays.
The first memorable act of pure revelation is often credited to Voltaire when his character Zadig makes observations of ordinary facts and then deduces events which he could not have seen. Although he was not specifically involved in crime, his deduction made him the first systematic detective in literature in 1748.
Edgar Allan Poe may include the notion of observation and deduction in the solution of criminal mysteries, and may with great justice claim the honor of inventing the detective short story of 1841, when he produced “The Murders of Rue Morgue.” William Leggett’s “The Rifle” preceded Poe’s story by fourteen years and is largely a textbook for observation and deduction, but the author was not as gifted a storyteller as the master, and his story quickly disappeared into obscurity. Most authors of introductions to mystery books are very content to leave the honor of the invention to Mr. Poe.
While more and more bits of what is now considered the mystery novel were added to Gothic fiction, they eventually came together in Charles Dickens Gloomy house (1852-1853) to produce a detective, Inspector Bucket, within the framework of a larger novel with greater ambition than to produce a detective novel. Wilkie Collins, a close friend of Dickens’, soon followed The woman in white (1860) and The Moonstone (1868), described by TS Eliot as the first, longest, and best detective novel ever written.
With the creation of Sherlock Holmes in A study in the scarlet (1887) and, more markedly, the short stories that followed in 1891 and beyond, the detective story was in full bloom and has never again lost its position as a successful and much-loved literary form.
The story of mystery fiction does not have final moments, chiseled in granite, that define the exact time when it can be indisputably stated that – aha! – it’s the moment, or the author or the story, that changed literature forever.
Defining what a mystery is is as difficult as identifying the invention. I have usually described “mystery” as any work of fiction in which a crime or the threat of a crime is central to the work of the plot or theme. I will not argue against anyone suggesting that this is an extremely far-reaching view of the genre, as it includes detective stories, crime, psychological suspense, espionage, thriller, noir, procedural police, private eye and variations and subgenres. of seemingly infinite variation.
It is certainly an imperfect definition, as it should necessarily include Western fiction, which almost always includes a crime or crimes, but since it is its own genre (which has its own challenges, both in terms of the requirement of the date of its creation and in being defined) it can be left.
One area where we might come to a little more accuracy and general agreement on its parameters is the golden age of detective fiction. Most people easily define it as books and stories written between the two world wars and point to the first Agatha Christie novel, The mysterious affair in styles (1920) as a benchmark novel. Of course, nothing is quite as simple as it was published two years after the end of the Great War, and the time frame ignores EC Bentley’s masterpiece, Trent’s last case (1913). At the other end of the era, many of the Golden Age writers who started in the 1920s were still strong after World War II ended in 1945. Two of the giants of the genre, in fact Christie and Ellery Queen, were still releasing novels in the 1970s, like John Dickson Carr, whose first book was published in 1930.
The Golden Age can be viewed in the same way that we refer to art, which is that we know it when we see it. The time frame and even the specific subgenre of detective history as one of buckets of water in the deep well of mystery fiction can be elastic enough that they do not fit into small pigeon holes of dates and genre, nor do we need to care.
Which brings us to the American Golden Age Detective Stories, which contain pretty much all the giants of mystery fiction produced between the world wars. Alas, no Charlie Chan, no Philo Vance, no Mr. Moto, as their writers never wrote short stories with these detectives.
This lovely cornucopia of crime features Ellery Queen, who Anthony Boucher once streamed over, “is the American detective story ”in a book review by the New York Times, and Boucher, for whom the World Mystery Convention was unofficially named Bouchercon, can also be found on these pages. The same is Mary Roberts Rinehart, who for about a quarter of a century was one of the two best-selling writers in America. For enthusiasts of impossible crimes, you’ll find Clayton Rawson and his magician, Great Merlini. For charming couples rivaled only by Nick and Nora Charles (who only appeared in a single novel, The thin man), we offer Peter and Iris Duluth and Mr. and Mrs. North, who got their name from a bridge hand. Thrillers are also here with Cornell Woolrich, Poe in the Twentieth Century, and Charlotte Armstrong, whose work has inspired excellent films of suspense. If You Like Humor, there’s a story by Craig Rice, the first mysterious author to adorn the cover of Time magazine and Stuart Palmer’s Hildegarde Withers, the one with the weird and wild hats. Baynard Kendrick, who has card number one from Mystery Writers of America, which he co-founds, is here with his blind detective, and so is Mignon G. Eberhart, Mary Higgins Clark in his day. Iconic detectives? What about Mr. Mycroft, as some seem to be a pseudonym for Sherlock Holmes, who only wants privacy when he keeps bees in Sussex, and Perry Mason, Erle Stanley Gardner’s lawyer detective, who is the best-selling American mystery writer ever.
So here are for our pleasure and edification, our control and curiosity, our comfort and joy some examples of the most famous authors of the traditional and classic detective story.
Excerpts from the introduction to Golden Age detective stories, edited by Otto Penzler. Published by American Mystery Classics, Mysterious Press. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.