Mystery Book Trends
Suppose you're a pretty well-read person who somehow never got around to trying mysteries. So you go into the Superduper Bookstore, and ask a clerk for the mystery section.Skip to next paragraph
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"Mysteries?" he says. (Are you just imagining that sneer?) "Do you mean crime, suspense, thrillers, true crime, or noir fiction?"
Wait. Before you decide to head over to regular fiction and get Anita Brookner's latest, don't despair.
For starters, there's a reason why you're confused. With more than 1,500 new mysteries being published every year, no one can keep up with all of them. (This writer, who has reviewed mysteries for more than a decade, discovered at least a dozen unfamiliar authors in the course of reporting this article.) Even the mystery experts can't decide on a definition of a "mystery" any more. Consider:
"I don't use that word," says Bill Malloy, editor-in-chief of Mysterious Press.
"I prefer to call it 'crime fiction,'" says Mark Stevens, owner of Atlanta's Science Fiction and Mystery Bookshop.
"I don't much care what you call them," says Jim Huang, who has been editor of the mystery magazine, The Drood Review, for 14 years. "I just know them when I see them."
That might be easy for Mr. Huang, who, in addition to editing the Drood Review, also owns Deadly Passions Bookshop in Kalamazoo, Mich.
But for newcomers to the mystery field, and for people who have never been aficionados, the changes within the genre can be bewildering. So here's a sort of consumer guide, a brief history of the mystery, some explanation of trends, and even a hint of what the next hot trend may be. Because there is one thing you can be sure of: Whatever you call it, the mystery field is now producing some of the best novels being written.
Arguing about who wrote the first mystery is one of those parlor games that encourages some people to run to reference books and others simply to run away. After all, are there not mysteries in the Bible? In many Greek texts, and ancient tales from almost every land? You see where this could lead.
However, if you were asked on the TV show "Jeopardy" who was the father of the detective story, your "daily double" points would be safe by answering "Edgar Allen Poe." His detective C. Auguste Dupin solved "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" in 1841.
But real-life French detective Eugene Vidocq's "Memoires" had been published in 1828, while back in 1764, Horace Walpole's "The Castle of Otranto" appeared ... and so on.
And here's an interesting tidbit: One of the first mystery bestsellers was written in 1887 by Australian Fergus Hume, called "The Mystery of a Hansom Cab." It didn't do much at home, but a London group reissued it and sold more than 400,000 copies - a staggering number for those days.
Still, poor Mr. Hume's success was destined to be overshadowed when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle introduced the still-incomparable Sherlock Holmes to the world in the 1890s.
The "golden age" of detective fiction is generally regarded as the time between 1925 and 1945, when works by Agatha Christie (Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot); Earl Biggers (Charlie Chan); John P. Marquand (Mr. Moto); G.K. Chesterton (Father Brown); Rex Stout (Nero Wolfe); Erle Stanley Gardner (Perry Mason); and others appeared.
The famous hard-boiled detective took its shape from Dashiell Hammett's continental Op[erator] and Sam Spade. Raymond Chandler showed that truly literary fiction could indeed be found between mystery covers with his tone-perfect Philip Marlowe novels ("The Big Sleep," "The High Window").
Two important points emerged from all this. Mystery fiction was already doing what it does better than any other genre - reflecting the society at the moment. It was no wonder that dear Miss Marple appeared when she did; and it was just as easy to understand that readers shaken by two world wars would welcome the cynicism and suspicion of possible post-war tough guys.
"The moral center sort of gave way in the 1950s," observes Mr. Malloy. "We'd gotten rid of Hitler, but now there were the big bad Soviets, maybe UFOs, a lot of insecurity under that calm '50s faade. Ellery Queen, for one, reflected this with scarier tales, as did Patricia Highsmith."