Mystery literature, also referred to as detective fiction and crime novels, is a specific type of suspense story. Mystery stories begin with a crime as the central conflict and present clues and suspects throughout the story to enable a final resolution through logical deduction.
Mystery literature, also referred to as detective fiction and crime novels, is a specific type of suspense story. Mystery stories begin with a crime as the central conflict and present clues and suspects throughout the story to enable a final resolution through logical deduction. Most mysteries include a professional or amateur detective who guides the reader through the crime’s solution. In some cases, readers are presented with enough evidence to correctly solve the mystery themselves; in others, they must follow along with the characters until the final reveal at the end of the story. Though it is possible for a mystery to be a nonfiction work, most literary mysteries are fictional.
The modern mystery novel has its oldest roots in ballads and broadsides detailing the grisly crimes of yeomen and their neighbors, nobles and their rivals. The detective story as we know it today, however, originated in the 1840s with the Auguste Dupin stories of Edgar Allan Poe. His formula of a crime, followed by intellectual investigations and a logical solution, became the standard for detective fiction which persists to this day. Previous Gothic fiction had explored the realms of suspense and horror, but generally attributed mysterious events to supernatural or improbable means. Following Poe, mystery writers like Wilkie Collins (The Moonstone) and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (the Sherlock Holmes series) solidified the new formula and effectively made mystery literature synonymous with crime fiction. They combatted the supernatural elements of Romantic suspense novels with an emphasis on scientific proof and forensic details, highlighting the role of footprints, fingerprints, chemical residue, dirt, and ash in tracing their criminals.
Most modern mysteries contain similar elements. Characters in mysteries serve as either detectives or suspects and are developed accordingly. Mystery writers may play with point of view in order to provide readers with more information or hide it from them. Third person omniscient narrative, for example, may reveal the thoughts and motives of all the characters, while a first person narration will provide a more limited perspective on the crime and suspects. The chosen point of view may allow readers insight into the psychological aspects of the crime explored in many modern mysteries. Mystery writers also strew their stories with clues and often provide heavy foreshadowing of events and outcomes. To maintain dramatic tension and prevent readers from solving the mystery too easily, writers may include red herrings, irrelevant information or clues that distract from the real solution. Above all, mystery writers strive to make their stories logical, so that their solutions reflect intelligence, deductive reasoning, and scientific plausibility.
Since its development in the 19th century, the basic mystery formula has changed relatively little, though it has taken on many forms. In the first few decades of the 20th century, hard-boiled detective fiction became the norm, while Cold War era writers veered into spy stories and politically motivated mysteries. Society’s love of the mystery novel quickly gravitated into new forms of mysteries, including film noir, radio plays, and TV detective series. In its many different forms, the mystery genre has remained widely popular into the 21st century.