Although some critics trace the origins of the genre to such disparate works as Aesop's fables, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, and the Apocrypha, most agree that the Western mystery, complete with all its conventions, emerged in 1841 with the publication of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." This and all of Poe's "tales of ratiocination" feature the chevalier C. Auguste Dupin, a brilliant amateur detective, who, by a keen analysis of motives and clues, solves crimes that are baffling to the police.
The first full-length mystery novels were probably Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868), which continued Poe's concept of the brilliant detective—although Collins's rose-growing Sergeant Cuff is a policeman—and added an emphasis on the sleuth's idiosyncrasies. Charles Dickens's The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) is a detective novel that is both intriguing and frustrating because, since the novel is unfinished, its crime is never solved. In 1887 Arthur Conan Doyle published "A Study in Scarlet," which introduced Sherlock Holmes, destined to become the most famous of all literary detectives. This vain and aloof amateur sleuth, with a fondness for pipes, violins, and cocaine, solves crimes through extraordinarily perceptive recognition and interpretation of evidence.
Like Conan Doyle, subsequent mystery writers often featured the same detective in several works. Especially popular are G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown, E. D. Biggers's Charlie Chan, S. S. Van Dine's Philo Vance, Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe, Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple, Georges Simenon's Inspector Maigret, Dorothy Sayers's Lord Peter Wimsey, Leslie Charteris's "The Saint," Robert van Gulick's Magistrate Dee, Harry Kemelman's Rabbi David Small, Emma Lathan's John Putnam Thatcher, Ellery Queen in the works of Frederic Dannay and M. B. Lee, P. D. James's Adam Dalgleish, and Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins.
Many authors incorporate the conventions of the mystery into the novel, producing works that are warm, witty, often erudite, and filled with interesting characters and atmosphere. Such authors include Dorothy Sayers, Michael Innes, Josephine Tey, Nicholas Blake, Edgar Wallace, Ngaio Marsh, Philip McDonald, Anna K. Green, Carolyn Wells, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Elizabeth Daly, Peter Dickinson, and Hilda Lawrence. Some detective novels focus on the actions of the police in solving a crime; notable "police procedure" novelists are Freeman Wills Crofts, George Bagby, Ed McBain, and Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö.
Dashiell Hammett initiated the "hard-boiled" detective genre, featuring tough, brash, yet honorable "private eyes" living on the seedy criminal fringe and involved in violent and incredibly complex crimes. Other such writers are Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Chester Himes, Ross Macdonald, and Elmore Leonard and, adding lurid sex and brutality, James Hadley Chase and Mickey Spillane. There has been a resurgence of interest in hard-boiled stories, with such popular authors as Jim Thompson and Charles Willeford.
An extension of the detective novel is the espionage tale, which became very popular in the 1960s. Usually convoluted in plot, these novels emphasize action, sex, and innovative cruelty and sometimes stress the moral ambiguity of the spy's world. Noted authors of espionage novels are Graham Greene, Eric Ambler, Ian Fleming, Len Deighton, John le Carré, Alan Furst, and Tom Clancy.
In the subtle and perceptive works of writers such as Georges Simenon and Nicholas Freeling the psychological reasons behind a crime are often emphasized more than the crime's solution. Other writers, notably Julian Symons, have extended this emphasis, maintaining that early mysteries, with their country-house settings and aristocratic characters, are snobbish and escapist. Attempting to be contemporary and meaningful, these authors probe the psychological and sociological aspects of a crime, often producing grim and uncomfortable conclusions. The courtroom drama has also been popular, as seen in the success of Erle Stanley Gardner's many Perry Mason books, Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent (1987), The Pelican Brief (1992) and other thrillers by John Grisham, and other tales of legal suspense.
Despite its conventions, good writers can make the mystery novel their own. For example, Agatha Christie is noted for her clever plots, John Dickson Carr for his ingenious "locked room" mysteries, Dick Francis for his depiction of the horse-racing world, and Ruth Rendell for her novels combining character and atmosphere with absorbing police procedure, perceptive sociological and psychological analysis, and a sense of life's tragedy. Other popular detective novelists include Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, and Amanda Cross (all of whom feature heroines) and the often humorous Elmore Leonard, Lawrence Block, Walter Mosley, Tony Hillerman, and Gregory Mcdonald.
See also Gothic romance.
See H. Haycroft, The Life and Times of the Detective Story (1984), J. Barzun and W. H. Taylor, A Catalogue of Crime (rev. ed. 1985) J. Symons, Bloody Murder (1986), B. A. Rader and H. G. Zettler, ed., The Sleuth and the Scholar (1988), T. J. Binyon, Murder Will Out (1989), S. Oleksiw, A Reader's Guide to the Classic British Mystery (1989), T. Hillerman, ed., The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century (2000), and O. Penzler, ed., The Great Detectives (1978) and The Lineup: The World's Greatest Crime Writers Tell the Inside Story of Their Greatest Detectives (2009); W. Albert, ed., Detective and Mystery Fiction: An International Bibliography of Secondary Sources (1985).
Work of fiction in which the evidence related to a crime or to a mysterious event is so presented that the reader has an opportunity to consider solutions to the problem, the author's solution being the final phase of the piece. The mystery story is an age-old popular genre and is related to several other forms. Elements of mystery may be present in narratives of horror or terror, pseudoscientific fantasies, crime stories, accounts of diplomatic intrigue, affairs of codes and ciphers and secret societies, or any situation involving an enigma. Seealso detective story; gothic novel.
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Any of various secret cults of the Greco-Roman world. Derived from primitive tribal ceremonies, mystery religions reached their peak of popularity in Greece in the first three centuries AD. Their members met secretly to share meals and take part in dances and ceremonies, especially initiation rites. The cult of Demeter produced the most famous of the mystery religions, the Eleusinian Mysteries, as well as the Andania mysteries. Dionysus was worshiped in festivals that included wine, choral singing, sexual activity, and mime. The Orphic cult, by contrast, based on sacred writings attributed to Orpheus, required chastity and abstinence from meat and wine. Mystery cults also attached to Attis, Isis, and Jupiter Dolichenus, among others.
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Vernacular drama of the Middle Ages. It developed from the liturgical drama and usually represented a biblical subject. In the 13th century, craft guilds began producing mystery plays at sites removed from the church, adding apocryphal and satirical elements to the dramas. In England groups of 25–50 plays were later organized into lengthy cycles, such as the Chester plays and the Wakefield plays. In England the plays were often performed on moveable pageant wagons, while in France and Italy they were acted on stages with scenery representing heaven, earth, and hell. Technical flourishes such as flying angels and fire-spouting devils kept the spectators' attention. The genre of the mystery play declined by 1600. Seealso miracle play; morality play.
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Mystery! is noted for its animated opening and closing title sequences, based on the cartoons of Edward Gorey, with music by Normand Roger. For the Hillerman episodes the American flag was worked into this opening title sequence.
One of Mystery!'s early successes was Rumpole of the Bailey. Other noted successes include The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes starring Jeremy Brett in the title role, Inspector Morse with John Thaw, Brother Cadfael starring Derek Jacobi and Prime Suspect starring Helen Mirren. The last one proved so popular that the series was moved to Masterpiece Theatre for higher ratings. Agatha Christie has been well represented with several seasons worth of stories featuring Hercule Poirot starring David Suchet as well as two versions of Miss Marple's mysteries. The 1980s and 1990s saw Joan Hickson in the title role, in Miss Marple, while 2005 and 2006 featured Geraldine McEwan as the small town sleuth in Marple.
Unlike most of the series shown on Mystery!, the American Mystery! Specials features stories set in the United States.