The story of the mystery | Columns
Everyone loves a good murder mystery. Why this fascination with “murder”? Where did it all start?
Throughout history, humans have viewed shocking and horrifying events as “entertainment,” from gladiators clawed to death by wild beasts in the Colosseum to public executions. However, the morbid fascination with death has been somewhat tamed over the centuries and reduced to imagined atrocities committed on the pages of expertly crafted works of fiction.
Fictional literature keeps danger in its place, squarely on the pages of the book and in our imaginations.
Mysteries arouse curiosity in us. Then they challenge us to confront the mind of the writer to see if we can guess the killer, the methods and the motives and if the author can keep us going until the last page.
In theater we have a term, “how high are the stakes?” There’s no higher stakes than murder, so the genre itself already has a strong magnet for the reader.
I was watching an old mystery TV show once and found myself skipping episodes where all they were doing was investigating a jewelry theft or car thefts, but I was fascinated by the episodes where the subject matter was “murder” and watched everyone.
So why were there no detective stories before the 1800s? Probably because law enforcement was not previously organized in such a way as to create a police department and hire investigative detectives.
There were city officers, but that job was mostly to keep the peace. If it wasn’t obvious who the culprit was, the crime could easily be dropped and left unsolved. The Industrial Revolution and the rise of overcrowded cities made police and detectives necessary.
As literacy became widespread and reading became a leisure activity, crime novels began to take shape. The 19th century was a time of great development for fiction writing.
Part of the reason for the rapid development of detective fiction was the invention of the private detective. This new job description brought crime solving down to the level of the common man and everyone could imagine themselves in the shoes of a “citizen detective” who deals with solving crimes and saving the day.
Eugène François Vidocq is credited with establishing the world’s first private detective agency in Paris in 1833. The techniques he developed for researching crimes, keeping records, making plaster casts, etc. were the basis of future detective investigations both real and fictional.
Edgar Allen Poe’s 1841 short story “Murder in the Rue Morgue” is considered the first major work of detective novel.
The most famous fictional detective of all time is Sherlock Holmes who made his debut in 1887.
As far as writers go, Agatha Christie is the undisputed queen of the “golden age of detective fiction” and the best-selling fiction writer of all time.
There are several genres and subgenres of mysteries which include: detective, true crime, cozy, legal, police procedural, hard, historical, paranormal, suspense, thriller, etc. Nowadays, there is no specific formula for mystery novels. Any of these genres can be combined with each other or with other genres outside of the mystery genre family.
Cozy mysteries are my favorite because they’re usually soft, heartwarming whodunits that are as lighthearted and fun as a mystery can get.
You could say that the traditional detective/mystery story formula has become clichéd and romanticized, and to some extent. Books and movies like to glamorize the life of a police detective.
If you are writing a detective story, there must be a solid motive for the criminal to have committed the crime. The setting and location of the mystery can help add suspense and excitement.
The momentum of the plot must keep pace with a constant pulsation of energy. Clues should be sprinkled liberally throughout the pages of the book so that the reader can have plenty of opportunity to guess the outcome.
Don’t forget to throw a few false clues into the mix to lead your reader on some wild chases. We want to keep them guessing. False clues are known as “hiding”.
Mystery and suspense stories usually have a “ticking” element. The mystery must be solved in a very limited time, otherwise “such and such a terrible thing” will happen.
In the early 20th century, murder mystery board games became popular. Some games are interactive and spontaneous while others are scripted. Mystery dinner theaters also continue to be popular.
Crime fiction for children and adolescents was introduced in the 1920s with the popularization of series such as Nancy Drew Mysteries and Hardy Boy Mysteries.
The first murder mystery board game was released in 1935. It was called “Jury Box”. “Clue” didn’t debut until 1948.
Mystery magazines were extremely popular in the 1930s and 1940s, but television wiped out all but two of them: Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.
The mystery genre has evolved a lot over the years. Technology has provided new challenges for the mystery writer due to all the high-tech methods of solving crimes, but if your mysteries are set in historical times, technology certainly won’t interfere.
A mystery story is like a game of chess between writer and reader.
The writer’s goal is to anticipate the reader’s every thought in order to carefully steer them away from the true identity of the killer and the real motive for the crime and to keep all of these things a surprise until the very end. The goal for the reader is to demonstrate superior deductive skills and figure out the mystery before the end.
Detective fiction is a challenge to read and write. It is a meeting of wits and a puzzle that has continued to fascinate audiences for nearly 200 years.