The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Mystery fiction: Popular fictional narratives with plots revolving around puzzles or secrets that create and even exploit a sense of uncertainty, suspense, or fear in the reader or audience. The word mystery has divergent connotations, suggesting the kind of divine or miraculous events recounted by medieval miracle plays and mystery plays, as well as baffling problems or enigmas demanding a solution or explanation. It is this latter usage of mystery that is operative in mystery fiction, which some scholars have traced back to Egyptian, Greek, and biblical “riddle stories” or puzzles. Mystery fiction includes crime novels, detective fiction, Gothic literature, historical mysteries, horror literature, spy fiction, suspense fiction, and thrillers. The term may therefore apply to a wide range of works, from Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868) and Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (1934), classic detective novels featuring the disappearance of a valuable diamond and a baffling murder, respectively, to David Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner (1997), a film revolving around a confidence game and the question of whom you can trust; M. Night Shyamalan’s paranormal psychological thriller The Sixth Sense (1999); and the television series Lost (2004—10), in which survivors of a plane crash are marooned on a mysterious tropical island with an equally mysterious group of “Others.”

Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Gothic romances, which are often set on aristocratic estates and involve relationships clouded by suspicion, fear, and danger, have had far-reaching influence on a variety of genres associated with mystery fiction. Works such as Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho: A Romance (1794), Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898) are widely viewed as the forerunners of twentieth-century Gothic mystery classics such as Victoria Holt’s Mistress of Mellyn (1960) and Phyllis A. Whitney’s Thunder Heights (1960). Other descendants of Gothic fiction are the horror and suspense genres, exemplified by writers such as Mary Higgins Clark (Where Are the Children? [1975]), Stephen King (The Shining [1977]), Dean Koontz (Watchers [1987]), and Anne Rice (The Witching Hour [1990]).

With the publication of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), the category of mysteries broadened to encompass detective fiction, which spawned such famous characters as Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason, and Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple. Noted authors of classic whodunits, which feature plots in which a particular crime — usually a murder — is solved, thereby restoring order to society, include Christie, who wrote prolifically for more than five decades; Sue Grafton; Michael Innes; P. D. James; Ngaio Marsh; Ellery Queen (a pseudonym for two coauthor cousins); and Dorothy Sayers. Hard-boiled detective stories, which are set in the world of the criminal underground rather than in respectable society, have been published by writers such as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Dennis Lehane, Ross Macdonald, Walter Mosley, Sara Paretsky, and Mickey Spillane. Movies exemplifying the classic whodunit include René Clair’s And Then There Were None (1945; based on Christie’s 1939 novel) and Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (2001); movies exemplifying the hard-boiled tradition include Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944; based on James M. Cain’s 1943 novel) and Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential (1997; based on James Ellroy’s 1990 novel).

Crime novels have greatly influenced and, in turn, been influenced by detective fiction. Although often involving a detective, they emphasize the criminal’s motivation and behavior rather than the detective’s attempt to solve the crime. In fact, the identity of the criminal in a crime novel — unlike that of the culprit of a detective story — is often known from the beginning. Pioneered in such works as William Godwin’s The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794) and Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland (1798), crime fiction was further developed by Collins in The Woman in White (1860). Anthony Cox, who published crime novels under the pseudonym Frances Iles and detective fiction under the pseudonym Anthony Berkeley, is credited with pioneering the modern crime novel in works such as Malice Aforethought: The Story of a Commonplace Crime (1931).

As the crime novel became established, persistent subjects and themes emerged, such as criminal motivation and forensic theory and techniques. Most, if not all, crime-novel mysteries are psychological novels, such as Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me (1950), Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent (1987), and Elizabeth George’s Deception on His Mind (1997), and many psychological crime novels, such as Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs (1988) and Kathy Reichs’s Déjà Dead (1997), focus specifically on fictional serial killers. Examples of novels concerned with forensic pathology include Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta series (1990— ), which began with Postmortem, and Jeffrey Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme series (1997— ), which began with The Bone Collector. Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware series (1985— ), which began with When the Bough Breaks and reached its thirtieth volume with Motive (2015), features a forensic psychologist who used to be a child psychologist and combines elements of psychological, detective, and crime fiction, as does the television drama Dexter (2006—13), which makes its forensic technician protagonist himself a serial killer of other heinous criminals.

Other types of mysteries include historical mysteries, spy fiction, and thrillers. Historical mysteries incorporate historical events or figures; examples include Ellis Peters’s (Edith Pargeter’s) Brother Cadfael series (1977—94), set during a period of civil war in twelfth-century England, and Andrew Taylor’s The American Boy (2003), which includes Edgar Allan Poe as a character. Spy fiction, which focuses on intelligence and espionage, can be traced back to James Fenimore Cooper’s The Spy (1821). It was further developed by William Le Quiex’s Guilty Bonds (1890), which purported to offer a detailed inside account of the world of late-nineteenth-century espionage, and Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (1901). Subsequent notable works of spy fiction include Ian Fleming’s James Bond series (1953—65), John LeCarré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), Nelson DeMille’s The Charm School (1988), Robert Ludlum’s The Prometheus Deception (2000), and the film The Good Shepherd (2006). Many thrillers — suspenseful, fast-paced, action-packed stories — are also classified as mysteries. Examples include Tom Clancy’s military thriller The Hunt for Red October (1984); Joseph Finder’s corporate thriller Killer Instinct (2006); John Grisham’s legal thrillers The Firm (1991) and Gray Mountain (2014); and John Hart’s Redemption Road (2016).