Mystery fiction has been the most successful literary genre in the English-speaking world for a century and a half, and when examining its significant elements, there should be no surprise in understanding why that is true.
Virtually all mystery fiction dramatizes one of the simplest and purest components of human existence and behavior: the battle between the forces of Good and those of Evil. God versus Satan. The killer versus the savior. The detective versus the criminal. Since the majority of civilized society prefers good to evil, a great pleasure, or at least comfort, may be found in the mystery story, in which it is prevalent for righteousness to emerge triumphant.
There is a theory—one that carries some validity—that detective fiction became popular late in the nineteenth century, coinciding with a decline in unwavering adherence to religion, wherein the sense of guilt that is ingrained in all of us had been somewhat relieved through the agency of some divine or apotheosized being. When religion loosened its hold upon our hearts, another outlet for our guilt had to be invented, and this occurred in the creation of mystery fiction.
It often has been noted that the detective novel has as strict a composition as a sonnet (which may be a trifle exaggerated, but you get the idea), yet it is even more true that it is as formalized as a religious ritual. There is a necessary sin (in most mystery novels and stories, this takes the form of murder), a victim, of course, a high priest (the criminal) who must be destroyed by a higher power—the detective. Having inevitably identified to some degree with the light and dark sides of his own nature, the detective and the criminal, the reader seeks absolution and redemption. Thus the denouement of the mystery will be analogous to the Day of Judgment, when all is made clear and the soul is cleansed—and the criminal, through the omnipotent power of the detective, is caught and punished.
It is important to understand what a mystery story is. It is common for most readers and people connected to the literary world to assume that mystery stories are detective stories. Some are, but there are many other subgenres, too. Fiction told from the point of view of a criminal, whether a bank robber or a gentleman jewel thief, falls into the mystery category, though the detectives tend be less significant characters. The thriller, in which the fate of the world or nation or another significant entity is at risk, also falls into the mystery category. Just because a murderer (or group of murderers) wants to kill a large number of people rather than have a single target does not make him less of a murderer, just as the detective—again, whether an individual or a group of people attempting to thwart a nefarious scheme, such as a police department or the Federal Bureau of Investigation—is no less defined as the heroic protagonist merely because he is hunting numerous villains rather than just one.
The definition of the mystery that I have used for many years and that serves well is that it is any work of fiction in which a crime, or the threat of a crime, is central to the theme or the plot. Thus such books as Crime and Punishment and To Kill a Mockingbird should be regarded as mysteries, because lacking the underlying crimes, there can be no book. On the other hand, The Great Gatsby and The House of the Seven Gables, in which murder and other crimes occur, do not qualify, as those crimes are not the essential elements of the narratives; the books could still exist without the violence.
The evolution of the mystery is long and complicated. Because it has become such a successful genre, both critically and commercially, it naturally has many fathers. Arguments have been made for innumerable works as being the first mystery novel or the first mystery short story. The murder of Abel by his brother Cain in the Old Testament has a legitimate claim to being the first crime story, but it is not, of course, a mystery, as the culprit was immediately known. There were, you see, so few possible suspects. Other stories of crime without detection abound in literature, notably in Tales of the Arabian Nights (under its many different titles) and in the dramas of William Shakespeare, such as Hamlet, Julius Caesar, and Macbeth, just as there are some excellent examples of detection without crime, as in Voltaire’s Zadig, in which the eponymous hero, in the episode titled “The Dog and the Horse,” has made studies of nature that have enabled him to discern “a thousand differences where other men see nothing but uniformity.” As a result, he makes deductions so precisely that he is able to describe the queen’s missing spaniel and a runaway horse with incredible accuracy, though he has never seen either. He is suspected of sorcery, but his method of scientific reason makes the exercise seem elementary, as Sherlock Holmes would say.
I observed the marks of a horse’s shoes, all at equal distance. This must be a horse, said I to myself, that gallops excellently. The dust on the trees on a narrow road that was but seven feet wide was a little brushed off, at the distance of three feet and a half from the middle of the road. This horse, said I, has a tail three feet and a half long, which, being whisked to the right and left, has swept away the dust. I observed under the trees that form an arbor five feet in height, that the leaves from the branches were newly fallen, from whence I inferred that the horse had touched them, and that he must therefore be five feet high. As to his bit, it must be of gold of twenty-three carats, for he had rubbed its bosses against a stone which I knew to be a touchstone, and which I have tried. In a word, from a mark made by his shoes on flints of another kind, I concluded that he was shod with silver eleven deniers fine.
While one would be prepared to state that this is a somewhat implausible sequence of deductions, it is nonetheless not unfair to describe Zadig as the first systematic detective in literature.
Once the case has been made for murder stories without detection and for detection without crime, it becomes necessary to identify the first true detective in mystery fiction, and it can be none other than C. Auguste Dupin, who made his first appearance in 1841 in Edgar Allan Poe’s milestone of modern literature, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”
To state it simply and superfluously, there was very little likelihood of a detective appearing in fiction until there were such things in real life, and there were no detectives until the creation of the Bow Street Runners in London in 1749 by the author Henry Fielding (though it numbered only six members and was eventually superseded by Scotland Yard) and the Sûreté in Paris (1811), created by Eugène François Vidocq, who was, incredibly enough, a notorious criminal. These organizations formalized to some degree the apprehension of criminals and were responsible for turning them over to the courts for a trial and fairly measured-out punishment. While the administration of justice was not always as prevalent as the ideal, it was far superior to the previous system, which generally relied on state-sponsored torture during the interrogation process.
When Poe created his detective, an amateur, he found it expedient to set the story in Paris. In this way, Dupin could show off his observational skills and deductive-reasoning genius as a counterpoint to the ineptitude of the official Parisian police. This established one of the tropes of the detective story. While many protagonists in detective fiction are mem...