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The Mystery Novel – Then and Now

February 8, 2012
Elizabeth and Gerald

Elizabeth Ritman, Friends President, and Gerald Anderson, local mystery writer

The Friends of the Rochester Public Library had their annual Meeting on January 30, 2012 which included a presentation by Gerald  Anderson, local mystery writer. So many great titles were mentioned in his presentation we thought we’d share them with our readers.

The following is the transcript from his presentation (reprinted with permission by Gerald Anderson):

What do the following Nobel prizewinners all have in common:  Pearl Buck, T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemmingway, John Galsworthy, Rudyard Kipling, Sinclair Lewis, Bertrand Russell, George Bernard Shaw, John Steinbeck, and William Butler Yeats?   — They all wrote mystery stories.

The concept of the mystery novel, if not the genre, has been around for a long time.  After all, just what is Oedipus Rex trying to do in the Sophocles play?  He is trying to solve the mystery of who killed the king of Thebes and to solve the riddle of the sphinx.  Granted, it has a few other elements, but solving a mystery is what drives the plot.

If one looks hard enough, one can find mysteries in the Bible, medieval literature, Shakespeare, Voltaire – whatever!!!  The accepted founder of the genre, however, is acknowledged to be Edgar Allen Poe, who in April of 1841 published The Murders in Rue Morgue in Graham’s Magazine.  (There are those nit-pickers who would claim the honor should go to a Danish author, named Steen Steensen Blicher, who published a gem called The Rector of Veilbye  in 1829.  But Poe gave us Inspector C. Auguste Dupin, the first great detective of fiction.

Well, it didn’t take others long before they began to adopt elements of that plot  pattern.  In Our Mutual Friend, Bleak House, and  The Mystery of Edwin Drood  Charles Dickens showed he could write along these lines and in 1860 Wilkie Collins wrote what is considered to be the first full length mystery novel called The Woman in White.  His Moonstone, written in 1868, is more famous and is a better mystery.  In that same year, a Frenchman, Emile Gaborieau, wrote Monsieur Lecoq, which supposedly laid the foundation for the methodical scientifically minded detective, almost twenty years before Sherlock Holmes.  Again in 1868, Mary Fortune, acknowledged to be the first female mystery writer, began the Detective Album, narrated by detective Mark Sinclair, which ran for forty years in the Australian Journal.

Meanwhile, Feodor Dostoevesky had written Crime and Punishment.  Well, the title speaks for itself.  Written in 1866, it was not published in English until twenty years later, but in the process he gave us, in Raskolnikov, one of the great characters of literature.  The same year that English readers could read Dostoevesky’s work, they could read Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde.  A couple other works of literary merit that could be called mysteries appeared in the 1890s, such as Mark Twain’s The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson  and Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

All right, time to stop being hi-fallutin’ – time to have more fun.  In 1887 Arthur Conan Doyle published A Study in Scarlet.  It would be tedious to list all of the Sherlock Holmes adventures, as told by Dr. Watson.  In fact, the list of actors who have played Sherlock Holmes – from Basel Rathbone to Jeremy Brett to Robert Downey Jr. –  is also very long.  Sherlock Holmes has fought Nazis and solved mysteries in Minnesota and has a modern day series on PBS.  I’m waiting for Sherlock Holmes in space.

Clearly one did not have to be a great writer to sell books.  While the muscular Victorian prose of Doyle was hot stuff in the 1890s, you don’t find him on any list of literary immortals.  Nor do you find G. K. Chesterton, who in the decade before the Great War wrote the Father Brown stories, or Sax Rohmer, who began to crank out the Dr. Fu Manchu books.

One final mention about mystery stories of this era should be mentioned.  At the beginning  of the war,  John Buchan’s The Thirty-nine Steps was published.

We are now on the doorstep of the Golden Age of mystery novels.  In 1920 Hercule Poirot appeared in Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles.  (Almost every Engllish actor has played him at one time or the other, but none as well as David Suchet.) In 1923 Dorothy Sayers published Whose Body, and soon everybody was talking about Lord Peter Whimsey.  The mystery genre came home to America in 1925 when the first Charlie Chan book was published by Earl Derr Biggers  (Werner Oland, a Swedish actor, is the best know Charlie Chan), and a year later S.S. Van Dine was writing about Philo Vance.  For the most part, this was pulp writing at its most notorious, but in 1929 The Roman Hat Mystery, written by Ellery Queen appeared. (A little known fact – Ellery Queen was a pseudonym for Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee – ironically, these names were pseudonyms for Daniel Nathan and Manford Lepofsky.  I’m not sure why pen names were deemed so necessary in those days.  Perhaps they were ashamed that they were not producing more high-class work. This has never bothered me.  Although I thought if I took the name of Edward Hemmingway it might help sales.) In any event, the Ellery Queen novels, although uneven in quality, can sometimes rank with the best mystery novels of the Golden Age.

In the 1930s, some pretty serious fiction masquerading as just mystery novels was produced.  In 1930 Dashiell Hammett wrote the Maltese Falcon – Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart – “This is the stuff dreams are made of.”)  In 1933 Earl Stanley Gardner introduced Perry Mason in The Case of the Velvet Claws, and a year later James M. Cain informed us that The Postman Always Rings Twice, Rex Stout produced his first Nero Wolfe book, and Marjory Allingham published Death of a Ghost  (This was not the first book in which the mysterious Albert Campion appeared, but it made him famous to the tune of seventeen more novels extending into the middle 1960s).   In 1937,  John P. Marquand published the first Mr. Moto  book.  Mr. Moto was sort of a Japanese Charlie Chan and Peter Lorre played him in several movies.

The next two years, however, give testament to why the interwar years were called the Golden Age for mystery writing.  In this short space of time, the following writers made their mystery debut.  John Dickson Carr (best known for Dr. Gideon Fell and the locked room mysteries), Michael Innes (an Oxford professor of British literature, who gave us the incomparable Sir John Appleby), Graham Greene, Daphne Du Maurier (Rebecca – “Last night I dreamed I went to Manderlay again”), Ngaio Marsh – ( She has been called the New Zealand Agatha Christie, except she was a better writer.  Over a long career she wrote 32 Inspector Roderick Alleyn books – just excellent!  She, along with Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and Margery Allingham are called the Four Queens of Crime.)  Eric Ambler wrote the best selling A Coffin for Dimitrios,  Raymond Chandler wrote the first Philip Marlowe book, The Big Sleep, and George Simenon introduced the world to Inspector Jules Maigret and I think he is still the largest selling author in all of French history (Take that, Flaubert and Hugo!)

Mysteries were fun, a puzzle to solve, a diversion from the Great Depression.    Then world War War II made death all too real.  The stories of the 30s became film noir movies, and the detectives became hard-boiled.  No more polite English lords – instead, Mickey Spilane’s Mike Hammer came out and hit you in the mouth.  Spy stories (Ian Flemming’s James Bond) and anti-hero cynical cops were the new focus.   And at the same time, children and young adults were getting exposed to the genre, with Carolyn Keene (Nancy Drew), Lemony Snicket, and Donald J. Sobol (Encyclopedia Brown)

In 1972 I spent the summer in London doing research for my dissertation.  It was a basement flat in what was once a single-family residence, right out of Upstairs/Downstairs.

It had since been divided into twenty-four flats.  There was no TV, but I discovered a second hand store in the neighborhood that sold paperback books for 10 pence, and if you brought them back the man gave you 5 pence.  I bought several Agatha Christie novels to wile away the nights.  I was hooked.

Meanwhile, airplane and commuter rides called for cheap paperbacks, and low print costs allowed niche markets to develop.  Today there are mysteries for gardeners, gourmet cooks, horse race enthusiasts and car race enthusiasts,  intellectuals, dog lovers, cat lovers (Lilian Jackson Braun has a very successful series beginning “The Cat Who…”).  Sub-Genres proliferated. Now there were police procedurals, exotic locations, science fiction mysteries, the occult mysteries, historical settings, alternative history settings, sports mysteries, Hollywood mysteries, southern mysteries, religious mysteries, and Zen mysteries.  There is even a series about a Norwegian-American sheriff in Minnesota.

Some are good, but many are not.   With a word processor, any semi-literate person is able to write something, and even get it published.  Some very successful authors have had success with some very mediocre books.  A Scottish writer, M.C. Beaton has been cranking out at least two books a year featuring her Scottish policeman, Hamish McBeth – a swell character, to be sure.  She has had a BBC series, and her new books are awaited breathlessly.  But they are awful.  I should know, I’ve read about twenty of them.

But the great leveling has also produced marvelous opportunities for new writers, especially women.  I would guess that most of my favorite writers are now women. Since I was a professor of British history, I love to read the books of P.D. James, Val McDermid, Minnette Walters, Kate Atkinson, and the Americans Elizabeth George, Martha Grimes, and Deborah Crombie.  All of these are set in modern day England.   Of course, there are marvelous male writers in England as well and my favorites are Ian Rankin, Reginald Hill (may he rest in peace), Peter Lovesey, and Peter Robinson.

There are dozens of famous American writers and, for that matter, Minnesota writers who deserve mention, but we do not have time for them today.  For the past few years, I have tended to read books set in Europe.  I was explaining this to my sister one day, and she said, “So, if you were going to read a book, you wouldn’t select one of you own?”  I had to admit, I probably wouldn’t.  I like to read Janwillam van der Wettering stories set in Amsterdam, the wonderful Cara Black (American) stories set in Paris, the enjoyable books of Donna Leon (another American) set in Venice, the incredibly good Robert Wilson books set in Seville, Spain, the Roderic Jeffries books set in Majorca, Stuart Kaminsky’s Inspector Rostnikov novels set in Moscow, and (what seems to be really hot stuff these days, ones set in Scandinavia.  Norway gives us three top ranked mystery novelists in Karin Fossum, K.O. Dahl, and Anne Holt.   The Swedes?  Well, one can mention Hakkan Nesser, Helene Tursten, Kjell Ericksson, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, Ake Edwardson, and Asa Larsson, but the most famous one is Henning Mankel and his Wallander novels.  And, oh yeah, there is this guy called Stieg Larsson, too.

I am fully aware that I have left out some of your favorites in this summary.  Reading mystery stories is fun, but so is writing.  All you need is to follow the ultimate same guideline that you need to solve a case — Means, Motive, and Opportunity.  In every traditional whodunit, the inspector attempts to discover who has the means (i.e., owns the gun or the poison), motive (who benefits from the murder?), and opportunity (eliminate those who could not physically been present to do the murder).  Today’s mystery writer faces the same three challenges: Means? – you need a word processor.  Motive? –  I would suggest doing it as a hobby rather than seeking to attain riches.  Opportunity – do it whenever you have nothing better to do.

I have been asked to comment on my own novels.  Although I have published academic books of historical research, my first novel appeared in 1994, entitled The Uffda Trial.  It is an historical novel set in Western Minnesota in 1926.  My first mystery novel appeared in 2007, featuring my sleuth, Palmer Knutson of Otter Tail County, Minnesota.  It was called Death Before Dinner.  Since then, I have published Murder Under the Loon (2008), Pecked to Death,,,,or Murder Under the Prairie Chicken (2010), and  Murder in Bemidji,,, or Paul’s Bloody Trousers  (2011).  Murder at the Unicorn is expected out in the fall of 2012.

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