For well over 100 years, the mystery genre has fascinated readers with tales of unsolved crimes and the people who attempt to catch the criminal before it’s too late. Although mystery fiction encompasses a broad range of different subgenres (such as cozy mysteries, detective fiction, police procedurals, etc.), each mystery novel aims to stir up feelings of excitement, curiosity, and suspense within the reader. Whether you prefer to read about all the gory details of a crime scene or the amusing shortcomings of a new detective, mystery novels all have the same basic components:
Crime. The defining factor of any mystery is the presence of a crime. Without a crime to solve or a culprit to catch, there wouldn’t be a mystery to write about in the first place. Of course, the “crime” can range in severity, depending on the type of novel you’re reading.
Detective. All mysteries need to have a sleuth who’s dedicated to solving the crime, but they don’t necessarily have to be an official “detective” in these fictional stories. A cop, a small-town store owner, a young child, or even another criminal can all wind up as a detective.
Suspects. As the detective begins to collect evidence, the reader will be introduced to various people who could be responsible for the crime.
Clues and red herrings. In most mystery novels, writers will provide the reader with enough information to solve the crime before the detective in the book can reach their conclusion. Just take every clue with a grain of salt, as some of these may be “red herrings,” or false leads, written in to throw the reader off.
Hidden evidence. Attention to detail is a key factor in mystery novels. Pay attention to the different ways an author describes a character or location or other information that might seem insignificant to the story. They might be hiding clues in plain sight!
Missing pieces. Just like the detective in the book, readers won’t be privy to the entire story upfront. Part of the fun of reading a mystery novel is trying to “connect the dots” between gaps in the story.
With this criteria in mind, let’s look at the history of the mystery genre beginning in the 1840s with a short story written by Edgar Allan Poe.
In 1841, Edgar Allan Poe introduced the first fictional detective character, August C. Dupin, in a short story called The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Considered the first type of “modern” detective story, this tale also established the “Locked Room” mystery subgenre, in which a crime occurs despite it appearing to be impossible to achieve (such as a person being murdered in a locked room).
After Poe’s story was published, it would be another 18 years before the first mystery novel, The Woman in White, was written by Wilkie Collins. Later, in 1868, Collins penned The Moonstone, which is considered by some to be the first detective novel. Others argue that Charles Felix’s book, The Notting Hill Mystery, should be recognized as the first detective novel since he published the novel in 1865. Regardless of which is the “official” detective story, the mystery genre quickly gained popularity in the later 1860s, establishing several other subgenres.
In 1866, L’Affaire Lerouge (or The Widow Lerouge), was one of the first mystery novels to include romance, police investigations, and an amateur detective. Author Émile Gaboriau may have also created the first mystery series, as the main character in L’Affaire Lerouge makes additional appearances in Gaboriau’s later works.
In 1870, an unfinished mystery novel called The Mystery of Edwin Drood was discovered after Charles Dickens passed away. It was known as the first murder mystery that would be left unsolved forever. After this, people only became more intrigued in mystery novels, which inspired plenty of revolutionary works, including:
- The Leavenworth Case (1878), written by the first female mystery author, Anna Katherine Green.
- The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), authored by Robert Louis Stevenson.
- A Study in Scarlet, which was published as a novel in 1888, with author Arthur Conan Doyle introducing the iconic character of Sherlock Holmes. Doyle would go on to publish 56 short stories and 4 additional novels about the detective between 1888 and 1915.
- The Circular Staircase (1908), written by Mary Roberts Rinehart, quickly became a bestselling novel.
- The Innocence of Father Brown (1911), a collection of short “cozy mystery” stories was published by G. K. Chesterton.
- The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), authored by John Buchan and considered to be one of the first “man on the run” thrillers.
The 1920s and 1930s led to a surge in mystery book sales due to a wide range of talented writers whose works are still popular to this day. Authors like Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Dashiell Hammett, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, and several others created new mystery subgenres, expanded on new ideas, and fully captured the attention of readers around the globe. Some of the most outstanding works of the Golden Age include:
- The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) was the first novel Agatha Christie published.
- The Layton Court Mystery (1925), written by Anthony Berkeley Cox, introduced the character of detective Roger Sheringham. Cox was also a founding member of the Detection Club.
- The Benson Murder Case (1926) was written by S.S. Van Dyne.
- The Floating Admiral (1931) was the first multi-authored novel published by members of the Detection Club.
- The Hollow Man (1935) by John Dickson Carr was considered to be one of the most compelling “locked room” mystery novels of the Golden Age.
- Murder in Hospital (1937) was written by Josephine Bell, who became a founding member of the CWA (Crime Writers Association).
- And Then There Were None (1939) by Agatha Christie was published, and this title would become one of the most popular mystery novels of all time.
The mystery genre flourished during these decades partly because of the popularity of pulp magazines in the ‘30s and ‘40s. When TV became popular in the 1950s, however, interest in reading these magazines rapidly diminished. By the late ‘50s, nearly all of the pulp magazines were discontinued.
Mystery Genre: 1950s – 1980s
In the early ‘50s, Ian Fleming introduced us to James Bond in his novel, Casino Royale. In 1958, James Traver’s courtroom drama, Anatomy of a Murder, became an immediate bestseller and was quickly made into a film. The Manchurian Candidate, published in 1959 by Richard Condon, was adapted to film in 1962 and 2004. Throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s, it seemed to set a precedent for determining the quality of a book. If a mystery novel was especially popular, there was an expectation that it would be transferred to “the big screen.”
From the late ‘60s to the ‘80s, more mystery subgenres began to emerge and become more popular. In 1969, Michael Crichton’s first novel, The Andromeda Strain, blended elements of a sci-fi novel and a thriller into a compelling mystery about a haunting extraterrestrial virus. The Godfather by Mario Puzo was published in the same year, and it remains a hit classic to this day. In 1971, Frederick Forsyth published The Day of the Jackal, which weaves a thrilling story of a professional assassin who’s hired by a secret organization to kill the French president. Ken Follet’s WWII thriller, Eye of the Needle, was published in 1978, won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1979, and adapted into a film in 1981.
While there are far too many to list here, some of the most notable titles from this era also included:
- The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) by Patricia Highsmith
- Cover Her Face (1962) by P.D. James
- The Rocksburg Railroad Murders (1972) by K.C. Constantine
- Where Are the Children? (1975) by Mary Higgins Clark
- The Bourne Identity (1980) by Robert Ludlum
- The Hunt for Red October (1984) by Tom Clancy
- The Silence of the Lambs (1988) by Thomas Harris
The mystery genre has been popular since its inception, and there are enough subgenres to suit every reader’s interests. Don’t believe us? Head to JustKindleBooks to browse through thousands of 100% free mystery novels from the Kindle store. New books are added everyday, so be sure to check back often!