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The History of Mysteries

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As readers, we all have our favorite genres, but it doesn't mean we should exclude new genres or topics. For some readers, it takes time to find their favorite niche in reading. Genres have grown into vast sub-categories, creating a perplexing maze of options.

Join Discoverbooks.com as we investigate the world of mysteries and detective stories. We begin by defining a mystery as a story where a crime is committed, usually murder but theft and kidnapping also fall under this category. The story's plot is based on who did it, why, and finding justice. Mysteries include the following sub-categories: amateur detective, bumbling detective, capers, comedy detective, cozy mystery, espionage, hard-boiled, historical mystery, Holmesian, inverted mystery, intuitionist, legal thriller, locked-room mystery, medical thriller, police procedural, traditional mystery, true crime, and non-fiction.

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Most literary historians consider Edgar Allen Poes to be the “modern origin of mystery. His book, Murder in the Rue Morgue, was published in Grahams Magazine in April 1841. It is a short story of a mother and daughter who were found murdered in a locked apartment on Rue Morgue. An amateur detective, C. Auguste Dupin, attempts to solve the murder. This narrative becomes a common theme in mystery writing - the impossible must be solved. 20 years later (1859, Wilkie Collins wrote The Woman in White, which is considered the first mystery novel. Collins's legal background defines his writing style. The story unfolds as a court case would. According to the book's preamble, “the story here presented will be told by more than one pen, as the story of an offense against the laws is told in Court by more than one witness. The many viewpoints make this writing style exciting and compelling.

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Then in 1868, Collins published The Moonstone. It creates the future of caper mysteries. A British officer snatches a beautiful gemstone in India. It ends up in England. The officer desires it to be a family heirloom and bequeaths it to his niece upon her 18th birthday. The only problem is the stone is cursed.

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Charles Felix published The Notting Hill Mystery in 1865. Felix focuses on novel crime-solving techniques. Most are new to the mystery genre and won't be used again until the 1920s. Concepts such as using diaries, family letters, chemical analysis, depositions, and even a crime scene map make this book a must-read. Unfortunately, the book is out of print and extremely difficult to find. Project Gutenberg does have a copy to read online here.

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The Dead Letter, written in 1866, is the first detective story written by a woman. Metta Victoria Fuller Victor used the pen name Seeley Regester to publish it. The Dead Letter concerns the murder of Henry Moreland. His body is found just a few steps from the home of his soon-to-be father-in-law. An unassuming law apprentice, Redfield, becomes the prime suspect. Redfield hires a famous New York detective to help clear his name. This mystery has more twists and turns than either can imagine. It is considered the first full-length American crime fiction novel. It, too, is out of print, but Project Gutenberg has it available here.

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In 1878, Anna Katherine Green had a bestseller with The Leavenworth Case. Over 750,000 copies were sold in the first decade. Greens success paved the way for more women writers to be published. The novel begins with the investigation into a wealthy retiree, Horatio Leavenworth's murder. His library is the crime scene, and it isn't easy to escape the mansion without being seen. Investigator Ebenezer Gryce and lawyer Everett Raymond take the case, and the list of suspects grows as the story progresses. It's a complicated case and an interesting read.

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The Mystery of a Hansom Cab was published in Australia in 1886 by Fergus Hume. The story centers around the investigation into a body discovered in a hansom cab. The interesting thing of note about this book is how well it was received. It sold over 100,000 copies in the first two printings and outsold the next book on our list (A Study in Scalet by Arthur Conan Doyle).

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Written by a 27-year-old Arthur Conan Doyle (allegedly in three weeks), A Study in Scarlet was published in 1887. It is the first of many mysteries featuring the illustrious duo of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Believe it or not, it wasn't well-received in Beeton's Christmas Annual, the literary magazine where the story first appears.

The title comes from a speech Holmes, a consulting detective, gives to his friend Watson. He describes the story's murder investigation as his study in scarlet, “There's the scarlet thread of murder running through the colorless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it.

Doyle would write 56 short stories and four full-length novels featuring the dynamic duo, including A Study in Scarlet. The other three are The Sign of the Four in 1890, The Hounds of the Baskervilles in 1901-1902, and The Valley of Fear in 1914-1915.

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1908 brings a new form of mystery writing. Mary Roberts Rinehart publishes The Circular Staircase and begins the “had I but known school of mystery writing. She becomes a bestseller and a household name overnight. The novel is about a spinster aunt, Rachel Innes, who rents a summer house with her niece and nephew. As strange things begin to happen, Innes puts together information to thwart a series of crimes.


Rinehart publishes hundreds of short stories and forty novels. She sold over 100,000 at the time of her death in 1958. In her prime, she outsold Agatha Christie. History may have forgotten her to some extent, but we Let her Stories Live On.

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G.K. Chesterton makes his mystery writing debut with his lovable character Father Brown in The Innocence of Father Brown. Father Brown doesn't use the techniques of other detectives. Intuition and a deep understanding of human nature are the tools Father Brown relies upon to solve the crimes. This series and style become known as “cozy mysteries. There are forty-four stories in the Father Brown series.

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John Buchan introduces the “man on the run thriller style in 1915 with his The Thirty Nine Steps. Richard Hannay is a single man trying to begin a new life in England at WWIs edge. He gets himself entangled with a dead man who knows of a German plot to set Europe on fire. People start dying, and Hannay cant go to the police because he is the most likely suspect. Hannay becomes a pro at getting himself out of sticky situations. The book was loosely adapted into a movie by Alfred Hitchcock, becoming one of his first big successes. Buchan writes four more novels featuring the beloved Hannay.

From the 1920s through the 1930s, we arrive at a literary period of time called the Golden Age of Crime Writing. It has a sudden decline in the 1950s with the onset of television mysteries. This blog isn't long enough to cover all the fantastic authors and stories written during this marvelous period. We'll sample a few now and save the rest for later.

We wouldn't do the genre justice without a brief look at Agatha Christie. Her career began in 1920.The charismatic Hercule Poirot debuts in The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Christie featured Poirot in thirty-three of her novels and numerous short stories. In 1927, Miss Jane Marple impressed the world with her quiet but irrepressible sleuthing skills in The Murder at the Vicarage. Miss Marple ran in over twelve novels and twenty short stories.

Who isn't intrigued by Edward Stratemeyer? He wrote more than 1,300 books. According to Fortune magazine, “As oil had its Rockefeller, literature had its Stratemeyer. He created a new sub-category of juvenile mystery books. Not sure you have heard of him? Perhaps, the names Carolyn Keene and Franklin W. Dixon ring a bell. These were his pen names. Sticking with mysteries (he wrote many popular children's series), he is responsible for The Hardy Boys (1927) and Nancy Drew Mysteries series (1930). After his death, his daughters took over the company and had many of his books updated.

We hope we started to solve the history of the mystery for you, as we showcased the several sub-genres and provided examples of the discipline. Next week, we will finish the investigation and wrap up the case. Until then, find all your mystery needs at Discoverbooks.com.


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