Mystery fiction is a popular literary genre set around a crime, usually a murder or series of murders. Classic types of this genre include locked room, drawing room, and hard-boiled mysteries. More realistic mysteries reflective of actual police investigative and forensic crime-solving methods have arisen in more recent years. Pioneered in the novels and short fiction of the 1800s, the genre has inspired movies, TV and radio series, and serial fiction featuring famous and enduring characters. These characters, usually professional or amateur detectives, outwit criminals and solve crimes. The story’s writer often plants clues to the mystery, challenging readers or viewers to guess the outcome first. This puzzle element contributes to the lasting popularity of mystery fiction of various kinds.
Although crime and murder had been elements in stories for hundreds of years, mystery fiction did not exist as a genre until Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Murders in the Rue Morgue debuted in 1841. This was a locked room mystery, in which the method of committing the crime was as much a mystery as the identity of the criminal. This has remained a popular type of mystery fiction ever since. The first true master of the mystery story was British writer Arthur Conan Doyle, whose story A Study in Scarlet appeared in 1887. It introduced Sherlock Holmes, who quickly became the classic detective character and who remains wildly popular more than a century later.
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In the early 20th century, British fans of mystery fiction preferred to read about sophisticated, mannered detectives, suspects, and victims. The master of these so-called drawing room or cozy mysteries was Agatha Christie, who eventually became one of the world’s best-selling authors. Meanwhile, American audiences were thrilling to the hard-boiled mysteries found in pulp detective magazines. Heroes like Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe sometimes worked outside of the law to find justice. Juvenile mysteries featuring the likes of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys also prospered during this period.
By the late 20th century, the elements of mystery fiction had become formulaic and easy to spoof. This resulted in many mystery comedies on film and television, while some writers opted for a more realistic approach. The police procedural portrayed crime and detection the way it plays in the real world, with modern police techniques. The 87th Precinct novels of Ed McBain were the classic literary examples, while the show Hill Street Blues brought the concept to television. Meanwhile, writers like Ross Macdonald, Rex Stout, and Robert B. Parker kept the classic mystery novel alive.
As the new century dawned, the popularity of the police procedural combined with rising public interest in forensic science. This led to yet another form of mystery fiction, featuring detectives who were coroners or medical examiners. Dr. Kay Scarpetta, the hero of Patricia Cornwell’s best-selling mystery series, was the primary literary character. A wave of similar TV series dominated television ratings, including the CSI franchise and Bones. Even Sherlock Holmes was revived for TV in 2010 as a tech-savvy sleuth in modern-day London.