Mystery Story (or Novel)
A term used to designate a work of prose *FICTION* in which the element of mystery or terror plays a controlling part. It is applied to such various types of fiction as the *DETECTIVE STORY*, the *GOTHIC NOVEL*, the story of strange or frightening adventure, the "suspense" novel, the tale of espionage, the tale of crime, and the story in which the *PROTAGONIST*, usually a woman, is relentlessly pursued by some unknown but alarming menace. See *DETECTIVE STORY*.
A *NOVEL* or *SHORT STORY* in which a crime, usually a murder—the identity of the perpetrator unknown—is solved by a detective through a logical assembling and interpretation of palpable evidence, known as clues. This definition is the accepted one for the true *detective story*, although in practice much variation occurs. If the variations are too great, however—such as the absence of the detective, or a knowledge from the beginning of the identity of the criminal, or the absence of a process of reasoning logically from clues—the story falls into the looser category of *MYSTERY STORY*. The specific form *detective story* had its origin in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," by Edgar Allan Poe (1841). In this tale, "The Purloined Letter," "The Mystery of Marie Roget," and "Thou Art the Man," Poe is said to have established every one of the basic conventions of the *detective story*. The form has been remarkably popular in England and America, as a form of light entertainment for the intellectual.
Generally, American *detective stories* have had greater sensationalism and action than the English ones, which have usually placed a premium on tightness of plotting and grace of *STYLE*. The greatest of *detective story* writers was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose Sherlock Holmes stories seem to have established a character, a room, a habit, a few gestures and a group of phrases in the enduring heritage of English-speaking readers. "S. S. Van Dine" (Willard Huntington Wright) carried ingenuity of plotting to a very high level in America in the 1920's in his Philo Vance stories, a course in which he was ably followed by the authors of the Ellery Queen novels.
The introduction of brutal realism coupled with a poetic but highly idiomatic *STYLE* in the *detective stories* of Dashiell Hammett in the 1930's has resulted in distinguished work by the Americans Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald. In England the continuing ingenuity of Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr (also "Carter Dickson") and the skill and grace of Dorothy Sayers and the New Zealander Ngaio Marsh are contributions to the form.
All these practitioners have made it a point of honor to observe the fundamental rule of the *detective story* (and the rule which most clearly distinguishes it from the *MYSTERY STORY*): that the clues out of which a logical solution to the problem can be made be fairly presented to the reader at the same time that the detective receives them and that the detective deduce the answer to the riddle from a logical reading of these clues. See *MYSTERY STORY*.
Category: Detective fiction