American writing comes in many forms and we like to celebrate them all! We begin this new blog series with the timeless genre of Mystery.
Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
The diversity of America’s writers can only be matched by the number of forms and genres in which they write. Memorable and important writing can come in many ways, lengths, and mediums. A short story can capture the zeitgeist of the moment while a clever advertising tagline can become ingrained in our collective consciousness.
In this new series, we’ll discover and investigate the many forms which writers explore. We’ll look at the history of the form and spotlight a writer who is prolific in it. For each form, we will also highlight instances of the work in our museum as well suggesting contemporary pieces for you to explore. We hope you enjoy Many Writers, Many Forms.
Written by Matthew Masino
The earliest known example of mystery fiction appeared in One Thousand and One Nights in the story “The Three Apple.” In the tale, a fisherman discovers a locked chest in a river and sells it to the Abbasid Caliph, Harun al-Rashid, who, after breaking it open, discovers the dead body of a woman cut into pieces. Harun orders his vizir to solve the crime in three days or be executed.
The mystery genre as we know it today began developing in the early 19th century. The genre, sometimes also known as crime fiction, detective story, murder mystery novel, or police novel, centers on criminal acts, often murder, and the investigation into who committed the crime and why. The hero is a cop, private eye, or amateur sleuth with a strong sense of justice who faces a clever villain. The author brings the reader along the journey with the detective and asks us to try to figure out the mystery ourselves and appreciate the detective’s craft and cleverness.
The evolution of mass print media in the United Kingdom and the United States is one of the many forces that led to the popularization of the mystery genre. It’s theorized that the rise of mystery genre may be tied to the rise of institutionalized police forces. Before the Industrial Revolution, many towns would have constables and, maybe, a night watchman. Naturally, they would know everyone in town and crimes committed were either solved very quickly or not at all. As people moved to cities, populations grew and the need for detectives and police forces were realized.
British author Arthur Conan Doyle is credited with being one of the major forces in the mystery genre with his master detective Sherlock Holmes who became wildly popular on both sides of the Atlantic. Pulp magazines and dime novels in the 1930s and 40s helped grow interest as did the creation of the juvenile mystery developed by American publisher Edward Stratemeyer, who created the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mystery series. (Mildred Benson, under the pen name Carolyn Keene, wrote the bulk of Nancy Drew and you can learn more about her typewriter as part of our Tools of the Trade virtual exhibit). The mystery genre continues to maintain its popularity today with television shows, graphic novels, and films.
Writer Highlight: Sue Grafton
Sue Grafton was a New York Times bestselling mystery writer best known for her series about the resilient, private detective Kinsey Millhone. Grafton was inspired to write mystery novels while going through a “bitter divorce and custody battle that lasted six long years.” During this period, she imagined ways to kill or maim her ex-husband with such vivid detail that she decided to write them down. In 1982, she published “A” is for Alibi, the first in her alphabet series. In 1985, she published the second work in the series “B” is for Burglar and then “C” is for Corpse a year later. The series often examined social issues such as wrongful conviction, kidnapping, physical and sexual abuse, vigilante justice, and homelessness.
Grafton had always said her series would end up “Z” is for Zero but died before she had begun writing the novel. In a Facebook post, her daughter wrote that Grafton would never allow a ghostwriter to write in her name, and so, “as far as we in the family are concerned, the alphabet now ends at Y.” Speaking of her alter ego Kinsey Millhone, Grafton wrote, “It amused me that I invented someone who has gone on to support me. It amuses her, I’m sure, that she will live in this world long after I’m gone.”
In 2009, Grafton was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America and is often credited with upending the chauvinism which had been a defining quality of hard-boiled detective fiction where women were painted as powerless victims or vicious femme fatales. Grafton was a writer who truly believed in the genre she had chosen to write, saying, “The mystery novel offers a world in which justice is served. Maybe not in a court off law, but people do get their just desserts.”
“The Murders in the Rue Morgue” by Edgar Allan Poe
First published in 1841, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is credited as the first modern detective story. After the brutal murder of two women at their home in Rue Morgue (a fictional street in Paris), C. Auguste Dupin and the story’s narrator work to solve the case by interviewing suspects and investigating the crime scene. Poe biographer Jeffery Meyer summarized the impact of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” by saying the short story “changed the history of world literature.” As the first fictional detective, Dupin displays many traits which would be staples in the mystery genre and would influence characters like Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. The story also introduced the concept of the genius detective and the personal friend who serves as narrator of the story. Dupin would appear again in two more of Poe’s works, “Mystery of Marie Rogêt” and “The Purloined Letter.”
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Detailing the real-life quadruple homicide of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, In Cold Blood is considered one of the best true crimes novels in the canon and is the second-best-selling true crime book in history. Capote first learned of the murder in The New York Times and travelled to Kansas with his good friend and future Pulitzer-Prize winning author Harper Lee. There, he conducted interviews and researched everyone involved in the case. Eventually, he would compile more than 8,000 pages of notes. When the killers were caught, Capote also conducted interviews with them though the book would not be published until after their execution. Truman Capote’s typewriter, a 1961 Smith-Corona Electra 110, can be seen in our Tools of the Trade virtual exhibit, available now.
The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain
Frank Chambers is a drifter, a bum, a man who, when life gets too heavy, hitches the next ride out of town. That all changes when Frank stops at a roadside diner for a sandwich and meets the beautiful Cora. Their ensuing affair, full of lust and violence, leads Frank and Cora down a dangerous path. The Postman Always Rings Twice established James M. Cain as a major novelist while the novels mix of sexuality and violence caused it to be banned temporarily in Boston. The title itself is a “red herring” (a staple of the mystery genre) in that no postman appears or is ever alluded to in the novel. The Postman Always Rings Twice has been adapted as an opera, a radio drama, twice as a play, and seven times for the silver screen. The novel can also be found in the museum’s “Surprise Bookshelf” exhibit.
Past programs to watch and listen to.
Walter Mosley: One of America’s most versatile and admired writers, Mosley is the author of more than 60 books, many of them in the mystery genre. In October 2018 he visited the AWM to discuss his recently published novel John Woman. Watch here on YouTube or listen here on the AWM Author Talks podcast.
Edgar Allan Poe: As stated earlier, Poe is credited with writing the first modern detective story, and for our first episode of the Nation of Writers podcast we chatted with two Poe scholars about his life, legacy, and writing habits. Listen to the episode here or wherever you listen to podcasts!
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The mystery genre is still one of the most popular genres on the market today. Though we’ve moved away from classic pulp magazines, writers of all mediums continue to create head scratching mysteries for readers of all ages. Click on the images below to learn more about the works. If physical books are available, you’ll be taken to Bookshop.org, which supports local, independent bookstores.
Matthew Masino is a content creator, writer, and theatre director based in Chicago, Illinois. He graduated with a B.F.A. in Theatre Directing from Columbia College Chicago in 2019. Matthew began writing for the AWM blog in April 2020, just after the museum’s closure and has since written more than two dozen articles for the blog. He is also responsible for creating the AWM Destinations blog series. As a theatre artist, Matthew has worked with the International Voices Project, the Chicago Fringe Festival, and BYOT Productions. You can learn more by visiting his website www.matthewmasino.com.