Mystery stories are those where the characters find themselves involved in a mysterious situation they can’t at first explain or control, and only gradually do they come to understand and resolve it. The mystery involves some kind of crime, either planned for the future, or in the past. The central character is someone ordinary, or at least someone whose business does not normally involve dealing with crime.
Mystery stories are first cousins to detective fiction. They are, however, free from the constraints of the earlier detective stories. Characters can be fully drawn, and it is often important to understand the psychology of those involved. While the plot can involve a puzzle about who is responsible for the crime, it can also be quite obvious who the villain is. There is usually no detective, and where there is, the detective is not the main character. The search for clues of the forensic kind is not central; the history of relationships and the motivation of the characters are likely to be more important. Thus mystery stories can share many of the characteristics of serious novels, and can explore important psychological or social questions even more readily than the best detective fiction.
Mystery stories and detective fiction grow from the same roots. In the mid nineteenth century, Wilkie Collins wrote The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868), which are now accepted as the first popular mystery stories. The Moonstone is sometimes considered to be a detective story rather than a mystery story. This is because it is a puzzle story, the reader doesn’t know until nearly the end who the villain is and it does involve a detective. However he is not the main character and he is wrong about who did the crime, so it is not a pure detective story – though great fun to read. The Woman in White is more of a suspense story; the reader can work out quite quickly who the villains are, and the interest lies in whether they will be defeated. Later writers copied Collins’ sensationalism and melodrama, rather than his creation of a clever mystery, and he can be seen as a contributor to the horror genre. But his use of ‘ordinary’ characters marks the beginning of the mystery genre. The famous contemporary writer Henry James said of him ‘To Mr. Collins belongs the credit of having introduced into fiction those most mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries which are at our own doors.’
Because mystery stories are about ordinary people, and not detectives, it is difficult to have a series about the same person. After all, how many mysteries can one person be involved in, without becoming a de facto detective? The Richard Hannay stories of John Buchan are an interesting example here. The first story, The Thirty Nine Steps (1915), qualifies as a mystery story (though it has elements of the adventure and the spy story as well), but after his success in this one, Hannay is sought out as someone who is good at solving mysteries, and therefore in later stories is no longer the ‘ordinary person’ unused to crime and mystery. The beauty of Sherlock Holmes, and characters like him, was that they could be used again and again. The public loved the series characters, and detective fiction flourished.
It is thus not surprising that there was relatively little straight mystery written in the Golden Age of the detective story up to the 1930s. Of what was written, little is now in print – few single mysteries have survived, though books from a series featuring an established detective, probably no better as stories, are still read today.
It follows that if mystery stories have to be about one-off situations, they have to be well written to survive. One such mystery story of this period is Rebecca (1938), by Daphne du Maurier. The unnamed heroine meets and marries the rich and handsome Max de Winter, but what really happened to his first wife, Rebecca? And why, as we know from the beginning of the book, is their home Manderley, in ruins? Daphne du Maurier is not a writer of mystery fiction in the same way that Agatha Christie is a writer of detective fiction, but in Rebecca, she has created a chilling sense of confusion and looming disaster that is characteristic of the best mysteries.
Another surviving mystery from a writer not primarily known for writing mysteries is Graham Greene’s The Third Man (1950). Though narrated by a policeman, the main character is an ordinary person who finds himself in a completely unexpected situation, and who sets out to solve the mystery he finds himself involved in. The setting of post war Vienna is important here in creating an atmosphere of fear and mystery. Greene’s talents as a mainstream novelist ensure this is a memorable story.
After World War II, detective fiction moved away from the clever puzzle solved by the even cleverer detective into more varied and more realistic paths. It has been suggested that popular reading opinion turned away from the great detective tradition in part because cleverness and disembodied reason had failed to prevent fascism and war. Crime and evil seemed more based in psychological and social circumstances, and not amenable to clever resolution. Detectives became more ordinary – and by the same token, ordinary people could undertake detection if forced by circumstances to do so.
However it was not until the mid 1960s that memorable mystery stories began to appear, with the work of Dick Francis and the non Inspector Wexford stories of Ruth Rendell. Both of these writers had particular advantages. Francis quickly established a reputation as a writer of exciting books connected with horse racing. Though two of his early books were about a jockey turned detective, most were about ordinary people but with a connection to racing. So in a sense, his books formed a loose series, and did not have to be seen as completely stand alone work. At the same time as Ruth Rendell was writing mystery stories she was also publishing her Wexford series, and so had the popularity of these to create a market for the mysteries. Both have continued to produce mysteries up to the present time.
Several sorts of mystery stories are now being written, based on patterns that have been established by earlier stories. There are those that follow the Buchan pattern, where the main character is caught up in the mystery by chance. These often make use of the contrast between the normal world and the world of crime, but sometimes these are shown as not so very different. Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code (2004) is an interesting variant on this. The hero becomes involved because of his special expertise, but then, like Hannay finds himself on the run from both the police and the opposing forces in a quest for the meaning of the riddle he has been set. There are those that follow the Wilkie Collins pattern, where the main character has to deal with some sort of crime or secret in the family. There are those that follow the romantic Daphne du Maurier pattern, where a young woman making her way alone in the world finds herself in mysterious circumstances, and (unlike the du Maurier story) marries the appropriate young man after the mystery is cleared up. These, or some variation of them, are the main circumstances where an ordinary person is likely to become involved in crime, and they offer opportunities for exploring a range of themes, including loyalty, betrayal, love and honour.
Because they have the possibility of developing character, setting and atmosphere, good mysteries may share many of the characteristics of good general novels. Many mainstream novels include an element of mystery, or even crime. Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte, is full of mysterious happenings and involves attempted murder and bigamy, but it is clearly a love story. Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations revolves around a mystery related to a crime, but it is clearly a story about growing up. While mysteries can, like mainstream novels, explore the human condition, to qualify as a ‘mystery’, crime and the attempt to resolve it must be at the centre of the story.