What is a mystery? Is it anything with intrigue?
Brandi Spencer (formerly B. C. Marine), Secretary-Treasurer Authors 4 Authors Publishing
Every good story has questions that need answers, either for the reader or the characters. So what sets the mystery genre apart?
Finding the Solution
Every mystery revolves around answering a question. Answering a question raised at the beginning of the story isn’t unusual in and of itself. However, most stories have the main character find the answers by the at least the midpoint and spend the rest of the story on the consequences of that information. In a mystery, the answer doesn’t come to light until the end because mysteries are about the intellectual journey.
The most common question is the classic “whodunnit?” Who is the antagonist? Defeating the antagonist is simply accomplished by finding out who they are, so following the clues to that makes up the vast bulk of the story.
What is it that this who has done? Usually murder. Why? Because the victim cannot contribute any help to the main character. It forces them to rely on their wits and reasoning to piece things together. It also raises the stakes for solving the mystery. Finding out who stole the main character’s sack lunch isn’t worth much time or effort—it’s more of a nuisance—but catching a killer is vital, especially if they might strike again!
That isn’t to say that all mysteries are about murders. Any crime or misdeed can work if it’s both difficult to solve and worth it. Theft or vandalism are also common, as well as more creative situations.
Sometimes, the question isn’t about who did something. It’s about what that something was. Missing person stories are a common form. The subgenres of paranormal, fantasy, and science fiction mysteries also tend toward asking what happened because whatever it is typically defies standard explanations. Archeological or historical mysteries often have this question built in because everyone who was around for a particular event is now gone.
For middle grade and young adult books, “what happened” is even more common than in adult mysteries because murder and other nefarious deeds may be unsuitable for younger audiences, despite their love of solving puzzles. They also lend themselves better to it because that kind of question is more likely to be encountered by children. Adults often keep children in the dark about things, or withhold information from them until they are ready for it. Add to that the natural curiosity of children, and a situation that’s too mundane for an adult mystery can become a fascinating puzzle for a younger audience.
Where Did the Genre Come From?
The idea of celebrating intellect and reason in story form is owed to the values set forth during the Age of Enlightenment around the 18th century. This coalesced into what is now recognizable as the mystery genre in the 19th century with the popularity of works by Edgar Allan Poe in America and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in Britain.
Edgar Allan Poe
Although most people think of his gothic horror stories first, Poe created the mold for the modern detective story. He wrote three stories about a detective named Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin who used logic and clues to solve locked-door mysteries that had stumped the police. If that sounds suspiciously like someone else on this list, there’s a reason. Poe was an acknowledged inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Conan Doyle may not have invented the detective story, but he perfected the archetype. Using his medical studies and life experience enriched Conan Doyle’s stories and characters with realism. His characters, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, are so well-known that even people who have never touched a mystery can recognize them. The popularity of Sherlock Holmes mysteries brought the genre as a whole into the mainstream.
Mysteries celebrate natural human curiosity and exceptional intellect. Though relatively young, the genre has made an impressive mark on the world of modern literature.
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