For some reason, mystery novels have long been considered a lesser form of fiction. When people ask me what I’m reading and I reply with the name of a detective novel, there is a barely perceptible pause as if to say ” Really? ” or ” Why don’t you read something worthwhile?” Mysteries and detective fiction seem to be considered unimportant, merely a way to pass the time while “real literature” improves you.
That this perception is so widespread is surprising because mysteries are the most popular genre. More people read them, more often, than any other genre. In a recent month, a New York library purchased sixty-seven new mysteries as compared to sixty-five for all other types of fiction combined.
In an effort to understand the prejudice against mysteries, I had recourse to Google and found that it might have been stoked by a series of three New Yorker articles written by the noted critic Edmund Wilson in 1944-1945.In these articles, the grouchy Wilson criticizes mysteries as having improbable plots and unrealistic characters. As proof, Wilson points to Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels, Agatha Christie’s mysteries and Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. In much the same way that Sherlock Holmes is aided by his chronicler Dr. John Watson, Nero Wolfe is aided by a bumbling sidekick, Archie Godwin. Hercule Poirot is similarly helped by Captain Hastings. Wilson notes these parallels and dismisses the latter two authors as imitators of Conan Doyle and not very good ones at that. Wilson’s criticism of the plotting was echoed by others, among them Dorothy Sayers, creator of the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, who opined that mysteries necessarily must focus on the crime (Whodunit and why ) and that to keep the plot moving , mystery authors cannot spend too much time on drawing their characters. Ironic, because Wilson was also critical of her novels for the same reason.
Wilson’s criticism is somewhat understandable since it was based on novels like these. Hercule Poirot, he of the handlebar moustache, the abundance of ” little gray cells” and an overweening vanity, is a caricature as is the rotund Nero Wolfe, the lover of exotic orchids and food, who never stirs from his apartment. It cannot be denied either that the plots of some of those mysteries were contrived and unrealistic. One of Christie’s favorite devices was the grand finale in which all the main characters are assembled in the drawing-room where Poirot explains how the crime was committed and unmasks the villain, but not before leading the reader down a couple of false trails. Hardly something that could happen in real life.
However, the mystery novel today bears no resemblance to the ones that Wilson took apart. Mystery novels today are different from their predecessors in every imaginable way – in the nationality of their authors, their protagonists, their settings, the types of crimes described and solved and in their depth of plotting and characterization.
The mysteries of the 30’s and 40’s were written mostly by British or American authors and they were usually set in London or in the English countryside, in New York City or San Francisco. The central character was almost always a private detective, brilliant often eccentric, who seemed to live only to solve crimes and show up the police; the other characters were mere foils, two-dimensional sketches. The crimes , even murders, were curiously bloodless and quickly glossed over so as not to offend the readers sensibilities. The plots were sometimes intricate and ingenious but they fell within a narrow range.
What a contrast with the mystery novels of today! The crime novel today has gone international and many mysteries are translated from their originals in Swedish, Turkish, French, Italian etc. Today, the reader can select from mysteries set not just in England, but in Scotland, Canada, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Sweden, Japan, India, Ghana, Turkey, Japan, Thailand and other international locales. If set in America, the novel may take place in New Orléans, Wisconsin, Cleveland, Minnesota, LA, Florida, the Deep South etc. We read these novels not just to find whodunit but for the history, geography and culture of the places they describe. Right now, I am reading a series of detective novels by Malla Nunn set in 1950’s South Africa at the height of apartheid.
The crimes described are often complex and horrifying and run the gamut from human trafficking and serial killings to financial shenanigans and swindles. And unlike in the past, the descriptions are very realistic , sometimes too much so. I’ve actually stopped reading a couple of authors because the crimes they described were so gory. As for the protagonists, they too are similarly varied. Instead of the independently wealthy man who dabbles in crime solving (Lord Peter Wimsey),today’s ‘tecs come from a variety of backgrounds: forensic scientists, ex-army types, western sheriffs, security consultants, Wall Street financiers and, of course, policemen. The police procedural is an important sub-genre that did not exist 75 years ago. As to the types of mysteries, there are courtroom dramas, thrillers, financial mysteries and other sub-genres.
All in all, there is almost no difference between the mystery novel and other types of fiction except that the former always includes the commission of a crime and its solution. The quality of the writing is often just as good. P.D. James is often mentioned as a polished mystery writer but there are many others too. There is absolutely no reason for mysteries to take a back seat to other types of fiction or for them to be set apart.
In most libraries, mysteries are shelved separately from other fiction which is fine with me because I can get to them easier. However, in the Franklin Park, N.J library, only the new arrivals are displayed separately. Afterwards, they are mixed in with the general fiction. I wonder why. Is it because the librarians feel there is no difference between the two, and the people who read them? I must find out.