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A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page
Embedded deep in the Guide are some articles on various mystery topics. Here is a direct index to them.
Art, Music and Mystery Writers
Civil Rights in Van Dine School Writers
Intuitionist writers: Definition; Chesterton Influence; Foreign Detectives
Inverted Stories: Mary Elizabeth Braddon; Frederick Irving Anderson; R. Austin Freeman; Geoffrey Household; Pulp inverted stories.
Logical Satires of Detective Fiction
How Women Writers Integrated the Mystery
Most of the works listed in the Guide are mysteries. For authors Mary Roberts Rinehart and science fiction writers like Anthony Boucher and J.G. Ballard, I included all of the works by them which I admired, whether mystery fiction or not.
If I liked only certain chapters of a novel, these are noted last, after the date.
Short stories are in bullet lists under the book in which they occur.
This means that author Aldous Huxley's story collection Mortal Coils contains the short story "The Gioconda Smile". That story first appeared in the year 1921.
Many mystery short stories have never been included in an author's collection. Sometimes these uncollected stories are listed as a group under their detective's name.
Old Calamity stories
Author Fishman wrote several stories about detective Old Calamity for pulp magazines. I am recommending one of them, "Old Calamity's Stickup".
If they do not appear in a collection or a detective series, short stories are enclosed in quotes (") so that they are identifiable as short stories, not novels.
The Big Bow Mystery (1891)
"Cheating the Gallows" (1893)
Here, The Big Bow Mystery is a novel by Zangwill, and "Cheating the Gallows" is a short story.
Dates are of first publication. If a story or novel was published in a magazine before book publication, I give the date of magazine publication, when known. This means that the dates in this list will often be earlier than those in some reference books. For example, Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest (1927) is given the date 1927, when it was serialized in the magazine Black Mask, and not 1929, when it was published in book form.
If all the stories in a collection first appeared in a year, I give that date directly after the collection title.
Martin Hewitt, Investigator (1893)
All of these stories were in magazines in the year 1893.
If the original magazine publication date of the stories is not known, I will put the date the collection itself was published in book form. It will be preceded by "collected".
The Night Fossickers (collected 1867)
This means that the collection was first published in 1867. The date of the original magazine appearance, if any, of this short story simply isn't known to me.
Confusion about the subgenres of crime and mystery fiction persists. What do we mean by a "thriller" or a "crime novel" or a "detective story", anyway? These terms are often used, but not in any standardized fashion. By a "mystery", I usually mean a tale in which the unraveling of a mysterious set of events is the central focus of the story. This definition is similar to one given by Cecil Chesterton 100 years ago, and is often used; but I have to warn my readers that Dorothy L. Sayers called such tales "detective stories", and used the word "mystery" to refer to thriller like tales. Some older writers also use "mystery" to refer to tales of the supernatural, a third completely different definition. (I have often picked up old volumes marked "Tales of Mystery", only to discover that its contents are all ghost stories.) And many readers use the term "mystery" to refer to any novel about crime, suspense or detection; this very broad use of the term is often used by publishers, booksellers and public libraries, who refer to any and all crime fiction as mysteries. Despite these problems, I will use the term "mystery" in this Guide to refer to stories in which a mystery is solved.
Saying that the solving of the mystery must be the "central" focus of the tale also leads to ambiguities. Many mainstream novels involve small mysteries that eventually get cleared up: who is the heroine's secret admirer? or, why is the protagonist's business failing? I am trying to exclude such works, which is just common sense. Things get dicier when talking about a novel like The Maltese Falcon (1929). There is certainly a mystery in this novel: who killed Sam Spade's partner, Miles Archer. And it is solved at the end of the book. But this mystery and its solution form only a small portion of the novel. Much of the actual action of the book is a melodrama or adventure story, focusing on intrigue around the attempted theft of the valuable statue of the title. Is the mystery "central" to the story? Probably not. Should we exclude The Maltese Falcon from the ranks of mystery stories, describing it as a "crime novel", instead? Maybe. There are a large number of such books. In fact, one might claim that in a large proportion of the so-called "mystery novels" of the last 50 years especially, unraveling a mysterious crime plays only a small role in the plot. They have a small whodunit element, but largely concentrate on character studies, sociological observations, suspense, and attempts at realistic descriptions of police work, the law, and criminal behavior and psychology. Many of these tales do have their small elements of mystery, but they are basically crime novels, not full fledged tales concerned with mystery and its detection. This is just as true of novels marketed as "cozies" and whodunits as it is of police procedurals and private eye novels. Still, these books do contain a small element of mystery, and one can also argue that therefore they should be classified as "mystery stories". I can see both sides of this argument, and am unsure how to resolve it. Still, most of the works described by me as mystery stories will have strong, central elements of mystery and its detection.
The term "detective story" is also ambiguous. As pointed out, Sayers used this term in 1931 to refer to what we have been calling mystery stories. Unfortunately, this once logical use of the term is badly dated. Since Raymond Chandler there have been thousands of private eye stories whose heroes are undoubtedly detectives, but which are only marginally concerned with the detection of mysteries in the strict sense. Publishers and readers have long called any tale whose protagonist is a detective a "detective story". In principle one could insist on using Sayers' definition of the term. In practice, attempts to insist that Farewell, My Lovely is not a detective story would just seem absurd. This goes against common English usage. The fact that Farewell, My Lovely is much more concerned with adventure, suspense, intrigue and the portrait of the life of a p.i. than in solving any mystery is irrelevant. The novel is deeply concerned with a detective and his life, and is universally considered a "detective story". By this time, the term "detective story" has little formal meaning. Any book with a detective can be called a "detective story", from a puzzle plot murder mystery to an adventure story to a psychological study. If a crime story has a detective, it is a "detective story". If it does not have a detective, it is not a "detective story". This definition of the term is at once rigorous and well defined, and completely useless and insignificant.
"Suspense" fiction is also an ambiguous term. I prefer to reserve it for writers who actually try to create situations of suspense, such as Cornell Woolrich or Charlotte Armstrong. However, some publishers describe any crime writing as "suspense" fiction, using it as a generic term for all crime literature. This usage reached a nadir of absurdism in the 1970's, when Agatha Christie's publisher referred to her books as "novels of suspense". Christie has many great virtues, but Woolrichian suspense is not one of them. To me, suspense fiction should be reserved for a fairly well defined subgenre of crime writing. Many suspense stories of recent years mix suspense with international intrigue and adventure. In these tales, there is a linear narrative without much of a mystery plot. The protagonist gets caught up in a dangerous or threatening situation, that typically leads to more and more harrowing adventures. These stories tend to be serious, even solemn in tone. Color and escapism is often provided by a glamorous background, often of world travel. Intrigue abounds, and the protagonist is often involved in negotiations with the bad guys over some issue.
To summarize, I prefer to use terms in ways that actually describe the contents of books. "Mystery" stories should center around a mysterious situation, and its solution. "Detective" stories contain detectives - not a very useful term. "Suspense" stories put a hero through suspenseful situations. And the "crime novel" is a mainstream like novel whose subject is crime. Admittedly, there are many crime works that do not fall neatly into any of these classifications. Still, this usage of these terms seems genuinely descriptive and useful.
This creativity is abundantly obvious in the case of the great mystery writers. But I believe that even most bad mystery writers were in there trying. Their work gives evidence of a failure of talent rather than of a desire to grind out hack prose. Most mystery writers display a sincere love of the form.