Recommended Reference Books

A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page

This is a brief outline of Classic Mystery Fiction. It contains a historical survey, and some highlighted classics you might want to read. There are links to articles in the web site, which contain much longer reading lists, and detailed commentary on the writers. This list is just to get you started.

1) Mystery Fiction in English began around 1790. Most early examples are little read. In the 1830's, the first great group of American writers emerged. These writers are known as the American Renaissance, and many of them wrote mysteries, as well as other kinds of fiction, such as science fiction, adventure stories, sea stories, and realistic novels. These are the earliest mysteries still much read today. Key Works:

2) In the 1850's and 1860's in Britain, authors started writing remarkable if melodramatic thrillers, known as Sensation novels. The best is:

This is a gripping tale of a naive young woman menaced by a conspiracy, aided only by her gutsy half sister.

3) Other British and French writers the 1850's and 1860's started writing fairly realistic stories about the police hunting criminals. These are ancestors of today's detective fiction. See the articles on casebook fiction, and Emile Gaboriau. These policemen often made clever deductions based on physical evidence at crime scenes. They were also skilled at tracking criminals, and at disguise.

4) In America in 1878 Anna Katherine Green began writing novels filled with skilled detective work, in which the heroes uncover hidden facts about the past and the characters related to the crime. Her techniques are still being imitated today.

4) Late in the 1800's the best writer of mystery stories up till that time emerged. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes, the great detective, and starred him in a series of short stories. The very best are collected in two volumes:

5) Doyle's popularity spurred an explosion in mystery publishing, especially short stories. Some good collections of these turn of the century stories:

6) Some writers emphasized detectives who used science. Examples:

The brilliant storyteller Mary Roberts Rinehart has some affinities with this group.

So does the extravagant Cleveland S. Moffett, who wrote a long complex mystery novel set in a romantic's Paris:

Rinehart had a large group of followers:

7) Others wrote stories of clever crooks, known as rogues, often men who stole jewels from the rich.

8) Many mystery writers wrote about Impossible Crimes. These are crimes which do not seem to have any rational explanation. The most popular kind is The Locked Room: a corpse is found inside a room that is locked from the inside. How was it possible for the murderer to kill his victim, then escape from the room, which is completely locked from the inside? At the end of the tale, the detective will explain how this was done. Other stories deal with killers who apparently flew through the air, or walked through walls, or read minds. Eventually their crimes are given logical, realistic explanations. Some important early examples:

The collections by Futrelle and Chesterton above mix Impossible Crimes with other kinds of mysteries, all equally puzzling.

9) The period from 1920-1945 is known as the Golden Age of mystery fiction. Many different kinds of books were published then. One major group includes writers whose detectives solved mysteries through pure thinking. These writers are known as "intuitionists". Their mystery plots tend to be extremely clever puzzles, with tricky, surprising solutions. Their books are really fun to read. They include the greatest mystery writer of all time, Agatha Christie.

The intuitionists revered Chesterton and the other impossible crime writers. One of the intuitionists, John Dickson Carr, specialized in impossible crimes, and became the all time best writer of them:

Some later writers dealt with impossible crimes:

The popular, highly literate, American author S. S. Van Dine created his own school of intuitionists:

Van Dine's greatest follower, and 20th Century America's greatest mystery writer, was Ellery Queen. His stories feature highly complex plots, bizarre events, and mysteries solved through clever chains of reasoning.

Several science fiction writers mixed their field with the mystery story. They usually emphasized the intuitionist approach:

Some other gems of the intuitionist school (as you can tell by this point, the school is a favorite of mine):

This sort of fiction is still being written today:

10) Not all major mystery writers of the Golden Age were intuitionists. The Realist school emphasized careful, realistic detective work, often science based, complex alibis in their plots, and carefully detailed "backgrounds" showing some aspect of contemporary life, such as a business, medicine, or religion. The school especially flourished in Britain in the 1920's and early 1930's. Major realists include:

Several later American writers were influenced by the realist tradition:

11) During the Golden Age, pulp magazines were published. These were dozens of cheap magazines filled to overflowing with short stories. Many featured tough guy (and gal) detectives whose cases mixed clever plots with adventure and excitement.

The magazine Black Mask was the first important mystery pulp. Its 1920's and early 1930's fiction was extremely tough, and is known as "hard-boiled". Its leading writers include:

During the 1930's such magazines as Dime Detective featured lighter, cheerier, more escapist pulp stories. Some good anthologies:

Several non pulp writers also combined adventure and mystery in their works. Both of these are historical novels, one set in Regency England, the other in Ancient Rome:

Hard-boiled fiction is still being written today:

12) Some pulps featured sinister atmosphere and impossible crimes:

Recommended Reading

This Guide is not an encyclopedia. It does not contain biographical information about writers, or complete lists of their works. It simply offers critical opinion and reviews.

Some superb encyclopedias and reference books about mystery fiction include:

The following critical books on mystery history are also highly recommended: