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mystery story,

literary genre in which the cause (or causes) of a mysterious happening, often a crime, is gradually revealed by the hero or heroine; this is accomplished through a mixture of intelligence, ingenuity, the logical interpretation of evidence, and sometimes sheer luck.


Although some critics trace the origins of the genre to such disparate works as Aesop's fables, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, and the Apocrypha, most agree that the Western mystery, complete with all its conventions, emerged in 1841 with the publication of Edgar Allan PoePoe, Edgar Allan,
1809–49, American poet, short-story writer, and critic, b. Boston. He is acknowledged today as one of the most brilliant and original writers in American literature.
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's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." This and all of Poe's "tales of ratiocination" feature the chevalier C. Auguste Dupin, a brilliant amateur detective, who, by a keen analysis of motives and clues, solves crimes that are baffling to the police.

The first full-length mystery novels were probably Wilkie CollinsCollins, Wilkie
(William Wilkie Collins), 1824–89, English novelist. Although trained as a lawyer, he spent most of his life writing. He produced some 30 novels, the best known of which are two mystery stories, The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone
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's The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868), which continued Poe's concept of the brilliant detective—although Collins's rose-growing Sergeant Cuff is a policeman—and added an emphasis on the sleuth's idiosyncrasies. Charles DickensDickens, Charles,
1812–70, English author, b. Portsmouth, one of the world's most popular, prolific, and skilled novelists. Early Life and Works

The son of a naval clerk, Dickens spent his early childhood in London and in Chatham.
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's The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) is a detective novel that is both intriguing and frustrating because, since the novel is unfinished, its crime is never solved. In 1887 Arthur Conan DoyleDoyle, Sir Arthur Conan
, 1859–1930, British author and creator of Sherlock Holmes, b. Edinburgh. Educated at the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh, he received a medical degree in 1881.
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 published "A Study in Scarlet," which introduced Sherlock Holmes, destined to become the most famous of all literary detectives. This vain and aloof amateur sleuth, with a fondness for pipes, violins, and cocaine, solves crimes through extraordinarily perceptive recognition and interpretation of evidence.

Like Conan Doyle, subsequent mystery writers often featured the same detective in several works. Especially popular have been G. K. ChestertonChesterton, G. K.
(Gilbert Keith Chesterton), 1874–1936, English author. Conservative, even reactionary, in his thinking, Chesterton was a convert (1922) to Roman Catholicism and its champion.
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's Father Brown, E. D. Biggers's Charlie Chan, S. S. Van Dine's Philo Vance, Raymond ChandlerChandler, Raymond Thornton,
1888–1959, American author, b. Chicago, educated in England. After World War I, he entered the oil business in California. Bankrupt during the Depression, he published his first of many detective stories in The Black Mask magazine (1933).
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's Philip Marlowe, Rex StoutStout, Rex,
1886–1975, American writer, b. Noblesville, Ind. He served in the navy and worked in New York City as founder and director of the Vanguard Press. His best-known works are nearly 70 mystery stories featuring Nero Wolfe, a large gourmet detective who solves
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's Nero Wolfe, Agatha ChristieChristie, Dame Agatha,
1890–1976, English detective story writer, b. Torquay, Devon, as Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller. Christie's second husband was the archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan, and she gained much material for her later novels during his excavations in the Middle
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's Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple, Georges SimenonSimenon, Georges
, 1903–89, Belgian novelist. One of the most prolific of modern authors, he is best known for the more than 75 stories he wrote featuring the intuitive French police detective Inspector Maigret.
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's Inspector Maigret, Dorothy SayersSayers, Dorothy Leigh
, 1893–1957, English writer, grad. Somerville College, Oxford, 1915. Taking first-class honors in medieval literature, she was one of the first women to receive an Oxford degree.
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's Lord Peter Wimsey, Leslie Charteris's "The Saint," Robert van Gulick's Magistrate Dee, Harry Kemelman's Rabbi David Small, Emma Lathan's John Putnam Thatcher, Ellery Queen in the works of Frederic Dannay and M. B. Lee, P. D. JamesJames, P. D.
(Phyllis Dorothy James White, Baroness James of Holland Park), 1920–2014, English mystery novelist, b. Oxford. From 1964 to 1979 she worked in the forensic science and criminal law divisions of the Department of Home Affairs.
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's Adam Dalgleish, Walter MosleyMosley, Walter,
1952–, African-American author, b. Los Angeles. He was a computer programmer until his first novel, the best-selling mystery Devil in a Blue Dress (1990; film, 1995), was published.
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's Easy Rawlins, Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse, and the various Washington, D.C. private eyes (private investigators) in the novels of George Pelecanos.

Types of Mysteries

Many authors incorporate the conventions of the mystery into the novel, producing works that are warm, witty, often erudite, and filled with interesting characters and atmosphere. Such authors include Dorothy Sayers, Michael InnesInnes, Michael,
pseud. of John Innes Mackintosh Stewart,
1906–94, British writer and scholar, b. near Edinburgh. From 1969 to 1973 he was a reader in English literature at Oxford.
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, Josephine Tey, Nicholas Blake, Edgar Wallace, Ngaio MarshMarsh, Dame Ngaio
, 1899–1982, New Zealand detective story writer. She was an art student, actress, and theatrical producer before her first novel, A Man Lay Dead, was published in 1934.
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, Philip McDonald, Anna K. Green, Carolyn Wells, Mary Roberts RinehartRinehart, Mary Roberts
, 1876–1958, American novelist, b. Pittsburgh. A graduate nurse, she married Dr. Stanley M. Rinehart in 1896. The first of her many mystery stories, The Circular Staircase
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, Elizabeth Daly, Peter DickinsonDickinson, Peter
(Peter Malcolm de Brissac Dickinson), 1927–2015, b. Livingstone, Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). The son of a civil servant, he returned to England (1935) with his family and attended King's College, Cambridge (B.A.
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, and Hilda Lawrence. Some detective novels focus on the actions of the police in solving a crime; notable police-procedural novelists are Freeman Wills Crofts, George Bagby, Ed McBain, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, and Andrea Camilleri.

Dashiell HammettHammett, Dashiell
, 1894–1961, American writer, b. St. Mary's co., Maryland. After a variety of jobs, including several years working as a detective for the Pinkerton agency, beginning in the early 1920s he found success as a writer, largely originating the hard-boiled
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 initiated the hard-boiled detective genre, featuring tough, brash, yet honorable private eyes living on the seedy criminal fringe and involved in violent and incredibly complex crimes. Other writers in this genre are Raymond Chandler, James M. CainCain, James Mallahan,
1892–1977, American novelist, b. Annapolis, Md., grad. Washington College, 1910. He taught journalism (1924–25), wrote political commentaries for the New York World (1924–31), and was a Hollywood screenwriter (1931–33).
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, Chester Himes, Ross MacdonaldMacdonald, Ross,
pseud. of Kenneth Millar,
1915–83, American novelist, b. Los Gatos, Calif. He was educated in Canada and at the Univ. of Michigan. Macdonald's mystery novels center on the tough but compassionate private detective, Lew Archer.
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, and Elmore LeonardLeonard, Elmore
(John Elmore Leonard), 1925–2013, American novelist, b. New Orleans, grad. Univ. of Detroit (1950). "Dutch" Leonard began publishing Western tales in the early 1950s, the best known of which is the short novel Hombre (1961; film, 1967).
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 and, adding lurid sex and brutality, James Hadley Chase and Mickey SpillaneSpillane, Mickey
(Frank Morrison Spillane), 1918–2006, American mystery writer, b. Brooklyn, N.Y. After contributing stories to comic books and pulp magazines, Spillane wrote his first novel, I, the Jury
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. There has been a resurgence of interest in hard-boiled stories, such as those by Jim Thompson and Charles Willeford.

An extension of the detective novel is the espionage tale, which became very popular in the 1960s. Usually convoluted in plot, these novels emphasize action, sex, and innovative cruelty and sometimes stress the moral ambiguity of the spy's world. Noted authors of espionage novels are Graham GreeneGreene, Graham
(Henry Graham Greene), 1904–91, English novelist and playwright. Although most of his works combine elements of the detective story, the spy thriller, and the psychological drama, his novels are essentially parables of the damned.
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, Eric AmblerAmbler, Eric,
1909–98, English novelist. An advertising executive, he turned exclusively to writing after his realistic and innovative suspense novels became popular. Ambler has often been called the first thriller writer whose work succeeded as literature.
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, Ian Fleming, Len Deighton, John le Carréle Carré, John
, pseud. of David John Moore Cornwell,
1931–2020, English novelist. He was a tutor at Eton College (1956–58), and subsequently worked for the British foreign service in Germany (1961–64), running agents for the secret
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, Alan Furst, and Tom Clancy.

In the subtle and perceptive works of writers such as Georges Simenon and Nicholas Freeling the psychological reasons behind a crime are often emphasized more than the crime's solution. Other writers, notably Julian Symons, have extended this emphasis, maintaining that early mysteries, with their country-house settings and aristocratic characters, are snobbish and escapist. Attempting to be contemporary and meaningful, these authors probe the psychological and sociological aspects of a crime, often producing grim and uncomfortable conclusions. The courtroom drama has also been popular, as seen in the success of Erle Stanley Gardner's many Perry Mason books, Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent (1987), The Pelican Brief (1992) and other thrillers by John Grisham, and other tales of legal suspense.

Despite its conventions, good writers can make the mystery novel their own. For example, Agatha Christie is noted for her clever plots, John Dickson Carr for his ingenious "locked room" mysteries, Dick Francis for his depiction of the horse-racing world, Ruth Rendell for her novels combining character and atmosphere with absorbing police procedure, perceptive sociological and psychological analysis, and a sense of life's tragedy, and Sweden's Stieg Larsson for a dark, wintry world of violence, sex, and international skulduggery. Other popular detective novelists include Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, and Amanda Cross (all of whom feature heroines) and the often humorous Elmore Leonard, Lawrence Block, Walter Mosley, Tony Hillerman, and Gregory Mcdonald. In the 21st cent. an outstanding novelist specializing in contemporary detective mysteries is Tana French, whose linked works feature a series of partners, all of whom are members of Ireland's Dublin Murder Squad.

See also Gothic romanceGothic romance,
type of novel that flourished in the late 18th and early 19th cent. in England. Gothic romances were mysteries, often involving the supernatural and heavily tinged with horror, and they were usually set against dark backgrounds of medieval ruins and haunted
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See H. Haycroft, The Life and Times of the Detective Story (1984), J. Barzun and W. H. Taylor, A Catalogue of Crime (rev. ed. 1985) J. Symons, Bloody Murder (1986), B. A. Rader and H. G. Zettler, ed., The Sleuth and the Scholar (1988), T. J. Binyon, Murder Will Out (1989), S. Oleksiw, A Reader's Guide to the Classic British Mystery (1989), T. Hillerman, ed., The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century (2000), and O. Penzler, ed., The Great Detectives (1978) and The Lineup: The World's Greatest Crime Writers Tell the Inside Story of Their Greatest Detectives (2009); W. Albert, ed., Detective and Mystery Fiction: An International Bibliography of Secondary Sources (1985); P. D. James, Talking about Detective Fiction (2009).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2013, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.


abominable snowmen
the yeti of Tibet; believed to exist, yet no sure knowledge concerning them. [Asian Hist.: Wallechinsky, 443–444]
Bermuda Triangle
section of North Atlantic where many planes and ships have mysteriously disappeared. [Am. Hist.: EB, I: 1007]
Big Foot
(Sasquatch) man ape similar to the yeti; reputed to have been seen in northwestern U.S. [Am. Hist.: “Yeti” in Wallechinsky, 443–444]
closed book
medieval symbolism for the unknown. [Christian Symbolism: Appleton, 13]
Dark Lady, The
mentioned in Shakespeare’s later sonnets; she has never been positively identified. [Br. Lit.: Century Cyclopedia, I: 1191]
E = mc2
physical law of mass and energy; arcanum to layman. [Am. Hist.: Flexner, 298]
Easter Island’s statues
origin and meaning of more than two hundred statues remain unknown. [World Hist.: Wallechinsky, 443]
Eleusinian Mysteries
ancient religious rites; its secrets have never been discovered. [Gk. Myth.: Benét, 305]
Lady or the Tiger, The
Stockton’s tale never reveals which fate awaits the youth who dared fall in love with the king’s daughter. [Am. Lit.: Benét, 559]
Loch Ness monster
supposed sea serpent dwelling in lake. [Scot. Hist.: Wallechinsky, 443]
Man in the Iron Mask
mysterious prisoner in reign of Louis XIV, condemned to wear black mask at all times. [Fr. Hist.: Brewer Note-Book, 460]
Mary Celeste
ship found in mid-Atlantic with sails set, crew missing (1872). [Br. Hist.: Espy, 337]
Mona Lisa
enigmatic smile beguiles and bewilders. [Ital. Art: Wallechinsky, 190]
fate of colony has never been established (1580s). [Am. Hist.: Jameson, 430]
half woman, half lion; poser of almost unanswerable riddle. [Gk. Myth.: Howe, 258; Gk. Lit.: Oedipus Rex]
huge monoliths with lintels in Wiltshire, England, have long confounded modern man as to purpose. [Br. Hist.: Wallechinsky, 442]
unexplained and unidentified flying object. [Science: Brewer Dictionary, 1112]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. a story, film, etc., which arouses suspense and curiosity because of facts concealed
2. Christianity any truth that is divinely revealed but otherwise unknowable
3. Christianity a sacramental rite, such as the Eucharist, or (when pl.) the consecrated elements of the Eucharist
4. any of various rites of certain ancient Mediterranean religions
5. short for mystery play


2 Archaic
a guild of craftsmen
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
References in classic literature ?
His revolutionary career, sustained by the sentiment and trustfulness of many women, was menaced by an impenetrable mystery - the mystery of a human brain pulsating wrongfully to the rhythm of journalistic phrases.
But just as in the case of the Mystery and the Morality, the Interlude developed out of the Morality, and the two cannot always be distinguished, some single plays being distinctly described by the authors as 'Moral Interludes.' In the Interludes the realism of the Moralities became still more pronounced, so that the typical Interlude is nothing more than a coarse farce, with no pretense at religious or ethical meaning.
The various dramatic forms from the tenth century to the middle of the sixteenth at which we have thus hastily glanced--folk-plays, mummings and disguisings, secular pageants, Mystery plays, Moralities, and Interludes--have little but a historical importance.
In the middle of the hall, opposite the great door, a platform of gold brocade, placed against the wall, a special entrance to which had been effected through a window in the corridor of the gold chamber, had been erected for the Flemish emissaries and the other great personages invited to the presentation of the mystery play.
Since the fatal hour of the mystery of The Yellow Room, we have hung about this invisible and silent woman to learn what she knows.
It was a great mystery to Herr Skopf--and, doubtless, still is.
"Your words are a mystery, too," returned the young lady.
"She knows all about the mystery and thinks it perfectly lovely-- and so do I," said the Story Girl.
Toward this they scurried as von Horn turned back into the court of mystery for the others.
In the devil devil houses, where, before the face of mystery men and women crawled in fear and trembling, he walked stiff-legged and bristling; for fresh heads were suspended there-- heads his eyes and keen nostrils identified as those of once living blacks he had known on board the Arangi.
This habit of abstention from Feeling in the best society enables a Circle the more easily to sustain the veil of mystery in which, from his earliest years, he is wont to enwrap the exact nature of his Perimeter or Circumference.