Mystery genre has history, legitimacy and fans galore

January 29, 1995
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

Marilyn Sharrow, university librarian at UC Davis, says mysteries are modern-day morality plays designed to keep readers in suspense until a satisfying resolution is achieved.

The resolution of the mystery, she says, occurs when order is restored to the society being written about. The murderer is identified and punished and the good people of the community can go back about their business. That predictable resolution in an increasingly chaotic world is what keeps readers coming back.

Sharrow, a mystery buff of the first order, gave a talk at a meeting of library associates last week that combined her love of mysteries with a scholarly approach, aided by a high-tech slide show with two screens and an audio component.

She says mysteries can be good literature and cites Edgar Allen Poe, G.K. Chesterton, William Wilkie Collins, Dorothy L. Sayers, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler as some of the authors taught in literature classes today.

It's also said that mystery readers are particularly fond of little factoids sprinkled throughout whatever drama they may be reading.

Perhaps that's why Sharrow dropped enticing bits of information throughout her lecture, which followed the evolution of the mystery novel from the mid-19th century to present.

Consider that:

This year, 1,500 new mystery titles will be published in the United States. That's ``mysteries'' as opposed to separate-but-related genres of horror, spy, suspense and thrillers.

Since 1845, 65,000 mysteries have been published in the United States and Great Britain. If you became a collector and tried to put together a master library of mystery fiction, you'd have to spend about $2.3 million in today's dollars.

Kent State University in Ohio has a collection of Raymond Chandler papers at its library. (Somehow, when I think of Philip Marlowe, I don't picture him in Ohio.)

There are approximately 150 mystery bookstores - bookstores devoted totally to mysteries - in North America.

As mystery readers well know, female sleuths are hot today. But who started the fad? Why, Nancy Drew, of course. And who wrote the Nancy Drew mysteries? If you guess the author printed on the jacket of the Drew books, Carolyn Keene, you'd be right and wrong. Keene was the name of whole syndicate of writers, first headed by a man named Edward Stratemeyer who wrote three of the Nancy Drew books in the 1920s.

One of the most popular mystery writers today is Sue Grafton, author of the ongoing alphabet mysteries series. She started at the beginning with ``A is for Alibi.'' Should you have a hardback copy of ``Alibi'' today, it would be worth a cool $1,000.

Sharrow also said that a body of rules for how to write mysteries was developed in the late 1920s. These six rules of fair play are still largely valid today.

For instance, one of the rules says that the criminal or guilty party must be mentioned early in the book. No fair introducing a ringer in the last chapter.

It also would be considered cheating to have the crime solved through a supernatural source or event. Supernatural solutions belong to a different genre.

It's also not considered quite fair to have a long scientific explanation for whatever happened. Mystery readers are usually generalists, not scientists.

The solution also should not be accidentally stumbled upon by the sleuth and, above all, the sleuth should never be the criminal.

These rules also suggest that murder is the only crime worthy of a reader's energy and attention.

Sharrow honored the superstars of the mystery genre - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie.

There are more than 200 Sherlock Holmes societies in the world today who study and celebrate the famous caseload. But did you know that Doyle at one point tried to murder his fictional character? Holmes was killed off in the 1894 tale, ``The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes,'' but the public insisted the dispassionate detective be brought back to life.

The infamous Christie wrote 67 crime novels (41 involved death by poison), 19 plays, 148 short stories, and six romance novels under a pen name. Her books continue to sell today. Agatha Christie mysteries have out-sold Shakespeare and are second in sales only to the Bible.

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