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Whodunnit: The Enduring Appeal of the Mystery Novel

There’s nothing like diving into a well-written whodunnit. But mystery thrillers are a surprisingly diverse literary genre with a rich history. Here, we look at how they came about, their golden age, and what modern versions look like.

By Gayatri Bhaumik
June 27, 2022

As long as there have been humans, there have been tales of crime and mystery. In Ancient Greece, Sophocles peppered his works with murder and death while Euripides wrote grand tales of revenge. But it wasn’t until the 19th century, with the Industrial Revolution in full swing and rapid urbanisation requiring the establishment of professional police forces and detective agencies, that the foundation for modern mysteries was laid. 

Photo: Laura Chouette/Unsplash

MURDER MYSTERIES: A HISTORY

Most experts credit American writer Edgar Allan Poe with the advent of the modern mystery genre. His 1841 short story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” saw an amateur detective solve the murders of a mother and daughter. And so the protagonist, August C. Dupin, became our first modern fictional detective. But it wasn’t until 1859’s “The Woman in White”, by Wilkie Collins, that we got what’s considered the first mystery novel, a gripping tale of murder, madness, and mistaken identity. Collin’s second novel—1868’s “The Moonstone”, in which a huge diamond is stolen from a Hindu temple and later found in an aristocratic English manor—is widely considered to have set the standard for detective novels. By the early 20th century, detective fiction was firmly established.

But, crime writing came into its Golden Age in the 1920s and 1930s with British authors like Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and Margery Allingham who created “country manor” mysteries—whodunnits set in English manor homes. American novelists soon followed with hardboiled mysteries and “pulp novels.” Although detective fiction fell out of fashion around World War Two, it experienced a renaissance as Golden Age novels captivated new audiences and new takes on the genre developed in the latter half of the 20th century. 

Photo: Gordon Dymowski/Flickr

WHAT MAKES A MYSTERY NOVEL

First, there’s got to be a crime. Usually, a murder will suffice, but thefts and kidnappings are also acceptable. Second, the protagonist must solve the crime and see justice served. Usually, the main character is a detective, which is why mysteries are often referred to as “whodunnits”. Within the genre, there are different subtypes, ranging from police procedurals and hardboiled detective tales to espionage thrillers, forensic analyses, and courtroom dramas. Each has its particular traits and nuances, so will appeal to different readers.

Although many modern writers break from tradition, most novels follow a similar structure: a crime is committed; the protagonist is introduced and begins their investigation; a plot twist is introduced; and finally, the crime is solved, and the culprit is caught.

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Ready to dive in? Here are five mystery writers to check out.

AGATHA CHRISTIE

The grande dame of mystery—and the best-selling author of all time—Christie penned nearly 70 novels during her prolific career. Her most famous protagonist is Hercule Poirot, the Belgian detective known for his impressive moustache. “Murder on the Orient Express” is Poirot’s most famous outing, but “The Mysterious Affairs at Styles” and “Death on the Nile” will captivate, too.

DAPHNE DU MAURIER

Known for evocative mysteries set in the English countryside, du Maurier’s novels have a gothic atmosphere that builds tension and keeps readers guessing until the end. “Rebecca” is the pinnacle of her writing, but “Jamaica Inn” and “My Cousin Rachel” are just as intriguing. 

JAMES PATTERSON

A modern proponent of the art, Patterson is known for thrillers that have garnered him the Guinness World Record for the most New York Times Bestsellers. “Along Came a Spider” is justifiably famous, but “The Angel Experiment” and “1st to Die” are as worthy of attention.

SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE

You can’t talk about mystery novels without mentioning Doyle and his deerstalker-wearing fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes. Even if you haven’t read “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes”, his classic tales like “The Hound of the Baskervilles” and “A Study in Scarlet” are pop culture canon.

JOHN GRISHAM

Famed for his legal thrillers, Grisham forgoes the traditional detective protagonist in favour of litigators. Drawing on his experiences as a practising lawyer in Mississippi, Grisham infuses his work with reality and Southern charm. Try his bestsellers, “The Rainmaker” and “The Pelican Brief”.

PATRICIA CORNWALL

Another mystery novelist that shuns the traditional protagonist, Cornwell’s bestselling series is centred around Dr Kay Scarpetta, a Virginia-based medical examiner with a penchant for cooking. Start with the first in the series, “Postmortem”. 

DASHIELL HAMMETT

If you like your mysteries with a side of Noir, try Hammett’s hardboiled detective romps. Hammett effectively parleys his work as a detective with the infamous Pinkerton agency into true genre classics. He’s best known for “The Maltese Falcon”, “The Thin Man”, and “Red Harvest”. 

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