The Mystery Genre
This section is designed to be used with any mystery or detective novel, story, film, or television show. The first section briefly traces the history of the detective novel and Conan Doyle's contribution to it. It then lists questions and activities designed to help students think about the genre and about formulaic literature in general. "Fun with Mysteries" invites students' creative response to the mystery stories they read. The Detective's Log helps students understand the basic elements of a classic mystery while keeping track of them as they read or watch.
A Brief History of the Detective Novel
Crime stories have been with us at least since Cain killed Abel in the Bible, yet Sherlock Holmes is considered the father of what is known as the classic "Golden Age" of English murder mystery. Writers such as Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, and P.D. James went on to emulate this form, and today even a cursory glance at a mystery section in a book or video store will reveal the vigorous lineage of the great detective. Although Edgar Allen Poe, Wilkie Collins, and others had written mysteries before him, somehow, in the persons of Sherlock Holmes and his humble helper, Dr. John Watson, Arthur Conan Doyle captured the public imagination as no detective writer ever has.
The formula Conan Doyle helped establish for the classic English mystery usually involves several predictable elements: a "closed setting" such as an isolated house or a train; a corpse; a small circle of people who are all suspects; and an investigating detective with extraordinary reasoning powers. As each character in the setting begins to suspect the others and the suspense mounts, it comes to light that nearly all had the means, motive, and opportunity to commit the crime. Clues accumulate, and are often revealed to the reader through a narrator like Watson, who is a loyal companion to the brilliant detective. The detective grasps the solution to the crime long before anyone else, and explains it all to the "Watson" at the end.
At about the same time as the English murder mystery was establishing itself, a distinctly different school of detective fiction emerged in America. This "hard-boiled" style of fiction took hold in the 1920s, the era of American prohibition and gangster violence. Popularized through the accessibility of the "pulps" -- cheaply produced, gaudy magazines that featured short, violent crime stories -- the hard-boiled American detective contrasts distinctly with the classic English version. This detective is not a gentleman hero, but a hard-drinking, tough-talking "private eye," often an outsider to the world of upper- and middle-class values. The classic setting is not a country house but the brutal and corrupt city, and the suspects might be anyone at all in such a vast and anonymous place. The action does not move in a series of orderly steps toward a logical solution, but, instead, careens from place to place and scene to scene. As Dashiell Hammett, one of the originators of the genre, explained it, "Your private detective does not want to be an erudite solver of riddles in the Sherlock Holmes manner; he wants to be a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent bystander, or client."
The detective and mystery stories we read and watch on television and in film today can often be traced directly to one of these two original schools, or borrow from both traditions. Contemporary writers continue to reinvent the basic formula so that, over a hundred years since readers first met the great Sherlock Holmes, the detective story is more fresh, interesting, and popular than ever.
Exploring the Genre
Fun with Mysteries
- Why do people like to read mystery and detective stories? Why are we so fascinated with crime, especially murder? List as many reasons as you can. How does the fact that detective stories have a predictable structure make them more or less enjoyable to read? Why?
- Why do many readers consider relaxing with mystery, detective, and crime fiction a "guilty pleasure"? What is the difference between "serious literature" and mystery stories? To think about this, consider the following questions: Why is Shakespeare not considered a crime writer even though he often writes about murder? Is Crime and Punishment or Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone a "mystery" novel? Explain your answer.
- What would Sherlock Holmes think about the kind of detectives we are most familiar with from American television? Pretend you are Holmes and watch an episode of a series such as Law and Order, NYPD Blue, or CSI that features a contemporary American detective. If Holmes were asked to give them advice on detecting, what would he tell them?
- Critic Stephen Knight claims that, "No literary figure has a stronger hold on the public imagination" than Sherlock Holmes. Research the influence of Sherlock Holmes on popular culture in order to debate this statement. Consider a wide variety of formats, such as the board game "Clue"; children's book series such as Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and Encyclopedia Brown; the films of Alfred Hitchcock; television series and characters (including Dr. Spock in Star Trek and Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation); cartoons; and advertising.
- What can the history of the two mystery writing schools tell us about some of the differences between England and America? Pretend you are an alien trying to research the two countries before coming to visit. If all you were given were the first chapter of any Agatha Christie novel (to represent England) and the first chapter of any Raymond Chandler novel (to represent America), what conclusions might you draw? Write a list of the assumptions and expectations this alien might form about each society based on these chapters. How many of the things on your list do you think the alien might actually observe if it came for a visit today?
- Mystery and detective fiction is often judged by how well it satisfies the conventions of its genre -- that is, how well it follows the unwritten "rules" of how detectives, criminals, suspects, and clues are presented. In the 1920s, writer Ronald Knox made a list of "commandments" that he believed must be followed in all good detective fiction. Since then, nearly all have been broken, but they are still a guide for most writers of the classic English school. Some of these rules are listed below. Which do The Hound of the Baskervilles obey? Do today's detective stories still follow these rules? If not, what rules would you add to or eliminate to bring a list of detective story commandments up-to-date?
- The criminal must be mentioned in the early part
of the story, but must not be anyone
whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.
- All supernatural or preternatural agencies are
ruled out as a matter of course.
- Not more than one secret room or passage is allowed.
- The detective himself must not commit the crime.
- The detective is bound to declare any clues upon which
he may happen to light.
- The friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
- Other genres also follow rules and conventions. Horror, romance, and science fiction stories all use predictable structures, characters, and plots. Choose one of these genres and develop a set of "commandments" for that genre. You might also compile a list of classic lines from this genre (as in the first "Fun with Mysteries" activity, below), or develop a graphic organizer for watching or reading this kind of fiction based on the Detective's Log.
- Can a genre's formula be exhausted? If so, can the formula be reinvented and remain fresh? Choose a genre with a formulaic approach (mystery, detective, crime, spy, romance, horror, or science fiction), and compare an early classic with a contemporary example. What do the changes tell you about how the audience and our world have changed?
- Try writing an opening to a mystery story that will be as atmospheric and mysterious as The Hound of the Baskervilles. Begin with the classic line "It was a dark and stormy night." Write for ten minutes without stopping. Then take turns reading your openings in a small writing group of your peers. What descriptive, plot, and setting techniques seem to work best to create atmosphere? Why? If you choose to continue your story, use the Detective's Log to keep track of the clues you plant and the suspects you describe.
- What real-life mysteries might make thrilling movies? Look through today's newspapers and history books and compile a list of murders and other dramatic crimes from the past or present that have never been turned into films. Then write the one-page pitch that would convince Hollywood to "green light" your project. Include in your pitch the actors who would be best cast in each role.
- Visit the Masterpiece Theatre Web site and test your powers of inductive and deductive reasoning by exploring And Now Comes the Mystery... You can also try your hand at solving one of the mysteries posted on MysteryNet.com. For more mystery fun, design a detecting game, such as a board game, a "picture mystery" laden with clues, or a school-wide challenge using clues throughout the building.
- Each of the following lines come from the film of The Hound of the Baskervilles, but they are all such classics that any one of them could easily be part of many other mystery or detective stories. In small groups, choose two of the lines, then write and perform an original scene that uses them in some way. For those words that are in boldface, feel free to substitute your own. (Note: Teachers may want to assign the whole class the same two lines to see how differently each small group spins a story around them.)
- It's an ugly business. The more I see of it, the less I like.
- As you value your life or your reason, keep away from the moor.
- He was in a highly nervous state. Something was preying upon his mind.
- I don't know whether it's a case for a detective or a priest.
- I had no idea such a sum was involved. It is a stake for which a man might well play a desperate game.
- You must not go alone. Some great misfortune will befall you if you do.
- [This is] a worthy setting if the devil did desire to have a hand in the affairs of man.
- No wonder my uncle felt as if trouble were coming in such a place as this. It's enough to scare any man.
- Did you happen to hear someone, a woman, sobbing in the night?
- Go back! Go straight back to London instantly. For God's sake, do as I ask you. Go back, and never set foot on the moor again.
- I suppose the kindest thing would be to put you out of your misery.
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