Select your language

Suggested languages for you:
Log In Start studying!
StudySmarter - The all-in-one study app.
4.8 • +11k Ratings
More than 3 Million Downloads
Free
|
|

All-in-one learning app

  • Flashcards
  • NotesNotes
  • ExplanationsExplanations
  • Study Planner
  • Textbook solutions
Start studying

Mystery Novels

Save Save
Print Print
Edit Edit
Sign up to use all features for free. Sign up now
English Literature

The word mystery conjures up the unknown, the unresolved, secrets, and enigmas. The storyteller has used mystery over the ages to keep his audience’s attention. The successful storyteller pauses on a cliffhanger, or hook. This is so that we, the listeners and readers, will clamour for more. The more the mystery, the greater the revelation at the end.

So what is a mystery novel?

The mystery novel can trace its origins back to the suspense and intrigue of the gothic novel in the 18th century¹. As literacy increased, so too did the demand for reading material - the more entertaining the better: romantic adventure, comedies of manners, satire, and tales of the supernatural. The gothic novel became wildly popular between the late 18th century and mid-19th century for its combination of:

  • sensation
  • adventure
  • intrigue
  • crime
  • the supernatural

Many of the early gothic novels contained rational explanations for the phantoms and ghostly happenings; Ann Radcliffe in particular focused on creating atmosphere and suspense. The historical settings of these novels were superseded by contemporary landscapes in the 19th century. For example, Mary Shelley and the Brontës place their stories within their own lifetimes. It is possible to see a divide develop at this time, between the spiritual or otherwordly mystery and the puzzle or riddle mystery, although there continue to be overlaps between gothic and mystery into the present day.

The mystery novel may contain elements of the supernatural but will concentrate on:

  • suspense
  • a puzzling event or situation that needs a solution
  • obstacles to overcome

Mysteries may contain kidnappings, theft, or even murder. Early mystery authors include:

  • William Godwin
  • Edgar Allan Poe
  • Charles Dickens
  • Sheridan le Fanu
  • Wilkie Collins

An early example of the mystery novel is The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794) by William Godwin, father of Mary Shelley (author of Frankenstein (1818)).

Although categorised as a political attack on the abuse of power and injustice, the actual storyline follows Caleb in his investigations of the urbane and cultured, yet questionable, Falkland. Falkland has a secret that Caleb discovers and the story involves detection, pursuit, and murder. Because the aim of the novel was to illustrate the evils of despotism, the pursuit is not of the guilty by the detective, but of the detective (Caleb) by the guilty (Falkland) who uses his status and power to persecute his investigator.

The Adventures of Caleb Williams is also regarded as the first detective novel in English literature as opposed to the detective Dupin short stories of Edgar Allan Poe.

Poe’s mystery tales take on Gothic influence with a vengeance; they are occasionally ironic, mostly macabre, and filled with vivid imagery. Some of his most iconic stories include

  • The Fall of the House of Usher
  • The Masque of the Red Death
  • The Cask of Amontillado
  • The Black Cat

Recurring themes are live burial, isolation, and superstition, infused with Poe’s unique mastery of atmosphere and suspense.

Mystery continued to be a popular element in Victorian novels such as Bleak House (Charles Dickens, 1853) and The Wyvern Mystery (Sheridan le Fanu, 1869). Both these novels also contain traces of the gothic: old houses, and family secrets. In Bleak House particularly, there is the mystery of murder and identity – what is Lady Dedlock’s secret, who is Esther Summerson’s real mother, and who murdered the cold-hearted lawyer Tulkinghorn? The investigation is undertaken by the persistent Inspector Bucket (who may have been based on a real-life detective Field). Yet this is not a detective story (the murder is not central to the story, just a part of it) but it could be called a mystery novel: it contains elements of suspense, secrecy, and questions that need answering.

Charles Frederick Field was a member of Scotland Yard during the mid-19th century. After retirement, he became a private detective. He was a particular hero of Charles Dickens, who wrote about him (and other police officers) in Household Words. Field bears several similarities to Inspector Bucket and it is likely that Dickens based his character on Field.

A master of the mystery novel was Wilkie Collins, a contemporary and friend of Charles Dickens. Four of his novels written at the peak of his career are considered his best work: Woman in White, No Name, Armadale, and The Moonstone. A recurring theme in all four is identity: lost identity, false identity, secret identity, stolen identity.

The Woman in White (1860)

The Woman in White is about forgery, fraud and secrets. Identity is a key element of the plot – the (stolen) identity of the heiress, Laura Fairlie, and the real identity of baronet Sir Percival Glyde.

No Name (1862)

Two girls living a comfortable life are suddenly orphaned and discover that they are in fact illegitimate. Like The Woman in White, key plot elements involve forgery and fraud. In addition, Collins highlights the lack of legal provision for illegitimate children.

Armadale (1864)

Armadale also concerns identity: Ozias Midwinter is the assumed name of a wanderer, the son of a murderer. Convinced he will inherit his father’s murderous tendencies, he ultimately saves the son of his father’s victim.

The Moonstone (1868)

The Moonstone has been regarded as the ‘perfect’ crime novel: the theft of a magnificent jewel at a country house takes the best of Scotland Yard (in the form of Sergeant Cuff) and science (Dr Candy’s assistant Ezra Jennings) two years to solve, and the big reveal in the very last pages allows Collins a satirical poke at the double standards of Victorian morality.

Murder mystery novels

The modern murder mystery novel evolved in the 19th century and has remained a firm favourite in popular fiction. Early examples include:

  • The Murders in the Rue Morgue (Edgar Allan Poe, 1841)
  • The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (Fergus Hume, 1886)
  • The Big Bow Mystery (Israel Zangwill, 1892)

The Murders in the Rue Morge was published in Philadelphia in 1841. Its author, Edgar Allan Poe received acclaim for his ingenuity and inventiveness, and the story has since been regarded as a major influence in mystery and detective fiction.

The Murders in the Rue Morgue, set in Paris, is an early, if not the first, modern locked-room mystery, and introduces amateur detective Dupin. Madame and Mlle L’Espanaye are found brutally murdered in their bedroom on the fourth floor of a securely locked house.

The solution is in keeping with Poe’s extravagant Gothicism: an escaped orangutan climbed into the bedroom. The screams of the terrified women panicked the creature who then killed them. The mystery is solved by means of analysis and deduction: Dupin discovers a hair at the crime scene that is not human and identifies it as belonging to an orangutan.

Fergus Hume with his novel The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886) poses the puzzle of how a man could be murdered in a hansom cab while in transit between point A and point B. Set in Melbourne, the book also draws on social divides and family secrets and contains detailed and vivid descriptions of Melbourne at that time. Published in Australia in 1886, it became an international bestseller and was translated into eleven languages. Hume went on to write over 130 novels and is credited with establishing the mystery novel as a genre in its own right.

The Big Bow Mystery (1892) by Israel Zangwill is, like Murders in the Rue Morge, an early locked-room mystery. Set in foggy London, a man is found murdered inside his locked bedroom. There the similarity ends: the man has been killed by human hand, in his sleep. Through the art of distraction, the author is able to sustain an investigation that reaches as far as Australia before culminating in an explosive conclusion in the Home Secretary’s study in London.

Murder mystery novels became particularly popular in the 1920s and 30s in what has since become known as the ‘Golden Age’ of the murder mystery. Notable authors of this era include:

  • Agatha Christie
  • D L Sayers
  • Patricia Wentworth

Murder mystery novels from this era are often referred to as ‘cosy’ or ‘armchair’ mysteries, although there is nothing very cosy about some of the murder methods used! These novels are often concerned with the psychology of crime and offer the reader the opportunity to interact with the story by deducing the solution to the problem together with the detectives in the story. The detectives in many of these are amateur or private.

Agatha Christie’s private detective Poirot is a former Belgian policeman who comes to the UK as a refugee during WWI (The Mysterious Affair at Styles, 1920); he appears in Murder in the Orient Express (1934) and Death on the Nile (1937), both of which have been adapted for film and television. Poirot’s technique is to combine clues with a study of the psychology of the murderer.

Dorothy L. Sayers introduced war-weary hero, Lord Peter Wimsey, as the bored aristo turned amateur detective in Whose Body? (1923): shell-shocked Wimsey combines wit and style in his detection, yet his triumphs are overshadowed by his horror of the death penalty for the guilty.

Patricia Wentworth’s mysteries tend to have a romantic theme packed with a lot of adventure and humour. Her private detective Miss Silver, a former governess, works with police detectives Lamb and Abbott. She has also been governess to Abbott and other characters who find themselves caught up in intrigues. Wentworth's plots are varied and can include secret codes, spies, masters of crime, and secret tunnels. Very occasionally the culprit escapes (Pilgrim’s Rest, 1948), and sometimes a touch of the supernatural is suggested (Weekend with Death, 1941).

Dystopian mystery novels

Dystopia is the opposite of utopia. Utopia is a future possible world where humanity lives in harmony and comfort. Dystopia instead refers to an imaginary future world of broken values, injustice, and misery, often post-apocalyptic.

The dystopian novel rose in the late 19th to the early 20th century with works including The Time Machine by H.G Wells (1895) and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932).

The genre grew alongside science-fiction and developed subgenres such as dystopian mystery novels. The same mystery elements apply: a secret to be uncovered, a puzzle or crime to be solved. One example is Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) which is set in a post-apocalyptic San Francisco where a bounty hunter is assigned to hunt down escapee androids - the question is, who is human and who isn’t? The novel was adapted for film (Blade Runner) in 1982.

Thriller mystery novels

Thriller mysteries can be a mix of adventure/action, spies, and enigmas; for example, Bram Stoker’s The Mystery of the Sea (1902) is a political thriller that combines spies and secret codes with supernatural elements. Other thriller authors followed, including John Buchan (The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), Greenmantle (1916), Mr Standfast (1918)) and later Ian Fleming who created MI5 agent James Bond (Casino Royale (1953) Live and Let Die (1954), Moonraker (1955))

Historical mystery novels

Historical mystery novels are set in earlier periods of time such as the Crusades, the Renaissance, the Regency, and the Victorian period, and are popular with contemporary writers and readers.

  • Sir Walter Scott
  • Ellis Peters
  • Umberto Eco

Sir Walter Scott set many of his books in earlier periods, such as during the Jacobite Rebellion (Waverley, 1814) or the Crusades (The Talisman (1825).

Ellis Peters set a series of mysteries in medieval times; her detective is a former soldier-turned-monk Brother Cadfael, who is able to use his broad life experience to make accurate deductions and analyses. The Brother Cadfael Chronicles were written between 1977 and 1994.

Umberto Eco also set his mystery The Name of the Rose in medieval times; like Ellis, his detective is also a monk (William of Baskerville) who unravels a series of bizarre murders at a monastery in Italy.

The historical mystery has continued to remain popular into the present day. Its settings range from the ancient world to the Edwardian period. Popular authors include

  • C.J.Sansom
  • Anthony Horowitz

C.J. Sansom's Shardlake series is set during the 16th century.

Anthony Horowitz is the author of

  • The House of Silk (2011)
  • Moriarty (2014)

These novels are set in the 1890s and feature Conan Doyle's fictional character, Sherlock Holmes.

Modern gothic mystery novels

The modern gothic novel saw a revival in the 20th century with Rebecca (1938) by Daphne du Maurier.

A young woman marries widower Max de Winter and is taken to live at his mansion (Manderley) on the Cornish coast. In a twist on Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), the bride also discovers a secret from her husband’s past in a gradual, increasingly unsettling sequence of reveals, and the novel climaxes, as does Jane Eyre, in a great fire. However, du Maurier’s voice is distinctive and unique and the novel has never been out of print since its publication. It has been adapted for both screen and stage.

Most of Du Maurier’s work contains gothic elements, including her other Cornish novels Jamaica Inn (1936) and My Cousin Rachel (1951).

Other 20th-21st century gothic novelists include

  • Stephen King (Secret Window, Secret Garden, 1990, The Dark Half, 1989, Pet Sematary 1983)
  • Susan Hill (The Woman in Black, 1983, The Man in the Picture, 2007)

A mystery novel may cover many subgenres; a good mystery will both entertain and offer the mind a puzzle to solve in an atmospheric setting, ideally one that ‘thrills and chills’.

The mystery plot requires enough complexity to allow the reader a challenge in solving the puzzle, but not too complex that they have no way of solving it.

The best mystery novels contain skilful description and characterisation, combined with a sense of drama, atmosphere, and suspense. Jane Eyre, Rebecca, and The Woman in White, although written well over a hundred years ago, continue to be in print and to be included in lists of ‘the top 100, the top 30, the top 10’ novels of all time.

¹Mary J. Jarvis, A Reader's Guide to the Suspense Novel, (1997)

Mystery Novel - Key takeaways

  • The mystery novel may contain elements of the supernatural but will concentrate on:
    • suspense,
    • a puzzling event or situation that needs a solution
    • obstacles to overcome
  • Mysteries may contain kidnappings, theft, or even murder
  • Murder mystery novels enjoyed a ‘Golden Age’ in the 1920s and 30s and are also called ‘cosy’ or ‘armchair’ mysteries
  • Dystopian mystery is a fictional setting somewhere in a post-apocalyptic future
  • Thriller mysteries can be a mix of adventure/action, spies, and enigmas
  • The best mystery novels contain skilful description and characterization, combined with a sense of drama, atmosphere, and suspense.

Mystery Novels

Suspense, a puzzling event or situation that needs a solution, and obstacles to overcome. 

A mystery novel should have a secret that is gradually revealed, written in a suspenseful with an atmospheric setting.

The mystery plot requires enough complexity to allow the reader a challenge in solving the puzzle, but not too complex that they have no way of solving it.

The best mystery novels contain skilful description and characterization, combined with a sense of drama, atmosphere and suspense.

Jane Eyre, Rebecca, and The Woman in White continue to be in print and are included in top favourite lists.

Final Mystery Novels Quiz

Question

What defines a mystery novel?  

Show answer

Answer

Suspense, a puzzling event or situation that needs a solution, and obstacles to overcome. 

Show question

Question

How to write a mystery novel? 

Show answer

Answer

The plot should have a mystery that needs to be solved, combined with atmosphere and suspense.

Show question

Question

How to plot a mystery novel?

Show answer

Answer

The mystery plot requires enough complexity to allow the reader a challenge in solving the puzzle, but not too complex that they have no way of solving it.

Show question

Question

What makes a good mystery novel? 

Show answer

Answer

The best mystery novels contain skilful description and characterization, combined with a sense of drama, atmosphere and suspense.

Show question

Question

What is the best mystery book of all time? 

Show answer

Answer

Jane Eyre, Rebecca, and The Woman in White continue to be in print and are included in top favourite lists.

Show question

Question

True or False: The modern murder mystery novel evolved in the 18th century?

Show answer

Answer

False: The modern murder mystery novel evolved in the 19th century.

Show question

Question

Complete the following: Many of the early gothic novels contained … explanations for the … happenings.

Show answer

Answer

Many of the early gothic novels contained rational explanations for the ghostly happenings.

Show question

Question

True or False?  Thriller mysteries can be a mix of adventure/action, satire and enigmas.


Show answer

Answer

Thriller mysteries can be a mix of adventure/action, spies and enigmas.

Show question

Question

Complete the following: Historical mystery novels are set in … periods of time such as the …, the Renaissance, the …, the Victorian period.

Show answer

Answer

Historical mystery novels are set in earlier periods of time such as the Crusades, the Renaissance, the Regency, the Victorian period.

Show question

Question

True or False? Mysteries may contain kidnappings, theft or even murder.

Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

Complete the following: Dystopian mystery is a fictional setting somewhere in a … future.

Show answer

Answer

Dystopian mystery is a fictional setting somewhere in a post-apocalyptic future.

Show question

Question

Complete the following: Murder mystery novels from the 1920s are also called … or … mysteries.

Show answer

Answer

Murder mystery novels from the 1920s are also called ‘cosy’ or ‘armchair’ mysteries.

Show question

60%

of the users don't pass the Mystery Novels quiz! Will you pass the quiz?

Start Quiz

Discover the right content for your subjects

No need to cheat if you have everything you need to succeed! Packed into one app!

Study Plan

Be perfectly prepared on time with an individual plan.

Quizzes

Test your knowledge with gamified quizzes.

Flashcards

Create and find flashcards in record time.

Notes

Create beautiful notes faster than ever before.

Study Sets

Have all your study materials in one place.

Documents

Upload unlimited documents and save them online.

Study Analytics

Identify your study strength and weaknesses.

Weekly Goals

Set individual study goals and earn points reaching them.

Smart Reminders

Stop procrastinating with our study reminders.

Rewards

Earn points, unlock badges and level up while studying.

Magic Marker

Create flashcards in notes completely automatically.

Smart Formatting

Create the most beautiful study materials using our templates.

Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.