Here we are with a new post from an up and coming author Jessica Coplen! Jessica is one of the premiere mystery enthusiasts in the world, and she knows her Poirot from her Marple. I'm excited to host this blog, and I'll be even more excited when Jess' novel Copper and Gold comes out soon. She should be pretty familiar with my level of displeasure if she doesn't get that book out.
If you want to see your own work in this space, take a look here. Big things are happening here at Party Now, Apocalypse Later Industries. Get on board!
In 1841, Edger Allen Poe invented a new genre, the mystery. Before this, the idea of conflict was nothing new, from the battles in The Epic of Gilgamesh [2100 BCE] to the relationships of Pride and Prejudice . And proto-mystery stories can even be seen throughout literature, such as The Three Apples [One Thousand and One Nights, 9th Century]. But with Poe’s publishing of Murders in the Rue Morgue, he introduced the world to the concept of a detective story where the central conflict is “who did it?” Then in 1868, Wilkie Collins stepped up and presented the first full-length mystery novel, The Moonstone. Less than a decade later, A Study in Scarlet  by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle introduced the world to Sherlock Holmes, the most portrayed literary character in the history of film and television.
In 1952, The Mousetrap, a murder mystery written by Agatha Christie, opened on London’s West End and is still in production today, making it longest running stage play of all time. On U.S. television, three of the top five longest running one-hour dramas belong to police procedurals [Law & Order; Law & Order: Special Victims Unit; CSI]. Law & Order is the third longest running U.S. show of all time, with the currently airing Law & Order: SVU well prepared to outpace its progenitor. A younger police procedural, NCIS, was the most-watched drama of 2016 for total viewership, and it was second overall. In fact, among the top ten network shows of 2016, five of them can be classified under mystery.
So how did a relatively young genre become such a driving force of modern literature and cinema?
The answer lies in the relationship the audience has with the story. Most genres are passive towards the reader. Yes, the reader becomes invested in the plight of the protagonist, but the reader is only privy to observe. In a mystery, however, the audience is invited to participate. Throughout the story, clues are left for the reader to follow. They gather them up and attempt to solve the puzzle, racing to find the truth before the main character does.
When the reader gets to the big reveal, there is elation as they can shout “I knew it!” This sense of accomplishment is at the very core of why mysteries, procedurals, and crime thrillers have become some of the most marketable genres in both books and television. Even if the reader can’t guess the truth, or is incorrect, there is that connection of interaction. They played the game and lost, but they will learn for next time.
To this end, it’s not enough to simply lay out breadcrumbs in a short, straight line. The audience wants to earn their victory. Clues must be hidden, but also left in plain sight, so that when the reveal occurs, the reader can look back and see the case as it was built. Simply pulling a character or plot device out of thin air is dissatisfying and makes the reader feel cheated. How could they have possibly guessed the truth if they weren’t given access to all of the evidence?
This can unfortunately lead to a severe case of genre savviness for the reader. If you pick up a copy of Doyle or Christie’s work, you’ll likely find it sounding very familiar, and you can guess the killer without even trying. This is because through their careers, they created or perfected the tropes that are often seen in today’s media. Doyle loved a good distraction and also cemented the idea that every detective needs a nemesis pulling the strings. Christie played with everything from a locked room, to a broken clock, to hiding one crime among many.
This is especially difficult for modern visual media. A book can be as long as it needs to be, but a tv show or movie has a near definitive limit. If something seemingly random is shown, then that’s the big clue that tells the detective who the killer is. If the show bothers to hire an actor to deliver three lines that could have been passed on in exposition, that character is probably the killer. If you recognize that actor from somewhere, then they are definitely the killer. It’s gotten to the point where even Nathan Fillion, star of the mystery series Castle [2009-2016], admitted that if you watch the show, then you know who the killer is going to be.
This led to a shift from classic mystery to gimmick mystery and procedural mystery. The gimmick mystery still focuses the story on the mystery, but there is something else to tie things together. In the aforementioned Castle, it’s the fact that he’s a mystery writer and looks at every crime as if it was a story. Sue Grafton wrote the Alphabet Series novels where each book follows the next letter of the alphabet (A is for Alibi , B is for Burglar , etc). But as successful as both of these are, they are hardly new. Castle is a modern update of Murder, She Wrote which was itself a modern version of Christie’s Miss Marple series. And the Alphabet Series takes the title of Christie’s The ABC Murders  and runs with it.
It’s not so much about rehashing an old idea, but modernizing it to match current society. This is what gave rise to the procedural mystery, where the question isn’t so much “Who did it?” but “How did they do it?” These are the books and shows that delve into the science behind both committing the murder and solving the case. In 1997, Kathy Reichs published Déjà Dead, in which a forensic anthropologist uses their knowledge of bones to solve the mystery. This led to a television series, Bones, which ran for twelve seasons from 2005 to 2017. CBS had a powerhouse with the series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation [2000-2015], and its two spin-offs. They spent a hefty portion of their hour showing and explaining the science behind crime solving. It was a more modern, and gruesome, version of shows such as Quincy M.E. [1976-1983]. This is all a throwback to Doyle’s Sherlock, who regularly looked to science, as he knew it, to solve a case—a trope established in Murders in the Rue Morgue.
In an attempt to combat genre-savvy overload, some series would take a different spin on the core questions in a mystery. The hugely popular Columbo [1968-1978; 1989-2003] would tell you from the beginning who the murderer was. The conflict lay in just how Columbo would be able to solve the case and prove the murderer’s guilt. A recent series, Motive [2013-2016] also tells you who the killer is, and the mystery lies in discovering the motive for the crime.
But through all the gimmicks and modernization, the mystery genre has one last trick up its sleeve: its characters. The crime solver in the story isn’t just some schlub who exists to further the story. They’re your partner, or your competition. The audience discovers the clues right along with the detective, both trying to piece things together. Their success is your success. After all, you can’t make the decision to open a drawer or ask a specific question. So, you trust that your partner, and by some extent the writer, is competent enough to observe all the clues, even if they don’t completely understand what they mean at the time. Then it becomes a challenge of who can figure out the puzzle first? There is no fun to be had when you’re playing against someone totally inept at the game.
This is where we go back to the beginning and see why Sherlock Holmes is so entrenched in popular media. He’s a smart, flawed, damaged character who is interesting in his own right, let alone when he’s solving a mystery. Readers have to invest in the characters the same way they do in other genres, but here, the detective’s world is divested of the genre. In a Romance or Horror, the character’s life is the sum of either finding love or trying not the die. The detective’s life can be whatever it wants to be, however it wants to be, so long as they have access to solve the mystery. This is why and how Sherlock has been reimagined in so many ways, from Young Sherlock Holmes , to Sherlock living in modern New York [Elementary 2012-Current], to Sherlock being a cranky doctor [House 2004-2012].
Hercule Poirot, arguably the second greatest detective behind Sherlock, is very interesting to observe because he has what we would now call borderline OCD. A trait that was played up for laughs in Monk [2002-2009] and treated as a serious problem in Whitechapel [2009-2013]. It’s possible he also was on the autism spectrum, a trait that gave depth to the main character of Déjà Dead. The arm-chair detective—someone who isn’t specifically an investigator but finds themselves caught up in a case—was first seen in Poe’s The Mystery of Marie Roget . But it was Christie’s Miss Marple who set the standard with her little old lady with a sharp mind. In 1989, Cocaine Blues gave us Phryne Fisher, a single woman in 1920s Melbourne, Australia, who bucks social norms, taking down bad guys while wearing couture. And then there is Sam Tyler, the displaced detective of Life on Mars [UK 2006-2007], who is either in a coma, dead, or has truly travelled back in time.
If any of this sounded intriguing, then it’s easy to understand why the mystery genre has taken off in such a short, relatively speaking, amount of time. People like to solve puzzles. They like to win. To cheer on their favorites. Mysteries allow them to do all of that, whenever and however they want. And as technology and culture change, there is a plethora of possibilities in how this genre will grow with it. For as long as there have been crimes, there have been those trying to solve them.
It’s actually quite the mystery as to why it took so long for someone to take the daily life of a detective and place it into words. One might even say that mystery was a genre hiding in plain sight.