The Best American Mystery Stories of the Nineteenth Century
MYSTERY FICTION has been the most successful literary genre in the English-speaking world for a century and a half, and when examining its significant elements, there should be no surprise in understanding why that is true.
Virtually all mystery fiction dramatizes one of the simplest and purest components of human existence and behavior: the battle between the forces of Good and those of Evil. God versus Satan. The killer versus the savior. The detective versus the criminal. Since the majority of civilized society prefers good to evil, a great pleasure, or at least comfort, may be found in the mystery story, in which it is prevalent for righteousness to emerge triumphant.
There is a theoryâ€”one that carries some validityâ€”that detective fiction became popular late in the nineteenth century, coinciding with a decline in unwavering adherence to religion, wherein the sense of guilt that is ingrained in all of us had been somewhat relieved through the agency of some divine or apotheosized being. When religion loosened its hold upon our hearts, another outlet for our guilt had to be invented, and this occurred in the creation of mystery fiction.
It often has been noted that the detective novel has as strict a composition as a sonnet (which may be a trifle exaggerated, but you get the idea), yet it is even more true that it is as formalized as a religious ritual. There is a necessary sin (in most mystery novels and stories, this takes the form of murder), a victim, of course, a high priest (the criminal) who must be destroyed by a higher powerâ€”the detective. Having inevitably identified to some degree with the light and dark sides of his own nature, the detective and the criminal, the reader seeks absolution and redemption. Thus the denouement of the mystery will be analogous to the Day of Judgment, when all is made clear and the soul is cleansedâ€”and the criminal, through the omnipotent power of the detective, is caught and punished.
It is important to understand what a mystery story is. It is common for most readers and people connected to the literary world to assume that mystery stories are detective stories. Some are, but there are many other subgenres, too. Fiction told from the point of view of a criminal, whether a bank robber or a gentleman jewel thief, falls into the mystery category, though the detectives tend be less significant characters. The thriller, in which the fate of the world or nation or another significant entity is at risk, also falls into the mystery category. Just because a murderer (or group of murderers) wants to kill a large number of people rather than have a single target does not make him less of a murderer, just as the detectiveâ€”again, whether an individual or a group of people attempting to thwart a nefarious scheme, such as a police department or the Federal Bureau of Investigationâ€”is no less defined as the heroic protagonist merely because he is hunting numerous villains rather than just one.
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