The Mystery Novel: Our Fascination with Mysteries, Detectives, and Crimes
If you’re reading this, then there’s more than a good chance that mystery novels interest you. To those of you who read mystery stories and novels faithfully, does your heart thrash against your chest as the culprit is about to be revealed? Maybe you think you already know who did it. Does the identity of the culprit surprise you? Or were you suspicions confirmed all along?
Writers like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and Raymond Chandler are well-known for mastering the art of the mystery novel. But what makes these writers and their stories so successful? And why do we enjoy the thrill of solving a crime, or at least watching others solve them?
Most of us aren’t detectives. Of course, we can retrace our steps to find our misplaced phones or lost keys, but we don’t attempt to solve any heinous or difficult crimes on a daily basis. By reading a mystery novel, however, we can vicariously be a sleuth. We follow the detective as he or she probes a crime, questions suspects, and gathers evidence. We might also try to piece the puzzle together by employing the method of the detective. Whether we solve the crime on our own or not, we enjoy watching events unfold and the criminal revealed and caught (hopefully). We like closure, which is something that isn’t always possible in real life. We expect the detective to tie up the loose ends, and we hope that justice prevails.
However, it’s not all about justice and morals. Mystery novels also serve to entertain us. We enjoy the thrill of the chase, the narrow escapes, and maybe a bit of gore along the way. Even more, we like seeing the detective and his or her sidekick save the day and the criminals locked up.
But good mysteries go far beyond our desire to be entertained. They are a study of us and our world. The themes of justice and good and evil abound. We like to see criminals punished because it signals that order is restored to our world. A good mystery novel or story is as much an exploration of humanity as it is a source of fun and leisure. The way authors like Conan Doyle, Christie, and Chandler create their memorable detectives, sidekicks, and villains, and develop unique and interesting crimes is integral to the success of a mystery, both as entertainment and as an insight to the human condition.
Warning: Spoilers ahead for the following books/stories: “A Scandal in Bohemia,” “The Copper Beeches,” The Murder on the Links, Murder on the Orient Express, Farewell, My Lovely, “The Final Problem,” “The Yellow Face.” Read at your own risk.
The Memorable Detective
In literature, the modern detective has origins in Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin who favors the use of reasoning over legwork (Poe xi). Detectives such as Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes were conceived in the same vein (Conan Doyle x). Like Dupin, Holmes uses reason to make inferences based on his observations. He is usually depicted conducting experiments or poring over books, adding to his already wide breadth of knowledge. In the story “A Scandal in Bohemia” (the story in which Irene Adler makes her first and only appearance in the literature), Holmes is also characterized as “the most perfect reasoning and observing machine” and as having a “cold, precise but admirably balanced mind” (Conan Doyle 145).
We see more evidence of Holmes’ coldness in “The Copper Beeches. In the story, a governess is offered a position with unusual conditions, such as she should cut her hair short and wear clothes given to her by her employer. Holmes investigates and discovers that the governess has been hired to impersonate the daughter of the employer who has been locked up by her father in order to keep her from marrying. Watson notes that Holmes “manifested no further interest in [the governess] when once she ceased to be the centre of one of his problems” (Conan Doyle 310). Though Holmes often treats his clients with respect and aids them to the best of his ability, he ceases to have any personal interest in them once the case is solved.
That Holmes is depicted as a brilliant but cold man might explain why we are drawn to him. His apparent lack of emotion is compensated by his eccentricities. His seemingly uncanny ability to solve the most difficult or strange crime through the use of observation and reasoning makes him appear superhuman. How many of us know people who can do what Holmes does? We like to read about his exploits because not many of us can copy his methods or have witnessed them in real life. Maybe we admire the way Holmes uses logic and reason to trump emotion, even though his apparent lack of emotion (excluding his friendship with Watson) seems to make him inhuman.
Despite his eccentricities, even people who haven’t read a Sherlock Holmes story are familiar with his name and his methods. Holmes has made appearances on the silver screen, portrayed most recently by Robert Downey Jr. in Sherlock Holmes (2009) and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011). The current television series Elementary and Sherlock follow the exploits of Holmes in the modern age. Readers and audiences alike are captivated by Holmes’ methods and adventures.
As Holmes followed in Dupin’s footsteps, Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective Hercule Poirot followed in Holmes’. Christie admitted that she based Hercule Poirot and his companion Captain Arthur Hastings on Holmes and Watson (Conan Doyle xv). Like Holmes, Poirot is skilled in making observations and deductions. Whereas Holmes is often seen darting through London and the countryside, donning disguises and breaking into houses to apprehend the criminal, Poirot is more content to think through a problem. Part three of Murder on the Orient Express is titled “Hercule Poirot Sits Back and Thinks” (Murder on the Orient Express 229). Additionally, in The Murder on the Links, Poirot describes the French detective Giraud who is trying to solve the same murder as a “human foxhound” (The Murder on the Links 53); Giraud’s methods are much more hands on than his own. To this end, Poirot tells Hastings, “‘Leave Giraud to his search, and me to my ideas’” (The Murder on the Links 54).
Poirot has other eccentricities as well. Descriptions of him almost always mention his egg-shaped head and manicured moustache, which leads others to judge him on these traits rather than his brilliance: “What an egg-shaped head he had […] Mary Debenham smiled. A ridiculous-looking little man. The sort of little man one could never take seriously” (Murder on the Orient Express 7). His physical characteristics are also the subject of humor: “Hercule Poirot addressed himself to the task of keeping his moustaches out of the soup” (Murder on the Orient Express 18).
The reader comes to enjoy Poirot, quirks and all, because that is what makes him interesting. Like Holmes, we can’t always identify with Poirot’s intelligence, but we can surely admire it. We know that Poirot will always solve the case, but we enjoy watching him coolly and calmly piece the puzzle together.
Though Poirot and Holmes can be easily compared with one another, Raymond Chandler’s detective Philip Marlowe stands out. He is a private investigator, much like Poirot and Holmes, but he traverses the streets of Los Angeles and is written about in the first person. We have direct access to his thoughts and emotions. Marlowe’s methods are more hands on than Poirot’s but not as eccentric as Holmes.
Chandler wrote for pulp magazines, and from the stories in these magazines Marlowe was born. In the novels, Marlowe is seen as street wise, sarcastic, and witty, as well as intelligent. Though he seems tough and jaded, he breaks from the “tough guy” detective mold who never shows emotion or admits that he has a sensitive side. Marlowe is thoughtful and educated. For instance, in the novel Farewell, My Lovely, Marlowe taunts a cop by repeatedly calling him “Hemingway.” The cop replies at one point, “‘Who is this Hemingway person at all?’” (Chandler 164). Marlowe replies, “‘A guy that keeps saying the same thing over and over until you begin to believe it must be good’” (Chandler 164). Marlowe’s answer is both sarcastic and smart, owing to the fact that he knows Hemingway and is making fun of the cop’s intelligence.
Marlowe also has a way with descriptions and words, and it gives him depth as a character. The first-person style allows the reader to get a sense of the kind of man that Marlowe is, just by reading his descriptions of the setting: “It was a nice walk if you like grunting. There were two hundred and eighty steps up to Cabrillo Street. They were drifted over with windblown sand and the handrail was as cold and wet as a toad’s belly” (Chandler 47). His sarcasm is again apparent, but by comparing a wet handrail to a toad’s belly, we might find something oddly poetic and meaningful in the way he describes his world.
In Farewell, My Lovely, Marlowe describes the smell of a henchman: “His smell was the earthy smell of primitive men, and not the slimy dirt of cities” (Chandler 141). The smell of the man is very pungent and seems to overwhelm any other aspect of the man: “An occasional whiff of his personality drifted back to me” (Chandler 144).
And yet, Marlowe’s cleverness goes beyond witty remarks and poetic descriptions. In Farewell, My Lovely, he manages to weave two unrelated cases together. The novel begins with his encounter with a man looking for an ex-girlfriend. Later, Marlowe is hired to assist in the retrieval of stolen jewels; however, one of his business cards given to a woman involved in the missing girlfriend case ends up in the wallet of a murdered man in the stolen jewel case (Chandler 287). The link between the cases may not be apparent to the reader, but the tiny threads that bind the two together are teased out by Marlowe in a subtle manner.
Of Holmes, Poirot, and Marlowe, Marlowe is perhaps the most realistic detective because he may be the easiest with whom the reader can identify. This is perhaps because the novels in which he appears are written in the first person, and the reader is able to get inside his head and study his motivations. Maybe it is because he is not a superhuman sleuthing machine. Oftentimes, he just seems to be trying to make rent.
A memorable, likeable, and interesting detective is integral to the success of a mystery novel (though not every mystery novel has a detective, but we should at least be interested in the people solving the crime). We have to believe that the detective is someone we can rely on to solve the crime and give us satisfying solutions. We also want to be able to relate to them, though with figures like Sherlock Holmes we find that a bit difficult. Hence, we might latch onto other characters to fulfill this need.
Both Holmes and Poirot have a companion who serves as a chronicler of their adventures, as well as a sound board on which the detective can try ideas and clarify any points of confusion. These companions ask questions that the reader might ask and press the detective to explain their thought process.
Doctor John Watson is perhaps one of the most famous of these literary sidekicks. Most of Holmes’ adventures are retold by Watson as he contemplates the past. He also serves as a foil to Holmes, imbuing each story with the dose of humanity that Holmes lacks. As a character, he is much more accessible. He finds love in the novel The Sign of Four, and in between cases he continues to practice medicine. His admiration for Holmes is shared by the reader, as is his lack of observation skills, which highlights Holmes’ brilliance. He also seems to be one of the few people close to Holmes, saddened by his supposed death in “The Final Problem.” The reader is more likely to understand Watson’s thoughts and motivations than he or she is to understand Holmes. Although we admire Holmes and maybe wish we were like him, Watson is the anchor that keeps us grounded in reality.
Unlike Watson, who appears in the majority of the Holmes stories, Arthur Hastings appears in very few stories alongside Poirot. Due to his limited number of appearances in the stories and novels, it seems that Christie saw little use for Hastings as a sidekick; some of Christie’s most well-known Poirot stories, such as Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, do not feature Hastings at all.
When he does appear, Hastings is characterized as being more impulsive than Poirot, often choosing to jump to conclusions rather than think through the problem. Being a former soldier, he is also a man of action, as evidenced by his preference for the methods of the detective Giraud in The Murder on the Links. Poirot tends to mock Hastings’ intelligence, though he does so in a friendly manner. At times, the reader is able to follow Poirot’s reasoning; while at other times, we feel just as lost.
In contrast to Holmes and Poirot, Philip Marlowe has no sidekick. As the novels in which he appears are written in first person, the reader can follow his thoughts and emotions and judge what kind of man he is. He has a strained relationship with the police in particular, though he often has to share investigations with them. In Farewell, My Lovely, after having a conversation with a detective, Marlowe states, “I held the dead phone and snarled into it: ‘Seventeen hundred and fifty cops in this town and they want me to do their leg work for them’” (Chandler 45). He feels does the brunt of the work and would rather not share his investigations. When he does work with police, Marlowe tends to loosen them up (though he does this to other people as well) or he cooperates, albeit grudgingly.
In terms of literary villains, Professor James Moriarty is one of the most famous, being nearly as famous as Holmes himself. Moriarty is a criminal mastermind who shares Holmes’ high level of intelligence. He is also the archetype of evil. Whereas Holmes uses his “powers” for good and embodies justice, Moriarty operates an extensive criminal network and represents chaos and destruction. He is described in “The Final Problem” as the “Napoleon of crime” and as “a spider in the centre of its web” (Conan Doyle 440). He provides Holmes an intellectual equal and challenges the infamous detective like he’s never been challenged before.
Additionally, though she’s not really a villain, Irene Adler is the only woman that Sherlock Holmes ever takes notice of. She is The Woman because she beats him at his own game. She has a compromising picture of the King of Bohemia, which Holmes is tasked to retrieve. However, she outsmarts Holmes and leaves the country before he can confront her. Watson notes that Holmes “used to make merry over the cleverness of women, but I have not heard him do it of late. And when he speaks of Irene Adler […] it is always under the honourable title of the woman” (Conan Doyle 159). She elicits a high degree of respect from Holmes because she is of the same caliber as he is. She also challenges our notions of who is considered a criminal. Though Adler keep the picture, she only keep it for her own protection, not to blackmail the King.
What characters like Moriarty and Adler do is challenge Holmes. We like to see him tested and even beaten by someone of equal intelligence and capability. Having characters such as these raises the stakes for us as the reader; Holmes is not alone. There are other people like him, who prove that he is not undefeatable. In a way, it also makes him more human. He is capable of suffering loss and defeat like the rest of us.
Villains in the worlds of Poirot and Marlowe differ. There aren’t any villains who readily leap to mind or who are as well-known as the detective himself. This doesn’t mean that these detectives don’t come face to face with evil or cunning individuals. In Murder on the Orient Express, the murdered man Cassetti (masquerading under the alias Ratchett) is known to be responsible for the kidnapping and murder of a child. He escaped justice and is killed by the family and relations of the child.
Upon meeting him before his murder, Poirot senses there is something evil about him. Cassetti fears for his life and tries to hire Poirot. Poirot refuses Cassetti’s offer, stating, “‘If you will forgive me for being personal—I do not like your face, M. Ratchett’” (Murder on the Orient Express 36). Though Poirot discovers who killed Cassetti, he decides that the real crime seems to be the heinous murder of an innocent girl. The murder of Cassetti is then more an act of justice than an act of cruelty. Poirot’s decision to aid his murderers signals to the reader that justice comes in many forms, not just arrests and trials.
The criminals that Marlowe faces in Farewell, My Lovely aren’t kidnappers or brilliant masterminds. They fall more along the lines of thugs, gamblers, femme fatales, and crooked cops. In his murder investigation, the murderer is the same woman being sought by her ex-boyfriend. She has been hiding in plain sight all along, though she changed her name and married. Hence, in Marlowe’s world, there are a lot of shady characters– some worse than others. The real fun is watching Marlowe navigate between these people, using his wits to decipher friend from foe. Though not every criminal he encounters is arrested, Marlowe solves his case. He seems to understand that not every criminal can be brought to justice quickly, if at all.
As a reader, we want interesting and unique crimes and cases. Maybe some of us fancy a depraved or gruesome crime, not because we love blood and death for their own sake but because we want an interesting puzzle. We want the detective to dole out some form of justice. But the most memorable of crimes are the ones that are difficult to solve or question our concepts of right and wrong.
Though there are many interesting Holmes stories, take the aforementioned story “The Copper Beeches” as an example. The governess finds herself in a well-paid job with strange conditions. Though she cuts her hair, she finds hair matching her own color in a drawer, and when she investigates the supposedly abandoned wing of the house, her employer becomes angry. Holmes puts the pieces together and discovers that the employer has locked up his daughter to keep her from marrying and taking her inheritance with her. The governess is meant to pose as the daughter, in order to keep the fiancée at bay.
In another Holmes story, “The Yellow Face,” a man becomes suspicious of his wife. He finds out she is visiting a house down the road and follows her. In the upstairs window, he sees a grinning, yellow face in the window. He suspects his wife’s first husband has come back to blackmail her. Holmes suspects the same, but it turns out that the woman had a child from her first marriage to a black man. She made the child wear a mask because she didn’t know how her husband would react if he discovered the race of the child. This particular case is interesting because Holmes doesn’t reach the right conclusion. It also ends rather happily, as the man accepts his wife’s child as his own.
On the other hand, in Murder on the Orient Express, the murder of the child-killer is unique because no one can prove who did it. Twelve passengers on the train each stab Cassetti in order to conceal who delivered the fatal blow. Poirot discovers that the twelve people were related to the family of the dead child. Instead of demanding the arrest of the twelve train passengers, Poirot blurs the lines of right and wrong and helps them cover up the crime. He presents a theory that a stranger boarded the train in the snow storm, killed Cassetti, and escaped.
In Farewell, My Lovely, not only do we get to see how different cases fit together, but we also get to enjoy some of the elements found in a Hollywood detective film. Marlowe must contend with beautiful yet dangerous women; he is bashed on the head a few times; he escapes from a private hospital run by gangsters; and sneaks aboard a gambling boat. Marlowe’s escapades may be more theatrical than his European counterparts Holmes and Poirot, which gives him a distinct American flavor.
So why do we love a good mystery? Is it because we are fascinated by the people able to solve these crimes? Or do we enjoy watching the detective interact with other characters? Maybe we enjoy seeing a difficult case unravel. Really, it’s all of the above, and these are just three components that make up a good mystery story: the skill of the author is another important factor in the creation and enjoyment of such stories.
However, the urge to solve a good mystery seems to be part of human nature. We don’t like unanswered questions or unresolved conflicts. We see a puzzle, and we need to solve it. Aren’t we always asking about the meaning of life or wondering what happens after death? Reading a mystery novel might be one way we can satisfy our curiosity; instead of asking what’s the meaning of life, we ask who did it and why? We find a bit of closure by reading mysteries and having the crime neatly solved. We benefit from having good and evil laid out for us in black and white. We have our detectives on one side and our villains on the other. However, we have people who cross into the grey area, like Irene Adler and even Poirot.
Mystery novels and stories might just be one way we try to make sense of our world, though the clear cut lines of good and bad, moral and immoral aren’t always maintained. Like all literature, they are a reflection of us and our world. We always hope that evildoers are brought to justice and that there are people who devote themselves to keeping us safe, but the right course of action isn’t always obvious, even in stories.
Chandler, Raymond. Farewell, My Lovely. 1940.New York: First Vintage Crime/ Black Lizard Edition, 1992. Print.
Christie, Agatha. Murder on the Orient Express. 1934.New York: Harper Collins, 2011. Print.
—. The Murder on the Links. 1923. New York: Berkley Books, 1986. Print.
Conan Doyle, Arthur. The Greatest Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. New York: Fall River Press, 2012. Print.
Poe, Edgar Allan. Edgar Allan Poe: Complete Tales and Poem. New York: Fall River Press, 2012. Print.
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