The Game Is Afoot

Murders In The Rue Morgue

Edgar Allan Poe’s story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, first appeared in Graham’s Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazine on April 20th 1841. The tale is generally considered to be the first proper detective story that described the extraordinary "analytical power" used by Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin to solve a series of murders in Paris. Following its publication, these detective stories began to develop and Wilkie Collins published a full length detective novel, The Moonstone, in 1868. In Collins’ story, the methodical Sergeant Cuff searches for the criminal who stole a sacred Indian moonstone. The novel includes many of the elements that would become conventions of the typical modern mystery – red herrings, false alibis, multiple suspects and the public, climactic exposure of the murderer who, helpfully, has remained at the scene of the crime. It is thought that Collins based his story on a horrific real-life country house murder at Road Hill House in Wiltshire in 1860.

The greatest fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes, first appeared in 1887, in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel A Study in Scarlet. Gradually the detective novel morphed into the cosy English mystery novel that became popularised with Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple series in the 1920s, when other detectives like Lord Peter Wimsey and Ellery Queen were also becoming popular. In the 1930s, the golden age of detective stories, the hard-boiled noir detective novel became the mainstay of writers like Dashiell Hammet, Raymond Chandler, and Mickey Spillane.

Crime/mystery novels make up a third of all books published every year so what is it about these novels that makes them so readable, so addictive? It may be the character of the detective as readers form a strong emotional attachment with their favourite sleuths. Because most mysteries are written as series books, they foster a particularly strong and sustained attachment as readers learn more and more about the protagonists. Many describe a mystery book as ‘company’, and think about reading books about a series detective as spending time with a friend, without having the actual demands of a human relationship. Characters who overcome obstacles are incredibly motivating. Readers not only want to be like them, but often try to model their lives after them and murder mysteries offer opportunities for readers to think through their own concerns while reading and to ‘try on’ ways of being in the world (physically courageous, mouthy, brave) through the lead character’s adventure.

Another reason is that mystery novels create order out of disorder; at their core they depict a righting of a wrong – a basic pattern that fulfils a deep need within the human psyche. Whatever the attraction get some vicarious excitement yourself – open up a book and become totally immersed in a world of suspense, secrets, and danger!

Ray Henshaw