In today’s world of entertainment, where it seems “pushing the envelope” is an ingredient to success, innovative mysteries of the past penned by literary pioneers remain timeless in their appeal.
In the simplest terms, mystery fiction literature often involves a telling of the circumstances involving individuals, duos, or a team examining the who, what, and why, to solve a perplexing crime – often a murder. The word “mystery” comes from the Latin word mysterium defined as “a secret thing,” and stories within mystery literature are often described as “whodunits.”
Mystery fiction has captured the imaginations of generations of readers. Let’s review the biographies of five writers whose work transcends time.
Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) was born in Boston to a pair of traveling actors, but orphaned by the age of three. He and his siblings were separated, with Poe going to live with an influential tobacco merchant and his wife. His time studying at the University of Virginia was challenging, and Poe reportedly took to gambling in an effort to pay his tuition and expenses. Ultimately, he dropped out of school. however, it didn’t dissuade Poe from following his dreams of becoming a writer, and at the age of 18, he published his first book Tamerlane. After winning a writing contest and establishing connections within the industry, he began work at the “Southern Literary Messenger” in an editorial capacity. He saw a bit of success with the Messenger, especially for his short stories and reviews, but he continued to struggle financially.
It was during this time in his late 20s that Poe married his 13-year-old cousin. It was one of several scandals that marked his four decades of life. It was also during this time that he crafted what would become the work considered by many to be the first example of the mystery and detective genre, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”
“The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” was a short story published in 1841 in the pages of Graham’s Magazine. The primary character of this fictional work is C. Auguste Dupin, who was an amateur detective.
In 1845, just four years before his death, Poe achieved national fame with the publication of The Raven. A year later, his wife died of tuberculosis, reportedly leaving Poe in no state to write for many months. While he ultimately returned to giving lectures, and sought to find support for a magazine he wanted to create, Poe lived just two years following the death of his wife and died at the age of 40. The cause of his death is unconfirmed and remains a mystery.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) was born Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle in Scotland to an artist father and a mother who reportedly excelled at storytelling. She was a consistent source of encouragement in Doyle’s early years. These sentiments are representative throughout Doyle’s autobiography. Among the author’s observations about his mother, he writes, “In my early childhood, as far as I can remember anything at all, the vivid stories she would tell me stand out so clearly that they obscure real facts of my life.”
With his father’s reported alcoholism regularly disrupting the family structure, other family members made it possible for Doyle to attend a boarding school in England. Following completion of his general studies, Doyle went on to study medicine, while also enjoying his other live: writing. For decades he pursued dual careers as both a physician and author.
In 1887, he introduced the character for which he would become best known: Sherlock Holmes. His novel A Study in Scarlet, featuring the first appearance of the legendary crime-solving duo of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, appeared in Beeton’s Christmas Annual. During his career, Doyle reportedly wrote hundreds of works, including short stories, novels, plays, and commentaries. Although his mystery writing attracted the greatest attention, he also wrote about war and military history, political mindsets and spiritualism (another of his interests). He was married twice, father to five children, volunteered for military service during the Boer War, and ran for a political post in Central Edinburgh, albeit unsuccessfully.
Agatha Christie (1890-1976) was born Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller in southwest England. Her upbringing mirrored that of Doyle’s in that Christie’s mother was also reportedly an excellent storyteller, and the two enjoyed a close relationship. Her father oversaw the academic instruction for Christie, teaching her at home. It is said that Christie taught herself to read at the age of five. At age 11, Christie suffered a great loss with the unexpected loss of her father.
Late in her teens, Christie began writing short stories. At age 22, she met Archie Christie, an aviator with the Royal Flying Corps, whom she would marry in 1914. During World War I, Agatha worked with the Voluntary Aid Detachment in a Red Cross hospital in her hometown of Torquay. Her work at the hospital would lend itself nicely to her cultivation of classic mysteries. In her debut novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles, she called on knowledge she acquired while working in the hospital’s dispensary to describe the poison used by the murderer in the story. Her description of the poison and its use in her novel earned her accolades from the Pharmaceutical Journal – a unique honor for a writer.
Her debut novel also introduced one of the characters from which Christie’s success would bloom: Detective Hercule Poirot. It was during this period of mid-to-late 1920s that Christie gave birth to a daughter, saw the collapse of her marriage, and suffered mental health challenges, but she continued writing. This resulted in the creation of another of her famous fictional sleuths: Miss Jane Marple. In the 1930s, Christie traveled aboard the Orient Express, and while in the Middle East she met the man who would become her second husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan.
Christie is credited with writing 66 mystery novels, including The Mystery of the Blue Train, Murder on the Orient Express, and Appointment with Death, and 150 short stories and plays. Many of these works were adapted into films and television programs. She was affectionately and commonly referred to as the Queen of Crime.
Raymond Chandler (1888-1959) was born Raymond Thornton Chandler in Chicago, Illinois. Like Doyle and Christie, Chandler’s early life involved a lot of time spent with his mother. Following his parent’s divorce, seven-year-old Raymond and his mother relocated to England, where he attended school. Later, he studied international law and business before diving into a career as a journalist. By the time he was 24, his short story The Rose-Leaf Romance and 27 poems had been published. In 1912, he returned to the United States.
Resettled in his home country, he worked several jobs including stringing tennis rackets and keeping the books for a creamery business. This changed in 1917 when Chandler took up arms on the front lines during World War I. Following the war, he wed a woman 18 years his senior, and for a time, life went well. With the onset of the Great Depression, his wife’s health began to suffer, and Chandler reportedly turned to alcohol. In 1932, after losing his job as a bookkeeper for an oil syndicate, he returned to writing, and a year later, his first short story appeared in the popular pulp magazine Black Mask.
As the 1930s ended, his first novel The Big Sleep was published, quickly followed by Farewell, My Lovely and The High Window. These books gave rise to his prolific fictional character, detective Philip Marlowe.
Like his fellow iconic mystery writers Doyle and Christie, some of the seven novels he wrote became films. He took his connection with Hollywood one step further, using his writing chops to create screenplays. His script “Double Indemnity,” co-written with Billy Wilder, and his solo screenplay for “The Blue Dahlia” earned him Academy Award nominations.
Erle Stanley Gardner (1889-1970) was born in Massachusetts and grew up in California, where he graduated from Palo Alto High School in 1909. He enrolled in law school in Indiana, but was suspended after one month, reportedly for organizing illegal boxing matches. However, he did continue to learn about the legal system while working as a typist at a law firm. With no formal college or law school education, he sat for and passed the bar exam in 1911 and began practicing law. To supplement his income, he turned to writing and created a following for himself in pulp magazines. Like his contemporary, Raymond Chandler, his work appeared in the pages of Black Mask.
After his successful run in the pulp magazine world, he introduced his best-known character, attorney Perry Mason. Gardner’s 1933 novel The Case of the Velvet Claws was the setting for the first appearance of the subtle but razor-sharp Mason. However, many readers who never read any of Gardner’s novels became aware of Perry Mason in the pages of the Saturday Evening Post. Beginning in the 1950s, many of Gardner’s novels appeared in the magazine before being published as bound books.
During his lifetime, Gardner penned more than 110 short stories, more than 100 novels, and about 15 collections. Several films and radio programs, and a couple comic books are attributed to him.
A glimpse into the lives of these early visionaries of the mystery genre reveals some humbling similarities. Yet, the unique approach taken by each of the authors undoubtedly helped blaze the trail for a genre of literature that continues to captivate readers and book collectors alike.