Who has sold the most mystery books? Where did the line, “the butler did it” come from? And who wrote the first detective novel?
Begun more than 170 years ago, the detective story is a staple of American literature and equally popular overseas. American writers are joined on best seller lists by mystery authors from the UK, France, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Italy and other countries. In essence, killing people on paper is popular the world over.
This begins an occasional series on the history, subject matter, authors, techniques and trivia of this genre.
The modern detective story was born in 1841 with the publication of The Murders in the Rue Morgue in Graham’s Magazine in Philadelphia.
First in an occasional series
Edgar Allen Poe’s story describes the analytical power used by detective Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin to solve a series of bizarre murders in Paris. Like the later Sherlock Holmes stories, the tale is narrated by the detective’s roommate. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but a monkey did it. Yes, it is a bizarre twist to have a murderous monkey, but consider who wrote the story.
Following the publication of Poe’s tale, detective short stories and novels gradually became popular. English novelist Wilkie Collins published The Moonstone in 1868, a detective novel that includes several features of the typical modern mystery, including red herrings, false alibis and climactic scenes.
The greatest fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes, first appeared in 1887, in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel, A Study in Scarlet. About 60 more Holmes tales followed, mostly short stories.
The earliest mystery films reach back to the silent era. Sherlock Holmes Baffled, a very short film created between 1900 and 1903 by Arthur Marvin, is often cited as the first detective movie. It’s also the earliest-known film to feature Sherlock Holmes. The Internet Movie Database lists 200 films and TV shows featuring the master detective and his sidekick Dr. Watson. Some of the best known Holmes actors are Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett and Benedict Cumberbach.
In France, the popular Nick Carter detective novels inspired the first detective movie serial, Nick Carter, The Detective in 1908. The Carter novels also spawned films in the 1930s through 1970s.
Some 125 years ago, Agatha Christie was born. The first Hercule Poirot novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was published in 1920 and the Belgian detective appeared in 29 more novels and many short stories. Ten years later, in 1930, Miss Jane Marple was created in Murder at the Vicarage. Thanks to Christie, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, and many other writers, the cozy became established as one of the most popular mystery subgenres.
But about the same time as these drawing room novels proliferated, the hardboiled detective story was born. Rather than having violence take place offstage, the PI novels featured protagonists who regularly got beat up and gave as good as they got.
PI stories appeared in novels and pulp magazines. The 1930s through the early 1950s, is sometimes referred to as the golden age of detective and suspense novels. Novels, and movies based on books in this period, are often labeled noir, referring to the dark character of the stories. My favorite writers from the period are Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man), Raymond Chandler (Farewell, My Lovely; The Big Sleep), James M. Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity) and Cornell Woolrich (Rear Window, Night Has a Thousand Eyes).
Today, the top-selling mystery/suspense writers are John Grisham and James Patterson. Each has sold more than 100 million books. Interestingly, Patterson actually wrote many of his novels himself.
Finally, author Mary Roberts Rinehart receives credit for the line, “the butler did it,” from her 1930 mystery, The Door. Again, I don’t want to spoil it, but the butler did do it, although the exact words “the butler did it,” did not appear in the novel. Rinehart must have liked the butler-as-the-heavy plot, because that butler killed someone else in another of her novels.