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What is a Mystery?

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Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe

What is a mystery? The very term baffles the imagination... A mystery purveys the element of shock and awe. We explore hidden paths, or explore the unknown, until we discover the truth. A mystery is usually presented in the form of a novel or a short story, but it could also be a non-fiction book that explores uncertain or illusory facts.

Murders in the Rue Morgue

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) is usually recognized as the father of the modern mystery. Murder and suspense are evident in fiction before Poe, but it was with Poe's works that we see the emphasis on using clues to get to the facts. Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841) and "The Purloined Letter" are among his famous detective stories.

Benito Cereno

Herman Melville first serially published "Benito Cereno" in 1855, and then republished it with five other works in "The Piazza Tales" the next year. The mystery in Melville's tale starts with the appearance of a ship "in sad repair." Captain Delano boards the ship to offer assistance--only to find mysterious circumstances, which he can't explain. He fears for his life: "am I to be murdered here at the ends of the earth, on board a haunted pirate-ship by a horrible Spaniard?--Too nonsensical to think of!" For his tale, Melville borrowed heavily from an account of the "Tryal," where slaves overpowered their Spanish masters and tried to force the captain to return them to Africa.

The Woman in White

With "The Woman in White" (1860), Wilkie Collins adds the element of sensationalism to the mystery. The discovery by Collins of "a young and very beautiful young woman dressed in flowing white robes that shone in the moonlight" inspired this story. In the novel, Walter Hartright encounters a woman in white. The novel involves crime, poison, and kidnapping. A famous quote from the book is: "This is a story of what a woman's patience can endure, and what a man's resolution can achieve."

Sherlock Holmes

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) wrote his first story at the age of six, and published his first Sherlock Holmes novel, "A Study in Scarlet," in 1887. Here, we learn how Sherlock Holmes lives, and what has brought him together with Dr. Watson. In his development of the Sherlock Holmes, Doyle was influenced by Melville's "Benito Cereno" and by Edgar Allan Poe. The novels and short stories about Sherlock Holmes became enormously popular; and the stories were collected into five books. Through these stories, Doyle's depiction of Sherlock Holmes is amazingly consistent: the brilliant detective encounters a mystery, which he must solve. By 1920, Doyle was the most highly paid writer in the world.

The successes of these early mysteries helped to make mysteries a popular genre for writers. Other great works include: G.K. Chesterton's "The Innocence of Father Brown" (1911), Dashiell Hammett's "The Maltese Falcon" (1930), and Agatha Christie's "Murder on the Orient Express" (1934). To learn more about the classic mysteries, read a few of the mysteries of Doyle, Poe, Collins, Chesterton, Christie, Hammett, and the like. You'll learn about the drama, the intrigue, along with the sensational crimes, kidnappings, passions, curiosities, mistaken identities, and puzzles. It's all there on the written page. All of the mysteries are designed to baffle until you discover the hidden truth. And, you may come to understand what really happened!
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