Defining the mystery traditions

[A version of this article was first published in The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, May 29, 2004].

Although there can be as many mystery categories as there are mystery writers, the best written mysteries can be placed into one of the following broad traditions.

The classic mystery

Traditionally, the classic mystery is all about balance, the balance between plot and character, between order and disorder, between rational inquiry and deliberate mystification. This tradition has its roots in the Gothic Romance novels of the early nineteenth century and the later works of Edgar Allen Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie.

Currently, according to mystery critic Samuel Coale in "The Mystery of Mysteries," writers in the classic tradition are screening the mystery through the lens of a particular people and its place. In Tony Hillerman's landscape of the Southwest, for example, American Indian myth and the traditional mystery formula come together to "transform the usually straight-forward world of the well-crafted mystery into an exploration of different but not necessarily incompatible cultures." The same is true of James Lee Burke’s richly detailed and compelling series set in Louisiana.

Many of the best classic tradition mysteries weave the landscape of a place with the culture of a particular people or the concerns of gender or class. For example, Laurie R. King’s San Francisco series featuring Kate Martinelli are deeply philosophical and self-consciously feminist in their plots and themes.  

The hard-boiled mystery

Writers of hard-boiled mysteries present the world not through rose-colored glasses, but through cracked ones. Their main characters are tough, witty, irreverent, and they usually work alone. Their moral stance is focused by their cynicism and heightened by their keen sense of justice. With some exceptions, hard-boiled crime fiction is usually written in first person.

Characters in hard-boiled mysteries generally live and work in cities, and the isolation of the urban setting often mirrors their own alienation. This tradition is firmly rooted in the works of the hard-boiled trinity: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Ross McDonald.

Hard-boiled mysteries and their darker counterpart, the noir, according to Coale, "reveal a violent world of corruption, personal treachery, and infinite betrayals." The best hard-boiled mysteries are no longer the exclusive franchise of straight white males, and most contemporary novels in this tradition literally and metaphorically explore issues of race, identity or class through their main character’s quests and his or her existential isolation.

Carole E. Barrowman