March – May 1997
Since Poe penned the first tale of ratiocination, Murders in the Rue Morgue, the literary framework has changed very little. Detectives past and present, amateur or professional, on or off a police force, alone or with an assistant, all work not only to solve a mystery but with a sense of moral value or purpose to right a wrong. From Holmes to Hammett, from Christie to Queen and Parker to Paretsky, the mystery flourishes.
The importance of women authors, such as the Baroness Orczy, was established very early in the genre’s history. Their detectives, however, like those created by their male counterparts, were reflections of the social conditions of the time: white upperclass males. The arrival of Miss Marple signaled a change in that trend and today’s detectives, such as V.I. Warshawski, Dave Brandstetter, and Blanche White reflect contemporary mores.
Early mysteries concentrated on the intricacies of the process of solution but over time the emphasis has shifted toward character development. People, not plot, are the impetus of the contemporary mystery. A detective may be hard or softboiled, a cabdriver or caterer-he or she is the focus of the story. The diversity of today’s detectives provides an equally wide variety of settings and locations. Readers often seek a particular milieu such as the racing set of Dick Francis, Amanda Cross’s academe, or the culinary concerns of Virginia Rich. Locale can be just as enticing-the Boston of Parker or Barnes, the San Francisco of Hammett or Muller, and the Minneapolis of Sandford and Hautman. Whether it’s the personality of the detective, the setting, or the locale, readers return to their favorites time and again. In addition to novels, readers also seek short stories and support an increasing number and diversity of collections, anthologies and serials. Magazines, such as Armchair Detective, enrich the reader’s world with reviews, new stories, and interviews with authors.
The enormous popularity of the mystery should not be mistaken for a lack of seriousness. The genre, sub-genres, and authors have received critical attention for many years, as evidenced by the large number of studies and bibliographies published. In addition, most colleges and universities recognize the mystery as a valid subject of study and many include it in their writing programs.
The lure of the mystery extends far beyond the printed page, deep into contemporary culture: from television and film, to board games and software, to staged participative murder productions marketed by hotels and cruise lines. Indeed, crime does pay!
This exhibition was prepared by Randy Essing, David Schoonover, Joel Spector, and Rijn Templeton, with assistance from Martti Lahti and Susan Hansen.