On this episode of The Torch, we examine the fascinating genre of mystery and suspense fiction.
This genre is able to stay relevant by innovating while staying true to its core, here to discuss that and more is David Schmid, Ph.D., Professor of English at The State University of New York, Buffalo.
The following transcript as been edited slightly for readability
Edgar Allan Poe – The Father of Modern Mystery Stories?
The Great Courses: Sometimes this genre is derided or dismissed as being too commercial, but that’s unfair, right? Tell us a little bit about this area of literary fiction?
David Schmid: The first thing to mention is that it goes back a long way. Most people agree that the genre began when Edgar Allan Poe published these three mystery tales in the 1840s. Ever since then, authors have been working in one variety or another of this genre right up to the present day.
During that period of time, the genre has always succeeded by innovating and updating itself and finding new audiences and developing new varieties to appeal to readers.
The Great Courses: What were Poe’s three stories?
David Schmid: The first one he published in 1841 was called The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Then he followed that by The Mystery of Marie Roget, and The Purloined Letter. Those are the three stories that established a kind of template for later writers to build on.
The Great Courses: Were there crime-solving stories before that? Why don’t they qualify as part of this?
David Schmid: For some people they do qualify, and believe it or not I’ve been involved in knock-down, drag-out fights with people about whether or not Poe was really the father of mystery.
I think for most people, the reason it begins with Poe is because just in those three stories, he introduces so many of the characters and the themes that we see later:
- an amateur detective
- a sidekick
- a locked room mystery
- a master criminal
The Detective, His Sidekick, and the Criminal — Building a Story
The Great Courses: Why is the detective so key to these stories?
David Schmid: If you go back to Poe, I think one of the reasons is Poe was writing at a time when American cities were growing rapidly. There was a lot of anxiety about what that meant for American culture, and in particular people were afraid of the cities as dangerous places.
The detective is that figure who can understand and control the city. He can take any mystery, any problem, and he can resolve it.
I think readers found, and still find, the detective a really comforting figure, because he or she can sort of take something that causes anxiety or concern, and he can tell the reader, “We can figure this out. We can make the world make sense, and we can restore order again.”
The Great Courses: A detective is only as good as his master criminal. Talk about the role of the criminal in these stories.
David Schmid: In some ways they’re doppelgangers. One of them needs the other, and there’s a sort of symbiotic relationship between them. Most people would assume that what we’re talking about here are two opposites, good versus evil, light versus dark.
One of the things that makes the relationship between the detective and the criminal so fascinating is that they’re often very similar to each other.
In fact, and you see this starting with Poe, one of the things that makes the relationship between the detective and the criminal so fascinating is that they’re often very similar to each other. For example, one of the reasons the detective is able to do a good job is that they are able to understand how the criminal thinks.
Learn More: The Criminal
The Great Courses: They get into the criminal’s mind, right?
David Schmid: Exactly. You have to be able to think like a criminal.
The detective, on the surface, is the opposite of this figure. Many narratives actually revolve around the really kind of complicated relationship between these two figures.
The Great Courses: You mentioned the sidekick. In the course, you make the case that the sidekick is almost a stand-in for the reader, like as the reader we’re supposed to identify with the sidekick and not the detective?
David Schmid: It varies. In some stories the sidekick is there as a kind of screen between us and the detective. The sidekick is the person from whom we get all the information about the case, and all of the information about the detective.
In those kinds of stories it’s important for the author to keep us at a distance from the detective, because we want the detective to be this kind of mysterious, omnipotent figure.
In other stories, the sidekick is a bit more of a figure of fun. We’re meant to think of him as kind of dim-witted and slow, and in those kinds of stories the reader ideally exists somewhere between the detective, who’s at the very top, and the sidekick, who’s a little bit lower than us. We know we’re never going to be as smart as the detective, but hopefully we’re a little bit smarter than the sidekick. That’s how it should work.
Learn More: The Sidekick
The Great Courses: Let’s talk about some of these characters that fit into these roles. There’s so much diversity in these literary characters. Talk about a few of them.
David Schmid: To go back to Poe for a moment, his amateur detective, who again really sort of established a template, is a French aristocrat called Auguste Dupin.
What distinguishes him is the fact that he has absolute confidence about his ability to figure out any situation. The reason he’s so confident is not just because he’s arrogant, but also because he knows a tremendous amount about a tremendous range of subjects.
You can see the influence of that idea with someone like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s Sherlock Holmes. Here’s another person who’s knowledgeable about a wide range of subjects, but the major difference between those two figures is Doyle takes the figure of the detective and he makes him more human. He makes him more relate-able.
Doyle, in comparison to Dupin, is much more eccentric. He’s much more flawed. We identify with him much more closely.
Then if you move onto someone like Agatha Christie, you’ve got detectives like Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple who, again, are still kind of eccentric.
The development here is that gradually the detective is becoming more and more like ordinary people. They start of as being really superhuman and kind of difficult to identify with. As the genre progresses, the detective becomes, in most cases, more and more like us.
The Great Courses: You use the word “detective” as the solver, right? Not necessarily that, that is their job, right? Easy Rawlins from Mosley is one of my favorites, and that’s a very “common man” kind of character solving these crimes.
David Schmid: He’s a great character. Yes, detectives have a wide range of reasons for being a detective. For some of them it’s a hobby. For others it’s a vocation that comes out of a quest for justice, or wanting to help their community, or whatever it happens to be. For others it’s a job.
For example, by the time you get to the police procedural, and something like Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct Novels, you’ve got people who are detectives because they get a paycheck every month that makes them a detective. Again, there is a range of possibilities and different readers will find different versions appealing.
The Private Eye Emerges
The Great Courses: Was there a point where the detective really migrated to private eye?
David Schmid: Most people think of that as the major revolution in the genre. You can pinpoint it to the 1920s and the emergence of Pulp magazines like Black Mask. This is where you first see the figure of the private eye emerging.
The things that really distinguish the private eye from the amateur detective is… everything, pretty much, that’s the short answer. First of all, there’s much less emphasis on analysis and more emphasis on action. There’s less emphasis on mental activity and more on punching someone out and being willing to take a punch at the same time.
The private eye is essentially a loner. This is the quintessential example of someone who does not play well with others.
Learn More: The Private Eye Opens
Also, the amount of adventure and sex in the stories changes dramatically. Sherlock Holmes was really adamant about the fact that it was impossible for a detective to fall in love and still be a good detective.
Female Roles Reflect Social Changes
The Great Courses: I love the Chandler stories. Talk to me a little bit about the evolution of female characters, because they were once being saved. Now you get into The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and the Kay Scarpetta stories. Talk about that a little bit, that evolution.
David Schmid: The short answer to that question is it took a long time to happen. You go back to that first story by Poe, women appear in that story as victims. For a long time, that was pretty much the only role that was available to them. Sometimes as daughters, sometimes as wives, but not really a very wide range of roles.
The turning point is really the private eye story in the 1920s, because then you start to get the figure of the femme fatale. You think of, let’s say, both the novel and the movie version of the Maltese Falcon. The figure of Brigid O’Shaughnessy.
She’s light years ahead of previous women in the genre, in the sense that she’s smart, she’s ambitious, she’s ruthless, she’s willing to do whatever it takes to achieve her goal. The thing about the femme fatale is that in nine cases out of ten they end the novel either dead or under arrest. It’s progress …
David Schmid: It’s not until we start to get into, say, the 1950s but in particular the 70s and 80s that you start to see the emergence of more female protagonists and in particular sort of female detectives, whether they’re cops or private eyes. It’s from that period onward that the roles of women in the genre really become much more complicated and much more diverse.From the 80's onward roles of women in the genre become more complicated and diverse. Click To Tweet
The Great Courses: Kay Scarpetta is running the show. She’s all business, hard-boiled
David Schmid: Absolutely. No doubt about it. The other thing I’d say about this is that this is a great example of how mystery and suspense fiction is really responsive to changes taking place in the society around it. In other words, this evolution in female roles didn’t come out of nowhere.
The Great Courses: Right, it mirrors the culture.
David Schmid: Exactly.
The Great Courses: Do you have a favorite, by the way?
David Schmid: A favorite writer?
The Great Courses: Yeah, or a character, or stories.
David Schmid: I’m particularly fond of a writer called Jim Thompson, who published a huge amount of pulp crime fiction in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Whenever I teach mystery fiction to my students, I teach Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me.I'm fond of The Killer Inside Me, by Jim Thompson, because it freaks my students out! Click To Tweet
It’s invariably my students’ favorite novel in the class because it freaks them out so much. It takes a lot to freak out a contemporary college student, let me add, so that’s a good enough reason right there to recommend Jim Thompson. If you haven’t read Thompson, make him the next thing you read. You will be blown away.
The Great Courses: Is this genre popular around the world?
David Schmid: Absolutely. I think for a long time, people thought of it as primarily a sort of Anglo-American phenomenon. I think one of the most exciting developments in the genre over the last 20 years has been its spread all over the world.
There’s more international crime fiction today available in translation than there ever has been before. Nordic noir, the rise of Nordic noir and things like Stieg Larsson‘s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo really sort of led the way here. Since then we’ve seen this explosion. More people are reading a wider range of mystery and suspense fiction than ever before.
The Great Courses: Is there any innovation going on? Are these authors re-hashing stories in a sense? Where do you find innovation?
David Schmid: That’s a great question. I think the best way to answer that is to look at someone like Agatha Christie, because on the one hand, Christie would be the author everyone would point to when they would say the same set of conventions being used again, and again, and again, and again.
Christie is the perfect example of a writer who understood that what her readers were looking for was a combination of tradition, on the one hand, and innovation on the other. What she finds is a way of varying the formula again, and again, and again, and again, just introducing slight tweaks.
I think that’s the secret, not just for the success of Christie, but also for the success of the genre as a whole. For example, the figure of the detective can evolve. The figure of the femme fatale can evolve. The very question of what counts as resolution can evolve.
In some mysteries, there’s a really firm sense of a conclusion. In others, everything’s left up in the air. There really is something out there for just about everyone. It’s that diversity that really guarantees the success.
The Great Courses: What about some modern-day or more current innovators? Any that jump to mind?
David Schmid: I think the interesting thing about someone like Stieg Larsson, and part of the reason the Millennium Trilogy took off, is because what he was able to do was to combine mystery and suspense fiction with a lot of other elements as well.
Anyone who’s read that trilogy will know that you’ve got elements of the political thriller in there, you’ve got elements of espionage, there’s elements of a political thriller, a psychological thriller. There’s a whole hybrid mix in of elements going on. That’s what I think really sets him apart.
Then the other person I would think of in that context is a fantastic Mexican writer called Paco Ignacio Taibo II. He writes a series of private eye novels set in Mexico City. In that sense, they’re kind of an homage to those classical private eye novels, but he uses the crime fiction to basically attack corruption in the state and in the government in the country of Mexico.
There you see a genre that not a lot of people would necessarily think of as being political, being used for extremely political purposes.
True Crime In or Out?
The Great Courses: That brings up my question: Is true crime part of this genre?
David Schmid: A lot of people would say no, but I say yes in this course.
The Great Courses: You say this is one of your arguments at conferences.
David Schmid: Yes. I think that the thing that makes crime, a true crime, a part of the genre is that it actually includes a lot of fictional elements. Most people think of true crime as being objective, factual reporting, but in fact, right from the very beginning of the true crime genre, they’ve used fictional techniques to embellish their narratives.
A lot of those techniques have been taken from mystery and suspense fiction. In order to write a thrilling, entertaining, compelling, true crime narrative, you’ve got to make it read like fiction to a certain extent. That’s why I think it’s interesting to bring true crime into the conversation.
I would also add that a lot of mystery and suspense narratives draw from actual crimes. Poe’s The Mystery of Marie Roget was based on an actual case. Robert Bloch’s Psychos was based on an actual case.
There’s been a long history of a kind of blended and mutual borrowing between mystery and suspense fiction, on the one hand, and true crime on the other. It absolutely should be part of the conversation.
Adaptations: Good and Bad
The Great Courses: Let’s talk about adaptations in film and television.
David Schmid: The whole area of adaptations is a really interesting one, and also really contentious because on the one hand you’ve got people who think about adaptations primarily in terms of jealousy. They want the adaptation to be very respectful to the source material, very exact.
Then there’s other people who say, adaptations can take pieces they want and set aside what they don’t want.
The example that comes to mind for me is all of the multiple adaptations of the figure of Sherlock Holmes, which is still going on today. On the one hand, you’ve got the BBC television series Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch, which I love. I think it’s a fantastic adaptation.
Then on the other hand you’ve got Robert Downey Jr. in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, which I hate. I think those films stink. I can explain why if you want.
The Great Courses: Please, we want to know.
David Schmid: This is what I’m talking about in terms of the passion that people feel about these, because what Ritchie and Downey have done is basically take Sherlock Holmes and turn him into an action hero. That is all wrong.
Not only is there no analysis in those films, there’s barely any form of higher-order thinking at all. When you’ve done that, you’ve basically taken a character and thrown out everything that defines him, and just left over the least important things about him.
The Great Courses: What are some other good adaptations that you like?
David Schmid: I actually really like some of the Jim Thompson adaptations that have been done for film. I also think that there are some terrific television adaptations, especially of the Nordic noir novels that I really enjoy.
It depends upon the medium sometimes. Television adaptations can often be better, I think, than movie adaptions, especially when they’re a series. Then they’ve got more time to develop plot. They’ve got more time to develop the characters. I think that’s one of the things that can definitely help.
The Great Courses: Right. True Detective: Were you a fan?
David Schmid: I actually loved the first season, hated the second season like a lot of other people. I thought the first season was incredibly inventive. I thought the characters were really memorable.
For me, it’s one of those things that also illustrates the difference between adaptations on network TV, on the one hand, which tend to be a little more formulaic, a little more limited, and with the cable channels on the other, which tend to take more risks, more chances, and can explore more controversial themes and subject matter.
A Private Eye Can Save a City a Spy Can Save the World!
The Great Courses: In the back end of your course, you get into spy novels. How do we get from a detective like Holmes to a spy like James Bond?
David Schmid: There’s a certain degree of borrowing that goes on. If you take an early spy novel like, say, John Buchan‘s The Thirty-Nine Steps, you can recognize some of the conventions from detective fiction being used there.
I think the main thing that happens, the main shift, is that once you get into the spy novel, you’re talking about a form that has much greater sensitivity and attention to political events going on in the world around it.
In mystery and suspense fiction, the setting can be very limited. Whereas as spy and espionage fiction, they can travel all over the world.
Learn More: Spies, Thrillers, and Conspiracies
Obviously James Bond would be the great example of this, even though Ian Fleming‘s novel series ended many, many years ago, James Bond is still alive as a franchise. There’s a lot of appeal for that figure. The reason is, and this is what I think that type of spy shares with the detective, there’s still this belief that a single person can make a difference, that someone like James Bond can defeat large criminal organizations, even whole countries, by himself, albeit with a few gadgets to help him out.
For me, there’s this real strain of romanticism that unifies both the detective and the spy in these kinds of novels. I think people really find that idea that a single person can make a difference … They find it really appealing.