The State of the Mystery Essay by Art Bourgeau

The “Golden Age of Mysteries” is now, says this noted mystery critic and bookseller. But that isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Lately I have found myself thinking about the phrase, “The exception proves the rule.” It is one of the those vagaries people go through life muttering without ever really considering what it means. If we take 10 beans–nine black, the tenth one white–does the white bean validate the nine black ones that come before it, or does it, as the exception, signal the beginning of an era of change, meaning the next succession of beans will be white? My tendency was to support the latter.

I voiced this to my wife, mystery writer Patricia MacDonald, who replied, “Dear, I wouldn’t go around spouting this in public if I were you. People will think you’re weird.” I suppose she is right, but I kept noodling with it anyway. I went to Bartlett’s figuring the fore and aft of the quotation might give me a clue as to the author’s intentions, but I couldn’t find it. Which doesn’t mean it wasn’t there, only that for me Bartlett’s is like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Then the Beatles came to mind, and I knew my theory of change was valid. Before them, music was one way, after them it was another, and music never looked back again. It was that simple. Inspired, from there I turned to the mystery looking for the exceptions which historically would prove the rule for us, would be the initiating point for the future. I could only find three: Conan Doyle, Hammett, and Ambler. After they appeared, things changed forever. And on a grand scale. They inspired disciples, gifted imitators who improved and refined, like Christie, Sayers, and Allingham; Ross Macdonald, and Parker, Graham Greene, LeCarre, and Ludlum to name a few, and who, in turn, inspired other disciples until the overwhelming number of mysteries written in the 20th century falls under one of these three branches on the old family tree.

Ellery Queen defined the “Golden Age of Mysteries” as ending in the 1940s. Perhaps the Queens were right at the time, but since then another half century has passed. Fifty years that have seen the best mystery writing in the history of the genre. More properly put, the “Golden Age of Mysteries” is now. The quality, quantity, and its reception by agents, publishers, publicists, and the public has never been higher. Who is doing a good job is no mystery. I won’t mention specific names because to do so would be to unintentionally insult those not mentioned and the list grows daily. On a given week, upwards of 40 percent of the books on the New York Times bestseller lists are in the mystery/suspense field. Ads for the Mystery Guild feature almost 50 titles per month and the selection is always changing. It is becoming virtually impossible to be good and not be discovered. The mystery is not only alive and well. It is gaining weight.

In fact, books in general are doing better. Over the past decade, independent booksellers have moaned continuously about the chains and discounts and such. Where they are a factor they are minor when compared with the tremendous drag from video rentals, sporting events, and the Sunday night television movie about yet another spectacularly dysfunctional family. However, that loss seems to be slowing. As I mentioned in one of my catalogues, the May 9, 1998, issue of The Economist discusses the amazing rebirth of book buying in Los Angeles. This year, the Los Angeles Book Fair drew more than 110, 000 people, and, even more astonishing, the people of Los Angeles bought $50,000,000 more in books last year than New Yorkers. We know how trends begin on the West Coast and work their way east. Hopefully it will prove to be the case here.

However, the phrase “Golden Age” is not necessarily one of all praise. While it conjures up images of ripeness, of maturity, of the best of the best, they are images without passion, an autumn of style. All these things characterize mysteries of the 90s. It was the decade of androgeny. A time when the most popular mysteries featured men in women’s clothes (call them historical if you will, but they’re still skirts), women in men’s clothes (no matter how you cut it, flannel is not feminine), and machines who are more human in times of stress than the men operating them (Ayn Rand would have loved Tom Clancy).

As for the most universal of interests–sex–there was none except for lesbians and vampires. In keeping with the theme of men in skirts, the 20th century closes with male mystery protagonists allowing their genitals to be airbrushed as a gesture of sensitivity. How sad. In a study of D.H. Lawrence, I read that Lady Chatterly’s Lover was not a story about sex but about a woman having a child. When I thought about it, I said, “Isn’t it always? At least on some level.” Judging by the mystery, the answer is a resounding “No!”

But watch out.

Remember, when I began this discussion, I talked about the exception that proves the rule. The nine black beans and the one white one. This is where it comes in. For I feel that out there waiting, undiscovered as yet, is the new voice of mystery. Someone who will burst on the scene with all the angst and swagger and allure once associated with a young Brando. Someone with the power of passion, the power of vision, the power of sex. Someone who will shake us up. Someone who will disturb us. Joyfully.

It could be either a man or a woman.

Most likely it won’t be a machine.

Still, anything is possible.

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Art Bourgeau is the co-owner of Philadelphia’s Whodunnit? Bookstore which was established in 1977. He is currently working on a revised edition of his Edgar-nominated reference book, The Mystery Lover’s Companion

Selected Reading List of Mystery Reference Books

[su_amazon_link title=”Detecting Men: A Reader’s Guide and Checklist for Mystery Series Written by Men” code=”0964459337″] by Willetta L. Heising. Dearborn, Michigan: Purple Moon Press, 1998. Trade paperback. The 812 series included in this trade paperback represent 618 living male mystery writers with over 4, 500 novels. All are also indexed by setting, mystery types, character’s first name, date of publication and title. Includes short author biographies.

[su_amazon_link title=”Detecting Women” code=”0964459361″], by Willetta L. Heising. Features information on more than 800 mystery series written by over 650 living women authors. All are also indexed by setting, mystery types, character’s first name, date of publication and title. Includes short author biographies which often contain bits of trivia unavailable elsewhere.

[su_amazon_link title=”The Encyclopedia of Murder and Mystery” code=”0312215541″], 1999, by Bruce Murphy

[su_amazon_link title=”St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers” code=”1558621784″], 1996 ( 4th Edition), Jay P. Pederson, editor. Includes critical essays on writers by a variety of distinguished critics, bibliographies of each author’s work, biographical information, short story information, etc. The standard reference to major writers in the field.

[su_amazon_link title=”Crime & Mystery: The 100 Best Books” code=”0786703660″], 1987, by H. R. F. Keating, introduction by Patricia Highsmith.

[su_amazon_link title=”Encyclopedia Mysteriosa: A Comprehensive Guide to the Art of Detection in Print, Film, Radio, and Television” code=”0028616782″], 1995, by William L. Deandrea.

[su_amazon_link title=”Killer Books: A Reader’s Guide to Exploring the Popular World of Mystery and Suspense” code=”0425162184″] by Jean Swanson, Dean James.

[su_amazon_link title=”Talking Murder: Interviews with 20 Mystery Writers” code=”0865380961″], 1999, by Charles L. P. Silet.


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