Portland, Oregon author Tehra Peace is a marketing copywriter by day. To say that she is a fan of mystery fiction would be to understate her interest; her passion for our genre is evident in the webzine she cofounded, Mystery and Suspense, a fan publication featuring reviews, interviews, and feature articles. In this post she takes a look at the classical mystery and offers some thoughts on where it may be headed. You won’t want to miss her debut as a published fiction writer in our current issue (July/August 2021) either: See “When the Dust Settles.” —Janet Hutchings
Welcome to the 2020s.
Wait. Is it safe to say that now? I mean, this decade hasn’t been a party so far. This time last year, I was stockpiling dried garbanzo beans (I still have all of them) and playing a panic-inducing game called “Allergies or COVID?” Workwear devolved into jeans, then leggings, then sweatpants. My house, once my refuge, was suddenly a drywalled cage, the four of us locked into three bedrooms and one finished basement all day, every day. A rare trip to the grocery store was my only portal to the outside world, one that did not appreciate me loitering.
Thank goodness it’s starting to look like things are getting back to normal. Bars are reopening! Live music is coming back! People are getting haircuts and dressing up and going out and the stock market is booming and . . .
Hey, that sounds kind of familiar. Didn’t all this happen before? Recovering from a pandemic—check. Political and social change—check. The shoeshine boy telling you which meme stocks to buy—well, something like that.
We just might be in for another Roaring Twenties. Like our great-great-grandparents a century ago, we’re ready to take a break from the hard stuff and get wild. But let’s say that a speakeasy isn’t your scene. Maybe you’d prefer to go to a cafe or the beach with a great book. Nothing too heavy. Something intellectually challenging and fun to read. A puzzle that keeps you turning the pages until you think you have it all figured out, only to discover you’ve been misled in a brilliant way.
Amid the flappers and jazz, the 1920s kicked off the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. This era was bookended by Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, her first novel featuring detective Hercule Poirot, in 1920 and Ellery Queen’s debut, The Roman Hat Mystery, in 1929, without which we would not be here. With these books in hand, readers could consume their crime in a safe place instead of at the club, where one sideways look at the wrong gangster could bring you a little too close to the action.
While the Golden Age ended with World War II, it never really died. If history does rhyme, we could see a fantastic revival in certain flavors of detective, crime, and other mystery fiction. This time, it will look a little different. But it’ll pack all the right punches just the same.
The return of the “whodunnit”
A hundred years ago, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and their brethren led the fiction market with whodunnits. Here, plot was king. Stories usually began with a dead body and a list of suspects, some of them shady, some of them guilty, not always both at once. The iconic settings—a country house or an old-fashioned hotel—kept these characters in place long enough for the reader to guess at who might be to blame for the murder of the wealthy widower, the train passenger, the island guests. Clues were sprinkled like breadcrumbs as the chapters progressed. The grand reveal always made sense in hindsight, even if the reader didn’t quite crack the case before the cover closed.
Modern whodunnits follow a similar spirit. Quite a few Christie-inspired titles have topped the bestseller lists in recent years. Lucy Foley has had hits with The Guest List and The Hunting Party, both of which toss a dead body in amongst a cast of characters who are either stuck on a remote island or snowed in at a hunting lodge. Louise Penny has seen incredible success with her Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series, which is now seventeen books long. Anthony Horowitz’s The Magpie Murders takes it a step further as something of an homage to Christie and Sayers. Whodunnits have also made their way to the screen with the delightful Knives Out and, if we’re expanding the category a bit, this year’s smash hit Mare of Easttown.
So, what can we expect for the future of whodunnits? Maybe we’ll see new and interesting “locked room” settings. Think about the kind of mischief that might happen in a space shuttle en route to Mars. The usual suspects might not even be human. Say, what’s that robot been up to? Maybe artificial intelligence wasn’t such a great idea after all. Clues might come in the form of Instagram likes or YouTube comments. Just as interesting as who did it might be how.
New and diverse voices
The 1920s packed in a lot of social change, from Prohibition to women’s suffrage. Maybe it’s because the decade launched with women winning the vote that society was more willing to embrace them as credible storytellers. The queens of crime fiction absolutely dominated the market. It’s worth noting, however, that their protagonists were very often men.
Today, we’re hungry for new, diverse voices in mystery fiction, especially those with a female perspective. Take, for example, Rachel Howzell Hall, who places African-American women at the helm of her award-nominated crime novels—a private investigator in And Now She’s Gone and a police detective in her Elouise Norton series. Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic centers on a fashionable, strong-willed amateur sleuth who sets about revealing family secrets in the Mexican countryside.
The mystery and detective genres are ripe for stories that explore the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement. What’s it like to serve on the police force as a person of color today? Stories are waiting to be told from new lenses, including LGBTQ and neurodivergent perspectives. Differences are no longer plot devices; they’re opportunities to see the world through new and way more interesting eyes.
Mysteries as instant classics
A mysterious neighbor. A criminal cover-up. Multiple dead bodies. That sounds like a detective novel, right? Actually, it was the 1925 classic The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, a member of the artsy and angsty Lost Generation.
A good mystery can make for a blockbuster crossover, as seen with the Edgar Award nominee Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. When literary meets mystery, there’s potential for an instant classic: a story that holds both intrigue and insight. Books like these are worthy of the most prime real estate on your bookshelf.
As the decade moves forward, it’s exciting to think of how the next generation of mystery fiction will put the latest trends and technologies to good use. How about a detective chasing down nefarious transactions on the dark web? A missing person posting coded messages on social media? An out-of-control algorithm causing chaos in a laboratory? As the world roars back to life, it’s safe to say that some of our best storytelling is yet to come.