Recently I read a fascinating article in The New York Times about what may well be the first true murder mystery novel ever written. Conventional wisdom holds that the honor belongs to Wilkie Collins, who published The Moonstone in 1868, but the author of the Times piece discovered a novel written six years earlier called The Notting Hill Mystery, which he claims has all the ingredients of a modern murder mystery, and deserves the credit as Whodunit Number One.
The novel was published in serial fashion in a periodical, as was common in those days, and the author used a pseudonym. But apparently there’s good reason to believe The Notting Hill Mystery was written by Charles Warren Adams, one of the publishers of the periodical. Hopefully, Adams will one day receive the full credit for his invention of my favorite genre. It was a monumental achievement.
But intriguing though this is to a mystery aficionado like myself, the real meat of the article for me come almost as an aside near the end, where the Times piece says, “Adams was also notably religious, which points to an unexpected characteristic of the first detective novel: it’s profoundly moral. It asks not just how evil exists, but what is to be done about it. Detective novels, like sermons, can offer gratifyingly simple answers to those questions, or thoughtful and troubling ones.”
It seems to me we love a good murder mystery because in the end they’re the stories which touch most directly on death and justice. Death is the ultimate mystery of real life. What is it, exactly? Why must it exist? What should we do about it? Even the best of murder mysteries can’t answer those questions completely, but the best murder mysteries all explore the possibilities.
And when we start exploring death, something in us cries out that it isn’t right. We all long for justice, don’t we? That’s the other thing a good murder mystery delivers: a little imitation justice. The bad guy gets his in the end, or else someone has the guts to stand and rage against the second greatest mystery of all, which is why injustice exists in the first place.
I love that about murder mysteries. It’s why I’ve read, oh, about a thousand of them. And it’s why I’m writing “The Malcolm Cutter Memoirs.”
I was under the impression that The Moonstone was the first English language detective novel.
Twenty years before that (in 1841) Poe published MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE. Yes, it's only a short story, but the elements are all there -- a detective, an unsolved murder, and then the baffling case is solved. I say Edgar Allen is the man.
I don't really care about the history of of mysteries. I do care profoundly about the moral issues they raise. The most precious thing any of us has is life. To take it away is profoundly disturbing. Mysteries probe what is to be done when someone's life is taken by someone else for what must seem like selfish or frivolous reasons. We ask further moral questions about the victim and the killer. We gauge the value of that lost life by seeing the victim's family and friends.
Similarly, I find tales of war and heroism in the face of imminent death profoundly moving. They raise a different set of moral questions, more disturbing ones perhaps, about self-sacrifice and wanton bloodshed of dispensable humans, those that Shakepeare through Falstaff described as "mere cannon fodder".