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December 3, 2016

What do a war correspondent, a nurse, the founder of a detective agency, a dentist, and the 16th president of the United States have in common?  They all wrote mystery stories.

The above (Richard Harding Davis, Louisa May Alcott, Allan Pinkerton, Rodrigues Ottolengui, and Abraham Lincoln) are these five individuals who are not known for creating stories we loosely call mysteries.  It’s true that Davis and Alcott were writers, but they are certainly not remembered for writing in this genre.  Pinkerton founded the Pinkerton National Detective Agency (still in business, with their motto “We Never Sleep”), Ottolengui was the author of a 19th-century dentistry textbook that was used for decades, and Abraham Lincoln–well, you know about him.

So what made these men and women, plus dozens of others equally unlikely, venture into the new field of mystery writing?  After all, American detective stories only came into being in 1841, with Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murder in the Rue Morgue.”  And even after that, the detective, whether amateur or professional, made few appearances.  It took Sherlock Holmes, more than four decades later and in another country at that, to make detective stories or mysteries a major part of the literary landscape as we know it.

In Otto Penzler’s excellent introduction to this anthology, he answers the question of how there can have been mysteries published before Poe’s Auguste Dupin came on the scene if we acknowledge that Poe is the inventor of the detective story.  Penzler explains this by giving the definition of a mystery as “any work of fiction in which a crime, or the threat of a crime, is central to the theme or the plot.”  A detective isn’t truly necessary for a mystery–rather, it is the story of the crime as opposed to the story of the man or woman who solves it that makes it a mystery.  Thus, in this collection of stories, the first three stories were published years before Poe’s debut.  But I think it is fair to say that without his detective, the genre would have a very different feel to it than it does today.

Not all the stories in this volume are what I consider outstanding.  A few, including those written by very well-known authors of “serious” literature, I found mediocre.  On the other hand, some are really good and several are excellent.  Still, as Penzler concludes in his introduction, the mysteries/detective stories/thrillers of the twentieth and twenty-first century could not have been written without the earlier authors laying the groundwork.  And so those of us who enjoy mysteries must surely give thanks to the literary pioneers who started it all.



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