In my last blog I followed the mystery novel from its inception up to the late 1800s. Sherlock Holmes and his powers of deduction had arrived with stories laced with clues and red herrings. While I love Sherlock and have reread Doyle’s stories many times, the writers that my father read to me and who influenced my writing and the development of my PI, Spencer Manning, were waiting in the wings.
In the early 1900s, the British mystery novel made its debut. The stories were set in small villages and involved rich aristocrat families, both as victim and detective. There were many authors, but in 1920 one of the giants appeared on the scene when Agatha Christie published The Mysterious Affair at Styles which introduced her iconic Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. Some of Christie’s stories are better than others but they are all fun, light reads. With a different style, much more literary and descriptive (her description of “change ringing” in The Nine Tailors is classic), Dorothy Sayers joined Christie with her detective Lord Peter Wimsey.
The authors who most influenced me were first published in the 1920s as the mystery story appeared in America when author H.L. Mencken and critic George Nathan started Black Mask magazine. Two of their early contributors were Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. The hard-boiled detective had arrived on the scene, and I couldn’t get enough of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. Erle Stanley Gardner, the creator of Perry Mason, also got his start in Black Mask.
Mickey Spillane added his hard-boiled detective Mike Hammer to the genre in 1947 with I The Jury. He quickly became the best-selling mystery author of his day. And, of course, there was Rex Stout and his iconic sleuth Nero Wolfe with his legman Archie Goodwin. There were many others of that era who were fine authors, such as Ross McDonald with his PI Lew Archer and, a bit later, John McDonald and his sleuth Travis McGee, after whom my son was named.
I have read all of these authors’ books, some several times over, and probably have borrowed a bit from them all in creating my PI Spencer Manning. But Spencer isn’t as hard-boiled as Sam and Philip. Most of his character was influenced by Robert Parker and Spenser. Naming my PI Spencer is my homage to Robert Parker, whose smart aleck, no-nonsense PI and great cast of supporting characters has given me many a good, fun read. And reading all of these authors has been a lifelong course in how to write a mystery novel.
Those who write today stand on the shoulders of the giants who started it all.
A Brief History of the Mystery Novel: Kristin Masters