The origins of mistery and detective literature

“Every reader owes something to Sherlock Holmes,” Thomas Stearns Eliot, is one of the opening sentences of Eleonora Carta’s essay “A Brief History of Mystery Literature,” and winner of the 2019 Giuseppe Lippi Prize for mystery non-fiction
It is a short work to be read all in one go, at least that is what yours truly did, accompanied by three Appendices: Small Dictionary of the Yellow, Festival of the Yellow in Italy, For an Essential Library. The essay is structured as a brief journey through the history of crime literature, certainly without exhaustive claims on the subject.
The birth of the literary mystery genre is made to coincide with the publication of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders of the Rue Morgue” in a Philadelphia magazine in 1841 and, a few years later, in 1845 in London published in a volume within a collection of short stories. Edgar Allan Poe, therefore, is considered the founding father of mystery and detctive literature.

The Murders of the Rue Morgue, the first mystery novel in history, tells of a ruthless double murder, the victims: Madame L’Espanaye and Mademoiselle Camille L’Espanaye. Their horribly mangled bodies are found inside their own home; the crime immediately becomes an unexplained case. Investigating this mysterious crime is Auguste Dupin, history’s first detective. Crime, investigation, non-eye but acoustic witnesses, solution of the case arrived at with scientific rigor and singular intelligence, all the elements of the mystery novel seem to be present.
The writer in simple and clear language also explains to whom this literary genre owes its name. The term giallo, a local genre terminology, is owed to Arnoldo Mondadori, who in 1929 together with Lorenzo Montano started a new series with a yellow cover, with a red circle in the center, within which the illustration of the main scene of the detective novel.
The writer Poe was followed by other famous mystery writers: Conan Doyle, Gilbert Chesterton, Agatha Christie, Patricia Highsmith to name a few foreigners, but Eleonora Carta also brings to our memory Italian mystery writers: from Alessandro Varaldo to Leonardo Sciascia, from Attilio Veraldi to Carlo Fruttero and Franco Lucentini.
In the essay, the author expresses a personal opinion on whether or not to call giallo a genre. According to Eleonora Carta, the subdivision into genres implies a judgment and for that reason she does not define giallo a “genre.” However, she admits that in mystery literature one can find stories told in different ways, some dwelling on investigative techniques, others on the search for the culprit, others on the psychological aspects of the characters, and so on.

Eleonora Carta

For quite some time this type of literature has been considered second-class, to distinguish it from pure literature, and according to the writer, this prejudice is still strong, and she tries to give explanations. Among the possible interpretations, the one that most captured my interest is when Eleonora Carta argues that “the writer of detective novels would seem to possess the qualities required of the ‘true’ novelist: inventiveness, perspicacity, attention to detail, narrative style.” Personally, I agree with this observation, while I remain puzzled about not identifying the detective story as a literary genre with its own categories, which does not necessarily mean setting a genre boundary. The writer closes her essay by explaining the endless success of the detective story, an inspiring sentence: the detective story is cathartic. Yes, it certainly is for fans of this genre of literature.
I recommend reading “A Brief History of Yellow Literature,” you go on a discovery of some of the most brilliant “crime pens.”

Translated with Translator


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