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Guide to the Mystery Genre


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Agatha Christie
Agatha Christie

Use this guide as you explore the genres of mystery and detective fiction with your students. Pair your study of mystery or crime novels, such as the Sherlock Holmes story The Hound of the Baskervilles and any of Agatha Christie's works, with this guide to both mystery books and film adaptations. Cross-curricular activities can be used to supplement your literature lesson and include the basics of DNA, comparing contemporary and old-fashioned ones mystery stories, and writing an original detective story.

To purchase a copy of the Masterpiece Theatre presentation of The Hound of Baskervilles, or any other film in the PBS library, visit http://shop.wgbh.org.

A Brief History of the Detective Novel
Exploring the Genre
Fun with Mysteries
Related Resources



A Brief History of the Detective Novel

Sherlock Holmes is considered the father of what is known as the classic “Golden Age” of English murder mystery. Writers such as Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, and P.D. James went on to emulate this form, and today the vigorous lineage of the great detective is clearly evident in books, television, and film. Although Arthur Conan Doyle was by no means the first mystery writer, with his intelligent and cunning characters Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, he captured the public interest and imagination, and inspired many hundreds of authors to follow his lead.

The formula Conan Doyle helped establish for the classic English mystery usually involves several predictable elements: a "closed setting," such as an isolated house or a train; a corpse; a small circle of people who are all suspects; and an investigating detective with extraordinary reasoning powers. As each character in the setting begins to suspect the others and the suspense mounts, it becomes apparent that nearly all had the means, motive, and opportunity to commit the crime. Clues accumulate, and are often revealed to the reader through a narrator like Watson, who is a loyal companion to the brilliant detective. The detective grasps the solution to the crime long before anyone else, and explains it all to the narrator, periphery characters, and the audience at the end.

The Bold, Hard-Boiled Detective Debuts

At about the same time as the English murder mystery was establishing itself, a distinctly different school of detective fiction emerged in the U.S. This "hard-boiled" style of fiction took hold in the 1920s, the era of American Prohibition and gangster violence. Popularized through the accessibility of the "pulps" – cheaply produced, gaudy magazines that featured short, violent crime stories – the hard-boiled American detective contrasted distinctly with the classic English version. This detective is not a gentleman hero, but a hard-drinking, tough-talking "private eye," often an outsider to the world of upper- and middle-class values. The detective is a hero, but a flawed one. The classic setting is not a country house but the brutal and corrupt city, and the suspects might be anyone at all in such a vast and anonymous place. The action does not move in a series of orderly steps toward a logical solution, but, instead, careens from place to place and scene to scene.

The detective and mystery stories we read and watch on television and in film today can often be traced directly to one of these two original schools, or borrow from both traditions. The police officers of the long-running television series Law & Order are tough, gun-toting crime-fighters; the district attorneys charged with solving the cases are clever and cunning. The classic American television shows Murder, She Wrote, and Matlock, on the other hand, feature kinder, gentler heroes who are interested in justice alone – freeing the innocent and exposing the criminal. Contemporary writers continue to appropriate, adapt, and reinterpret the basic formula so that, more than 100 years since readers first met the great Sherlock Holmes, the detective story is as popular as ever.



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Adapted from The Hound of the Baskervilles Teacher's Guide, written by Katherine Schulten for MASTERPIECE and created by the WGBH Educational Foundation. © WGBH EDUCATIONAL FOUNDATION. For the complete, original guide, go to http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/hound/tguide.html.

For more about the current season of MASTERPIECE MYSTERY!, featuring Agatha Christie, Hercule Poirot, and Inspector Lewis, visit http://www.pbs.org/masterpiece. For award-winning teacher's guides, click on "Learn." For book and film club resources, click on "Book & Film Club."

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