You Gotta Know These Works of Mystery and Detective Fiction
Please note that these summaries will necessarily spoil many details relevant to the plots of these works.
- The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841) by Edgar Allan Poe. This story marks the debut of C. Auguste Dupin, the predecessor of many future literary genius detectives. The unnamed narrator begins by musing on the unique mental challenges presented by the games of chess and whist, and then recalls how Dupin was once able to practically read the narrator’s mind regarding an actor named Chantilly. Both the narrator and Dupin then read newspaper accounts of the murders of two women; the daughter was strangled and stuffed up a chimney, while the mother had her throat slashed so deep by a razor (also found at the scene) that her head falls off when she is moved. Neighbors testify they heard two voices but one was unidentifiable. Bags of money at the scene lead to the arrest of local banker Le Bon; Dupin deduces that, because the money remains, Le Bon is innocent and robbery is not the motive. Offering his services to a police prefect known as “G,” Dupin notes the extreme strength required of both murders, the odd language, and tufts of hair. He realizes the murderer was non-human and places a newspaper ad for a missing orangutan. A sailor confesses to the crime: he bought an orangutan in Borneo but could not control it, and when he got angry that the orangutan grabbed the razor and mimicked the sailor’s daily shave, the orangutan ran off in a bestial rage and killed the two women.
- The Purloined Letter (1844) by Edgar Allan Poe. The police prefect “G” asks for Dupin’s help regarding a devious official known as “Minister D.” G believes the minister stole a letter that contains potential blackmail fodder regarding an unnamed but powerful man, and thus a huge reward is offered. However, the police cannot find the letter in Minister D’s lodgings or on his person. One month later, “G” contacts Dupin again after the reward increases to 50,000 francs; Dupin asks for the reward immediately and amazingly produces the letter. Dupin, using a metaphor about a map game—in which players tasked with finding a name on a map can easily overlook large-print names—says Minister D hid the letter in plain sight, putting it amongst a bundle on the mantle. Once hearing of the theft, Dupin went to the apartment, located the letter, and then created a diversion so he could swap the letter with a taunting fake.
- The Moonstone (1868) by Wilkie Collins. Rachel Verinder’s 18th birthday party is marred by the theft of the Moonstone, a sacred gem plundered from India that Rachel had just inherited. Suspicion falls on a trio of Indian jugglers, but also on Rachel herself, who behaves oddly and breaks off her engagement with Franklin Blake when Franklin leads the search. The maid Rosanna Spearman is also suspected, especially after she commits suicide by jumping into quicksand. Local inspector Sergeant Cuff cannot solve the mystery, but one year later, Franklin returns from abroad and learns that Rosanna, who was secretly in love with him, began impeding the investigation after a paint smudge made her suspect he was the thief. Franklin then meets with Rachel, who claims she saw Franklin steal the Moonstone but never told anyone to save their reputations. Eventually, Franklin learns that he was secretly fed laudanum at the party by Dr. Candy, and while in a drugged stupor took the Moonstone to protect it. The Moonstone later turns up for sale, upon which it is stolen by the trio of Indians. The Indians also kill the seller, who is revealed to be Godfrey Ablewhite, another party guest whose personal debts prompted him to keep the Moonstone when the drugged Franklin gave it to him. Other characters who narrate portions of the book include Miss Drusilla Clack, an Evangelical who constantly hands out moralizing tracts; Gabriel Betteredge, a servant obsessed with Robinson Crusoe; and Dr. Candy’s opium-addicted assistant Ezra Jennings, an odd man with multi-colored hair.
- The Final Problem (1893) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The Sherlock Holmes stories made Doyle a celebrity, but Doyle, feeling cheapened by the work, decided to kill off Holmes in this story. The story begins with Watson welcoming in a bleeding Holmes, who recounts that Professor Moriarty—Holmes’s alleged archnemesis, despite first appearing in this story—has just tried to kill Holmes via a staged car accident, a falling brick, and an armed thug. Holmes plans to go to Europe to defeat Moriarty without alerting him; however, despite Holmes disguising himself as an Italian priest and giving Watson circuitous instructions, Moriarty tails them by rail, though Holmes and Watson evade him. In Strasbourg, Holmes learns that Scotland Yard has busted Moriarty’s organization but have failed to catch the man himself, leading Holmes to continue to Switzerland. During a hike to the Reichenbach Falls, a messenger tells Watson that a sick woman at their hotel needs a doctor; Holmes knows this is a trap laid by Moriarty but says nothing. Finding no such woman, Watson rushes back to the falls, where footprints and signs of a struggle convince him that Moriarty found Holmes and, during a fight, both fatally tumbled over the waterfall.
- The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. This novel was the first Holmes story to appear after “The Final Problem.” Holmes is solicited by James Mortimer, whose friend Charles Baskerville recently died in terror, with nearby canine footprints consistent with a myth about a hellish hound who kills Baskerville heirs. The next heir, Henry, is almost shot by a bearded pursuer in London, leading Holmes to send Watson to Baskerville Hall to protect Henry while he investigates. At the estate on the moors, Watson learns that two neighbors, the Stapleton siblings, are behaving oddly, as are the Baskerville servants, the Barrymores, and Laura Lyons, the woman Charles was supposed to meet the night of his death. Watson learns that Mr. Barrymore is skulking around to secretly aid his brother, an escaped convict, and discovers through Laura that a shadowy figure walking the moors at night is actually Holmes, laying low. Holmes discovers that Laura was used by Jack Stapleton to lure Charles onto the moors, where Stapleton—a distant heir of the Baskervilles—killed Charles with his huge pet dog. Holmes and Watson then use Henry as bait; the ruse works, and they kill Stapleton’s dog, who has been painted with phosphorus to appear spectral. Stapleton drowns in the Grimpen Mire while fleeing, and Holmes and Watson learn Stapleton’s supposed “sister” is actually his wife, who refused to help her villainous husband.
- The Maltese Falcon (1930) by Dashiell Hammett. This classic of the “hard-boiled” genre follows Sam Spade, a San Francisco private eye hired by “Ms. Wonderly” to tail Floyd Thursby, with whom her sister has eloped. The next day, Sam’s partner Miles Archer is found dead, shot by Thursby, who is also dead. The cops suspect Spade, who is sleeping with Archer’s wife. Spade learns that “Ms. Wonderly” is actually Brigid O’Shaughnessy, a woman hunting for a priceless statuette called the Maltese Falcon alongside the obese Caspar Gutman and a homosexual Middle Easterner named Joel Cairo. At a private meeting in which Gutman explains how Brigid, Thursby, and Cairo found the Falcon in Constantinople, Spade suddenly faints, having been drugged by Gutman. Spade returns to his office, where a ship captain gives him a package containing the falcon, then dies. Brigid calls, urgently requesting Spade’s help, but Spade returns home only to find Brigid, Gutman, and Cairo waiting, demanding the Falcon. Spade reminds them that one of them will be pegged for the murders, and they turn on each other. Gutman decides his bodyguard, Wilmer, will be the patsy, but when they discover the Falcon is a fake, Wilmer escapes. Cairo and Gutman leave to find the real Falcon, but Spade doesn’t let Brigid go, certain she cannot be trusted. She confesses she shot both Archer and Thursby but is in love with Spade; Spade, refusing to “play the sap” for her, turns her over to the cops, who report that Wilmer has just murdered Gutman. The novel’s 1941 film adaptation, starring Humphrey Bogart, is considered a film noir masterpiece.
- The Big Sleep (1939) by Raymond Chandler. Wealthy patriarch General Sternwood hires private eye Philip Marlowe to help his daughter Carmen, who is being blackmailed by bookseller Arthur Geiger. Sternwood also worries about Regan, his daughter Vivian’s missing husband. Pretending to be a gay book collector, Marlowe learns that Geiger’s bookstore is a pornography front, and after staking out Geiger’s home, he hears gunshots and sees two cars speeding away. Geiger is dead, and Carmen Sternwood is naked and drugged in front of a camera from which the film has been taken. The next day, Sternwood’s chauffeur is found dead in a car driven off a pier. Marlowe meets with Joe Brody, who is taking over Geiger’s bookstore, when Carmen busts in with a gun, demanding the photographs in Brody’s possession. Marlowe forces her to leave, then learns the chauffeur killed Geiger to protect Carmen from disrepute; Brody, also spying on Geiger that night, pursued and killed the chauffeur. Geiger’s homosexual lover then arrives and kills Brody, thinking Brody killed Geiger. With the case seemingly solved, Marlowe still wonders about Vivien’s missing husband Regan, as well as the missing wife of Eddie Mars, a criminal who backed Geiger’s business. Carmen and Vivien each try to seduce Marlowe while Marlowe investigates those disappearances. On returning to Sternwood’s house, Carmen asks Marlowe to teach her to shoot; at the lesson, she tries to shoot Marlowe, but Marlowe put blanks in the gun. This proves Marlowe’s theory: Carmen is a nymphomaniac who killed Regan when he spurned her advances. Vivien admits she hid the body and lied to save her father from shame, and she promises to put Carmen in an asylum.
- Murder on the Orient Express (1934) by Agatha Christie. This novel features Christie’s popular Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, who is snowbound on the title train in the Balkans when a passenger named Samuel Ratchett is found stabbed to death. Thanks to a scrap of paper in Ratchett’s compartment referencing “little Daisy Armstrong,” Poirot realizes Ratchett is actually Lanfranco Cassetti, a man who was acquitted on technicality of kidnapping and murder (a crime inspired by the real-life kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s baby). Poirot discovers that all the passengers—including former Russian princess Natalia Dragomiroff—are concealing their pasts and each had a motive to kill Cassetti, and Poirot correctly deduces that all of them stabbed Cassetti. However, Poirot’s alternate theory, that a stranger entered the snowbound train and randomly killed Ratchett, is the one presented to local authorities.
- And Then There Were None (1940) by Agatha Christie. This novel is an example of a “country house mystery,” a genre popularized by Christie in which possible suspects are limited due to the crime’s isolated locale. The novel concerns ten murderers who have escaped justice and who are invited to an island mansion. After a mysterious record accuses each guest of their crimes, they begin turning up dead one by one. Vera Claythorne and Philip Lombard are the final two survivors; Vera, suspecting Philip of being the killer, shoots him dead, then returns to her room and hangs herself. The novel ends with a fisherman recovering a message in a bottle written by Justice Wargrave, one of the victims, who confesses he orchestrated all the killings in the name of “true justice.” The novel was previously published under the title Ten Little Indians and an even earlier title that included a racial slur and was taken from a popular minstrel song whose lyrics—which allude to each victim’s death—are framed and hung in the mansion’s bedrooms.
- The Name of the Rose (1980) by Umberto Eco. This mystery is set in 1327 at a Catholic conference to resolve a potential heresy. William of Baskerville and his novice, Adso of Melk, are tasked with investigating the death of the comical manuscript artist Adelmo. The abbey’s librarian, Malachi, bars the two men from entering a mysterious, labyrinthine library, so they meet with Jorge of Burgos, a blind monk who hates laughter. The next day, after the monk Venantius is found dead in a vat of pig blood, William and Adso find that both victims had sought out a book from a secret room called the Finis Africae. Upon breaking into the labyrinth, they find odd writings left by Venantius; later, the monks discover that Venantius’s fingers and tongue were stained black. Eventually, William and Adso realize the letters above rooms in the library spell out regions of the world, and they locate the Finis Africae behind a mirror. As the conference ramps up, a monk named Severinus tells William about an odd book in his own library, but he is murdered before he can say more and the book goes missing. On the sixth day, Malachi is killed; his tongue and fingers are also black. On the final day of the conference, William and Adso enter the Finis Africae and find Jorge of Burgos within. Severinus’s secret book is a sequel to Aristotle’s Poetics, whose thoughts on comedy will undermine Christianity. Jorge poisoned the pages, knowing any reader would lick his fingers to turn them. Jorge then eats the manuscript, killing himself, but not before using Adso’s lantern to set the library ablaze. William and Adso escape.
This article was contributed by NAQT editor Danny Kristian Vopava.