With its numerous subclassifications—police procedural, whodunit, historical thriller—the mystery genre is an exceptionally addictive field of fiction. Two titles investigate the category’s long-lasting allure.
At the heart of many an American whodunit stands the brooding, solitary private eye. You know the type: wears a trenchcoat and a hat, handy with a gun and quick with a quip, has nerves of steel and a heart of gold. How did this now-classic character come to rule the crime scene? Susanna Lee sheds light on the mystery with Detectives in the Shadows: A Hard-Boiled History.
Lee, an author and scholar, traces the character’s origins back to the 1920s, when crime was escalating in the United States thanks to Prohibition and the country needed a champion. The first iteration of the figure—an action hero-cum-gumshoe named Terry Mack—appeared in Black Mask magazine in 1923, in a story by Carroll John Daly.
Over the course of the book, Lee shows how current events and political forces shaped portrayals of the PI on page and screen, from Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, a street-smart sophisticate, to Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, a trigger-happy veteran of World War II. Lee’s lively, perceptive analysis spans nearly a century. It’s a revealing critique of a pop culture icon and required reading for mystery buffs.
Compared to America’s gritty cities, the well-ordered nations of northern Europe hardly seem like fertile ground for crime fiction. Yet manifold mystery series have issued from the area, and fans can’t seem to get enough. Critic Wendy Lesser parses the appeal of the region’s thrillers in Scandinavian Noir: In Pursuit of a Mystery.
A longtime enthusiast of the genre and a stylish writer in her own right, Lesser delivers a detailed overview of notable authors, past and present, from Sweden, Norway and Denmark (Jo Nesbø, Henning Mankell, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö—the list goes on). She also looks at local cultural factors like art, bureaucracy and religion that figure in the work of many suspense authors and instill the genre with a singular sense of place.
In the book’s second half, Lesser travels to Scandinavia for the first time. Her knowledge and love of the crime fiction tradition shine through as she scopes out landmarks from well-known novels and talks with real-life detectives in Copenhagen, Stockholm and other cities. The end result is a fascinating tribute to a unique breed of mystery. Fans of Nordic noir, take note.