Definition of Mystery
The term mystery literally means something that is a dilemma for the public. It is difficult for people to understand such as the mysteries of the universe or the mystery of some murder. It could be puzzling, dilemmatic, or enigmatic.The roots of the word lie in an archaic term derived from Anglo-French misterie. It was a derivative of the old French term, mistere, which means a secret. Its modern French equivalent is mystere that also means the same thing. However, the Latin equivalent from which it seems to have been derived is mysterium that means a secret object or a sacrament.
Mystery is a fiction genre where a murder or similar crime, remains mysterious until the end of the book. In literature, it is a genre that focuses on something difficult to understand. It often occurs with the word, story. Such stories involve a whodunit scenario where a criminal hides somewhere and the process ensues to uncover him.
Elements of Mystery Story
Generally, a mystery story is like all other simple stories. The only difference lies in the problem, its solution, and the consequences. All other elements such as characters, setting, plot, and dialogs are the same.
Examples of Mystery in Literature
The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allen Poe
I soon noticed a special reasoning power he had, an unusual reasoning power. Using it gave him great pleasure. He told me once, with a soft and quiet laugh, that most men have windows over their hearts; through these he could see into their souls. Then, he surprised me by telling what he knew about my own soul; and I found that he knew things about me that I had thought only I could possibly know. His manner at these moments was cold and distant. His eyes looked empty and far away, and his voice became high and nervous. At such times it seemed to me that I saw not just Dupin, but two Dupins — one who coldly put things together, and another who just as coldly took them apart.
This mystery passage occurs in the mystery story of Edgar Allen Poe, “The Murders of the Rue Morgue.” The mystery of this passage lies in that the speaker or the narrator states that the person he is talking about has told him that he knows the secrets of their hearts. He has disclosed it to the speaker by stating his secrets. The way the narrator describes the person and his skills have a somewhat mysterious atmosphere that makes “The Murders in the Ruge Morgue” a mystery story.
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
I had first become acquainted with my Italian friend by meeting him at certain great houses where he taught his own language and I taught drawing. All I then knew of the history of his life was, that he once held a situation in the University of Padua; that he had left Italy for political reasons (the nature of which he uniformly declined to mention to any one); and that he had been for many years respectably established in London as a teacher of languages.
Although this passage occurs in the wider context of the novel, The Woman in White, the mere description of the Italian friend here lends credence to the mysteriousness of the story. The mention of his teaching assignment, his situation in the university, and his political views show that the narrator wants to create a mystery about the character in question.
The Hounds of Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
Mr. Sherlock Holmes, who was usually very late in the mornings, save upon those not infrequent occasions when he was up all night, was seated at the break-fast table. I stood upon the hearth-rug and picked up the stick which our visitor had left behind him the night before. It was a fine, thick piece of wood, bulbous-headed, of the sort which is known as a “Penang lawyer.” Just under the head was a broad silver band nearly an inch across. “To James Mortimer, M.R.C.S., from his friends of the C.C.H.,” was engraved upon it, with the date “1884.” It was just such a stick as the old-fashioned family practitioner used to carry—dignified, solid, and reassuring.
This passage occurs in the popular novel of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hounds of Baskerville. The story revolves around a mansion where a hound seems to have caused panic among the residents and the new inmates. However, Sherlock Holmes, as usual, resolves this mystery by catching the person after sending his deputy to know the circumstances and himself staying in the background. This passage shows the resolution of how Holmes himself creates mystery when entering the story.
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
It was freezingly cold, and this job of seeing off a distinguished stranger was not one to be
envied, but Lieutenant Dubosc performed his part manfully. Graceful phrases fell from his lips in polished French. Not that he knew what it was all about. There had been rumours, of course, as there always were in such cases. The General’s—his General’s—temper had grown worse and worse. And then there had come this Belgian stranger—all the way from England, it seemed. There had been a week—a week of curious tensity. And then certain things had happened. A very distinguished officer had committed suicide, another had suddenly resigned, anxious faces had suddenly lost their anxiety, certain military precautions were relaxed. And the General, Lieutenant Dubosc’s own particular General, had suddenly looked ten years younger.
This passage from Murder on the Orient Express shows how Lieutenant Dubosc is performing his duties mysteriously. The environment, the action of the characters like the General and Lieutenant, and the series of suicides have led credence to the excellence of the story in terms of mysterious circumstances. Even this short passage has almost all the elements of mystery.
Functions of Mystery
A mystery story creates suspense, makes the readers wait for the next incident to happen, and read more. In almost all of these functions, mysteries excel other stories. As the examples show, their main function is to entertain the readers, make the readers aware of the skills of the writer, and also make them release their pent-up emotions by indulging in the passive activity of reading.