Books: The Many Guises of Mysteries

Crime fiction, from Golden Age to hard-boiled and beyond

When mystery fans start swapping the names of favorite books and authors, they often sound as though they are speaking of several conflicting genres. Devotees of locked-room puzzle stories may disdain the hard-boiled private-eye saga. The tea-sipping pleasures of naughtiness in a village can seem overrefined in comparison with the beer, blood and brawling in big-city police procedurals. Like the roving players in Hamlet, the authors of mystery fiction are prepared to entertain in veins lyrical, tragical, comical and historical and in moods from the slyly literary to the sociologically earnest.

Even the nomenclature is open to debate. Some "mysteries" contain...

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