Most mystery novels are character pieces centering on the detective in which the mysteries are not intended to be solvable by the reader, and are therefore simply a form of fiction and not puzzles. But a fair share of mystery novels, especially modern ones, are intended to be solvable by the reader. The solvable mystery involves at least 50 percent more effort and ingenuity on the part of the writer, as they must construct a puzzle of words as well as craft a mystery and tell a story.
The first mystery novel, “Murders in the Rue Morgue” was penned by Edger Allen Poe in 1841. The mystery was a solvable one but only barely and quite unintentionally. Poe’s focus, as always, was on darker matters; the madness of the killer, and bizarre and shocking nature of the crimes.
The solvable mystery novel as recognized genre really began with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation, Sherlock Holmes in 1887. These fantastically popular mystery novels were not created to be solvable but to show off the deductive power of Holmes. Readers, however, wanted to be able to have a shot at solving the mysteries themselves. The complains of Sherlock Holmes fans gave birth to the genre.
The popularity of Sherlock Holmes led to a mystery novel boom. While most of these books were character driven novels built on the pattern laid down by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, some authors attempted to make the solvable mystery novel. The difficulty of creating such a novel is in both making the mystery reasonably solvable but not too easily solvable, and making the story line compelling enough so that the reader need not solve the mystery to enjoy it… a difficult balancing act. The obvious stand out of this crowd was the most famous mystery writer today, Agatha Christie. Not all her novels are solvable by the reader, but the ones that are solvable provide a serious challenge for would-be sleuths.
The genre was expanded ever so slightly by a novel from the 1950′s whose name I am withholding because I am about to give away the conclusion. Throughout the novel the reader is presented with a mystery to solve, on top of this mystery is the mystery of why everyone treats the detective so oddly. The story is told in the first person, and many conversations just seem a little off. The last sentence reveals the answer to the deeper mystery of the book by revealing that the detective is a woman.
Despite small variants like this, the formula set down by Agatha Christie and others went largely unchanged until the introduction of the “puzzle-mystery” with the Encyclopedia Brown series in 1963. Aimed at preteen readers, Encyclopedia Brown featured short stories that centered around solving a logic puzzle. The protagonist, Encyclopedia Brown, would declare the answer but not how he arrived at it. The reader then tries to “solve” the mystery by deducing how Encyclopedia arrived at his conclusion.
The puzzle mystery genre received a recent shot in the arm with books modeled after Encyclopedia Brown but aimed at adult readers. These books usually have a number of minutes attached to indicate the approximate length of time to read and solve each mystery. The quality of these mystery-puzzles vary greatly.