The word mystery comes from Middle English misterie, Latin mysterium, and Greek musterion—all meaning “secret rite” or “doctrine.” By the 14th century, a broader meaning had evolved—something inexplicable or beyond human comprehension.[1] In literature, a mystery story is a loosely-defined term that is often used as a synonym for detective fiction—a story in which a detective (either professional or amateur) solves a puzzling crime. The modern detective story, complete with its conventions, is often considered to have emerged from Edgar Allan Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841).[2] The word mystery, meaning “detective story,” was first recorded in English in 1892 in Scribner’s Magazine.[3]


Mystery fiction originated from two independent sources: Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series in England in the late 19th Century[4], and Edgar Allan Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue in America in 1841.[5]The mystery novel increased in popularity from this point forward and remains a popular genre today. Book series such as Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew popularized the genre for a younger audience in the 1920s.[6] Originally defined as ‘children’s literature,’ these series are written for what we call a Young Adult audience today.


The mystery novel has been exceedingly popular ever since its introduction in the 19th century. The method by which mystery novels were first produced probably contributes to their popularity. Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories were initially serialized, meaning they were published in newspapers or magazines, so they were inexpensive and available to a wide audience.[7]Shortly after the introduction of the mystery novel in America came the rise of the dime novels, when books became extremely inexpensive and therefore affordable to the majority of the population.[8]

Mystery novels are also popular because they demand a level of engagement from the reader. Readers who choose to read mystery novels want to be a part of the discovery process and hope to solve the mystery even before the detective or protagonist does. This can be a very rewarding experience for the reader. Mystery novels also almost always end with a satisfyingly conclusive ending in which good triumphs over evil and justice is served.[9]

Mystery as a Young Adult Genre

Because the Young Adult genre tends to value fast pacing and original approaches to writing, two traits that the mystery genre also values, the pairing of the two seems to be a fairly logical conclusion. This is compounded with the fact that YA as a genre is relatively new (or rather, the separation of Children and YA is new) leads to it becoming more welcoming of experimentation. This experimentation allows the mystery to be less generic and more groundbreaking, leading to many popular mysteries to be published via the YA publishing houses.[10]

Another YA trait that is valued in the mystery genre is the fact that they tend to be faster paced and have stronger characters, which also drives along the mystery plot.[11]

Mystery novels can be especially appealing to teen readers for several reasons. First, the protagonist is usually a teen who manages to solve a puzzle that adults can’t or won’t. Problem-solving is a key theme that all teenagers can relate to. Second, suspense and crime are exciting to teenagers and are often a means of escape from dull day-to-day affairs. Third, there is no stigma attached to mystery novels that makes them inherently ‘girl books’ or ‘boy books.’ Because there is not a specific gender associated with this genre, it reaches a much larger audience. In a study of what genre teenage boys and girls read the most, the only genre that topped both lists was the mystery genre.[12] However, this might be difficult to say for any certainty, as the YA genre is famous for crossing genres. There might be other books that were shelved under, as a random example, ‘Fantasy’, but the plot is actually a mystery, even if a librarian wouldn’t shelve them there.[13]

One possible reason for the popularity of mystery in YA books could be because of the mixture of fiction and fact. Many books focus on an aspect of truth, such as seeing how an autopsy works through the eyes of a teen job shadowing a coroner (such as in Alane Ferguson’s Forensic Mysteries) and thus letting the reader learn about it. But this ‘fact’ is delivered with a fast-paced plot and vivid characters, giving readers the comfort of a narrative.
Characteristics and examples

Mystery novels often contain a mysterious death or crime that needs to be solved, although crime novels are not the only type of mystery novels. Other hallmarks of a mystery novel are:

  • A main character who is focused on solving the crime. In adult fiction this is often a detective, however in Young Adult fiction, this is usually a particularly clever teenager who outwits the adults in the story. For example, in Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game, the protagonist Turtle is still in middle school, however she outsmarts the fifteen other characters who are older than she is and solves the mystery.
  • A collection of evidence
  • Reconstruction of the crime
  • An incompetent police force. The most famous example of this trope is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, who solves any mysteries that Scotland Yard cannot.
  • False suspects, or a ‘least likely’ suspect
  • A red herring and/or a major plot twist at the end.[14]


Each year in honor of Edgar Allan Poe, awards are given for the best novel, short story, play, and various other categories. Since 1961, awards have been given for the best juvenile mystery novel. The winners for the last ten years are:[15]

  • 2005 Blue Balliett, Chasing Vermeer
  • 2006 D. James Smith, The Boys of San Joaquin
  • 2007 Andrew Clements, Room One: a Mystery or Two
  • 2008 Katherine Marsh, The Night Tourist
  • 2009 Tony Abbott, The Postcard
  • 2010 Mary Downing Hahn, Closed for the Season
  • 2011 Dori Hillestad Butler, The Buddy Files: The Case of the Lost Boy
  • 2012 Matthew J. Kirby, Icefall
  • 2013 Jack D. Ferraiolo, The Quick Fix
  • 2014 Amy Timberlake, One Came Home

Future Questions

  • What is the distinction between a crime novel and a mystery novel?
  • How do librarians decide when to put a book on the mystery shelf? How focused on the mystery does the plot have to be in order to be considered ‘a mystery’?
  • Any major distinctions between adult mystery and young adult mystery besides age of protagonist?

Works Cited

  1. Jump up “Mystery.” Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: 2015.
  2. Jump up “Mystery.”
  3. Jump up “Mystery Story.” Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: 2015.
  4. Jump up “A Study in Scarlet.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 24 May 2015.
  5. Jump up “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 24 May 2015.
  6. Jump up “Mystery Fiction.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 24 May 2015.
  7. Jump up “Sherlock Holmes.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 24 May 2015.
  8. Jump up “Dime Novel.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 24 May 2015.
  9. Jump up “Mystery Novels: Why so Popular?” Global Mysteries. 21 Nov. 2010. Web. 24 May 2015.
  10. Jump up “Young Adult Publishers of Quality Young Adult Mystery Novels.” The Poisoned Pencil RSS. Web. 24 May 2015.
  11. Jump up “The “Ys” Have It!: Five Fundamental YA Mysteries.” By F. T. Bradley. Web. 24 May 2015.
  12. Jump up Hale, Lisa A., and Chris Crowe. “”I Hate Reading If I Don’t Have To”: Results from a Longitudinal Study of High School Students’ Reading Interest.” “I Hate Reading If I Don’t Have To”: Results from a Longitudinal Study of High School Students’ Reading Interest. Virginia Tech, 2001. Web. 24 May 2015.
  13. Jump up “The Death of Genre: Why the Best YA Fiction Often Defies Classification.” The Death of Genre: Why the Best YA Fiction Often Defies Classification. Web. 24 May 2015.
  14. Jump up “Detective Fiction Books.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 24 May 2015.
  15. Jump up “List of Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Juvenile Books Winners.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 24 May 2015.