The topic of my last post on the Poisoned Pen Press blog was about the challenge of convincing literary snobs that there are indeed great works of literature that meet all criteria of that lowly genre known as Mystery. The 3 basic requirements of the genre (as more fully explained in the original post) are:
- (1) A mysterious murder or missing person or thing of value (such as a Maltese Falcon);
(2) A lone protagonist; and
(3) A single point of view (either that of our protagonist or of a sidekick, such as Dr. Watson).
Applying those three criteria, my first mystery that our snob can locate in the Literature section of the bookstore: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.
Trust me. Not only is this short novel one of the great works of modern literature, it’s also the prototype of the 20th-century American detective novel — even though it was written at the end of the 19th century, its theme is European imperialism in Africa, and its author was a Polish immigrant writing in England. Go figure.
The story, stripped to its basics, is immediately familiar: the search for a powerful missing person, narrated in the first person by a cynical loner who in the end turns out to be a grudging romantic. And two women, of course — the lovely fiance that the vanished man left behind and the exotic beauty who may now be his illicit companion. Sounds almost like, well, The Big Sleep, doesn’t it? And guess what? The hero’s name is Marlow. (Raymond Chandler added an “e” to his detective’s name.) And no first name, either. Just Marlow. (Sound familiar to you fans of Robert Parker’s Spenser series?)
The missing man is Mr. Kurtz, formerly the star Congo agent of a Belgium trading company, last seen delivering a huge load of ivory down the Congo River, only to turn back at the end, vanishing up the river in a canoe with just four paddlers, leaving in his wake a swirl of rumors. Where has he gone? What has he become? Why?
There’s no better introduction to the great American detective novel than this Polish immigrant’s short masterpiece. And given that the novella was first published in 1902, I am pleased to report, in my dual capacity as author and copyright attorney, that it is now in the public domain and thus available for free downloads here and here and here.