Mystery #1 for Literary Snobs: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

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348_1[1]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?

And what will happen when Marlow finally tracks him down?conrad[1]

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.


What do you think?

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  • Alanna Kellogg
    February 16, 2013

    Hi Michael – I’d never downloaded a public domain book file before, here’s how it worked for me to download Heart of Darkness to read on my Kindle app. It might work for others too!

    1 – Download the file from here,
    2 – Save the file on your drive somewhere, I chose to rename the file to make it easier to find later
    3 – Email the file to yourself, attaching it to the mail
    4 – Open the email in your phone , click the attachment, click to open in the Kindle app.
    5 – I’m guessing that you’d need to separately open/save to read on an iPad, I’m betting there’s no automatic synching like Amazon spoils us.
    6 – There it is! Easy as could be!

    Am looking forward to following your list —

    • Michael Kahn
      February 18, 2013

      Excellent advice, Alanna. I had no idea you could open Gutenberg books in Kindle. Thanks!

  • Carolyn M.
    February 17, 2013

    Okay, you’ve piqued my interest, as I am also a bit of a literary snob and love the mystery novel. When I saw your first choice, I lathered up. If I had had a son, his name woul have been Joseph Conrad.

    • Michael Kahn
      February 18, 2013

      I do love Conrad, Carolyn. As I writer, I am shamed when I read some of his magnificent paragraphs and realize that English was his SECOND language!

  • John Burns
    February 18, 2013


    I’m a huge fan of detective novels, generally, as well, though I tend to have a fetish with hard-boiled.

    But, what’s your opinion of genre-bending detective novels? By your 3 part definition, you cover a lot of ground. For example, would you include supernatural/cosmic horror, a la H.P. Lovecraft, and his Herbert West- Reanimator/ or Dunwich Horror? I think Lovecraft is under appreciated in this genre. But does the supernaturalism or oddity of the subject matter remove preclude inclusion into the genre? personally, I’m unsure. it seems like there’s a fine line though, because the bizarre content can sometimes totally alter the feel.

    • Michael Kahn
      February 18, 2013

      John, I confess I have never read H.P. Lovecraft. I promise to add him to my reading list and let you know. However, I am a BIG fan of genre-bending detective novels, including the one I just posted on this site as Mystery #2 for Literary Snobs.