Gothic Influence on the Mystery Novel

The majority of Gothic novels were written between the 1760s and 1820s but their influence has been far-reaching. Jarlath Killeen argues that the themes and tropes of Gothic novels have been diffused in Victorian ghost stories, regional novels, children’s stories, and realist novels (2009). The modern mystery novel has also appropriated numerous Gothic features. In fact, the Gothic novel has been identified as the prototype for and the forerunner to the modern mystery novel.

The trappings of the Gothic novel are familiar to many readers. The ruined castle – an imposing, isolated, haunted, ancient, and decaying structure – is its most recognizable feature. This crumbling edifice contains stock features such as trap doors, deserted wings, labyrinthine passages, dark staircases, eerie galleries, lofty turrets, gloomy vaults, subterranean corridors, decrepit dungeons, tolling bells, and secret rooms.

Other instantly recognizable Gothic settings are mausoleums, towers, graveyards, and cloisters. These places are frequently situated in remote mountain ranges, wild forests, or desolate landscapes – locales that enclose and entrap protagonists (particularly female characters). As the Gothic novel morphed into the sensational text and ultimately the modern mystery, medieval settings gave way to modern locales, its crumbling castles to ancient houses. Classic mystery novels such as A. A. Milne’s The Red House (see my post) and John Dickson Carr’s The Three Coffins (see my post) are set in Gothic-like country houses. Daphne du Maurier, Arthur Conan Doyle, Barbara Vine, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, and Bram Stoker have also used Gothic-like houses as focal points in their mystery novels (see my posts on Rebecca, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and The Minotaur).

A number of mystery novels are organized around dark secrets, often family secrets that are connected with the past. Josephine Tey adopted this Gothic narrative structure in Brat Farrar (see my post), and Ross Macdonald used it in numerous mysteries (see my post on The Goodbye Look). Knowledge of a dark secret, observes Scaggs, “is the key to understanding the seemingly irrational and inexplicable events in the present, and it is this drive to make the unintelligible intelligible which characterizes both Gothic romance and crime fiction” (2005, 16). The past haunts and confuses the present, impelling the plot in reverse chronological direction. Both Gothic and detective novels work backwards narratively to solve mysteries.

The atmosphere in a Gothic novel has been variously described as menacing, gloomy, brooding, and sinister. The haunting ambience of mystery novels such as Minette Walter’s The Ice House (see my post), Barbara Vine’s The Minotaur, Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, and Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories (see my post) echoes that of the Gothic novel.

“Spectres, monsters, demons, corpses, skeletons, evil aristocrats, monks and nuns, fainting heroines and bandits” populate Gothic novels, evoking emotions such as “dread, horror, terror, and the uncanny” (Botting 1996, 2; Crow 2009, 2). Although mystery authors often use less dramatic and more realistic figures in their novels, many of them also explore the grisly, the violent, and the aberrant (see my post on the psychological thriller). Both Gothic and mystery novels focus on the transgression of boundaries – moral, societal, and psychological.

By depicting the irrational, perverse, and criminal impulses of the human psyche, Gothic and mystery novelists introduce readers to an expanded consciousness and reality. As Bayer-Berenbaum observes, “Gothicism insists that what is customarily hallowed as real by society and its language is but a small portion of a greater reality of monstrous proportion and immeasurable power” (1982, 21). The labyrinthine corridors of Gothic enclosures “baffle our sense of direction and threaten to lead us out of the known and into the depths of another dimension” (Bayer-Berenbaum 1982, 24).

Botting identifies Gothic novels as counter-narratives, texts that highlight “the underside of enlightenment and humanist values” (1996, 2). This genre exposes “what is hidden, unspoken, deliberately forgotten, in the lives of individuals and of cultures” (Crow 2009, 2). Mystery novelists who draw upon the power of the Gothic genre enrich their novels and empower their readers.

Bayer-Berenbaum, Linda. The Gothic Imagination: Expansion in Gothic Literature and Art. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1982.

Botting, Fred. Gothic. London: Routledge, 1996.

Crow, Charles L. American Gothic. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2009.

Killeen, Jarlath. Gothic Literature 1825-1914. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2009.

Scaggs, John. Crime Fiction. London: Routledge, 2005.