I’ve been reading (and writing) some detective fiction lately, but not blogging much, so here’s an article I wrote a while ago. It first appeared in issue 52 of emagazine.
Exploring the appeal of detective fiction
The first clue
We’ve had a fascination with detective fiction for a long time; Oedipus Rex is arguably an early example, just as the story of Susanna and the Elders in the Book of Daniel is an early courtroom drama. But it is Edgar Allan Poe who is often credited as creating the first detective. ‘Murders of the Rue Morgue’ introduces C. Auguste Dupin who goes on to appear in ‘Marie Roget’ and ‘The Purloined Letter’. In Britain he evolves into Sherlock Holmes, a character whose name is now synonymous with detective. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle acknowledges the debt with Watson telling Holmes “You remind me of Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin” in A Study in Scarlet. Agatha Christie developed the genre in favouring the novel form and creating Poirot and Marple whilst back in America, where the genre began, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler were writing ‘hardboiled’ detective fiction. There have been post-modern explorations, such as Jorge Luis Borges’s ‘Death and the Compass’, and a recent fascination with the villain or anti-hero with Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter spurring a deluge of imitation serial killer fiction in his wake. Illustrating that the genre is as popular as ever, Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy has been in the charts for months. But why do we like these stories?
Why read detective fiction?
Partly it is the duality of detective fiction that appeals to us; the criminal represents the id, acting out selfish desires, whereas the detective is the superego keeping this in check. We enjoy the crimes of the villain vicariously, but we also enjoy the parallel between detective and reader, solving the puzzle at the same time as the hero. If we can’t solve it, then the logical process of the detective allows us to think we could have solved it had we paid more attention. It is as Dupin says in ‘Murders of the Rue Morgue’, “As the strong man exults in his physical ability, delighting in such exercises as call his muscles into action, so glories the analyst in that moral activity which disentangles”. It’s a story that combines the gothic with a fondness for intellectual reasoning typical of the enlightenment.
There is also comfort to be had in seeing the crimes solved. In her autobiography, Agatha Christie says she turned to detective fiction because Evil could be contained and hunted down whilst Good could triumph. Poe, in ‘Murders of the Rue Morgue’, reassures the reader by making the killer quite literally an animal rather than human (representing our primitive desires, perhaps), and the solving of the locked room puzzle diverts us from the horror and brutality. Classic detective fiction takes something morally and socially wrong, something worrying, and makes it controllable, solvable, restoring order in having the criminal brought to justice. The detective figure is one promising safety: there’s no duping Dupin and Doyle’s detective offers us a sure lock on our homes. The hardboiled Marlowe reassures us less regarding social order, indeed he highlights the flaws in society, but he does show that at least one person can be trusted to do the right thing, and like all detectives he offers the satisfaction of a resolved narrative.
The very nature of narrative itself imposes order, the plot of detective fiction requiring careful structure on the part of the writer. “People think them more ingenious than they are,” said Poe modestly of his detective stories, “Where is the ingenuity of unravelling a web which you yourself have woven for the express purpose of unravelling?” Yet this highlights the fact that though we marvel at the detective’s ingenuity we forget the writer’s own in crafting such an engaging story. When the Prefect in Poe’s ‘Purloined Letter’ explains how a scroll can be hidden in a chair leg, the narrator says “but could not the cavity be detected by sounding?” to which the Prefect replies, “By no means, if, when the article is deposited, a sufficient wadding of cotton be placed around it”. Here he has provided an apt analogy for detective fiction – the important details need to be surrounded by inconsequential ones. The reading process is an act of dis-covering things, social order restored by establishing a narrative one, and only when the reading is complete does the careful plot seem as obvious as the purloined letter, there before our eyes all along.
The Private ‘I’
A character like Dupin or Holmes is perhaps difficult for readers to relate to, and so we have the filter of a narrator, someone as passive as the reader. The confidant in Poe’s tales and Watson in those of Doyle’s give us someone to identify with whilst ensuring the detective figure remains isolated as a special individual. Chandler’s Marlowe, on the other hand, is different. With Chandler the detective narrative evolves so that whilst it retains the first person perspective it removes the sidekick, a combination that makes the detective’s relationship with the reader all the more intimate. Marlowe is very much a private ‘I’, living the same self-imposed seclusion of earlier detective characters but with a world-weary tone and directness that has nothing of their arrogance.
Marlowe began in Black Mask magazine, though first he was Carmady and John Dalmas, whereas Strand Magazine saw a lot of the early Sherlock Holmes stories. Short stories were the ideal form for detective narratives, allowing investigations to reach a neat resolution in a single-sitting. Of the 60 Sherlock Holmes stories, all but four were short stories. But just as Christie developed the genre into novel form, so too did Chandler, Marlowe narrating investigations for the duration of seven novels, eight if you include Poodle Springs which Chandler didn’t finish. Marlowe’s stories need this extended length because of how the genre was developing; the hardboiled detective narrative is as much about what will happen as what has happened.
Chandler famously said that to liven up a story he would have a man enter the room with a gun. Violence is a key part of hardboiled detective fiction, the action driving much of the plot. Even as early as ‘Murders of the Rue Morgue’ Dupin actively makes his own enquiries which results in him awaiting a potentially dangerous man, ready with pistols, but it is recent fiction that really emphasises the brutality of the crime. Consider Larsson’s Lisbeth who has suffered various abuse, or the The Silence of the Lambs in which Starling is investigating a brutal case where the killer skins his victims, all the while trying to keep one step ahead of the cannibal Hannibal Lecter who escapes during the novel.
Lecter proved to be such an intriguing character that Harris was forced to write more novels to appease public demand, much as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was forced to resurrect Holmes from the dead for outraged readers (some readers wore a black band of mourning after Holmes took his fateful fall in ‘The Adventure of the Final Problem’ and even today many people believe the detective was a real person). Agatha Christie’s detectives returned again and again and endure today in new stories for television. Currently it is Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander who appeals to readers, her repeated appearances cut short only by the death of her author. It seems a familiarity with recurring characters is a reason in itself for reading crime fiction, be the character detective, criminal, or somewhere in between.
With Dupin, Poe created the first criminal profiler and private investigator, a character standing apart from the common man. Yet he also stands apart from the Parisian police force. Whilst the policeman collects the pieces of the puzzle, the detective is able to see the patterns connecting them and assembles the full picture. The tradition continues with Marple and Poirot, and the hardboiled detectives of Chandler and Hammett are ‘private’. Marlowe, a combination of the analyst and strongman Dupin mentions in ‘Murders of the Rue Morgue’, worked for the district attorney’s office but was fired for “talking back” and even when the detective figure is part of the police force they are often a rogue character, a maverick within the system. A notable exception to this is Ed McBain’s 87th precinct series in which we follow a variety of policemen from novel to novel.
Harris emphasised the outsider idea in making his detective female in The Silence of the Lambs, and a trainee. A good deal of conflict Clarice Starling faces consists of interdepartmental politics based around her gender and she is very much seen as a woman in a ‘man’s world’, particularly in the sequel Hannibal. Sara Paretsky’s detective V. I. Warshawski experiences similar prejudice, the use of her initials rather than a first name on business cards often leading to a surprise from male characters. Most recently, though, it is Larsson’s female investigator Lisbeth Salander who has captivated readers, appearing first in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, originally titled tellingly as ‘Men Who Hate Women’. Lisbeth comes from a background of domestic abuse to which her response is violent revenge. She is committed to a mental health facility and later sexually victimised by her guardian, for which again she seeks violent vengeance. She is a character who is first victim then attacker, an agent more of moral justice than legal, blurring the line between the law and crime.
Just as the form of telling their stories has changed, so too have the detectives. From privileged upper class individuals to a working police force, from men to women, heterosexual to gay and bisexual, the detective has adapted to appeal to a modern reader.
The criminal mind
There is a particular duality to the genre of detective fiction. As the narrative moves forward towards an explanation of the crime, so it moves backwards from the crime in order to reach this explanation. Similarly, there is a duality between detective and criminal, hero and villain. In ‘The Purloined Letter’, for example, the criminal goes only by the name Minister D, sharing an initial with the detective Dupin. When told D is a poet, Dupin admits “I have been guilty of certain doggerel myself” and the note Dupin leaves his adversary at the end of the story translates as ‘if such a sinister design isn’t worthy of Atreus, it is worthy of Thyestes’, emphasising their close relationship; Atreus and Thyestes were twins. The clues pointing towards this dual nature appear as early as Dupin’s first story in which the narrator suspects Dupin possesses “a diseased intelligence”, noting that his investigations are for “amusement”, a term even the narrator feels odd. Dupin’s “freak fancy” is “to be enamoured of the Night” and darkness is part of Dupin’s process; “we shall examine it to better purpose in the dark” he says, perhaps in order to experience the world as the criminal sees it. But where, exactly, does his knowledge of drowned bodies come from, as detailed in ‘The Mystery Of Marie Roget’? There is as much forensic knowledge here as you’re likely to find in something by Patricia Cornwell or Kathy Reichs. You have to wonder what this great detective would do, what he might become, if faced with boredom.
Boredom is why Lecter is so easily manipulated to play detective in The Silence of the Lambs, and the attendant Barney even notes boredom as the only threat that is effective when dealing with the man. Once a psychiatric doctor, Lecter was someone people would invite into their heads, something he does as easily as Dupin and Holmes before him. He is civilised, educated, and yet murderous and cannibalistic, a remarkable anti-hero character behind bars for his crimes but using his intellect to help solve others, all for his own amusement. Having seen the politics of the police force, and having experienced the despicable character of Dr Chilton, it is frighteningly easy to empathise with Dr Lecter.
The police who supposedly represent law and order are equally as despicable in Chandler’s fiction. Corrupt and untrustworthy, or at least incompetent, the police highlight Marlowe’s role as a noble figure, but he has more in common with the criminal than Chandler may like to admit. Marlowe frequently kills as often as the criminals, and while he may not be eager to lie he is adept at concealing things: “I’m telling you the family secrets” says General Sternwood in The Big Sleep; “They’re still secrets” is Marlowe’s reply. Keeping a secret may mark him as a noble figure in a city that rife with corruption, but his decision to keep a secret at the end of the novel, a criminal secret, only serves to make him “part of the nastiness”. Chandler wrote, “down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean” but the detective and the criminal have more in common than he may have supposed.
A final note
Reading detective fiction only as a puzzle risks missing a wealth of other aspects worth reading it for. Not only do detective stories provide intellectual mysteries, they reveal much about society’s fears at different points in history and provide characters that, admirable or despicable (or both at once), engage a reader’s interest and develop over a period of stories. Poe’s purloined letter is found but never read, frustrating the reader in a story that can easily be read (pun fully intended) as an apt warning against looking for a solution at the expense of the content. Henry James may have condemned the genre as the work of science rather than of literature but it seems he must have been looking for the letter rather than enjoying the search.
…And Always a Detective, by R F Stewart
Agatha Christie: An Autobiography
Essays on Detective Fiction, ed Bernard Benstock
Form and Ideology in Crime Fiction, Stephen Knight
‘The Simple Art of Murder’, by Raymond Chandler
‘The Typology of Detective Fiction’, by Tzvetan Todorov, in The Poetics of Prose