The Enduring Appeal of the Mystery Story

The Enduring Appeal of the Mystery Story
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Paget_Holmes_04The critic Tzvetan Todorov once suggested that the trick to writing a successful detective story was being sure not to innovate. The great genre work is that which best and most closely follows the “rules” of its genre; to refine the genre, he cautioned, would be “to write ‘literature’” rather than a mystery. But surely this is wrong-headed; a nonsense—logically, let alone critically—to separate Literature and detective fiction, as if they constitute mutually exclusive genres. For there is no “the” in “the mystery story.” Use of the definite article here is a cheap yet time-honoured trick: a red herring. “The” mystery story is as rich a tradition—or, rather, set of entwined traditions—as any other in the literary network. To paraphrase and doctor the Law, or Revelation, of the great science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon: if much mystery and crime writing is “crud,” then this is only because ninety percent of everything is; what matters is mystery writing’s other ten percent, and its enduring appeal. It matters, amongst other reasons, because such consideration as we can afford this ten percent may help us to keep broad and alive our sense of what counts as “literature” and “the literary.” To do this at a time when the political model being handed down to educators offers an ever narrower conception of art and culture—well, perhaps it would be a modest achievement, but not an unimportant one.

[private]Before we move any further, though, let me make it clear that I do not intend to use these opening comments as a way into defending “the” mystery story as Art. So tired is the question “but is it art?” that it barely seems worth the asking these days—though it would make a fine and willing corpse in a crime story. “But is it art?” is always dead on arrival, having been fully exsanguinated, and there is little hope of finding the truly guilty party, for so many have and so many others will continue to execute it: death by utterance.

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Why do mystery stories and other branches of crime fiction continue to engage us? Were we to trace the roots of crime writing to the popular Newgate Calendar—from which we get the so-called “Newgate novel”—of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, one might be tempted to suggest that crime writing’s success records nothing more nor less than our inveterate fascination with violence and antinomy. The philosopher Gilles Deleuze once defended crime fiction for sharply presenting society’s endless cycles of violence, its self-perpetuating and—begetting networks of falsehoods. The repetitive logic of genre fiction, strewn with the blood and guts and flesh that make up the body, as it were, of crime fiction, seemed to lend themselves well to such a performance of modernity’s fundamental violence. Literary theorist Fredric Jameson, along not dissimilar lines, saw the very meaninglessness of murders in hard-boiled crime fiction as its basic constitutive truth: murder without meaning rang the note of social verity in these stories. By contrast, the artifice of the classical detective story lay in its mitigation of violence and crime, achieved by investing murder with purpose, with meaning.

For the likes of Jameson and Deleuze, then, the contribution of “good” mystery and crime fiction is the dramatization of the indigestible, gristly truths of modernity. At its best, framed by and as an urban pastoral of sorts, such writing offers us an ecorché reflection of ourselves, which meets our gaze from the pages of Chandler, Himes, Høeg, to name but three (markedly different) crime and mystery writers. (Indeed, such an understanding of crime writing’s social and metaphysical urgency stretches back to the Newgate years: Gay’s Beggar’s Opera is a “Newgate pastoral,” and Fielding, in the preface to Jonathan Wild, referred to Newgate as “human nature with its mask off.”) In literature generally—as the confrontation with the abysmal possibility of meaninglessness has become increasingly widespread and hard-boiled—shades of noir can be detected in writing that lies outside the genre proper: it’s there in Oedipa Maas’s spiral pursuit of the Trystero. It’s there in the poetry of Louis MacNeice’s—his “visitors in masks or in black glasses” who symbolize memory, the fragmented narratives and shady dramatis personae of which are figured as our unbiddable assailants in waiting. And it’s there, even, in science writer James Gleick’s Chaos, where such characters as scientist Mitchell Feigenbaum are drawn with a hard-boiled economy, and a theory of apparent meaninglessness—an explanation of the chaotic world—is the subject of an on-going investigation.

Jameson was by no means the only literary theorist who was dissatisfied with classical mystery stories—the adventures of Holmes and Watson, and, a little later, the various incarnations of the “Golden Age” sleuth. For many, most often Marxist, critics, the classical mystery story was a conservative genre, guilty, perhaps, of socio-political quietude, and resignation—if not active subscription—to the status quo. Such stories, the argument tended to go, turn murder into the symbol of societal threat, a challenge to order and harmony; but such threat is staged only for us to see it overcome, and to feel the relief of it being so. Here, the classical detective story is read as an apology for socio-political orthodoxy, and this is mirrored, argued theorist Franco Moretti, in its typical narrative structure: the detective’s big reveal, that marks the dénouement of most every story of this kind, is an imposition of neat, stifling, declarative linearity on narrative. To solve a murder in a classical mystery story, says Moretti, is to murder narrative.

But, needless to say, not all commentators identified such conservative violation of narrative as a basic component of the classical mystery. Ideed, there are those—such as Chesterton and, in celebration of him, Borges—who do not dispute that such stories have the restoration of social order as their subject. But they see such moments of respite as something to celebrate; they are so many brief flickerings of hope in a generally unstable, increasingly fragmented world.

Naturally enough, there are some critics for whom there is virtually no pleasing. And at least one deserves a mention. More than once, American man of letters Edmund Wilson went on record to excoriate mystery readers for their dull literary palates, and mystery stories for their substandard ingredients and overall insipidity. Sharp, eloquent, dismissive, Wilson has time for almost none of the supposedly “great” crime writers. Chandler is grudgingly acknowledged as an aberration—to the extent that he appears not to be terrible. So damning is Wilson’s overall evaluation, that such faint praise, to cast back to Sturgeon’s Revelation, is still enough to put Chandler in what one might estimate as the eighty-ninth, possibly the ninetieth, percentile of crime fiction crud. But Chandler still figures as little more than an epigone of Graham Greene, the only real writer, for Wilson, working in “the” tradition. (Reading Wilson, one gets the feeling that he intuitively worked from the model that Todorov would go on to theorize, and with which we began: is there a suggestion here that Greene, because he writes brilliantly, doesn’t really write crime fiction at all, but, rather, Literature?)

Why, though, despite critical interventions favourable or otherwise, the continued appeal of mystery stories?

I suspect that it has much to do with the figure of the detective, who seems to maintain certain basic qualities, despite having moved in the later-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries far beyond the cynical enervation and stolid machismo of Hammett’s archetype. In recent decades, the gilded sleuth and the harder boiled gumshoe have been broadened and made more nuanced, as authors have woven more intricate historical and political concerns into their plots, and identity issues into their characters. (The race, sex, religion, not to mention gender and sexuality of the private dick have all been up for grabs for some time now.) To see the detective and detective stories as, variously, ciphers of conservative and paternalistic, or liberal and progressive, world-views, is of course a function both of the critic’s tendencies and their readings of particular authors. But, to repeat an earlier point, it is also a sign of the extent to which crime and mystery fictions, at their best, have charted modernity’s developments in all their social, political, and ethical sinuousness, and are able to sustain contradictory readings.

Fans and critical readers are likely to see aspects of detectives and detective stories etched into and reflected by their surrounds, almost anywhere they care to look. Perhaps this is little more than a case of mistaking just so many signs of our critical attentions and inventions for cultural wonders. But if there has been and is any truth to the hollers of “crisis!,” echoed by the culture brokers of every epoch, then the best of our detectives’ casebooks have strong claims to being the ledgers of our on-going, self-made crises of modernity: for Dupin, Marple, Marlowe, and Rawlins do not articulate quite the same anxieties as one another, though neither are they entirely out of one another’s touch.

In one of the most memorable and enjoyable apologies for the hard-boiled mode of crime writing, Chandler says this:

But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man…He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.

The detective is no longer a man by definition; one hopes (perhaps quixotically) that it is no longer solely “The Man,” as he is more than likely imagined by Chandler, who is the rude and witty spokesperson of the age. “The Hero,” I think, is now not so tightly bound by the jerkins, breastplates, leotards, and capes of gender, race, class, and sexuality. Nevertheless—and accepting these identitarian expansions—I suspect that a widespread but often denied, almost clandestine desire for and attraction to a hero/-ine—a virago in the most positive yet also, in a sense, atavistic sense of the word—keeps the detective in whisky, but from drinking herself into oblivion. Just.

The mystery story, in all its permutations, is for all comers. But it is especially for those who have Batman comics and Kierkegaard on the nightstand. Not because such a combination is so very contrary, nor so very impressive; or mere affectation; or a poor expression of an ill-defined and flaccid postmodernist irony. But because the broadest strokes of Chandler’s definition limn an Everyperson who is by twists and turns admirable, disconcerting, comforting. The detective, I think, will be knocking around his or her mean streets for as long as we are drawn to characters whose capes, trilbies, and trenchcoats both admit and mask their—and therefore our—fears and tremblings.[/private]

Oliver Belas

About Oliver Belas

Oli Belas is a teacher, writer, and independent academic. He lives in Walthamstow (north-east London) with his ever-supportive and endlessly patient wife, Sarah. He has written about popular science, detective, and African American fiction, and literary theory/philosophy. When time and geography allow, Oli works with his friend, artist Rene Daigle. Their first joint effort is the illustrated essay "The Enduring Appeal of the Mystery Story" (published in Litro Magazine), and they have plans for some illustrated, noir-ish fiction.

Oli Belas is a teacher, writer, and independent academic. He lives in Walthamstow (north-east London) with his ever-supportive and endlessly patient wife, Sarah. He has written about popular science, detective, and African American fiction, and literary theory/philosophy. When time and geography allow, Oli works with his friend, artist Rene Daigle. Their first joint effort is the illustrated essay "The Enduring Appeal of the Mystery Story" (published in Litro Magazine), and they have plans for some illustrated, noir-ish fiction.

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