Join the conversation
Subscribe to Our Emails
Boston Review is a public space for the discussion of ideas and culture. Sign up for our newsletters and don’t miss a thing.
The enduring highbrow fascination with detective stories.
Every so often somebody reprises Edmund Wilson’s famous put-down of detective novels, "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" Wilson regarded the genre as terminally subliterary, either an addiction or a harmless vice on a par with crossword puzzles. But the truth is that for every Edmund Wilson who resists the genre there are dozens of intellectuals who have embraced it wholeheartedly. The enduring highbrow appeal of the detective novel--and its close cousin, the spy thriller--is one of the literary marvels of the century. How to account for the genre’s popularity? And what does it tell us about ourselves?
Though the so-called golden age of crime--the age of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, Ellery Queen and Nick and Nora Charles--has gone the way of transatlantic cruises and after-dinner port, the books in which these detectives figure have maintained their enthusiastic readership. Other more recent works amply demonstrate the range and vitality of mystery fiction. The 1980s saw the emergence of Elmore Leonard and P. D. James, of Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky, of the sort of enigmatic metaphysical thrillers that Paul Auster writes, and of a brand of detective writing that seemed to blend feminism and the hard-boiled American tradition. In the 1990s Quentin Tarantino’s movie Pulp Fiction (1994) stands at one extreme of diction and Tom Stoppard’s espionage drama Hapgood (1994) at the other. The resurgence of interest in pulp writers and noir movies of the 1940s and ’50s has gained a new audience for such formerly overlooked writers as Charles Williams (The Hot Spot, 1953) and Charles Willeford (Pick-up, 1955), David Goodis (Street of No Return, 1954) and Jim Thompson (After Dark, My Sweet, 1955). Many of these novels are available in spiffy new editions, such as the Black Lizard series published by Vintage, and indeed Robert Polito’s excellent two-volume Library of America edition of Crime Novels (1997) bestows something resembling canonical status on Thompson, Goodis, Willeford, Patricia Highsmith, Kenneth Fearing, and others who had seemed precisely unassimilable into a literary canon.
It is, of course, possible to argue that movies and television shows (such as "Law and Order") are where the main action is today--that film and video have begun to displace the written text except to the extent that texts are necessary to generate scripts. But the success of L.A. Confidential the movie is not unrelated to the success of the James Ellroy novel on which it is based, after all, and the literary potential of the detective novel remains high. In addition to the expected pleasures of the latest Sue Grafton or Jonathan Kellerman, each year some new novel takes the old murder mystery formula and subtly alters the algebra. In 1997, critics raved about Paolo Maurensig’s The Luneburg Variation, with its cunning use of chess as both a narrative strategy and a paradigm of psychological warfare. Glowing reviews appeared in the Los Angeles Times ("a master"), the New York Times ("a dark enchantment"), People ("riveting"), and Publishers Weekly ("unadorned brilliance"). In 1998, the object of enthusiasm was Iain Pears’s ill-titled An Instance of the Fingerpost, which lifts the device of multiple narrators from Willkie Collins’s The Moonstone and attaches it to an encyclopedic ambition reminiscent of The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco’s blockbuster smash of 1983. Readers of Pears’s novel learn more about the mores, the beliefs, and the prejudices of England in 1660 than they might ever have thought compatible with the demands of page-turning fiction. There were lots of readers, too. The reviewers made sure of that.
Why do we read detective novels? Why do we care who killed Roger Ackroyd? More than half a century after he asked them, Edmund Wilson’s questions continue to beguile us. All we have lost is his scorn.
W. H. Auden, whose essay "The Guilty Vicarage" remains one of the best things ever written about thrillers, wrote that the murder mystery "is the dialectic of innocence and guilt." The classic murder mystery (as opposed to the celebration of criminal mischief and mayhem in Pulp Fiction) announces that the angel in humankind is superior to the animal, though both impulses are present in strong measure in the human psyche. And yet, the mystery’s starting point is Hobbes’s view of the moral universe: the conviction that in the state of nature, man is not a noble savage but a natural-born-killer. In Poe’s "The Murders of the Rue Morgue" (1841), the world’s first official detective story, the culprit is a pet ape, like a Darwinian nightmare ahead of the fact. (Poe’s story antedated Darwin’s Origin of Species by eighteen years.) In the act of shaving, with razor in hand as he has seen his master do it, the orangutan is interrupted and runs away in a panic. He kills two women because they happen to reside in the place where his rage and fear blindly take him.
On one hand, then, murder mysteries are vehicles for vicarious homicide. Watching movies like The Last Seduction and The Usual Suspects, or reading novels about cunning or lucky culprits, such as Charles Willeford’s The Burnt Orange Heresy, allows us to indulge the murderous id with impunity. But the genre also attracts us for what seems like the opposite reason. By presenting every homicide as a crime that does not pay, they persuade us that human cruelty can be controlled and in the end defeated by human reason. The genius of the genre is that it combines the physical and the mental, action and analysis, the active and the contemplative ways of life. It appeals to our thirst for certainty, our rage for order.
In detective novels, the initiating act of terminal violence--which characteristically takes place off-stage--doubles as a beguiling intellectual riddle. Only two people knew what really happened. One of them, being dead, can’t tell you; the other one won’t. The progress from ignorance to knowledge, mystery to enlightenment, parallels that from order disturbed to order restored. As the Great Detective figures out the culprit’s identity, he (or in some cases, especially recent ones, she) tidies up a case of violent disorder. We begin with a corpse and a smell as of corruption, the smell of guilt pervading all. We end with the fingering of the one party whose expulsion will prove the innocence of all the others.
Murder, Graham Greene wrote in a film review in 1938, "is a religious subject; the interest of a detective story is the pursuit of exact truth, and if we are at times impatient with the fingerprints, the time-tables and the butler’s evasions, it is because the writer, like some early theologians, is getting bogged down in academic detail." In its emphasis on "exact truth," an exactness possible only in a world of facts and fingerprints, the genre presents itself as an antidote to modern fiction, in which the theme of uncertainty is pronounced. In a story by Henry James, the protagonist characteristically fails to discern "the figure in the carpet," the secret message or buried treasure concealed in a work of art or a life experience. In Joseph Conrad’s "Heart of Darkness," the climactic revelation is the exposure of a lie that has the effect of compromising our whole edifice of understanding. In contrast, the detective story proceeds from disclosure to closure; from the discovery of the body in the first chapter to the unmasking of the murderer in the last; from secrets and signs amassed, identified, and analyzed to the final grouping of the suspects, like the return of the cast at the end of a well-made play, at which time the villain or villains will be banished and absolution conferred on the survivors.
Gertrude Stein, who called the detective story "the only really modern novel form," has an analysis that has always fascinated me. (You can piece it together from passages in Everybody’s Autobiography and in her lecture "What Are Masterpieces.") Stein explained that the detective story "gets rid of human nature by having the man dead to begin with the hero is dead to begin with and so you have so to speak got rid of the event before the book begins." In a detective story, she also observed, "the only person of any importance is dead" and so "there can be no beginning middle and end" in the conventional sense. Stein helps to account for why time in a detective novel flows not in a straight lines but in two directions concurrently: there is the time of the action culminating in the violent event that occurs just before the book begins, and there is the narrative time of the detective’s reconstruction of the events leading to that moment. Stein’s more important insight is that the discovery of the corpse represents the termination of an action at the same time as it initiates a new action, and since this is so, it makes sense to regard the detective as a new hero who emerges at the precise moment that his predecessor, the traditional hero of fiction, meets his violent end. The scene of the crime is the locus of the transition from a flawed hero (the victim) to one who is better equipped for survival (the detective).
The figure of the detective as a distinctively modern hero suggests that truth in modern industrial society is not open but concealed--or, as happens in Poe’s "The Purloined Letter," effectively concealed by being left out in the open, unnoticed by those who neglect surfaces in favor of depths. The detective, an embodiment of the rational principle, proceeds on the optimistic assumption that the truth can be learned and is empirically verifiable. Brainwork is the key. Fierce mental energy is needed to decipher coded messages, to expose lies and resolve contradictions, to pull off false noses and masks, to interrogate witnesses (some of whom are mendacious, others merely self-serving or frightened), to interpret textual evidence, and to reconstruct an entire sequence of events from scattered hints.
Nearly all the conventions of the classic whodunit--from locked rooms to least likely culprits, dullard cops and wrongly accused bystanders--originate with Poe. The most famous of the Great Detectives was made in the image of Poe’s Dupin. In The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), A Study in Scarlet (1887), The Sign of Four (1889), The Valley of Fear (1915), and the great short stories, Sherlock Holmes came so vividly to life that visitors to London used to go to Baker Street hoping for a real-life glimpse of this purely fictional character. When Holmes’s creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, tried to kill him off, the outcry was such that Doyle had little choice but to bring him back--a case of an author at the mercy of his own character.
Like Poe’s Dupin, Holmes is a mind-reader, a genius whose contempt for the police matches his own exalted sense of superiority. And in fact Holmes is as singular as his sidekick Watson is definitively regular. Holmes, the bachelor, is a bundle of oddities and eccentricities. He takes cocaine, plays the fiddle, is subject to long periods of lethargy from which he is desperate to escape. Solving mysteries is an expedient way to overcome the ennui to which he is prone. With his fits of melancholia, Holmes has all the traits of the Romantic rebel as defined in the poetry of Charles Baudelaire. "My life," Holmes remarks, "is spent in one long effort to escape from the commonplaces of existence. These little problems help me to do so." In effect, Holmes is a murder addict who rejects the hopelessly prosaic world in favor of perverse pleasures, flowers of evil. It is one of the paradoxes of the genre that the most unconventional and extraordinary character is the one who restores the moral and social order.
In the American hardboiled tradition, the hero is singular in a second sense: the city-dwelling private eye is a loner by temperament, fiercely independent though perhaps down on his heels, caustic in speech, wounded but game. The wisecracking detective is the cynic as "ferocious romantic" (in Raymond Chandler’s self-description). The death of Miles Archer, Sam Spade’s partner, at the beginning of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon establishes a precondition for the whole hard-boiled genre. The sleuth’s potential Watson is dead and more or less forgotten from the start (though who killed Archer is the book’s one formal problem of detection). No, the hardboiled detective can be accompanied by no one. He is a martyr to Emersonian self-reliance, a tough guy with a flair for demotic poetry attracted to women who are bad for him: assorted femmes fatales in whom the Freudian connection between eros and thanatos is made explicit.
The setting of Hammett’s Red Harvest (1929)--"Personville," pronounced "Poisonville"--suggests the generalized allegorical locale that attracted Hammett and his followers: a place where the private eye can function as a kind of catalyst for violent change. With his aloof self-reliance, the hardboiled sleuth in his trenchcoat and gray fedora resembles the lone, no-nonsense lawman played by Gary Cooper or James Stewart in Westerns. He is proof that violence is needed to contain violence and that one just man will prevail over the corrupt mob and timorous crowd. An insubordinate cuss, he knows that insubordination becomes an admirable trait in an age when the torturer’s first line of defense is that he was merely following orders. His alliances are temporary and grounded in deep suspicion; he can count on no one, least of all the client who’s footing the bill. In a tight spot he is rarely at a loss for words. Told that he has an answer for everything, Sam Spade retorts, "What do you want me to do, learn to stutter?"
In the morally ambiguous world of The Maltese Falcon, Hammett’s best book, Spade is described as a "blond Satan." He is (the other characters constantly exclaim) a wild and unpredictable man, and his motives are never quite clear. The priceless, jewel-encrusted falcon--which turns out to be a fake--is the unholy grail that obsesses the book’s entertaining cast, and Spade is not entirely immune from the lure of the hunt.
The story of Flitcraft, a Tacoma man who disappeared one day after a falling beam narrowly missed him in the street, helps explain Spade’s "existential" disposition. Flitcraft (says Spade, telling the story) left his wife and family, his job, and severed all his ties, because "The life he knew was a clean orderly sane responsible affair. Now a falling beam had shown him that life was fundamentally none of these things." The awareness that he could be wiped out in an instant caused him to flee the life he had been living, a life that had been "sensibly ordered" and was therefore "out of step" with a universe of blind chance. Tracked down by the detective, Flitcraft turns out to be living in Spokane with a second wife more like the first than they were different. "I don’t think he even knew he had settled back naturally into the same groove he had jumped out of in Tacoma," says Spade. "But that’s the part of it I always liked. He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling."
Where Spade differs from Flitcraft is that he will not settle down, will not deny the epiphany of the falling beam. Life was not a reasonable affair and he would not act reasonably. Randomness was all; there was no special providence in the fall of a beam. The Flitcraft parable presents the key to the detective’s character and attitude, but it is also a parable about murder mysteries in general, which begin with "a clean orderly sane responsible" situation that gets violently disrupted by the equivalent of "a falling beam." And just as Flitcraft returns to "the same groove he had jumped out of," the conventional detective novel returns to its initial state of rest. It is one of Hammett’s achievements to have fashioned a murder mystery that would satisfy the requirements of the form in a fresh idiom, a realistic setting, and without the moral complacency of the country-mansion sort of novel against which the hard-boiled crime-writer was rebelling.
Hammett was Raymond Chandler’s acknowledged master, but as a sheer stylist the student surpassed the mentor. Chandler’s similes and sarcastic hyperboles ("a white-straw garden hat with a brim the size of a spare tire") are full of attitude in the contemporary New York sense. They describe two things: the thing they’re supposed to describe and Marlowe’s reaction to it. A girl in Farewell, My Lovely gives him "one of those looks which are supposed to make your spine feel like a run in a stocking." Such wisecracks are classic figures with the prettiness removed. On the other hand, Marlowe can be quite insistently literal, as when he encounters a piece of modern sculpture. Its owner "negligently" identifies it as "Asta Fial’s Spirit of Dawn." "I thought it was Klopstein’s Two Warts on a Fanny," Marlowe replies.
W. H. Auden argued that Chandler’s detective stories are "serious studies of a criminal milieu, the Great Wrong Place" and should be read "not as escapist literature, but as works of art." At its least complicated Chandler’s moral vision is based on a species of class resentment. "To hell with the rich," Philip Marlowe says in The Big Sleep. "They made me sick." The book begins in the Sternwood mansion and ends in the oil sump where the Sternwood money comes from and where, now, Rusty Regan sleeps the big sleep. The plot thus illustrates Balzac’s remark that if you follow any fortune to its source, you will uncover a crime. But the texture of Chandler’s novels is thickened immeasurably by their allegorical dimension. Philip Marlowe’s very name suggests the pull of romance: the playwright Christopher Marlowe of the "mighty line," or possibly the sailor and adventurer named Marlow who penetrates the infernal center of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. In Philip Marlowe’s Los Angeles, the gambling casinos and clubs that beckon are like the bowers of bliss--all ersatz glitter--that test the epic hero embarked on a Renaissance quest romance. The place is beyond redemption, and the hard-drinking hero is somewhat quixotic in his mission--Chandler compares him to a knight-errant in the opening pages of The Big Sleep--but is kept from looking ridiculous by his clever quips and cracks. In Farewell, My Lovely, Marlowe goes through hell ("I felt like an amputated leg") for his client, the gargantuan ex-con Moose Malloy, who "looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food."
The noir element in American hard-boiled fiction and in the movies based on it is the flip side of the American sunny-side-of-the-street dream of success. Noir is what you get if you take Chandler’s "Great Wrong Place" and substitute a more fallible detective for Marlowe. Noir films such as Out of the Past, Double Indemnity, and The Lady from Shanghai, which seem like odes to failure, provoked me to write this ode of my own:
In the detective novel, wrote Auden, "the corpse must shock not only because it is a corpse but also because, even for a corpse, it is shockingly out of place, as when a dog makes a mess on a drawing-room carpet." The analogy suggests an entire world of country-house weekends, Mediterranean cruises, tropical island resorts: the terrain of Agatha Christie. The proper way to read a puzzle by Christie--there has never existed a more cunning artificer of homicide--is as a version of pastoral. She offers up an idyllic setting in which everyone knows each other and no one seems to work. It is an Edenic community temporarily disturbed by violent death and ultimately restored to the Way It Was after a brief brain-teasing diversion. Christie’s triumph was to have fulfilled Thomas De Quincey’s irony-charged vision of murder as an aesthetic experience ("On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts," 1827). As depicted in Christie’s And Then There Were None (1940) and The ABC Murders (1936), murder is rather like a work of art: theatrical, full of poetic justice, requiring tremendous ingenuity, careful planning, and the ability to improvise before a live audience. The murderer is an artist, and the detective is the Great Critic.
I have called the spy novel the detective story’s close cousin. It is surely significant that the hero of A Coffin for Dimitrios, Eric Ambler’s greatest novel of intrigue, is said to be a writer of detective novels. According to Auden, the espionage genre centers on "the ethical and eristic conflict between good and evil, between Us and Them," where Us stands for the "United States" and Them for the Nazis in World War II and the Soviets in the Cold War. But in the most compelling spy novels--Graham Greene’s The Human Factor and John Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, to name two--the deeper drama is that of of seduction and betrayal, conflicting duties of love and friendship on the one side and of citizenship on the other, as if the genre were perennially working out the moral drama E. M. Forster sketched when he so famously asserted that, if presented with the conflict, he hoped he would have the nerve to betray his country rather than his friend.
To writers whose work does not properly belong to the mystery or espionage genre, the conventions of same have proved irresistible. Vladimir Nabokov took a special delight in manipulating them for his own pre-postmodernist purposes. Despair, Lolita,and Pale Fire are unlikely murder mysteries. In each case Nabokov presents a coherent criminal design that turns out to be the product of a paranoid delusion. Detection itself becomes an exercise in paranoia, an attempt to discern the dark design behind events that appear random and innocuous. Detectives and poets alike are in the position of the insane boy in Nabokov’s story "Signs and Symbols": "Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme. Some of the spies are detached observers, such as glass surfaces and still pools; others, such as coats in store windows, are prejudiced witnesses, lynchers at heart; others again (running water, storms) are hysterical to the point of insanity, have a distorted opinion of him and grotesquely misinterpret his actions. He must be always on his guard and devote every minute and module of life to the decoding of the undulation of things." The detective story is an homage to the sense of the uncanny Nabokov captures. Where else but in detective stories do we find "coats in store windows" invested with such importance--as real clues or red herrings, as the case may be?
Of all the modern writers attracted to detective fiction, none has tested the limits of detection more fruitfully than the Argentine master Jorge Luis Borges. Borges used the detective story to create brilliant labyrinths. In "The Garden of Forking Paths" (1941) the characters engage in a learned discussion of labyrinths until with shocking abruptness a seemingly gratuitous and, yes, maze-like murder is committed. The murder is solved in the last sentences of the story in a totally surprising way that makes it a small parable about modern warfare, in which death and destruction are meted out arbitrarily and yet in accordance with a plan, a design. The sequence of events in Borges’s "The South" can be read on at least three levels: literal narrative, dream, and allegory.
In "Death and the Compass" (1942), perhaps his most celebrated detective story, Borges devastatingly subverts a convention established by Agatha Christie in The ABC Murders.The homicidal idea that the murderer in Christie’s novel exploits is that the appearance of a series of crimes tends to deflect attention from any one of them; thus, crimes A and B might have been committed for the sole purpose of making C seem part of a series. In chasing down a serial killer, the police would overlook the particular motives accounting for the one murder in which the criminal or criminals had a real interest--just as the police in "The Purloined Letter" overlook what is or should be obvious. The riddle stumps the cops but not, of course, Hercule Poirot.
But where Poirot succeeds, the intellectual hero of "Death and the Compass," a mentally superior detective named Lonnrot, outsmarts himself; his very brilliance leads to his doom. Again the police are confronted with a series of crimes. Here the clues seem to point to a criminal design in the shape of an equilateral triangle: the design would be complete when the third in a series of three murders takes place. Only Lonnrot apprehends that the design of the plot is actually a rhomb. Correctly interpreting the clues and the signs, he realizes that a fourth murder must take place. He can even determine the date, the time, and the place. But what he doesn’t realize, as he hurries to avert the calamity, is that he must die to complete the murderous design: this murder is his. He has solved it with his life. Detection and death are one.
In a handful of stories Borges initiated what could be called the subversive tradition in detective fiction. He simultaneously extended and called into question the genre’s underlying premises. Borges was the first to test out the hypothesis of the death of the detective--an event comparable in local significance to Nietzsche’s pronouncement that God was dead.
In a Borgesian universe, order does prevail--but is not necessarily benevolent. The mazes and triangles and rhombs in these stories are perfect, and perfectly treacherous. And the cunning of the detective is not merely matched but surpassed by that of his foe. Thus Borges shatters the old Platonic confidence that reason is ever and always at the service of the good. Where the traditional detective story reassured the reader, a Borgesian fable like "Death and the Compass" or "The South" sends one shivering into the cold damp night of an ancient Manichean heresy, a world in which the forces of evil are as rationally cunning as--have at least an equal shot at defeating--the forces of good.
Umberto Eco’s international bestseller The Name of the Rose (1983) pays elaborate, if ironic, homage to Borges. By far the most compelling character in this medieval murder mystery is the blind librarian, Jorge of Burgos. And just why Eco made his culprit the spitting image of Jorge Luis Borges, a blind librarian, is unquestionably the most interesting mystery lingering in the air after the novel ends.
"The web of causality is almost infinitely exact," Ross Macdonald told an interviewer in 1971. "There are no coincidences in life." There are certainly no coincidences in a Ross Macdonald detective novel. And to the extent that Macdonald’s emphasis on careful plotting is characteristic of the genre, the detective novel has built-in attractions in an era of rampant disbelief and incipient general paranoia, on the one hand, and of authorial self-absorption on the other. "If you read detective novels, and if you take up [other] novels afterwards, the first thing that strikes you--it’s unjust, of course, but it happens--is to think of the other books as shapeless," Borges told an interviewer.
Graham Greene had the percipience to observe that "a high-class murder is the simple artistic ideal of most film directors." It’s worth lingering over this remark. The detective novel in all of its many manifestations--from the thrillers of Eric Ambler to the comic capers of Donald E. Westlake, from the psychotic narratives of Jim Thompson to the police procedurals of Ed McBain--depends on a strong narrative line. The murder mystery offers story, plot. But I would go further and argue that the murder mystery with its sturdy conventions is itself a form. It has affinities with poetic form: one reason poets are attracted to noir movies is that they repeat themselves like the end words of a sestina or the lines in a pantoum. Finally, murder mysteries and thrillers are modern in exactly the sense that "modern" means "of the twentieth century": they are already a bit dated, glamorous and seedy at once, fit vehicles of nostalgia as well as of the more violent and passionate desire that culminates in murder in these pages.
...we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox
Readers Also Liked
Printing Note: For best printing results try turning on any options your web browser's print dialog makes available for printing backgrounds and background graphics.