The detective story and fear of the urban environment

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Carlo Salzani has considered the detective story, its connection with modernity, and Walter Benjamin’s interest in its role in the portrayal of our relationship with the city…Salzani writes:

The detective story developed in France in the mid-nineteenth century as a substitute for an earlier “urban” literature, the physiologies. In these, the flâneur-as-journalist described urban types, giving a sense of intelligibility and familiarity to the urban environment, which Benjamin judged highly phantasmagoric. “The phantasmagoria of the flâneur,” he writes in The Arcades Project, is the pretension “to read from faces the profession, the ancestry, the character” (M6,6). The goal of the physiologies had been to alleviate the panic caused by the overwhelming new reality of the city, and in this they ultimately failed because the urban environment always resists interpretation and description. Unlike the physiologies, the detective story plays with this sense of unfamiliarity, incomprehensibility, and anxiety and so exacerbates fear of the urban environment. As a genre it was more successful: it satisfied the bourgeois obsession with the threat to order and propriety in a time of political and social turmoil. As Tom McDonough writes, “Threat haunted the bourgeois imaginary as a concatenation of all those forces—from ghetto uprising to the more diffuse spread of a counterculture with its rejection of normative models of social behaviour—that threatened the middle-class hold over the city. Yet even greater than these political fears, and to a considerable extent acting as a mask for them, was the social anxiety that dominated the urban imaginary of this class: a fear of crime.” This fear derives from the bourgeois obsession with law and order, ideological security, and political immobility. Benjamin writes that “in times of terror, when everyone is something of a conspirator, everybody will be in the position of having to play detective” (GS, 1.2:542–43; SW, 4:21). The description is politically charged: bourgeois society always feels under attack; political crisis, social crisis, ideological terror are its permanent state of existence; therefore we always play detective—and read detective fiction.

The literary-ideological trope for the city thus becomes the jungle, for, like the jungle, the primeval forest, and the wilderness, the modern city is a site of danger and adventures, its citizen either hunter or victim.” (169)

Ref: Carlo Salzani (2007) ‘The City as Crime Scene: Walter Benjamin and the Traces of the Detective’ New German Critique 100, Vol.34, No.1, Winter: 165-187

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