Historian, detective, and the metaphysical or antidetective story


The historian thus shares with the detective not only method and technique, the sharp eye and deductive power, the diligent search and acute intuition, but also the gloomy expectation of discovering a corpse, the sense of danger and precariousness of being in the dark, the awareness of fighting powerful and merciless enemies, and the iron determinacy of discovering the murderer.” (187)

He notes: “The evolution of detective fiction took, though, a different direction: parallel and opposed to Dupin’s model (from Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, and Christie to the “hardboiled” figures of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler), a different model evolved on the blueprint of “The Man of the Crowd,” the metaphysical or antidetective story (Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco, Paul Auster). In this different account of detection, victim, pursuer, and pursued are the same person, and detection results in a quest for identity. This second model became predominant in the development of the genre and transformed it from a popular lowbrow consumer good into a highly intellectualized and refined postmodern allegory. In this model all the traces lead inward, in a quest for identity that is always open-ended or failed and that has been related specifically to the crisis of the modern order. This project of detection does away with crime, truth, justice, right, or wrong and thus also with any reference to history and politics: the space of the city implodes and is reduced to a play of mirrors in which the other disappears and the protagonist (or the author) contemplates his or her own image; the crimes of history (and history as such) fall into oblivion; the detective works no longer as an allegory of the historian. From a Benjaminian point of view, what remains when the historical-political component recedes is a phantasmagoric—that is, ahistorical and self-indulgent—romanticization of the self. For introductory readings see Merivale and Sweeney, Detecting Texts; Stefano Tani, The Doomed Detective: The Contribution of the Detective Novel to Postmodern American and Italian Fiction (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984); and Ralph Willett, The Naked City: Urban Crime Fiction in the USA (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996).” (187)

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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