Literary crime is an ambiguous mirror of social values


Hard to quote a quoter sometimes, but I’m still working with Charles Brownson:

“Cawelti writes, “Literary crime is an ambiguous mirror of social values, reflecting both our overt commitments to morality and order and our hidden resentments and animosity against these principles.” It is the same “mixture [-p.20] of horror and fascination, of attraction and repulsion” that drives the horror genre and that persists regardless of whatever sort of crime is the flavor of the moment, from nineteenth century poisonings to twentieth century gangsters and urban violence to twenty-first century paranoid political conspiracies of global reach.” (pp.19-20)

Ref: Charles Brownson (2014) The Figure of the Detective: A Literary History and Analysis. McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers: Jefferson, North Carolina

quoting: Cawelti, John G. Adventure, Mystery, Romance. Chicago: University f Chicago Press, 1976. p77

The Gothic and the Detective


“The Gothic is a genre based on the same warping or tearing of the social fabric that will be used to invoke the Detective. The causes of the threat are different, but the cure is the same; the Gothic dream world evaporates upon waking into the rational one.” (p.17)

“An impediment delaying the full development of the crime story was a difficulty that the Gothic did not solve: the absence of a language needed for straightforward talk about violence and death.” (p.20)

Ref: Charles Brownson (2014) The Figure of the Detective: A Literary History and Analysis. McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers: Jefferson, North Carolina

The Detective’s place as a defender of rationality


“If the central question of the detective story concerns what knowledge is, then the business of the detective is the getting and deployment of it. The detective story is a quest, but getting possession of knowledge is only the first part of the tale. The rest of it concerns what to do with this knowledge, and so it is also a moral tale. The Detective is a shaman, a person who has acquired a valuable but dangerous stuff: knowledge, which may be used for good or evil. The Detective is an ambiguous figure, necessary to society but potentially destructive of it. He is a figure we cannot do with or do without. As with knowledge itself, the role the Detective is asked, or allowed, to play is a cultural decision.” (p.6)

“The detective is a specialized role. He embodies the context of rationality as a spokesman for the power of thought and the intelligibility of the universe, which is possibly a more important function than solving the crime. Indeed, there are successful detectives who do not solve the crime (Trent’s Last Case) and some unusually bumbling ones who perhaps will never solve anything (Gosford Park). The Detective’s place as a defender of rationality positions him in the larger conflict between rationality and intuition (the life of the emotions) which is in its modern form a legacy of Romanticism. Early on these two poles were constructed as cool and warm – slippery terms that are pejorative from one point of view and laudatory from the opposite – and assimilated to the supposed incompatibility of science and non-science, non-science being the whole rest of human endeavor fatally tainted by irrationality. …It is a fascinating (but separate) question to trace the attitude of fictional detectives toward art and religion, from the famously cold Holmes’s liking for the biolin and opera to Jacques Futrelle’s Augustus S.F.X. Van Dusen, Ph.D., LL.D., F.R.S., M.D., alias “The Thinking Machine.”
The demand for rational intelligibility carries with it constraints imposed by the concept of evidence and the investigative procedure of testing hypotheses – the scientific method. This, together with the need for the crime to actually be solved somehow, whether or not through the agency of a detective, are among the factors that established the genre once it was discovered to be a particularly satisfying mode of story telling.
As with the criminal, the Detective ought to be a single person (partners will be introduced later, and still later groups like Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct). Perhaps less obviously, just as the criminal ought to be within the immediate society, the Detective ought to be outside it – not outside society altogether as the noir detective is, but only part of the threatened group.” (p.14)

Ref: Charles Brownson (2014) The Figure of the Detective: A Literary History and Analysis. McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers: Jefferson, North Carolina

urban change questions


These questions are posed in the context of sustainable urban development, but I think them both interesting and relevant to fictional concerns (perhaps especially those of urban fantasy and fiction more generally?):

“Ultimately,” write, “the green city will reflect a rather different future for work. On this topic there are some very large questions: can a future of cities competing against one another in world markets be reconciled with a benign future for the environment? What are the limits of competition and how can they be enforced? Does economic growth itself have limits? How can growth be steered into environmentally benign forms of production? What forms of governance are required to regulate world markets in order to guarantee social security and environmental conservation? How do culture, place and climate influence work patterns, and consequently the physical accommodation of work?” (p.132)

Ref: Nicholas Low, Brendan Gleeson, Ray Green and Darko Radovic (2005) The Green city: Sustainable homes, sustainable suburbs. Routledge, Abingdon and New York; and UNSW Press, Sydney

The figure of the detective


I just picked up The Figure of the Detective: A Literary History and Analysis by Charles Brownson. Some nice thought-provoking points in the preface!

“The Detective is, and was from the beginning, a figure of iconic status, drawing to himself many psychological and cultural desires and fears, thus becoming a nexus through which such issues could be understood, studied, accommodated, and perhaps ameliorated.” (P.1)

“…literary formulas (genres) are not arbitrary constructs but come into existence out of the needs and fears of their readers, and so any change in the formula must be driven by social changes. Much more than literary (that is, non-formulaic) fiction, genre writing is an index of social change. A history of the genre written with this in mind would treat it as a living thing and perhaps uncover new connections and explanations not noticed before.” (P.2)

“Whether these stories are worthy of attention by readers and critics, or are simply lowbrow entertainment, has nothing to do with the cultural work that the Detective does. But at the same time, that there are such controversies at all is indicative of some cultural need. What is it? Why, at particular times of hegemony and change, does the detective story have such a popular appeal, impervious to intellectual disparagement? Of the needs that the reader is hoping to satisfy, entertainment is likely one of them, but the desire to be entertained is not confined to the detective story. The question is rather why we are entertained by reading stories about detectives, and sometimes needful beyond simple entertainment. It seemed to me that the resonance and endurance of the Detective as a cultural and literary figure implies some importance that has nothing to do with whether or not detective stories are bad for us.” (P.2)

Ref: (italics in original) Charles Brownson (c2013) The Figure of the Detective: A Literary History and Analysis. McFarland & Company, Inc, Jefferson, North Carolina.