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


This review just caught my eye… I like the idea of someone playing with generic forms for critical purposes in this way… and I like the argument being proposed (it seems) by Huang. The review begins:

“Almost two decades after Charlie Chan was declared ‘dead’ by Jessica Hagedorn in the renowned anthology of contemporary Asian American fiction, Asian American scholar Yunte Huang brings him back to life as an icon of American multiculturalism. In this engrossing ‘biography’ divided into five parts, each covering a ‘life story’ of Charlie Chan’s origins, Huang deftly brings together intersecting histories – personal, national and trans-national – that participate in the making of the Charlie Chan legend, and re-examines his stories, both real and fictional, in the American literary tradition of trickster, minstrelsy and racial allegory.” (p.113)

Chih-ming Wang Charlie Chan: the untold story of the honorable detective and his rendezvous with American history Asian Ethnicity Volume 14, Issue 1, 2013 pages 113-117

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

Literacy, publication, and prizes


The links between mass literacy and personal aspiration, eccentric desires and public requirements always proved unbridgeable when the medium was print – public duty being abandoned in favour of craftmanship and inspiration. This was in no little part due to the essential intervention of capitalist activity in the realm of printed aesthetics. It should not be forgotten how many respectable publishers and proprietors began their lives in the underworld of publishing for a mass or ‘semi-literate’ readership. Rupert murdoch, after all, financed The Times from profits earned at The Sun. A previous entrepreneurial newsman, Alfred Harmsworth, the future Lord Northcliffe, proprietor of The Times from 1908 and one of Britain’s greatest media magnates, began as a journalist who dealt in anecdote and trivia and was the founder of Answers to Correspondents on Every Subject Under the Sun which specialized in sensationalist competitions and sold at a penny an issue. Nor should it be forgotten that his bedside reading was The Newgate Calendar, nor that his career began with George Newnes proprietor of both Tit Bits and the Strand.

Through such publications the new reading public satisfied its curiosity about the world and itself; curiosity about self now competed with public duty. During the age of criminilization the world of Newgate already represented a sentimental nostalgia for a history determined by hero robbers and larger-than-life thief takers. Harmsworth’s personality was already sentimentaliszed in parallel with and no less than his readers’. Where Marx and Engel saw the masses, Harmsworth and his brother saw also the individual.” (20)

Bloom cites Peter Haining (ed The Fantastic Pulps) as stating: “The disillusionment that followed the war, the frustration over the mushrooming gangster control of the cities affected the detective story as much as it did mainstream fiction. And the 1920s occupation with the American language, the dissatisfaction with the Victorian rhetoric and polite exposition was nowhere more strongly felt than among the writers of private eye stories.” (21) Bloom continues: “Attempting to compensate for uneven sales [H.L.] Mencken [co-owner of The Smart Set] began Black Mask in 1920. Highly successful and hugely influential, the magazine proved an embarassment for Mencken who referred to it as ‘our new louse’. He finally sold the enterprise and returned to defending culture.

This two-tiered publishing and reading system was repeated on both sides of the Atlantic. However, by the middle twentieth century even though many entrepreneurial and opportunistic Victorian publishers had consolidated their position and become large corporate enterprises they gave rise to a flourishing subsystem of pulp publishers which existed alongside them. Such publishers included Thorpe & Porter and E.H. and Irene Turney in Britain who between them ran a stable of extraordinarily named pulp authors who enjoyed universal success in the aftermath of World War II and the early years of the welfare state – years in which American imports were restricted.

Even the Booker Prize, established in 1968 in Britain to ratify the art of the novel was the consequence of a shrewd move made to establish a public profile and respectability for a long-time food business. The prize grew out of an idea by Tom Maschler and Graham C. Greene of Jonathan Cape. Cape had bought Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale and Fleming had created a company called Glidrose to protect potential profits. Booker chairman Jock Campbell who was a friend of Fleming, bought the company and put Booker into the publishing business. Originally named Artists Services, Booker Books already represented a number of authors by 1968 and had acquired 51 per cent of the rights to Agatha Christie. The entire sequence of events had been determined as much by commercial interest as by aesthetic concern.” (21)

Again, Bloom continues: “If significant authors were accorded the privilege of such prizes others had this recognition refused both by working practice and by social and cultural expectation. What recognition, and by what hierarchy of definitions can one begin to bring to visibility the writers who were refused canonic status and whose style was demoted to [-p.22] mere technical skill? Such writers, even those who are popular classics (a bizarre status), are refused a meaningful place within the fluctuations of literary culture. At best, they become sociologically interesting, at worst they become pathological cases.” (21-22)

“If Robert Louis Stevenson, John Buchan and Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming, are second-league popular classics” Bloom notes, “what becomes of Sidney Horler, Guy Thorne, William Le Queux or Sax Rohmer who are remembered but barely read, or Barbara Cartland, Catherine Cookson or (from a quite different direction) horror writer Shaun Hutson, who are all read but certainly not recognized….” (22)

Bloom cites Lee Server (Danger is my Business): “the pulp-created genres – science fiction, horror, private eye, Western, superhero – now dominate not only popular literature but every sort of mass entertainment, from movies and television to comic books. This legacy will remain long after the last of the pulp magazines themselves – haphazardly saved and physically unsuited for preservation – have all turned to dust.” (25)

Ref: (italics in original) Clive Bloom (1996) Cult Fiction: Popular reading and pulp theory. Macmillan Press Ltd: London



Joyce Saricks writes: “Many of us in libraries find that Mysteries are the most popular genre among readers. …As has been the case since the genre’s nineteenth-century beginnings, readers have been fascinated by the character of the detective. Exploring the lives of these sleuths – their past and present, relationships, and friendships – has become, for many readers, as important as solving the Mystery. Series dominate all aspects of the genre, from hard-boiled private investigators (P.I.s) to amateur detectives in Cozies (cases without sex, violence, and profanity) and in Contemporary as well as Historical Mysteries. Despite this fascination with the detectives’ lives, the key to Mysteries remains the puzzle, carefully laid out for both detective and readers to solve, and the more intricate and clever the puzzle and its solution, the more these appeal to our intellects.” (p.196)

“Mysteries are constructed around a puzzle; the author provides clues to the solution but attempts to obscure some information so that the mystery cannot be solved too easily. We, along with the detective, are drawn into the puzzle in an attempt to solve it. This puzzle involves a crime, usually murder, and, of course, a body. There is an investigator (or a team of investigators), amateur or professional, who solves the question of ‘whodunit’. The Mystery tracks this investigation, with its concomitant exploration of the victim’s, murderer’s, and detective’s lives.

Straightforward as that sounds, defining a Mystery is as convoluted and problematic as the cases posed in the genre.” (p.196)

“At one time, Mystery titles were under three hundred pages, and you could tell at a glance that this (or a Western or other genre book) fit in the genre collection, rather than in Fiction. Now that Mysteries are as long as or longer than many mainstream novels, the distinction becomes more difficult. The answer to what belongs in the Mystery collection is that there is no definitive answer; there is often no clear-cut distinction between Mysteries (and much other genre fiction) and mainstream novels. We make our best guess, based on how a book is reviewed, whether we have others by that author or in that series, and, most important, where we believe readers expect to find the book.

Novels that fall within the Mystery genre follow a particular pattern: A crime is committed. An investigator pursues the clues, interviewing suspects and drawing conclusions. The crime is solved, and the culprit is brought to justice. In the hands of skilled writers in the genre, this barebones plot outline can become so much more.” (p.197)

“Since the point of Mysteries is to examine the clues and solve the puzzle, the character of the investigator plays a major role, and these two appeal elements – characterization and story line – intertwine as the crime is solved.” (p.199)

Characteristics of Mysteries

“1. The solving of a crime, usually a murder, drives the plot, and the detective, along with the reader, sort through the available clues to discover the solution. Readers and the detective understand ‘whodunit’ and why by the book’s conclusion.

2. The story focuses on the investigator or an investigative team. Mysteries are often written as a series, following the investigator through several cases. Secondary characters, whether suspects or supporting characters in the investigation, play an important role in the appeal of the Mystery and may also be series characters.

3. The frame in which the Mystery is set – whether a physical location of fascinating background details – plays a crucial role in its appeal.

4. The mood of Mysteries ranges from dark and gritty to lighthearted and witty with a multitude of variations in between.

5. The broad scope of the genre, embracing countries around the world and involving widely differing classes of characters and historical periods, demands a range of language and narrative styles.

6. Since all Mysteries move toward the solution of the puzzle, pacind is relentless and compelling, sometimes slowed by details of time and place, but always moving inexorably toward the solution.” (p.198)

Subgenres of Mysteries

“The character and specific type of investigator or detective are key to the way readers select Mysteries. The story line may control how the characters act, but the personality of those characters directs the book and its appeal to readers. Thus, the most straightforward way to examine the Mystery genre is to focus on these investigator types. As discussed below, however, there is also a particular feel that cuts across these types and may draw readers from one type to another. The types of investigator described here are the private investigator, police detective, and amateur detective. Even here the subgenre lines tend to blur. There are Police Detective Mysteries that feel like (and will appeal to fans of) Amateur Detective Mysteries (those by Louise Penny and Rhys Bowen, for example)….” (p.205)

Ref: Joyce G. Saricks (2009) The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction (2nd edn.) American Library Association: Chicago