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

The narrative uses of violence


Here’s another one of those articles I really liked: Steffen Hantke‘s (2001) ‘Violence incorporated: John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and the Uses of Gratuitous Violence in Popular Narrative’.

In it, Hantke uses the film, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, to consider the uses of gratuitous violence in popular narrative. He considers the function(s) of violence in narrative and the way in which such functions engage and reassure the audience… really interesting!

Hantke begins: “The current public discussion of media violence is shaped by two fundamental assumptions. One supposes that representations of violence reflect the steadily rising level of violence in society, while the other assumes that representations either cause or at least significantly contribute to the increase of violence.” (p.29)

“What I aim to do,” he explains, “…is to intervene on the microscopic level, tracing the rules of discourse regarding the representation of physical violence in a specific text and then drawing conclusions from this example regarding the larger cultural discourses surrounding it.” He does this by analysing a text that ‘breaks the rules’, as it were, around representations of violence: John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

Hantke argues “that all consumers, regardless of their demographic niche, want, or are willing to tolerate, a certain degree of violence, if portrayed in a certain manner, justified by certain moral imperatives, and legitimized by certain narrative structures – violence, in other words, that has been socially and culturally sanctioned by the proper forms of aesthetic coding.” (p.32) “The absence of these ‘proper’ forms of aestheticization,” he declares, “is exactly what makes McNaughton’s film Henry such an unsettling experience for the audience.” (p.32) It is a film that deploys violence “without the expected legitimation [of that violence]. Violence, in other words, exploited rather than employed. Gratuitous violence.” (p.34)

“The absence of a pragmatic legitimation registers as something intolerable, to some extent via categories established by social consensus, such as taste or tact – categories which themselves are tied into notions of proportionality and functionality. The absence of a proper narrative rationale has alarming consequences for the viewers and their sense of participation in the narrative process; if violence is an end in itself, then I, the viewer, must be watching, and enjoying, it for exactly what it is, and not for something else it stands for. Violence as a signifier points to nothing but itself as a signified is a thought that is all the more unsettling because my enjoyment somehow appears to erase the aesthetic distance between myself and the spectacle. My collaboration is suddently exposed as complicity, just as the violence depicted suddenly ceases to take place at a safe aesthetic distance.
Hence, violence needs to be functionally useful as an aesthetic, dramatic, narrative, affective, thematic, or contextual device. Violence must be made to mean something, to point to something beyond itself. Once the narrative engages it in a functional context, it becomes invisible as such to the extent that it is made to work for an end beyond itself.” (p.37) … “The distinction between, for example, a violent act and a loving act of compassion is elided in exactly the sense in which both equally accelerate, obstruct, or complicate the narrative.” (p.37)

What is curiously absent from the story, which is after all the story of a murderer, is a detective figure, a character who embodies, in Jenkins’ words, ‘the discourse of rationality on which the fiction depends, and through which order is imposed upon an otherwise inexplicable world’ (109). If there was such a force or figure, its effects would not only be felt in the moral nature of the narrative universe, as Jenkins suggests, but perhaps even more so in its narrative cohesion. The world of Henry is an ‘inexplicable world,’ not only because it does not meet the requirements of rationality, but also because it cannot be properly narrated.
Since there is no concrete detective figure opposing the killer, there is no dramatic tension about who is going to prevail in the end. Since there is no dramatic tension, there is no chance for proper narrative closure. The killer will, by his nature, continue to kill, as long as there is no counterforce stopping him. …The impression of many viewers that the film’s ‘tone’ is laconic, deadpan, or emotionally detached, is less due to its visual style than to its narrative organization, which refuses to prioritize, weigh, or compare in order to create a sense of proper plot.” (p.40)

Noting that there is no ‘end’ to Henry’s violence in this film (it is happening before the ‘beginning’ and will continue after the ‘end’), Hantke writes: “Violence, once it is incorporated in this ‘serial narrative,’ becomes conspicuous, because, if the narrative does not go or is not headed anywhere, what function can violence possibly have in it? It cannot cause, hinder, or accelerate events. Hence, its demonstrable lack of purpose makes it appear excessive. Its lack of a proportionate functional frame makes it appear gratuitous.” (p.41)

“In uncoupling representations of violence from their instrumental purpose, that is, by making them appear gratuitous, the moral narrative which we conventionally and tacitly superimpose upon the events suddenly appears no longer as an inevitable way of seeing the world. Instead of being written into the very fabric of narrative, it appears freestanding, a cultural construct whose integrity and credibility rests on nothing more than social convention. The ‘social system that is the source of any morality that we can imagine’ (14), as White puts it, becomes caught up in the sense of arbitrariness that permeates Henry.” (p.42)

“…narratives can raise the question of what violence ultimately means; what effects it has on those who perpetrate, suffer, or witness it; how we are to assess its effects from an empirical, social, or moral point of view; or how it helps to constitute the environment we life in.” (p.35)

Ref: (italics in original, emphases in blue bold mine) Steffen Hantke (2001) Violence incorporated: John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and the Uses of Gratuitous Violence in Popular Narrative College Literature; Spring 28(2); pp.29-47

Reference is to: White, Hayden (1990) The Context of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Jenkins, Philip (1994) Using Murder: The Social construction of Serial Homicide. New York: DeGruyter

Other interesting references include:Fraser, John (1974) Violence in the Arts. New York: Cambridge University Press

Grixti, Joseph (1989) Terrors of Uncertainty: The Cultural contexts of Horror Fiction. New York: Routledge

Seltzer, Mark (1998) Serial Killers: Death and life in America’s wound Culture. New York: Routledge


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