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Detective Fiction: The Devil is in the Details

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Ever since Edgar Allan Poe wrote “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in 1841, starting a new trend in fiction, countless readers have enjoyed stories of unsolved crime. From Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to contemporary authors such as Cormac McCarthy and Walter Mosley, detective, or crime fiction, has evolved in technique and style, but can it truly be labeled a genre?

Northrop Frye explained the difficulty of defining genres. He claimed that “the basis of generic distinctions in literature appears to be the radical of presentation” (246-47). For example, Shakespeare’s plays were written for the stage and meant to be spoken in front of an audience. Therefore, his works can easily be classified as belonging to the genre of drama. However, Frye continues, that novels present a unique dilemma because the presentation of the work can either be spoken or read silently which leads Frye to conclude that it is the author’s idealistic intention that should be used to determine genre in prose.

Using this framework as a backdrop towards analyzing detective fiction, the critic should examine the historical and cultural context of the author and apply those findings towards fictional devices employed in each author’s work. After all, writers do not live in a vacuum. They artistically respond to trends and tastes that affect society.

Poe lived in an age which witnessed amazing industrial advancements and unprecedented urban growth. Larger cities required more police to handle the increasing crime rate. Newspaper reports of gruesome murders undoubtedly, just like today, sold copies. Unsolved crimes generated concern, fascination and frustration with police departments lacking modern forensic methods.

Poe introduced the concept of ratiocination into his fiction, empowering everyday citizens to help police solve mysteries that were seemingly unexplainable as in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” After all, Poe and his generation were still products of the Age of Enlightenment which valued rationalism and logical thinking. The potentials of calculated reasoning still reigned supreme and were available to all men created equal who possessed the will and curiosity to fully exercise their mental abilities.

C. Auguste Dupin, the main character in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” is motivated by justice. His unwillingness to accept the conviction of a man found guilty without any substantial evidence inspires him to become involved and pursue the matter simply to right a wrong. Philosophically speaking, Dupin is the embodied antithesis of Schopenhauer’s proclamation that mankind is incurably absurd and has governed the world with an irrational will (Kolakowski 1014). Men like Dupin exemplify reason over irrationality and hasty condemnations by the authorities. His sentiments are summarized at the end of the story when the Prefect of Police criticizes his involvement in the case:

“‘Let him talk,’ said Dupin, who had not thought it necessary to reply. ‘Let him discourse; it will ease his conscience, I am satisfied with having defeated him in his own castle. Nevertheless, that he failed in the solution of this mystery, is by no means that matter for wonder which he supposes it; for, in truth, our friend the Prefect is somewhat too cunning to be profound.'” (Literature Network)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, advanced the form of detective fiction through manipulation of plot and character development. Doyle’s background as a physician clearly shaped his style and many devices that he used relied upon conventional, and unconventional, techniques. Holmes enhanced ratiocination with forensics as in The Hound of the Baskervilles when he observed clues in an anonymous letter, using detailed observation of paper cuts and the traces of perfume upon it. Later on, the dog used by the scoundrel Stapleton was bathed in phosphorous to give it a hellish appearance in an attempt to attribute the premeditated murder of Sir Henry to an ancient curse against the family members.

If we refer back to Frye’s definition of the author’s ideal in composing, then the intricate plot and interwoven sub plots of the novel suggest that as science evolves so does criminal ingenuity. Holmes is still the quintessential everyman but, unlike Dupin who works to correct an irrational human conclusion, Doyle’s sleuth is motivated by the intricate and duplicitous nature of the investigation. In “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange,” Holmes’ enthusiasm towards solving crime is expressed when he exclaims to his assistant, Dr. Watson, “Come! Watson! Come!…The game is afoot. Not a word! Into your clothes and come!” (The Literature Network)

With the advent of modernism in the twentieth century, detective fiction has conformed its protagonists into anti-heroes and borderline criminals, reflecting the deconstructionist mood of existential thought that has affected a generation plagued by world wars and a complete loss of faith in traditional, societal mores. Walter Mosley and Cormac McCarthy are two contemporary authors whose idealistic intentions are vastly different from those of Poe and Doyle, yet many established rhetorical devices are still maintained in their fiction. However, the focus from solving mysteries has shifted towards psychological fascination with the criminal mind. Advanced forensics has replaced ratiocination and audiences are now more captivated by dirty deeds rather than heroic solutions.

For example, in Walter Mosley’s novel, Devil in a Blue Dress, the protagonist, Easy Rawlins, is initially motivated by money and unwittingly pulled into a murder mystery even though he has never had any prior interest in crime or investigative work. He learns through trial and misfortune what it takes to solve a complicated case. His reluctance is transformed into positive action at first by the lure of money, since he is a poor, black man living in a still segregated, post war society. As the plot thickens, however, money becomes less important when he realizes he is being set up for murder to cover up a political scandal. The thug, Albright who hires Easy, responds to his fear of danger when he says in the film version of the novel directed by Carl Franklin, “When you’re mixed up in somethin’, you better be mixed up to the top.” Mosley’s idealistic theme transcends earlier detective fiction by introducing readers to a Los Angeles underworld, plagued with racism, racketeering and unbridled violence. In the end, Rawlins overcomes his simple desire for money and reassesses his value system, both personally and socially.

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy portrays a laconic sheriff who works in law enforcement only because it is a family tradition. Officer Ed Tom Bell is forced to deal with a multimillion dollar, drug deal gone bad in his county that leaves a trail of corpses. The magnitude of the crime and the sociopathic hit man involved, whose presence Bell is vaguely willing to acknowledge, compels him to do only what he thinks he is capable of — protecting a few innocent citizens around him. He shows very little passion for diving headlong into the investigation even though his instincts and training bring him within arm’s reach of confronting the merciless hit man, Chirguh, near the end of the novel. He walks away from it all and speaks for many in today’s world of globally syndicated, narcoterrorism when he says:

“I’ve told my deputies more than once that you fix what you can and you let the rest go. If there aint nothin to be done about it it aint even a problem. It’s just an aggravation. And the truth is I don’t have no more idea of the world that is brewin out there than what Harold did.”  (283)

Detective fiction has undoubtedly changed. While it is still true that murders and intrigue move plots forward, the emphasis has shifted from merely solving a puzzle towards understanding the human condition and the psychological and social aspects that shape characterization and theme. The presentation that readers hunger for today surpass morbid fascination and mystery. However, the elements of twisting plots and protagonists, willing or unwilling, that find themselves caught up in the web of human deception remain constant narrative devices that contemporary authors use more liberally to present their ideals, suggesting that detective fiction, or crime fiction as it is more commonly known now, has become a genre which addresses social and psychological elements instead of merely entertaining curious readers.

Works Cited:

Devil in a Blue Dress Dir. Carl Franklin. Perf. Denzel Washington, Tom Sizemore, Terry Kinney, Jennifer Beals. Story by Walter Mosley. TriStar Pictures, 1995.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1973.

Kolakowski, Leszek. Main Currents of Marxism. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005.

McCarthy, Cormac. No Country For Old Men. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.
The Literature Network. Jalic Inc. 2000-2010. .

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About John H. Byk