April 02, 2009

Youdunnit I

The postmodern detective story may be a more or less straightforward pastiche of style and plot conventions; or it may be a narrative that ironizes the form, imitating its structures but subverting and distorting them.

The most obvious way of subverting a form that is geared towards the solution of a mystery is to absent or defer the denouement. Thus the postmodern detective narrative is constructed around an absent centre (absence of a crime, absence of a solution); the detective narrative, insofar as the solution of the crime stands for the production of meaning itself, invites the application of poststructuralist theories of différance.

An example: a man reading a pulp detective novel borrowed from a library becomes dangerously obsessed with the narrative, to the extent that his life is consumed by the desire to know the solution. His prurient interest in the sexual dimension of the crimes described mounts to the point where the act of reaching the last page becomes for him a promise of orgasmic release. But the last page is missing, torn out. He complains at the library, but there are no other copies. He approaches the publisher, but the book is out of print. He attempts to visit the author, but he is dead. Finally he obtains a copy from the legal deposit library, and on turning the last page finds a publisher’s note informing the reader that the novel was left unfinished at the time of the author’s death. He will never know.

Alright, I’ll come clean: that was the plot of an episode of the popular BBC sitcom Hancock’s Half-Hour (1960).

In that episode, Hancock is shown in one sense to be the ideal reader of a detective novel, because he identifies with the detective so completely that he not only attempts to do the detective’s work in finding the solution to the crime (and these sequences are very funny), but also turns detective himself in finding the solution of the solution. This he does successfully, and even if the result is for him unsatisfying, for the viewer it is a perfect comedic pay-off.

However, in another way Hancock gets it wrong: the ideal reader of a detective novel should not identify completely with the detective; he should keep his distance, play the game. The reader’s true adversary is not the murderer, but the author. Gilbert Adair gives an insightful account of this here.

Pastiche of detective stories is a tricky balancing act, because the genre itself has a recuperative power and even in its classical form can accommodate self-referential games. I mentioned in the previous post the chapter in John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man (1935), in which the detective tips a theatrical wink to the reader:
‘But […]’, interrupted Pettis, ‘why discuss detective fiction?’
‘Because’, said the doctor frankly, ‘we’re in a detective story and we don’t fool the reader by pretending we’re not. Let’s not invent elaborate excuses to drag in a discussion of detective stories. Let’s candidly glory in the noblest pursuits possible to characters in a book.’
Such explicit self-referentiality may be rare in the classic detective novel, but there are gestures towards it also in Conan Doyle and Christie where the detective’s fame (which is of course really a literary fame) always precedes him; or in Chesterton, where Father Brown is asked to compare his methods of detection with those of other fictional sleuths.

Gilbert Adair’s Agatha Christie pastiches came in for some bad reviews for their irritatingly knowing tone and self-referential clowning. Myself, I rather enjoyed the one I read (A Mysterious Affair of Style), because Adair is clearly quite aware (as he shows in the above article) that the classic detective story is not itself ‘innocent’: it is a game between a knowing author and a knowing reader.

A Christie parody of a different sort, The Prismatic Bezel by Sebastian Knight, was published in 1925 (the same year as Christie’s third Poirot story The Mysterious Affair at Styles); already by that date the murder mystery had become a moribund form, a thing ‘shamming life, painted and repainted, continuing to be accepted by lazy minds serenely unaware of the fraud.’ Knight’s story places a corpse in a boarding house and populates it with the usual cast of suspects. Then the distortions begin: the detective character is called in but fails to arrive; the configurations of the story shift ‘with a quick sliding motion’ and all of the suspects are revealed to be connected with each other; the boarding house setting melts away and is replaced by a country-house; the crime plot fades out and the story takes on the contours of an entirely different type of novel. But then the detective arrives and we are back in the mystery plot. The corpse is revealed to have vanished. Finally the chief suspect (suspected by the reader from the start for being the most conspicuously innocent-looking character) is unmasked: not as the murderer, but as the victim. ‘You see, one dislikes being murdered’.

Knight’s story is of course the invention of Vladimir Nabokov, in whose 1941 novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight the above description appears. Around the same time, Raymond Chandler, who also thought that classic detective fiction had exhausted itself as a form, was busy writing the books that would in large part define a new genre: the hard-boiled thriller.

(Part 2) (Part 3)

7 comments:

Greg said...

Um..so is this where you got to? I have arrive juste (just?), so not sure you are you. But I am me.

Hmmm.

--they know me as modiFIed

Raminagrobis said...

I am indeed me, and here is where I am.

Good to hear from you. How's corndog these days?

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks for this bumper Raminagrobis offering.

"a non-human animal did it"

I hated this ending in Poe; it is contemptibly stupid. You have got me vaguely curious to know if and how some of the other 'trick' endings can be made plausible.

Raminagrobis said...

Well, the stories I had in mind were, respectively:
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (Christie)
The Hollow Man (John Dickson Carr)
Murder on the Orient Express (Christie)
‘The Insoluble Problem’ (Chesterton)
‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ (Poe)
The Moonstone (Collins)
But I fear if you read them with the solution in mind to begin with, you’ll only be disappointed with the way it’s arrived at. The Dickson Carr in particular is excellent, but if I tell you now how it’s done, it’ll be like telling you how a magic trick’s done before you see it. And the methods used in the best magic tricks usually are contemptibly stupid.

Greg said...

Ah, OK, I'm out of context, which is normal for me, but how good it is to read your excellent work again.

Selfishly, I bemoaned the decline of quality content at that - the only - Internet forum I frequented (though no longer - I am now in the role of occasional drop-in curmudgeon).

Corndog is well. She sends her regards.

On point - enjoying your dissections of the detective genre, one I never warmed up to. I dearly love Doyle, but mainly in the televised form so lovingly rendered by the late great Jeremy Brett. Don't know if you agree, but to me he is Holmes.

Greg said...

Oh, and if you're still in the mood, I'd love to hear your take on Poe's Purloined Letter. I didn't catch anything in your catalogue regarding the "hide in plain sight" trick. Or would that story's pedigree be merely "precursor of the tiresome bag of plot hooks ex machina to which the lazier writers in the genre resort"? I mean, if I had searched for that letter, I think I would have found it.

Raminagrobis said...

Sorry, I completely forgot to reply to this. How rude of me.

I agree that the Granada Holmes adaptations are the best – actually I know most of the Holmes stories through them rather than the books. Such a shame that Brett carked it.

As for the Purloined Letter, I remember a few years ago I wrote reams of crap about it over at that internet forum you mentioned – you know, Lacan, Derrida, that sort of thing. It’s definitely a foundational text, in that its plot could be said to figure or define the genre as a whole: as a sort of knowing game or quest whose object is an empty signifier (the letter – of which everyone already knows the content). And the ‘hide in plain sight’ thing is exactly what writers of detective fiction are always trying to do. (Van Dine’s first commandment is that ‘All clues must be plainly stated and described.’) I reckon I would have found the letter too, but then again…when we read detective stories we’re always on the alert for clues hidden in plain sight, and still the skilled author can sometimes slip them by us, right under our noses.