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?’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.
‘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.’
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)