Tzvetan Todorov’s seminal ‘Typology of Detective Fiction’ clarifies the distinction between mystery and thriller. (Although it seems to me that the dominant form today, in British detective fiction at least, does not quite fit either of these genres, being perhaps closer to the ‘police procedural’.) Todorov makes the starting point of his analysis this extract from Michel Butor’s L’emploi du temps (1956):
Every crime novel is constructed around two murders: the first, committed by the killer, is merely the pretext for the second in which he is the victim of the true murderer, the immune murderer – the detective who puts him to death, not by one of the vulgar methods was himself reduced to using, poison, dagger, silenced pistol, or silk stocking garrote, but by the explosion of the truth.This neat formulation is often quoted approvingly as an apt description of the way crime narratives work. But Butor’s novel itself does something much more interesting, and this explanation is nothing but a lure, a paper-thin construct that the centripetal narrative strains against and destroys.
In some ways such a sophisticated postmodern gesture is in fact an idiotic literalism, an inverse-quixotic way of reading narrative conventions: not the desire to make real life like a novel, but the desire to make novels more like ‘real life’:
In the crime novel the narrative gradually explores events prior to its beginning […] in reality, all too often, it is only when our lives are suddenly disrupted by the explosion of a tragedy that we rouse ourselves and try to find its originsThe postmodern crime novel continually frustrates attempts to impose order and meaning; its clues resist interpretation, events get distorted by the very act of investigating them. The narrative involves the reader in ever more labyrinthine twists, and increasingly indistinguishable temporal layers. There is no ‘explosion of truth’, only the explosion of meaning into fragments.
Witold Gombrowicz’s Cosmos (1964) takes further the idea of detection as a descent into madness. Paul Auster’s City of Glass and Ghosts (1986) do something similar, in subverting the conventions of the hard-boiled detective narrative, and tipping in a large dose of metafictional whimsy to further confuse matters. If I sound dismissive, I don’t mean to: I loved the New York Trilogy when I first read it, and I even made it the subject of a tedious postgraduate essay I wrote for a module on the impenetrable French theorist Maurice Blanchot. The NYT attracted many imitators, none of whom added much to the mix. Sam Taylor’s The Amnesiac (2007) is the most recent one that I’ve read; it wears its debt to Auster on its sleeve, and isn’t very good.
Novels like Butor’s, Gombrowicz’s and Auster’s function according to a logic that does not merely foreclose the possibility of a solution to the mystery, but ultimately reveals there never was any mystery to solve in the first place. The founding event of the detective narrative has been whipped out from under it, and if its attendant devices remain (clues, suspects, surveillance), they point only to an absent centre. The story of the investigation is no longer underpinned by the story of the crime. Todorov noted that in the generic detective narrative the story of the crime is the story of an absence in that it cannot be immediately present in the book; the difference here is that the story of the crime is an absence made pervasively present in the book. Clues become freely-circulating signifiers, leads become aporias, the lure of a solution becomes the endless deferral of meaning.
These kind of novels often get called ‘metaphysical detective stories’. It would probably be better to call them postmodern or poststructuralist, and reserve the ‘metaphysical’ label for the work of a Borges, or, at a stretch, of a Chesterton.
Umberto Eco’s historical mysteries represent a different type again, I think, because even if they load elements of the story with semiological significance, they do not violate the structural logic of the genre: both The Name of the Rose and Baudolino have murder mysteries and solutions that are recognizably classical in their form.