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The Lure of the Solution: How do we consume the detective story today?

2013 January 15
by lucinda matthews-jones

Alfie Bown (University of Manchester)

The place of the fictional detective in contemporary popular culture is as central now as it was when the form first became popular in the nineteenth-century.  Detective and crime fiction of innumerable sub-genres line the shelves of Waterstones, Poirot and Miss Marple are seemingly looped continuously on ITV3, film continues its interest in the whodunit, and the form is strangely prevalent in children’s and teenage television and fiction.

But is there a continuity between the appeal of Poe, Dickens and Collins and the appeal of contemporary film, television and fiction which sees itself as the modern development of this tradition?  Susan Hill described fellow novelist Kate Summerscale’s 2008 novel The Suspicions of Mr Whitcher, which was reprinted and made into a television series last year, as ‘a terrific read in the Willkie Collins tradition’. But is this a useful way of conceptualizing the role that detective fiction plays in contemporary culture, or do we need to emphasize instead the complete break that has occurred in the way that detective stories are consumed?

Walter Benjamin comments on the role that detective fiction played in the nineteenth-century:

Nothing happens here that is not premeditated; nothing corresponds to appearances. Rather, each thing has been prepared for use at the right moment by the omnipotent hero who wields power over it. [1]

The detective novel is the dream of completeness; the appeal is the lure of the solution, which promises to tie things together into a complete unity, affirming the genius of the omnipotent detective in relation to the unity of things around him.  The ‘truth’ is discovered, and the detective’s ‘true genius’ is established.  Indeed, the word detective stems form the Latin meaning ‘unroof,‘ so that detection is seen as a process which reveals something already present: it is a science, as Dickens said in a co-written article for Household Words in 1850.[2] Detection, like science, works on the basis that there is a ‘truth’ that can be arrived at.  And yet, by bringing these desires to the fore, the detective novel also calls them into question, demonstrating the desire to tie things together and asking whether the detective story is not an active process of constructing or simulating a truth, rather than of ‘unroofing’ one that was already there.

Today, we see the detective novel more in this way; less as an engagement with the question of science and closure, but as a simulated perfect narrative, a kind of escapism which answers a desire for completeness in relation to the discontinuities of everyday life.  We think we know what the detective story is about, but we enjoy it nonetheless.

As such, has the role of the detective novel not become Freudian fetishism in its truest sense, which Sarah Kofman puts nicely when she writes that ‘for Freud, fetishism implies both the recognition and the disavowal of reality and the constitution of a substitute.’[3] When the subject buys into the fetishized commodity, he does not, as one might think, do so blindly.  One is not ‘taken in’ by the products promise to complete the subject, but all the same, one buys it.

Is this not precisely the same gesture which we make before we sit down to Poirot, or to a detective novel we have picked up at the airport?  Whereas the nineteenth-century engaged with the ideology of the detective story, we believe we understand it as a disavowal of reality, as a substitute which provides a false sense of completeness, but we watch it nonetheless.

At this moment we are not outside or above its ideology, but rather, we demonstrate the very moment of ideology at work.  We are precisely subjects of ideology when we sit down to the detective narrative as we do to The Only Way is Essex and remark, ‘I know very well, but even so….’

Poirot explains how ‘it all makes sense’:

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[1] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2002), p. 199.

[2] W.H. Wills and Charles Dickens. ‘The Modern Science of Thief-Taking’ in Household Words (13 July, 1850).

[3] Sarah Kofman, Camera Obscura: of ideology (London: The Athlone Press, 1998) p. 17.

2 Responses leave one →
  1. January 16, 2013

    I wonder whether the desire for an omnipotent detective in fiction emerged principally because of the human frailities exposed amongst the real detectives. Is it just a coincidence that one of the most omnipotent fictional detectives, Sherlock Holmes, appeared on the printed page only a few years after ‘The Trial of Detectives’, a widely publicised trial in 1877 where three of the senior members of Scotland Yard’s were convicted and imprisoned following charges of corruption? Those unfamiliar with that case might like to take a look at my recent book ‘The Chieftain’ (2011; The History Press; see http://www.chrispaynebooks.com)

  2. February 11, 2013

    I always considered the catch of the contemporary detective as that of the knight-errant, the frontier lawman, the last independent–an agent struggling to live by a code of justice where often none can be found.

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