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No Sheetrock, Sherlock

with 2 comments

I’m sitting here in a gorgeaou room at a gorgeous computer in a brand new technology center, and there’s a fan in the heating center that sounds likeit’s about to explode.  I was born on Friday the 13th.  Sometimes I start to think it might matter.

Anyway, I feel rather odd writing about what I’m writing about right this minute, because the last time we had a “golden age of mystery fiction,” we had it right in the middle of the Great Depression.  Which isn’t to say that I’m expecting a new Great Depression–although if we won’t get one, it won’t be because the stock markets and the governments that enable them aren’t trying–but I do think that a lot of what made a certain kind of mystery novel (my kind, the kind I read, and I hope the kind I write) so popular at the time was that it was a form that answered to the deepest anxieties of the reading public.

At least, of the reading public in the “Anglophone sphere,” as people like to call it these days.  By and large, mystery fiction of the classic sort is a product of cultures allied with England.  Maybe there’s something about the Magna Carta that makes people interested in following the prograess of those little grey cells.  Or maybe it’s just something in the water, and wein the colonieskeep importing it.

To be a little more specific here:  there are basically three kinds of detective fiction:  hard boiled, soft boiled, and classic.

Hard boiled is at least suposed to be gritty and “realistic”–the works of Raymond Chandler are about as realistic as Barbie’s Fairytopia–and its focus is on the character of the detective.

Soft boiled is less gritty and, presumably  less realistic, but its focus is still on the character of the detecive.

Both hard boiled and soft boiled novels tend to be written in the first person.

Classic mysteries, however, tend to be written in the third person, because their focus is not on the detective, but on the suspects. 

And, I know, I said this before a couple of posts ago, or I think I did, but it’s worth repeating.  Because the classic mystery, although a messiah narrative, isa messiagh narrative of a particular kind.

Think of all fiction, of all art, really, as having one overwhelming purpose in human society:  to bring order out of chaos.  For most of human history, we’ve been mired in chaos.  Civilizaitions arose in the attempt to acquire some kind of control over the random forces that seemed to intervene without warning whether we were trying to prepare for them or not.

The nature of that chaso, however, has changed over time.  Even our perception of the existence of that chaos has changed, so that there are some of us who feel so completely ordered and controlled we crave a “wildness” and “naturalness” we don’t really know anything about.

For the men and women of even the high Middle Ages, that chaos was denomic, literally.  The devil was alive on earth and prowling.  Medieval stories tend to have a lot of magic in them, and miracles, not because the men and women of the time were superstitious and ignorant, but because a supernatural enemy required a superntural opponent.

For the Victorians, and to an extenf for the Enlightenment thinkers who were their spiritual ancestors, the chaos came in the form of animality.  There were two parts to our nature, we were half best and half God (as the Greeks would have said), and our danger came from inside us, from the part of us always threatening to give way to the “merely natural.”

That some people did so give way was not an issue.  There have been psychopaths in every era.  Jack the Ripper wandered through the streets of the same London that produced Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley and a riot of scientific societies promising to investigate, analyze, and solve every human problem according to the best modern standards of logic and efficiency.

Jack the Ripper, though, wasn’t really the problem.  In a way, he wasn’t really dangerous to Victorian society, any more than Ted Bundy or Charles Manson is dangerous to ours.  He was a nuisance, yes, and he ruined the lives of several young women, but that’s what we have police forces for, and jails.  Jack got away, but conveniently also stopped working.  Ted Bundy was captured and executed. Charles Manson is safely locked up in California.

Classic detective fiction doesn’t deal with people like these because that is not where it locates the real danger to human society.  Instead, it deals with the secretly depraved, the closeted anarchists, the people who appear to be just like us, but who have, inside themselves, broken ranks with the human community.

What’s more, the detective in a classic detective novel discovers the impostor and brings him (or her) to justice, by thinking

It is logic and the force of intellect that keeps us safe in the world of Sherlock Holmes, and Hercule Poirot, and Miss Marple, and Lord Peter Wimsey.  At its base, the detective novel is a story of thinking vs. emotions, of logic vs. passion, where thinking and logic are what qualify us as human.

In the end, every moral system begins by defining what it means to be a human being.  Whether you see man as halfway between God and beast, or a wretched worm so corrupted by original sin he has no justification for existing, or an animal who shouldn’t pretend to be anything more than that–where your definition is, there will the rest of your system.

For the classic detective story, the answer is always clear:  human beings are the beings who think.

Okay, I hven’t had much sleep, and I’m falling over.

Written by janeh

October 8th, 2008 at 10:54 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'No Sheetrock, Sherlock'

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  1. Not so much the Anglophone sphere, perhaps, as the realm of democracy. France has done well enough, and even Russia and Germany produce good crops in democratic periods. Haycraft and others covered that ground in THE ART OF THE MYSTERY STORY.

    But the hard-boiled detective novel is rare indeed–almost the special preserve of Dashiel Hammett. His successors are mere crime novelists. There is a reason the Detection Club Oath forbids both conspiracies and lunatics. These common trappings of crime and adventure are incompatible with detective fiction.

    As for system and definition, I remain unconvinced. Could one not go through the works of Dorothy L. Sayers and name the sin or sins of each murderer? Or, were one a Victorian in spirit, to point out the way in which their animal nature has triumphed? Bad art may be relentless and simplistic. In good and great art, much depends on the baggage the reader carries. This is why rereading is sometimes unsettling–and necessary.


    8 Oct 08 at 5:18 pm

  2. I tend to agree with Robert. The writer does the best he/she can, but the reader supplies the unknown element. When I read a Jane Haddam novel, do I read the same things as another? Of course not, because I approach it with my own set of peculiarities. I love Dorothy Sayers; Sherlock Holmes bores me. As a child I read every Erle Stanley Gardiner book I could find. I wouldn’t bother now.

    It’s much like theater. You rehearse and perfect and ferret out every nuance the playwright has put into the words . . . and afterwards you hear the audience as they file out of the theater saying the most absurd things. It’s then that you realize that there is always that unseen element in art of any kind. It’s the reason some people pay a fortune for a Picasso and others wouldn’t have one as a gift.

    Jane, my dear, I appreciate your novels so much and the effort you put into them. My husband read two and didn’t care for them. There’s that hidden element for you.

    Perhaps the “ages” influence people, but I think not. The same things that forged the personalities and “selves” of the Middle Ages are still at work today, only under different appearances.

    Well, that’s my two cents’ worth!


    9 Oct 08 at 10:18 am

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