Monday, May 22, 2017

Miscellaneous Monday—Number Twelve

"The Devices of Truth."
Introduction to Detective Fiction and the Rise of Forensic Science (1999).
By Ronald R. Thomas (born 1949).
Book excerpt (25 pages, 17 pages of text).
Online (HERE) (PDF).
(Note: SPOILERS for "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and Bleak House.)
"The history of detective fiction is deeply implicated with the history of forensic technology."
It can be argued that modern forensics got its start in the pages of detective stories; the great French scientist Edmond Locard certainly thought so. Here we have Ronald Thomas's introduction to his book, which basically proves the point; in the preview he touches on intriguing ideas (e.g., "detective fiction might more accurately be described as 'novelistically anti-radical'")—but you'll have to get the book to see if he has successfully developed them (see "Resources," below).


Random excerpts:

   "When Watson comes upon Holmes injecting his cocaine, the detective is also reading 
a book. These three activities — taking a drug, being a detective, reading a book — are presented as substitutions for ordinary life and as symptoms of some unnamed nervous-ness. Together, these devices point back to a very real 'pathological and morbid process' at the center of Holmes's professional identity — and at the heart of this popular nineteenth-century literary form.  . . . The Sherlock Holmes stories, like any detective narrative, function as our cocaine, our diversion from some historical reality. But they are also our work, written and read to transform what have become the unexamined routines of political life and the sometimes criminal cravings that leave their tracks upon the body."
   "The systematic medicalization of crime in criminological discourse during this period [the nineteenth century] corresponded to the literary detective's development into a kind of master diagnostician, an expert capable of reading the symptoms of criminal pathology in the individual body and the social body as well."

   "Each of these detective devices — fingerprint technology, forensic profiling, crime photography — is itself a nineteenth-century invention designed to convert the body [of the victim and/or the suspect] into a text to be read. Each also serves as a potent analogy for the literary detective that deploys it. Through these detectives and their devices, the mysteries of individual anatomy and person identity come to represent the general condition of the body politic itself."

   "Detective fiction as a form is generally recognized as an invention of the nineteenth century, coincident with the development of the modern police force and the creation 
of the modern bureaucratic state."
   "While the narratives of writers like Poe, Dickens, and Conan Doyle often reflected and popularized contemporary scientific theories of law enforcement, the detective stories they wrote also sometimes anticipated actual procedures in scientific police practice by offering fantasies of social control and knowledge before the actual technology to achieve either 
was available. At times, these texts seemed to call those technologies into being."

   "The detective story often functioned as a kind of lie detector redefining truth for 
its culture . . ."
   "Indeed, some of the most ardent articulations of the aesthetic and moral attributes 
of high Victorian realism were occasioned by condemnation of the cheap effects and immense popularity of nineteenth-century detective and sensation fiction."

   "In recent decades, detective stories have provided the demonstration pieces of choice 
for critics working in narrative theory, gender studies, popular culture, ideological critique, psychoanalysis, the new historicism, and cultural studies.  . . . Such extensive critical attention has complicated what we mean by the term 'detective fiction,' and challenged 
its traditional relegation into a specifiable generic catagory all its own."

   "Together with the rise of cultural studies, critical legal studies, and the critique of the canon, modern criticism has begun to grant detective fiction a more prestigious place 
in the house of 'legitimate' literature."
   "Though it is often regarded as a cerebral form that appeals to the reasoning faculties of its readers, the detective novel is fundamentally preoccupied with physical evidence and with investigating the suspect body rather than with exploring the complexities of the mind."

   "As Dupin's independence from and competition with the official police contrasts with the middle-class professionalism of Dickens's Sergeant [sic] Bucket, so will the American literary detective's deployment of the devices of detection be somewhat more skeptical and tentative than his English counterparts throughout the nineteenth century . . ."
   "Despite Holmes's frequent scolding of Watson for the overly literary quality of his narratives, Conan Doyle himself conceived of his Sherlock Holmes series as the less 
serious and more popular cash crop that would enable him to write what he regarded 
as the really important literature of historical fiction — which, of course, became 
nowhere near as successful with critics or with readers as his detective writing. On 
the other hand, Raymond Chandler would maintain that the hard-boiled detective 
fiction of Dashiell Hammett elevated the aesthetic of the dime novel to great American literature. Chandler would credit his predecessor with continuing the tradition of Walt Whitman and making possible the work of Hemingway."

   ". . . my reading of The Woman in White argues that the typical plot of a sensation novel — where a female body often vanishes and is recovered by a combination of legal and medical male expertise — represents a taking over of the terms of personal identity by an emerging class of professionals who compose a reconfigured patriarchal class."
   "Histories of detective literature have commonly chosen either to ignore the distinctions between English and American approaches to the form or to offer simplistic and absolute principles to distinguish between them — contrasting the refined and rational analysis of the mannered English tradition, for example, with the irrational violence of the American hard-boiled school. My analysis of detective fiction as a form of popular cultural history and criticism attempts to give a more complex picture . . ."

   "Those devices ['with which literary private eyes made the public world visible and legible'] were invariably aimed at making the body [of the victim and/or the criminal] write or speak for itself. The jagged lines of the heart recorded by the lie detector, the lineaments of the face imprinted on a mug shot, and the swirling patterns of the skin inscribed in the fingerprint all render the body as a kind of automatic writing machine. The detective narrative, in its deploy-ment of these forensic technologies and in its resemblance to them, helped to make nine-teenth-century persons legible for a modern technological culture."

- Detective Fiction and the Rise of Forensic Science (1999, 341 pages) is widely available 
from Cambridge University Press,, Barnes&, Books-A-Million, IndieBound, and other places, but it ain't cheap. Here's the Google Books description:

   "This is a book about the relationship between the development of forensic science in the nineteenth century and the invention of the new literary genre of detective fiction in Britain and America. Ronald R. Thomas examines the criminal body as a site of interpretation and enforcement in a wide range of fictional examples, from Poe, Dickens and Hawthorne through Twain and Conan Doyle to Hammett, Chandler and Christie. He is especially concerned with the authority the literary detective manages to secure through the 
'devices' — fingerprinting, photography, lie detectors — with which he discovers the 
truth and establishes his expertise, and the way in which those devices relate to broader questions of cultural authority at decisive moments in the history of the genre. This is 
an interdisciplinary project, framing readings of literary texts with an analysis of contem-poraneous developments in criminology, the rules of evidence, and modern scientific accounts of identity."

- Graham Law's 2000 review of the book can be found in The Wilkie Collins Journal (HERE):

  "Thomas's study is thus a rich and complex one to which it is difficult to do full justice in the space available here. However, I cannot conclude without expressing a slight feeling of regret that this volume does not talk more about the French contribution to the development of detection and detective fiction."

- As for the English vs. American schools of detective fiction, see Karen Woodward's article (HERE).
- A previous Miscellaneous Monday also dealt with forensics; go (HERE).

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