By Carl D. Malmgren (born 1948).
First appearance: Journal of Popular Culture, March 1997.
Reprinted in and expanded into Anatomy of Murder: Mystery, Detective, and Crime Fiction (2001) (TOC below).
Article (21 pages).
Online (HERE) (PDF).
(Note: Major plot reveals for Christie's Endless Night.)
"There is, after all, much more than alphabetic distance and shelf space between the fictions of Agatha Christie and those of Jim Thompson."Most of us use the terms "mysteries," "detective stories," and "crime fiction" more or less interchangeably, but our author thoroughly disabuses us of that tendency; they aren't just synonyms but distinguishable categories of related types of fiction.
In a murder mystery, the detective and her/his solution of the crime are and normally remain in the foreground; in detective fiction, the question of whodunit can and often does recede into the background while the detective and his/her adventures get foregrounded; finally, in crime stories the comfort the reader usually experiences in having an effectual sleuth operat-ing in a comprehensible world could be lost altogether because the central character might be a thoroughly rotten, perhaps insane, criminal and the milieu he inhabits one of unmitigat-ed corruption.
1. The Scene of the Crime:
"This essay identifies three basic forms of murder fiction—which we term mystery, detec-tive, and crime—and seeks to express their interrelations and to define their differences. More important, it seeks to account for these differences, to explain why these subgenres take the forms they do."
"Such elements (e.g., the well-made plot, the red herring, the telling or extraneous detail) are the function of a certain set of novelistic techniques or conventions that are predicated upon and reflect basic assumptions about the way of the world and the nature of reality."
"Turning back to [Raymond] Chandler's treatment of detective fiction, we can say that his essay ["The Simple Art of Murder"] highlights two different forms dealing with murder and detection."
"In general, the respective worlds of mystery and detective fiction are entirely conven-tional: the great landed estates of mystery fiction over and against the 'mean streets' (Chandler 237) of detective fiction. These topographies are mutually exclusive; they occupy separate fictional universes. If we want to know why Sam Spade can never come to Styles, we need to examine the deep-structural assumptions informing their respective fictional worlds."
"The decentered world of detective fiction undermine's mystery's basic predicates: order, stability, necessity, causality, and resolution. . . . But decenteredness is more than just a function of topography, it contaminates the world of detective fiction."
[In the typical detective story as distinct from the mystery] "In the long run, of course, the detective perseveres and even triumphs, if only by standing up for a personal standard of morality. But given the ungrounded, foundering world in which he moves, his position is precarious, and it is easy to imagine someone going under. When the protagonist succumbs, the sign of the Self erodes, and the crime novel is born."
". . . The text becomes more a subject to be experienced, less an object to be known. In the best crime fiction, that experience is decidedly disturbing, disquieting, even disorient-ing."
". . . the transformations and revisions that murder fiction works upon basic novelistic signs make for very different narrative forms and reading experiences, all of which helps to explain the popularity that this kind of fiction enjoys."
Notes (2 pages)
Works Cited (2.1 pages)
- From the book jacket of Anatomy of Murder: Mystery, Detective, and Crime Fiction (2001):
"Anatomy of Murder identifies three basic fictional forms dealing with murder and detec-tion — mystery, detective, and crime fiction. It attempts to express their interrelations, to define their differences, and to explain why these subgenres take the forms they do. Parts One and Two distinguish between mystery and detective in terms of their narrative worlds and their treatment of the sign. Mystery fiction takes place in a centered world, one whose most distinctive characteristic is motivation (of behavior and signs). Built on a faith in foundations, it insists upon the solidity of social life, the validity of social conventions,
and the sanctity of signs. Mystery assures us that motives exist for both words and deeds.
"Covering the forms that murder fiction takes, Anatomy includes analyses of texts by Doyle, Christie, Sayers, Hammett, Chandler, Highsmith, Jim Thompson, Thomas Harris, and others. It explains how hybrids such as the police procedural or the serial killer novel can be produced by grafting aspects of one subgenre onto those of another. It demonstrates that the various permutations of murder fiction make for very different narrative textures and reading experiences."
Table of contents:
Part 1. Mystery Fiction
1. Mystery Fiction and Its Signs
2. Mystery's Design: Special Providence in Mystery Fiction
3. Truth and Justice in Contemporary Mystery Fiction
Part 2. Detective Fiction
4. Dashiell Hammett and the World of Detective Fiction
5. Grounding the Detective: Raymond Chandler's Fiction
6. Metafictional Detective Fiction
Part 3. Crime Fiction
7. Crime Fiction's Two Faces
8. Signs of Crime: Jim Thompson's Fiction
9. The Police Procedural and Serial Killer Fiction.
- Previous Miscellaneous Mondays: Number One (HERE), Number Two (HERE), Number Three (HERE), and Number Four (HERE).