Monday, May 1, 2017

Miscellaneous Monday—Number Nine

ANOTHER TWO-FER today, the first an entertaining and thoughtful, if admittedly subjective, article specifying what the author would regard as "the perfect detective novel," the second a more scholarly and therefore deeper critique of how academics subject a major component of popular culture—crime fiction—to searching analysis . . .

"The Perfect Detective Novel."
By Suzanne S. Barnhill.
Text of a speech (10 pages, 1991).
Online (HERE) (PDF).
(Note: No discernible spoilers.)
"I decided that they [what factors contribute to a successful detective novel] can be broken down into characteristics of the novel itself, the detective, and the author, and I will treat them in that order."
Suzanne Barnhill wants us to know at the outset:

   "If you’re already a mystery reader, I probably can’t tell you anything you don’t already know, and if you’re not already a mystery fan, there’s probably not much I can say that will interest you or get you interested in reading detective novels.  . . . if you’ll bear with me and promise not to expect any startling new revelations or profound insights, I’ll share with you my own entirely personal opinion, based on years of voracious and relatively uncritical reading, of what factors contribute to a successful detective novel."

The reader should remember that Barnhill is dealing only with the detective novel:

   "Although it may seem unnecessary to say this, I want to emphasize that my subject today is full-length novels only, not short stories or nonfiction accounts of true crimes. There are many excellent detective short stories, and some of the best-known authors have written almost exclusively in this form, but they are outside my scope."

Random excerpts:

   ". . .  every novel with any sort of plot is a kind of mystery, as the reader must wonder what is going to happen next or stop reading. But mystery novels and detective stories, in addition to suspense, also make a mystery of what has already happened."

   ". . . the act of murder inherently eliminates one of the most important witnesses to the crime, making it more difficult to solve."

   "The current TV generation of readers are much more apt to be content to be spectators, just reading along without much involvement."

   "I sometimes enjoy reading mysteries written in the past, but when present-day writers try to write in fancy dress they become name droppers, and the effect is spoiled."

   "The erudite detective is now almost a thing of the past; the public-school-educated Scotland Yard man who capped quotes with the scholars he interviewed was impressive but perhaps a little intimidating. But now even college professor detectives who are the creation of college professor authors are guilty of some shocking solecisms, and publisher’s editors seem to turn a blind eye."

   "Many early writers felt a wife would be a distraction to a detective; one gets the impression, reading their comments, that they felt their detectives were modern 
Sampsons whose strength would be sapped by the love of a woman."

   ". . . even able-bodied detectives should not be superhuman; they should suffer realistically, not bounce back like cartoon characters."

   "Finally, the perfect detective, like his author, should have a sense of humor. There is 
more scope for humor in the novel when the detective is the narrator, and most of the 
lighter detective novels are written in the first person, but even third-person narrative can 
show humor in the detective. Wit and wordplay are especially enjoyable, but I’ll settle for 
at least the realization that life is sometimes less than earnest."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Reviews of Stephen Knight's Form and Ideology in Crime Fiction (1980) (online HERE) and Dennis Porter's The Pursuit of Crime: Art and Ideology in Detective Fiction (1981).
By Robert Zaslavsky.
First appearance: College Literature, Spring 1983.
Book review article (4 pages).
Online (HERE) (PDF).
(Note: No spoilers.)
"Both Knight and Porter, then, have gone a long way toward providing a basis for studying the ideology of the mystery genre."
Unlike another recent post (last week's Miscellaneous Monday), thanks to Merriam-Webster we can at least define terms at the outset:

   a: a systematic body of concepts especially about human life or culture
   b: a manner or the content of thinking characteristic of an individual, group, or culture
   c: the integrated assertions, theories and aims that constitute a sociopolitical program.

As you can see, the term "ideology" is broad enough (and sufficiently vague) to qualify for any research program grant money that might be in the offing. Furthermore, we've noticed that academic types seem to place a premium on the ideological content of a literary work, often to the exclusion of all other aspects of that work. Based on what you'll be reading in Prof. Zaslavsky's book review, feel free to decide which one(s) of the above definitions best fit(s) what the two authors are examining.

Some random excerpts (and be sure to have a college-level dictionary handy):

   "Both Knight and Porter are committed to the ideologically oriented task of redeeming popular literature through the most popular of popular genres, the mystery-suspense-crime genre, and of seeing that genre as paradigmatic for all literature of whatever stripe. And both their studies are rewarding, although in slightly different ways . . ."

   "According to Knight, criticism should not allow the commercial success of a text to act as a deterrent or to be a ground for its dismissal, but rather criticism should reflect upon the societal interests and needs which the text encapsulates. Indeed, 'a good literary critic should be able to say why a mass-seller works, and how it works.' And Knight selects as his focus crime fiction, the 'major examples of [which] validate a whole view of the world, one shared by' its audience."

   "Of course, Sherlock Holmes is the detective, through whom Conan Doyle 'domesticates' the twin notions of positive scientific necessary causality and the individual’s power to discern that causality: 'Doyle’s ability to popularize and naturalize rational individualism runs through the stories and is central to their success.' Holmes is the heroic apotheosis of bourgeois professionalism, fusing a materialistic view of the world, a pervasive egalitarian-ism (with its corresponding disdain for aristocracy), and a view of crime—at least in the 
most popular short stories—as petty and unthreatening."
(Click on image to enlarge.)
   "In the discussion of [Raymond] Chandler, Knight tellingly shows how the ostensible objectivity and naturalism of the style are in reality a black mask for a subjective romanti-cism.  . . . Knight sees Chandler’s idealist form and his presentation of the informed and 
self-defending alienated individual as a real advance over his predecessors. It is the 
elevation of the moral value of the individual and the denigration of the external collective and mechanistic world. Its only defect is that it deliberately evades 'the realities of urban crime.' The police procedural story, a post-WW II sub-genre, is meant to remedy this defect and was formulated in response to the media-sophisticated and hence better informed audience which demanded greater verisimilitude in its crime fiction."

  "Porter introduces his survey by sketching the distinction between the ancient primacy of the mythic-sacred crime and the primacy of profane crime in the desacralized modern world, although both types have been co-present through all human history."

   ". . . the discussion of Poe as a historical culmination transforms itself into a structural analysis of the genre as a whole, in particular the principle of backward construction, in which the denouement is legislative for all the narrative units which precede it. With Dupin—the artist-detective amateur of genius, the fusion of gothicism and ratiocination—Poe demonstrated his mastery of the narrative technique of suspense which operates more or less in all narratives, a displacement of chronological time which must be logico-temporally restored and retarded simultaneously . . ."

   "Of course, the detective novel possesses readability par excellence, combining as no other form does both pleasure and intelligibility."

   "The most perfect language of detection, it seems, is the language of Chandler, a mythic stylization of quintessential American values which is a reaction to the tawdriness of American life."

   "Porter concludes his argument with the assertion that 'detective novels provide reassurance, not only because they deal in identifiable good and evil and end up 
punishing the latter but also because they propose a world of fixed cultural quantities.'"

   ". . . [Porter] examines works which he calls anti-detective, works which deliberately thwart the rhythm of desire that is satisfied so well in detective fiction, works by Henry James, Kafka, Robbe-Grillet, and Borges."

James: "anti-detective"
Robbe-Grillet: Likewise
Borges: Ditto
   "Both Knight and Porter, then, have gone a long way toward providing a basis for studying the ideology of the mystery genre. Despite the fact that they both commit what used to be regarded as the cardinal mystery fiction critic crime, namely revealing the endings of the books that they discuss, Knight’s and Porter’s two studies are worthwhile, informative, thoughtful."

- There's more about Dr. Zaslavsky (HERE).

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