Wednesday, June 12, 2024

"A Novel Without Any Death in It Is Still to Me a Novel Without Any Life in It"

"The Corpse in 20th Century Detective Fiction."
By George L. Scheper and Peter V. Cenci.
Article (6 pages).
Online at (HERE).

   "A bibliographic overview of how the corpse is used as a literary trope and plot device in British and American detective fiction of the 20th century."

WHEN it comes to detective fiction, there are requirements almost amounting to what can be termed "rules" to this game. Our authors skim through the rather large corpus of the genre to establish what those "rules" are with respect to the absolutely indispensable victim. Brief excerpts follow:

  "First, there must be a corpse -- that is the tautological sine qua non of the murder mystery."
  "The second consideration of the mystery writer must be to decide who will play the role of the corpse. In real-life crime and realistic crime fiction the murderee may be either an innocent or what criminologists call a 'crime provocative' victim. In traditional English mysteries and their American counterparts, however, it is usually the latter, in fact someone who is such an eminently murderable person as to constitute the Most Likely Victim."
  "The third consideration is the manner of dispatching the victim."
  "Hence the fourth consideration, disposal of the inconvenient corpse."
  "Finally, if the corpse is not disposed of, then what matters is its disposition, and here the differences between the English and American traditions are evident . . ."
  "At the end, there is the matter of what the corpse reveals to investigation."

Concerning that fourth consideration:

  "The disposition of the corpse is at the heart of the Chandler/Auden debate." This is a reference to Raymond Chandler, who "praised Dashiell Hammett because he 'took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley . . . . Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse'." To which W. H. Auden responded: "Mr. Raymond Chandler has written that he intends to take the body out of the vicarage garden and give the murder back to those who are good at it. If he wishes to write detective stories. . . he could not be more mistaken."

  As far as we know, that debate has never terminated.

Typo: "max1m1zmg".

- "Dorothy L. Sayers, despite her work to legitimise crime fiction, wrote that there 'certainly does seem a possibility that the detective story will some time come to an end, simply because the public will have learnt all the tricks.' Of course, many readers have 'learnt all the tricks,' or most of them. This does not, however, detract from the genre’s overall appeal. We have not grown bored with, or become tired of, the formula that revolves around good and evil, and justice and punishment. Quite the opposite. Our knowledge of, as well as our faith in, the genre’s 'tricks' gives a level of confidence to readers who are looking for endings that punish murderers and other wrongdoers, allowing for more satisfactory conclusions . . ." 
   - "A Taste for Murder: The Curious Case of Crime Fiction" (2014) by Rachel Franks (HERE).
Rachel Franks's Taxonomy of Crime Fiction. (Click on image to enlarge.)
- Some mysteries generate a LOT of corpses:
  "As a lifelong reader of classic whodunits, I’m always a little disappointed when the first murder that occurs is the only murder in the story. I always crave that mid-point killing, the one that completely changes the dynamics of the narrative. The truth is, I want multiple murders. My favorite Christie is And Then There Were None, which comes right out and tells you that there will be no one left standing at the end.
  "Of course, I’m probably not the only one amused by the fact that the great detectives of fiction often don’t catch the murderer until half the suspects are dead. Hercule Poirot in Christie’s Death on the Nile gets all the credit for eventually uncovering the diabolical killer, but doesn’t get any points knocked off his score for all the deaths that occur while he’s interviewing suspects. (By the way there are five deaths in Death on the Nile—not too shabby.)"
   - "The Unique Pleasures of a Mystery Novel with a High Death Count" (2022) by Peter Swanson at CrimeReads (HERE).

Unless otherwise noted, all bibliographical data are derived from The FictionMags Index created by William G. Contento & edited by Phil Stephensen-Payne.

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