Monday, October 7, 2013

The Detective Story and Its Historical Relationship to the Short Story as a Genre

While I am currently reading The China Factory by Mary Costello and Young Skins, by Colin Barrett, two new Irish writers, and also reading the new O. Henry Prize 2013 collection (not to mention, trying to figure out how to gently make folks aware of my new book "I Am Your Brother"), I thought I would post a couple of blogs on the detective story and its relationship to the short story as a genre.

I have just posted a handful of tweets on the detective story also, mainly on the stories of Borges.

Although the detective story is now more familiar as a novel form to its many admirers, its formal beginning as a short story in America with Poe’s Dupin is well known, as is its adoption in that form in England before it was later expanded into the novel.  And in many ways, the story of detection seems most appropriate for short fiction, so much so that it is little wonder that critics have suggested that Conan Doyle’s genius was better suited to the short story than to the novel.
There are two basic reasons why the short story seems an appropriate form for the tale of detection.  The first stems from a notion as old as Boccaccio and later developed by the writers and theorists of the German novella—that is that the story form does not deal with the commonplace but with the unusual.  At the very beginning of “The Speckled Band,” Watson reminds us that Holmes refused to “associate himself with any investigation which did not tend towards the unusual, and even the fantastic.” 

G. K. Chesterton notes in “The Blue Cross” that the detective Valentin, when he cannot follow the train of the reasonable, “coldly and carefully followed the train of the unreasonable,” keeping alert for any oddity that might catch his eye.  As Chesterton says: “In short, there is in life an element of elfin coincidence which people reckoning on the prosaic may perpetually miss.  As it has been well expressed in the paradox of Poe, wisdom should reckon on the unforeseen.” And indeed, in both “The Speckled Band” and “The Blue Cross,” it is the unusual that is foregrounded.

The second reason why the short story seems so appropriate a form for the tale of detection concerns the relationship between the story and the reader.  As Chesterton’s Valentin says, “The criminal is the creative artist;’ the detective only the critic.”  Indeed, in the detective story, the criminal is the artist in that he creates the pattern of the plot--both in the sense of involving the mystery which the detective must solve and also of providing the pattern of the story that the critic must lay bare.  Thus, the reader is embodied in many ways within the detective story itself as he follows the ideal reader the story, who is of course the detective.
The detective mystery story is a natural offshoot of the supernatural mystery story, and the word “natural” is used here purposely. The supernatural story was a story of a violation of the natural order; the detective story is the story of the violation of the social order. The movement is one from belief in the supernatural to disbelief; thus, the disruption in the detective story becomes a human disruption of the social order rather than a superhuman disruption of the natural order.  The transitional figures in this movement from the supernatural to the criminal are the amateur ghost hunter in Bulwer-Lytton’s “The Haunters,” who discovers that the supernatural can be attributed to a criminal mind of a quasi-scientific bent, and Sheridan Le Fanu’s Dr. Hesselisu in “Green Tea,” who finally determines that the supernatural monkey which so plagues the minister can be attributed to a physical/psychological source.

The detective as the critic does not create but rather unravels and exposes the hidden plot/pattern of the story.  The two basic methods by which he does so are the two basic methods by which any reader or critic lays bare the mystery of the story which he reads. W.H. Auden, in his delightful essay “The Guilty Vicarage,” pinpoints the two methods precisely.  Holmes is the “genius in whom scientific curiosity is raised to the status of a heroic passion,” whereas Father Brown solves crimes by “subjectively imagining himself to be the murderer.” These two methods suggest the two means by which anyone reads the tightly woven short story form—that is, both by following the material details of the story and by identifying with the characters.

As any good critic does with a short story, Holmes knows the importance of determining out of a number of facts which are incidental and which are vital—that is, to use the language of the Russian Formalist critics, which motifs in the story are “bound” ones and thus essential to the plot and which are “free” motifs and thus inessential.  The detective story, says Dorothy Sayers, in her essay “The Omnibus of Crime,” is a form that absolutely depends for its unity on its capacity to be analyzed.  It is, as it were, made for criticism or explication, and would not exist without the reader’s participation in the process of explication in which the detective engages.  Thus the detective story depends on a reader who perceives himself as a super-reader, not an ordinary or causal one.  As Sayers points out, the Holmes-Watson relationship makes this clear.  The ideal or super-reader believes that the average reader is supposed to understand no more clearly than Watson does, and thus he places himself above Watson in the text.
A central key to analysis of the detective story is of course the attention one must pay to the details of the text itself, for the explicator is one who perceives that details are meaningful because they are traces of human events, symbols of what is now absent but is nonetheless significant.  As G. K. Chesterton notes in “A Defence of Detective Stories,” the detective story is the earliest form of popular literature to express “a sense of the poetry of modern life.”  It is the social, not the natural, the human, not the inhuman on which the detective story must focus, for in a basic sense, says Chesterton, the city is more poetic than the countryside, because “while Nature is a chaos of unconscious forces, a city is a chaos of conscious ones.”  There is no stone in the street or brick in the wall that does not have a human imprint and thus constitute a “deliberate symbol.”  Sherlock Holmes is of course the master of what Chesterton calls the “romance of detail.”

Next: A few comments about how Conan Doyle’s story “The Adventures of the Speckled Band” and Chesterton’s “The Blue Cross” illustrate these aspects of the relationship between the short story as a genre and the detective story as a type.

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