"Detective fiction is a defensive reaction against the unknowability of the modern world." Discuss.

In The Name Of The Rose there is the laying bare of a literary device in the line: "I behaved stubbornly, pursuing a semblance of order, when I should have known well that there is no order in the universe."[1] The writers of detective fiction who preceded Umberto Eco might well have come to this same bleak conclusion somewhere in the depths of their collective subconscious, but they were not prepared to accept it without a thorough exhaustion of every alternative. The ramifications would have been too great, whereas the world of the 1980 society the book mentioned in the opening sentence was written from within perhaps had somewhat less in the way of innocence to lose.

In the course of this essay I shall be navigating via the landmarks of Doyle and Chandler, discussing the emergence of the detective as a phenomenon more complex than that of a saviour. I shall focus upon the positing of solutions by these writers, and diversifying into how these laudable aims relate to the trend towards a detection narrative which has at its core implicit metaphysical issues. I shall be taking the line that in order to assess the contributions of early detective fiction, it is necessary to approach them from a perspective which does not exclude from the discourse later developments in the field.

To begin with a little background information: In Golden Age fiction the nature of criminality was predicated upon individual psychosis rather than that of a social problem[2], and in this way, the criminal was often viewed as self-aware and wilfully malicious. This notion stemmed from a period in history when to acknowledge any alternative motivation would be to throw into question the whole belief system of 'respectable society'. There was no interest in exposing corruption, rather the focus was towards rationalisation of crime as part of an exclusively private sphere of events. In opposition, Chandler considers himself "a realist in murder"; corruption is self-evident and assumed ("law and order are things we talk about but refrain from practising[3]"), therefore its discussion is an integral quality of the agenda whether stated explicitly or not. Whilst they differ in outlook, values and methodology, however, these two authors are linked by their indirectly suggested affiliations with the middle-classes.

Middle-class pride is aggrandised by detective fiction because the latter provides a backdrop of dishonesty and subversion against which the values of the former can be emphasised through contrast. The detective earns his own clean money, or does not strictly have to earn money through his detection at all. He is not part of the corruption, but is close enough to feel it, and is able to move in society either with little disguise as does Holmes, or without pretence, as does Marlowe. Simply put, the lower classes remain dismissed and without voice, the upper echelons are seen as morally stagnant, and the detective moves where he will, never comfortable except with those who share his avoidance of both. Marlowe notably takes great umbrage at those slighting his endeavours: "Can I go on being a son of a bitch, or do I have to become a gentleman, like that lush that passed out in his car the other night."[4]

In relating this to the social discourse of detective fiction, we note that Marlowe represents (like many detectives) facets of the author taken to idealistic extreme, this extending to his assumption of certain class ideals—in particular the assumption of personal agency inherent in radical thought such as class mobility. Since the detective is all about a mindset and an exaggerated sense of awareness, and a precisely crafted, reasoned and intelligently articulated one at that, it is hard to separate where the fallible author ends and the omnipotent character begins in works of this generation. Whilst Doyle's detective lacked many of the assumptions of his author's reality, Chandler began to work outside of early convention, making his central character more vulnerable in line with what he believed to be "real" life.

Its chief feature is at the detective loses his immunity, gets beaten up, badly hurt, constantly risks his life, in short, he is integrated into the universe of the other characters, instead of being an independent observer as the reader is[5]

The genre thus begins to become subservient to the authorial morality tale and, as Todorov notes, "to 'improve upon' detective fiction is to write 'literature,' not detective fiction"[6] Therefore it emerges that writers of Chandler's breed look past the question of 'whodunnit', towards social issues and their resolution. I shall be returning shortly to the matter of Chandler's proposed agenda in the process of analysing his subverting the classic tradition with a new and almost unconscious method of reasoning.

Intellectualism had tried to formulate an entirely cogitative system of solution, whereas the hard-boiled detective had developed and was willing to trust the instinctual logic of the hunch. Not a satisfactory methodology ("I just don't like to admit that I played a hunch"[7]), situated as in this case in the reading of body language (which lacks concrete signification), it is still grounded in an underlying assumption that an answer is obtainable from signals which are present if one knows where to look.

For instance, eyes are marked as being extremely important, summing up the essence of a character, and implying by their dependable recurrence in description that the matter of a person's character can be transparent and open to divination. "The soldier's eye"[8] is a quality attributed to Norris, Marlowe, Regan & the General, acting as a bond of shared experiences and a reinforcement of their interrelated systems of value. Marlowe notes Norris' "acid-blue"[9] eyes inseparably from his caustic and cynical temperament and of Carmen that "I looked into her slaty blue eyes. I might as well have looked at a couple of bottle tops."[10] The General and his daughter Vivian both have piercing black eyes like voids, implying that they are both victims, still in possession of honour beneath the tarnish of their wild lives. The effect of all this is to suggest that, as already stated, the world may be forced into an order in which such things are knowable; more importantly, as Chandler suggests elsewhere, they are unalterable ("Nobody can change the colour of a man's eyes"[11]). There is misdirection and subterfuge, to be sure, but the enquiring detective eventually sees through it, since for the author there is no acknowledgeable alternative.

As far as the reader is concerned, nothing happens outside of Marlowe's gaze or knowing. Their supply of knowledge is entirely mediated through the detective's own perceptions. This point-of-view approach has been ably adapted to film conversions of The Big Sleep, analysers of which note: "to a great extent, our 'identification' with a film's protagonist is created by exactly this systematic restriction of information."[12]

Knowledge is the life-blood of the omniscient detective, quite literally preserving its spilling: "If she missed the can, which she was certain to do, she would probably hit the wheel ... However, she wasn't going to hit even that."[13] Marlowe's re-arming of Carmen, with knowledge of her instability, would be impossible to believe if not false, since we are conditioned by the conventions of the genre in this era into the mindset that the detective cannot die, at least until the final scene. We have come to trust his judgement implicitly and believe that whilst manipulated, he remains the supreme manipulator. In a far broader sense, this created trust between reader and author establishes an intimacy in which the former is conditioned to be content for their emotions and thoughts to be directed by the latter. Here we are directed to share his desire that the world should be an ordered environment, the escapist nature of the fiction fulfilling the role of a defence against a vastly more complex and chaotic reality. The achievement of this rationalisation operates partially through the neat, ritualistic arrangement of punishment:

"George Burton, the author of many murder mysteries, explains to the narrator that 'all detective fiction is based on two murders of which the first, committed by the murderer, is merely the occasion for the second, in which he is the victim of the pure and unpunishable murderer, the detective,'"[14]

Detective fiction is, then, a revenge fantasy in which the efforts of the official justice system are usually bypassed and replaced with the subjective morality of the detective and author: Marlowe's ambush of Canino is quite unlike the honest challenge of "a gentleman of the old school."[15] And, in a similar vein, Holmes is entirely unconcerned about the demise of the wicked doctor in The Adventure Of The Speckled Band, and prepared to take matters into his own hands by thrashing the step-father in A Case Of Identity. Resolution of this kind satisfies the personal impotence of reader and author to directly affect crime, transferring destructive energies to constructed guilty parties and sanctioning retribution without ever having to attribute responsibility for the outcome to subjects in reality.

"David Lehman tells us that "the most subversive thing that can happen in a detective novel is the recognition that ... chaos is the norm and true detection impossible, and that the detective is therefore doomed..." (xiii). The quest for knowledge is fatal."[16]

This is exactly the break with ideology that Chandler is consciously working against and his predecessor almost entirely refuses to acknowledge. Simultaneously, he makes a movement towards the conclusion that although the detective may solve the crime, it is a futile gesture if made in isolation or without awareness of its potential repercussions. Indeed, biographies and publishings of Chandler's private letters reveal an absence of any true concern for the way events hinge together in the worlds of his fiction:

"Chandler was bored by plots. When filming The Big Sleep, Howard Hawks was so confused by the labyrinthine story that he famously cabled Chandler to ask who killed General Sternwood's chauffeur. 'No idea,' replied the author."[17]

This vacuum was filled by a preoccupation with the nature of the detective's relevance to society. Moving forwards in time, a large part of an essay by Jeanne C Ewert analyses the metaphysical The Name Of The Rose, arguing that its author works a conscious manipulation of his readership towards a definable social result. I would argue that this is latent in Chandler, and buried deep within the subconscious of Doyle. Whilst The Big Sleep remains a positivist text, his conscious and stated desire to influence the audience at large is a comparable enterprise as in both cases the existing system is deemed faulty, and another is posited. Central to this alternative worldview is the importance of the integrity of the detective, previously rooted (as with Holmes) in amateur status in a time when using ones intelligence and creative talents professionally was still viewed by the academic literati as tantamount to prostitution. ("I play the game for the game's own sake"[18]). This was something that Chandler was deeply impassioned about.

He takes this emphasis on the integrity of the individual much further than Doyle, presenting to us the detective as nothing less than an attainable role model. His solution to social ills is for each and every one of us to transubstantiate ourselves into the detective, taking up his latter-day lance of awareness and shield of honour. This is more than figurative allusion—his biographer tells us that "Chandler had originally toyed with the idea of calling Marlowe 'Mallory'"[19], which is yet another resonation with the knight imagery used at the book's opening and close, and the puzzle in the apartment ("I looked down at the chessboard. The move ... was wrong."[20])

And, like a modern-day knight, Chandler stubbornly follows through to the best possible outcome; ultimately in the scenario outlined in The Big Sleep, it is his view that faced with certain evidence of implacable corruption it is preferable to protect the spirits of the vulnerable by maintaining their ignorance. This is explicitly demonstrated in Marlowe's resolution at the conclusion of The Big Sleep: "I was part of the nastiness now ... But the old man didn't have to be ... His heart was a brief, uncertain murmur ... And in a little while he too ... would be sleeping the big sleep."[21] Within this there is an implicit, perhaps unrecognised acknowledgement of the belief that " The quest for knowledge is fatal."[22] The problematic aspect is that someone has to partake of knowledge of the corruption in order to oppose it. Chandler's life was frequently unhappy and "despite his hard-boiled props, [he] wrote principally about loss: check those titles - The Long Goodbye, The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely."[23] In his work one can sense a desire that he does not wish to have reached his awareness of the alienation and corruption of the modern world; furthermore that he does not wish to be alone in possessing this knowledge. It is a desire with which he wars in his essay The Simple Art Of Murder: "If there were enough like [Marlowe], the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in." [24]

Whatever its artifice, detective fiction, particularly in these early forms, offers the consolation of a bruised but ultimately salvageable civilisation, protected by super-humans who exist on its periphery but are effectively also contained by a utopian personal code of honour. By contrast, "metaphysical detection is a genre predicated on the unpredictability of evil in a world where the rules are obscure and failure is fatal." [25] Though this appears to offer a clean distinction between the largely innocent positivism of early detective fiction writers and the pessimist realism of their successors, there is evidence that an awareness of the limitations of his art and beliefs haunted Doyle, one of the earliest of their number. Ewert refers to Elliot L. Gilbert, who suggests that Doyle, when faced with the inconceivable chaos of the First World War, loosened his faith in the Holmesian tradition of epistemological solutions, even in the notion of a positivist universe. His Last Bow can, in this light, be read as a concession of the fact that one man, however great, cannot stem the tide of catastrophe forever.[26]

However true these uncertainties, it is commonly accepted that "on the threshold of our Nietzschean century of scientific miracles, mass murder and mass uncertainty, Conan Doyle created the modest saviour we would all like to believe in."[27] Those who followed, such as Chandler, also sought to quantify the emergent chaos, never losing sight of the human need to believe, however vainly, that our agency can extend to control. Much could be written of Chandler's subsequent decline into depression, the condition of a man who "had seen a lot, read a lot, drunk a lot, thought a lot and steered perilously close to insanity in the process... "[28] But what deserves recognition, in my humble opinion, is that he strove to look beyond the emergent crises of the modern era and to still believe that there remained a fighting chance.


Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep And Other Novels, Penguin Classics, 1939

Conan Doyle, The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Magpie Books, London, 1993

(All quotes taken directly from the on-line searchable Gurtenberg e-text stories, which are identical since the above is a binding of public domain texts.)

Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder, 1950 (essay extract from seminar handout)

Maxim Jakubowski, "A beginner's guide to crime fiction"

http://books.guardian.co.uk/departments/crime/story/0,6000,101918,00.html (7th March 2001)

author unknown, A Profile Of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

http://books.guardian.co.uk/reviews/biography/0,6121,96815,00.html (7th March 2001)

Robert McCrum, "Long, frank and forlorn goodbye" (review of The Raymond Chandler Papers)

http://books.guardian.co.uk/reviews/biography/0,6121,405943,00.html (7th March 2001)

Chris Petit, "The long goodnight" (review of The Raymond Chandler Papers)

http://books.guardian.co.uk/reviews/biography/0,6121,416060,00.html (7th March 2001)

Kevin Macdonald, "Who cares whodunit?" (review of "Raymond Chandler" bio by Tom Hiney)

http://books.guardian.co.uk/reviews/biography/0,6121,96493,00.html (7th March 2001)

Extract of essay by Jeanne C Ewert

http://www.cac.psu.edu/courses/Materials/cmlit453_cps6/ewert.html (7th March 2001)

Extract of essay by Tzvetan Todorov

http://www.cac.psu.edu/courses/Materials/cmlit453_cps6/tod.html (7th March 2001)

author unknown,"Sin, murder and narration"

http://www.cac.psu.edu/courses/Materials/cmlit453_cps6/sin.html (7th March 2001)

Evidence of Conan Doyle's precursion of Marlowe's wry wit:

"If it takes me all my life I shall get level with you!"

"The old sweet song," said Holmes. "How often have I heard it in days gone by. It was a favourite ditty of the late lamented Professor Moriarty. Colonel Sebastian Moran has also been known to warble it. And yet I live and keep bees upon the South Downs."

(His Last Bow)

[1] Quoted by Jeanne C Ewert

[2] As evidenced by tales such as The Adventure Of The Speckled Band & The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd

[3] The Simple Art of Murder

[4] The Big Sleep, p162

[5] Todorov, Tzvetan

[6] Todorov, Tzvetan

[7] The Big Sleep, p150

[8] The Big Sleep, p153

[9] The Big Sleep, p149

[10] The Big Sleep, p154

[11] The Long Goodbye, p656

[12] "Sin, murder and narration"

[13] The Big Sleep, p156

[14] Todorov, Tzvetan

[15] The Big Sleep, p144

[16] Quoted by Jeanne C Ewert

[17] "Who cares whodunit?"

[18] The Adventure Of The Bruce-Partington Plans

[19] "Who cares whodunit?"

[20] The Big Sleep, p111

[21] The Big Sleep, p164

[22] Quoted by Jeanne C Ewert

[23] "The long goodnight"

[24] The Simple Art of Murder

[25] Jeanne C Ewert

[26] "Good old Watson! You are the one fixed point in a changing age. There's an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it's God's own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared."

[27] A Profile Of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

[28] "Long, frank and forlorn goodbye"