Why the Detective Story?


November 7, 2011

(Ed. note: This is the first Filmwell post from Nathanael T. Booth (M.A. student in English at the University of Alabama). In a series of upcoming posts, Nathanael will be tackling detective cinema in the guise of Holmes and others. As this is a criminally under-investigated genre in this context, I am excited to watch this unfold. The bulk of this post previously appeared, in a somewhat altered format, at More Man than Philosopher, as did the section dealing with Murder on the Orient Express.)






Why detective fiction? It’s a natural question—of all the popular genres, the mystery seems to be the one least likely to inspire raptures at its metaphysical or (dare I say it?) spiritual significance. What, after all, could be metaphysical about the lowly whodunit? Much in every way. It is my opinion that the detective story, at its best, offers us a way of seeing the world that is seriously religious. The work of the detective is analogous to the work of the prophet who seeks the hidden things of God.

This is, certainly, not a conclusion at which I arrived alone. Many writers–friend and foe of the genre–have observed that the detective novel is essentially about restoring order to a disordered world. Now, a negative reading of that would suggest that the detective is an agent of the status quo, but I would dispute that. The detective does not simply bring peace to an idyllic world fractured by a single sin; s/he exposes the entire fantasy of that idyll by rooting out hidden sins: adultery, addiction, theft–all of these are part of the world of the novel even before the corpse turns up in the garden shed. In the conventional detective story, the murder is generally only the last in an escalating series of wrongdoing. It is the crisis that brings about the need for redemption.

Let’s take a concrete example. Consider Murder on the Orient Express—and, since we generally talk about cinema at Filmwell, let us take the David Suchet adaptation as our text, rather than the original novel. We almost immediately understand that this version has serious intentions when it introduces not one, but two deaths that are not only unrelated to the plot, but which are not found in the original novel. In each case, they serve to highlight the idea of lawbreaking and of justice–by the military officer who commits suicide after “one mistake” and by the adulteress who is stoned in an Istanbul alleyway. Poirot’s response to each is mixed; it is evident that these deaths trouble him, but his commitment to justice tells him that when people break the rules they must accept the punishment they knew would inevitably come. This mindset informs the development of the plot as Poirot untangles the web of misdirection surrounding the murder of Samuel Rachett–a man who himself “broke the rules” and who is seeking (or may be seeking) to atone for his crime. This theme of atonement does not appear in the original novel, but it is crucial to the adaptation.

Because Rachett is a complex mixture of guilt and self-justification, this version of the story does not permit an easy return to normalcy. Where the 1974 adaptation could end on a relative high note–murder has been done, but all is right with the world, and even if Poirot must “wrestle with my reports…and my conscience” we suspect his wrestling will not last longer than it takes to say the words. In this adaptation, there is no question that Rachett deserved to die, but his death does not make things right. A crucial exchange late in the movie illustrates this:

Suspect: You said of the woman in Istanbul that she knew the rules of her culture and knew what breaking them would mean. So did Cassetti.
Poirot: And so do you!
Suspect: When you’ve been denied justice… you are incomplete. It feels that God has abandoned you in a stark place. I asked God […] what [I] should do, and he said do what is right. And I thought if I did, it would make me complete again.
Poirot: And are you?
Suspect: [painful pause] But I did what was right!

The murder of Rachett/Cassetti does not make things right; nor does Poirot’s unraveling of the mystery. This investigation calls into question the very nature of justice, and when he makes his decision at the end it is not the cheerful giving up of the novel (“Then I have the honor to retire from the case”) nor is it content farewell of Albert Finney. It is heartbreaking, and you can see it in Suchet’s face at the end.

So we see that the detective story, far from being a reinstatement of the status quo, is at its best a rejection of the same; it is a protest against the intractability of fallenness and an expression of hope—even if, as in Murder on the Orient Express, it is a despairing hope—that some sort of good can be made to come of all the evil around us. It is, thus, apocalyptic in a sense similar to that in which metaphors are apocalyptic. Sallie McFague’s word on the metaphoric seems especially true here:

[Metaphor] is the basis of social and political revolution, which relies on the dreams of the imagination to propel us from where we are to where we might be. (Speaking in Parables. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975. 57-58)

 That dream-propulsion is right at the heart of the detective story. At its best, the genre dares us to imagine a better world.

The mode of that hope is close attention to the everyday. If faith (as Tillich would have it) is the state of being “ultimately concerned,” then that concern must find its expression in an intense concentration on the here-and-now business of life. I’m indebted to Stephen Kendrick, who in his book Holy Clues: The Gospel According to Sherlock Holmes (New York: Vintage, 1999) argues that clue-gathering is the path to Ultimate reality (and must be, therefore, the expression of ultimate concern):

[I]t is in reasoning backward that our attention is drawn. Ellery Queen, in the novel The Chinese Orange Mystery, states it a little more clearly: “The detective is a prophet looking backwards.” The detective novel is an oddity, in that it moves forward by exposing and demystifying the past. Meaning moves backwards, and the end of the book is meant to return the reader to the beginning, only now with clarity and revelation. What was missing is now found, what was obscure is now clear, and the unknown criminal is now exposed. The detective’s peculiar power is in being able to take small pieces of truth (remember that earlier phrase: “Bits of matter matter”) and imbue them with such light and thought, place them in a total picture so comprehensive and expansive “in all their bearings” that the detective can “foretell” the past. (Kendrick 75)

In other words, the detective novel gives us a hope for the future that lies hidden in the everyday. By fully investigating the present–the this-worldly stuff that’s made up of footprints and cigarette butts, of tire-tracks and almost-invisible pieces of glass–the detective is able to achieve a kind of transcendent stance, staring back clear-eyed into the past while restoring and mending the present–all with an eye toward a better future.

I could go on and on. There’s at least a whole post–probably more–to be found in the detective novel as a triumph of rationality over irrational forces. This, of course, is fitting for such a thoroughly modern genre; it also ties into what we discussed above. For part of the apocalyptic work is the denial of false rationalities in favor of a true one; and the core of the detective novel is sifting through a number of different theories to find the one that explains and exposes the past and present. Even though we’re now so postmodern that we’re even post-postmodern, I find this faith in reason very invigorating, and it’s one of the things that continuously draws me back to the detective novel and away from other genres, such as fantasy. I like to think that reasonable thought can overcome hatred and bigotry, and the detective novel allows us to imagine, in a small way, what that might look like.

All of which is a rambling summary explaining why I will devote so much time and space—online and in private life–to this seemingly-antiquated genre. The detective story, by and large, has not been served well by the movie screen; it has only been treated moderately better by television. There are, however, exceptions. In my upcoming posts, I will be looking at big-screen representations of that king of detectives, Sherlock Holmes. Holmes is a figure who has changed over the years, has even morphed into something beyond his original source material to become an elemental force. He is bigger than any one representation. As such, I believe the movies based around him are particularly suited, both for exploring the themes laid out here, and for looking at how cultural shifts impact the form of the mystery.

 I believe that there are few things as innately religious as the detective’s call for us to look closer at our mundane world and seek to discern clues that might point to a better way of living. I hope my reflections on the matter find a resonance with readers.