Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Literary Portion of the Detective Novel

Strange that I should be talking about the accusations leveled against genre and literary writers when, lo, I come across an article by George Grella entitled “Murder and Manners: The Formal Detective Novel,” published in NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, which contains an example of exactly the type of rhetoric aimed at genre writing in general, and the mystery genre in particular that I talked about on Monday:


It is one of the curiosities of literature that an endlessly reduplicated form, employing sterile formulas, stock characters, and innumerable clich├ęs of method and construction, should prosper in the two decades between the World Wars and continue to amuse even in the present day. More curious still, this unoriginal and predictable kind of entertainment appealed to a wide and varied audience, attracting not only the usual public for popular fiction but also a number of educated readers.” ~George Grella, “Murder and Manners: The Formal Detective Novel”

In this 1970 article (see? this debate can be picked out of any year, any era), Grella attempts to explain the ‘curious’ appeal of detective fiction in particular. The article proceeds to explore the potential reasons for the popularity of the detective novel. Grella looks at, and ultimately discards, the ‘puzzle defense’ (readers like a puzzle, even super-educated ones) and the resemblance of the detective story to the Greek tragedy, and he latches onto the idea that detective fiction is a modern comedy of manners.

I like this idea because, as Grella puts it: “the detective novel's true appeal is literary.”

Literary? Whoa. What?

Okay, he’s not saying literary like Literary vs. Genre. But the argument that the appeal is literary – meaning it’s not the puzzle and it’s not the catharsis that a reader gets and it’s not the vicarious thrill of violence – implies that there’s something about the stories that should be studied. Popular appeal aside. The novels themselves are worthy of exploring…and they have a tradition.

That gives some weight to Christie’s work that’s not from the Populace. It gives us a place to start dissecting a little closer. In that frame of mind I came up with some questions to think about the next time I read Christie in particular, and detective pieces in general:

1. Who is the hero? Is it the same as the sleuth? If they are different, how so? What role does each character play? In Christie, I’ve noticed that there’s often a character that is easy to cheer for – and it’s not always Poirot or Marple, though we like them, their safety and prosperity is not necessarily the reader’s main concern. She builds select characters and tells their stories.

2. Is the place a factor in the story? Does its history add weight? How familiar are the characters with the setting? Do they move around the ‘stage’ gracefully? What purpose does the setting serve? Does it trap? Does it offer answers? With Christie, a lot of times it’s easier to figure out who the villain is if you pay attention to how she describes things. The last few books I’ve been able to pick up on the villain not from any clue that Christie understands, but through the language she uses to describe how things are.

3. What ‘literary’ authors have written books with a similar structure? (Grella points out Jane Austen. And I see the limited settings, the interactions of the characters, and the gossip-laced ‘evidence’ all playing a part in Christie’s novels, as well as Austen’s – and no one knocks Austen.) Wodehouse is king of the comedy of manners…but his is not considered literary, mores the pity. =(

I realize it reads like a list of book club questions…but I think that close readings will reveal that there is more than meets the eye. (Appropriate for mysteries, dontcha think?)

1 comment:

  1. "a number of educated readers" say what??? Although, I can't help but agree, somehow... Because, for instance, not everyone reads (or can read, not too sound snobbish or anything) a Dorothy Sayers detective novel. She;s definitely more literary.
    I really like your questions. Must think of that next time I'm rereading. Especially as I've never once been able to pick out the villain!

    ReplyDelete

Fellow thieves! Please feel free to let me know what you've taken from this post - or share pertinent information that you don't mind me stealing.