The persistence of detection: ‘reading the clues, reading the world, reading the detectives among us’

By | July 24, 2012

We are delighted to announce the publication of our new book Detecting Detection: International Perspectives on the Uses of a Plot. Edited by Peter Baker and Deborah Shaller, Detecting Detection converges writing from the UK, North and South America, Europe, Asia, and Africa to connect occasions of the detective plot in contemporary fictions.  

The detective novel has for centuries been irresistible to readers for both its mystery and its ability to morally and ethically engage readers. But what else does the ubiquity of the form say about us, especially when it arises in places other than the pages of traditional whodunits? The authors of the essays in Detecting Detection search for detection in places deviant from its usual haunts—or, “textual traces of a plot often found hidden in other plots”—and succeed in what Detecting Detection’s editors describe as seeing the “detective story as narrative topology or formula” as insight “into the worlds we like to imagine and the people we like to think we are.”

Heta Pyrhönen opens the collection with her essay “The detection plot as a means of testimony in Ann-Marie MacDonald’s The Way the Crow Flies,” suggesting that as readers we might be inadequate detectives because “our advantages in knowledge and the narrator’s confidentiality create in us a sense of superiority that has blunted our alertness and critical capacities.” As readers of detective novels, we witness crime. But what can we actually see? Pyrhönen goes on to connect detective plots with personal and national trauma, raising questions about how we witness and understand these traumas both in the world and as readers.

Peter Baker delves further into the question of reader as witness in his analysis of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. For Baker, “we investigate by necessity but also at our peril, for adopting the quest is nothing less—or less important—than implicating ourselves in its crimes.”

In her essay “Detectivism as a Means of Resistance in Juan Marsé’s El embrujo de Shanghai,” Ana-Maria Medina engages with the Greek detective writer Petros Markaris’s explanation for writing detective fictions: “If you want to write today a social or political novel, you have to turn to the crime novel.” Here we have an exploration of Spanish political repression as both obstructing and then enlivening the novel’s detective plot. The essay traces the history of the detective genre in Spain, and explores the influence of detection in contemporary Spanish fiction. Medina considers El embrujo de Shanghai as “a conversation among writers of contemporary post-[Spanish] war narrative,” and one that is invigorated by the “generic freedoms of postmodernism” involved “in the bloom of globalization and the entrance of foreign cultures in a country once isolated from all exterior influences.”

Michelle Robinson uses A Confederacy of Dunces as a catalyst for investigating American, African American, and detective literature. Robinson argues that in the arenas of American and African American fiction, detection does not necessarily solve its characters’ problems, but rather, it does function as a “foil for the dubious practice of activist ‘ethnojournalism’ exemplified by works of Howard Griffin’s 1961 book Black Like Me.” Ultimately, Robinson interrogates social action and political change itself.

“We think of truth along the lines of how we become aware of it, not necessarily by what it is,” Sofia Ahlberg argues in her essay “Espionage and the war on secrecy and terror in Graham Greene and beyond.” Ahlberg tackles WikiLeaks, Vietnam, Cuba, and contemporary terror alerts, while using Walter Benjamin to explore the connection between storytelling and truth. In her examination of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, Ahlberg sees readying for a “world in which detection is ubiquitous in the art of narration as a way of grappling with questions of commitment, judgment, and belief.” Here detection engages us morally—when we consider “how” truth comes about, we resort to narrative and, often inevitably, to the narrative of detection.

Rossita Terzieva-Artemis reads Julia Kirsteva’s novel Possessions as a parody of the conventional detective novel, allowing the novel’s author to traverse epistemological topics outside of the book’s immediate plot. For Tezieva-Artemis, reading a detective novel as a spoof of its own genre provides “insights into the workings of desire and language, of desires in language, of desires in the silences between language and speech.”

Sheng-mei Ma elaborates upon parody in detective novels in his essay “Zen Keytsch: Mystery Handymen with Dragon Tatoos,” in which he playfully, but seriously, looks at the function of Eastern “handymen” in an array of contemporary and historical narratives, coining the term “Zen Keytsch” for what could otherwise be called “Orientalist kitsch.” Ma describes these kitschy characters as “Orientalist images as discursive handymen, mysterious yet kitschily functional in including an aura of awe, ever so elusive while dutifully serving at the pleasure of the West.”

Kim Toft Hansen chronicles the detective novel’s history in the penultimate essay in Detecting Detection, challenging the assertion that the detective novel is by nature a modernist text, or “a narrative that asserts that role of reason and rationality while exiling the religious and supernatural.” Hansen begins his history of detection in China and the Arab world and eventually reaches the West and twenty-first-century books like The Da Vinci Code. Hansen argues that “Religion, metaphysics and supernaturalism, which savage modernity and the hard secularism it has strived to cleanse from public sphere” have actually been an “undercurrent” to the history of the detective narrative. Ultimately, Hansen argues, “post-secularism has never really come about.”

In the final essay of Detecting Detection, Amadou Koné looks at three Fulani initiation narratives and suggests that African oral tradition narratives “function in reality by using motifs that are similar or at least analogous to the motifs of detective stories.” Koné explains that in Fulani initiation narratives, the candidate to be initiated plays the role of the traditional sleuth when he searches for his master initiator and when he deciphers symbols presented to him along the journey. But in the Fulani initiation narratives, there is no initiating crime, causing the solution to this kind of mystery to be something else entirely, or as Koné writes, “It is rather a matter of achieving an understanding of the elements of the global mystery of the functioning of the world and society.”

In Detecting Detection, the detective novel becomes more than just an attractive read. As the editors write, “The detective narrative becomes, then, about writing and about reading—reading the clues, reading the world, reading the detectives among us.” The essays in this collection provoke thought about both contemporary literature and the history of literature, and offer us a wide range of takes on a literary favorite capable of persisting trends and existing on a global scale.

-Hilary Reid, Editorial Intern

Additional reviews:

“Having long ago outgrown the confines of the English country house murder mystery, the detective has travelled widely, adapting himself to other cultures and genres. Contemporary critics have become increasingly fascinated by this versatility and by the diversity of detection itself. The nine excellent essays in Detecting Detection astutely consider the reasons for the detection plot’s persistence and proliferation, exploring in detail the ways in which is has been transformed across cultures and incorporated in a variety of other narrative forms. They illuminate its ability to raise difficult questions about moral and ethical choices, guilt, political repression, personal and national trauma, witnessing, judgment and belief—and about ‘the elements of the global mystery of the functioning of the world and society.’” – Lee Horsley, Reader in Literature and Culture, Lancaster University, UK

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