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Tony Grist

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The Detective Story And Literature [Oct. 6th, 2007|10:57 am]
Tony Grist
The detective story exists in a parallel universe- one in which unlikely people commit unlikely crimes for unlikely reasons. It's fantasy, but tightly constricted fantasy. In the interests of playing fair with the reader everything has to proceed according to the rules of a Newtonian universe- no monkeying around with space-time,  no science fiction, nothing supernatural.

In other words the detective story tells lies about human nature but is not allowed to lie freely or fantastically. It's neither realism nor magic realism but something in between. 

The writer of detective fiction willingly dons a straitjacket.

It's no wonder, then,  that there are so few good detective stories that are also great literature.

Bleak House is a detective story but it's not a good detective story. The problem is too elementary.

The Sherlock Holmes stories are great literature by accident. Doyle thought he was writing cheap magazine stories and stumbled into a whole new world. He is a great original. He created the genre and more or less exhausted it. Most later detectives and their sidekicks are shadows of Holmes and Watson.

G.K. Chesterton pushed the detective story as far in the direction of fantasy as it will go. A handful of the Father Brown stories are brilliant fables, brilliantly written. Most of them are just too wild

A number of the writers of the Golden Age attempted to write detective stories that were also serious literature.  Margery Allingham, anyone? 

The more literary Dorothy L. Sayers attempted to be, the more unreadable she became.

Agatha Christie is the best. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is perfect of its kind. It's like the Rubick cube- wonderfully simple, wonderfully cunning. There's no way you could improve on it. A masterpiece, but not a literary masterpiece.  

Ruth Rendell sensibly divides herself in two. Rendell for detection, Vine for literature.

I can think of only one great novel that's also a great detective story. The Name of the Rose. Not even its creator has been able to duplicate its success.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: karenkay
2007-10-06 01:13 pm (UTC)
I love mystery fiction--and good fiction--but I was unable to read "The Name of the Rose". Too ponderous.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-10-06 01:29 pm (UTC)
Ah well, there's no accounting for tastes. I can think of few books I've enjoyed more. For me it works on every level; it's intelligent, it creates and explores a fascinating world and it's a cracking whodunnit with a supremely satisfying solution.

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[User Picture]From: pondhopper
2007-10-06 01:57 pm (UTC)
I´m not a huge fan of detective stories but The Name of the Rose? That´s in a league of its own. ¡Magnífico!
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-10-06 02:29 pm (UTC)
It's the detective story to end all detective stories.
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[User Picture]From: veronica_milvus
2007-10-06 03:45 pm (UTC)
Name of the Rose is my favourite book ever! Just so much in there, the plot, the characters, the hisroty, the descriptive detail. A masterpiece. One of the few books that transcends the straitjacket of the detective story. I'm not sure I can think of any others but will try!

Oh - An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears, maybe. Highly, highly recommended.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-10-06 03:56 pm (UTC)
I've heard of that, but I don't know it. I will probably take up the recommendation. Thanks.
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[User Picture]From: sovay
2007-10-06 03:59 pm (UTC)
The more literary Dorothy L. Sayers attempted to be, the more unreadable she became.

I love the last quartet with Harriet Vane, but I have noticed that I read them more for character than for mystery.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-10-06 04:20 pm (UTC)
I never cared that much for Lord Peter. I found his silly ass act annoying. I could tolerate him as a detective, but I really couldn't take an interest in his love life.


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From: bodhibird
2007-10-06 04:51 pm (UTC)
I suspect Lord Peter appeals far more to women, and women of a certain type, at that, than to men. *g* But as much as I love Sayers, her habit of writing long stretches of dialogue with no attributions and no definite action on the part of the characters drives me batty.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-10-06 08:14 pm (UTC)
I think you're right. I've noticed Lord Peter has a lot of fans on LJ- and they're all women.

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[User Picture]From: sovay
2007-10-07 04:03 am (UTC)
I could tolerate him as a detective, but I really couldn't take an interest in his love life.

It's not his love life I'm interested in, but what it illuminates about both characters. For me, Wimsey becomes infinitely more of a person and less a collection of mannerisms in the last four books; and though I don't know if it's true, I've been told that Sayers originally created Harriet for the purposes of marrying him off and making him disappear, and was then forced to write her three-dimensionally, because she couldn't believe her hero falling for someone made of cardboard. (So it should be true, because it's a great parable about unexpected character evolution.) The genre I really avoid is romance. Nonetheless, I return to these books: I should analyze why.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-10-07 09:37 am (UTC)
That's interesting. It's always interesting when characters take on a life of their own and won't obey their creator.

I may have approached Gaudy Night from the wrong angle. I was expecting a great detective story and Sayers didn't deliver. This may have blinded me to what she was really doing.
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From: bodhibird
2007-10-06 04:50 pm (UTC)
*raises a hand to second your vote*

I don't really like mysteries, but I like the Wimsey novels. American writer Jane Langton is another exception, but I read her for style, character, the color of her settings (always well researched and richly portrayed) rather than to solve the crime.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-10-06 08:06 pm (UTC)
Langton is new to me. I must look her up.
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[User Picture]From: oakmouse
2007-10-07 08:40 am (UTC)
I wonder if the requirements of the detective story are incompatible with the characteristics of great literature. It's an interesting puzzle.

Considering your comments about Dorothy Sayers, I realized that I don't read her books as detective stories. Generally speaking, I don't like detective stories; they bore me. The ones I do like appeal to me as a way of spending time with interesting people. Sayers provides that in spades for me, especially in "Gaudy Night".

As far as Peter Wimsey goes, I like the way he turns from a fellow who complains how trying it is "always to look as though one's name was Algy" into a complex and rather interesting man as she develops him. I can quite see that he might be intolerable to a British reader, but as an American I don't have the baggage of centuries of aristocracy putting a thumb onto the scales of my reaction. I would rather expire outright than have any sort of romance with him (Harriet can have him in that regard; I'm not one of those who reads the books to have a vicarious thrill over him) but I do like watching the way he works.

And of course for me Sayers has another charm: her works are period pieces, vivid snapshots of a time now gone. I like that.


As to Name of the Rose, well, horses for courses; I found it boring, transparent, and irritating.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-10-07 09:34 am (UTC)
I like detective stories. I don't read very many, but every now and then I'll have a binge. I just read two Inspector Morses back to back- which is probably enough for now.

I agree that the requirements of the genre are incompatible with great literature, but I think the unlikely miracle may have been performed once or twice. If the best of the Sherlock Holmes stories aren't great literature I don't know what is.

Maybe I approached Gaudy Night from the wrong angle. I was expecting a great whodunnit and it wasn't that- it was something else.
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[User Picture]From: oakmouse
2007-10-07 09:47 pm (UTC)
"Maybe I approached Gaudy Night from the wrong angle. I was expecting a great whodunnit and it wasn't that- it was something else."

I certainly agree with you that GN wasn't a great whodunnit! I had advance warning on that point, because I read it after my elder sister had done so and she let me know it was basically a psychological novel. Ultimately, that's why I read it. So you went in expecting it to be something it wasn't and were disappointed, and I went in knowing it was something I would like and was pleased. Makes sense, really.
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From: senordildo
2007-10-08 11:06 am (UTC)
Out of curiosity, have you ever read Edmund Wilson's article "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd"? Despite the title, it's a bit similar to your train of thought.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-10-08 11:50 am (UTC)
I'm not sure. I think I may have done. I'm certainly aware of it.
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