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The Detective as Reader: Narrativity and Reading Concepts

in Detective Fiction
Peter Hhn
MFS Modern Fiction Studies, Volume 33, Number 3, Fall 1987, pp.
451-466 (Article)
Pubshed by The |ohns Hopkns Unversty Press
DOI: 10.1353/mfs.0.1310
For additional information about this article
Access provided by Emory University Libraries (10 Aug 2014 15:45 GMT)
http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/mfs/summary/v033/33.3.huhn.html
THE DETECTIVE AS READER: NARRATIVITY AND
READING CONCEPTS IN DETECTIVE FICTION
rtfr
Peter Huhn
Detective fiction, particularly of the classical formula, seems to be
unique among narrative genres in that it thematizes narrativity itself as
a problem, a procedure, and an achievement. In fact, its very constitu-
tion as a genre is based on the complicated employment of certain nar-
rative strategies: the point of a classical detective novel typically consists
in reconstructing a hidden or lost story (that is, the crime); and the pro-
cess of reconstruction (that is, the detection), in its turn, is also usually
hidden in essential respects from the reader. Furthermore, as I shall at-
tempt to show in detail, narrativity is inscribed in detective fiction in yet
two other forms. The stories that are narrated in detective novels can
profitably be described as stories of writing and reading insofar as they
are concerned with authoring and deciphering "plots." And ultimately,
the detective novel hinges on the social effects that the concealment and
the "publication" of a particular story, namely that of the crime, will
have. Thus detective fiction affords clear examples of the possible social
dimensions of narrativity, and the history of the detective genre is marked,
on one level, by growing doubts about the possibility of telling the story.
Modem Fiction Studies, Volume 33, Number 3, Autumn 1987. Copyright by Purdue Research Foundation.
All rights to reproduction in any form reserved.
451
The plot of the classical detective novel comprises two basically
separate storiesthe story of the crime (which consists of action) and the
story of the investigation (which is concerned with knowledge).1 In their
narrative presentation, however, the two stories are intertwined. The first
story (the crime) happened in the past and isinsofar as it is hidden
absent from the present; the second story (the investigation) happens in the
present and consists of uncovering the first story. On the concrete level
of plot and setting, the link between the two stories is established in the
following stages. Most classical detective novels start out with a community
in a state of stable order. Soon a crime (usually a murder) occurs, which
the police are unable to clear up. The insoluble crime acts as a destabiliz-
ing event, because the system of norms and rules regulating life in the
community has proved powerless in one crucial instance and is therefore
discredited. In other words, the narrative incapability on the part of
society's official agents, their inability to discover and tell the story of
the crime, thus threatens the validity of the established order. At this
point the detective takes over the case, embarks on a course of thorough
investigations, and finally identifies the criminal, explaining his solution
at length. Thus, through the development of the second story, the absent
first story is at last reconstructed in detail and made known. By rein-
tegrating the aberrant event, the narrative reconstruction restores the
disrupted social order and reaffirms the validity of the system of norms.
Conventionally, the coupling of these two stories is presented to the
reader in a specifically involved manner (invented by Poe and standard-
ized by Doyle). Employing Grard Genette's and Seymour Chatman's
distinction between story and discourse, one can define the narrative organiza-
tion of a classical detective novel as follows.2 The usual constellation of
story and discourse (the abstractable prexistent sequence of events and
acts versus its mediation in a narrative) occurs twice over: the story of the
crime is mediated in the discourse of the detective's investigation; and
the story of the detective's investigation, in its turn, is mediated in the
narrator's discourse (for instance in Dr. Watson's uninformed written ac-
count of Holmes's detection). In both cases the story is hidden for the
most part so that the reader is doubly puzzledtrying to make out the
mysterious crime story by way of the almost equally mystifying detection
story.
See Tzvetan Todorov (42-52) and Dennis Porter (29-30).
'The strict distinction between story and discourse has been questioned, for instance, by Barbara
Herrnstein Smith. However problematic this general postulate may be in certain respects, classical detective
fiction is based on the premise that a story and its presentation in discourse are distinguishable and that
extracting the "true" story from the (invariably distorting) medium of discourse is a feasible as well
as valuable enterprise. Of course, this is part of the genre's ideology: when the detective finally narrates
the "true story" of the crime, thus correcting its previous misrepresentation in discourse, the listeners
are presented with merely another version of discourse (which, however, purports to be congruent with
the story itself).
452 MODERN FICTION STUDIES
In spite of writers' preoccupation with surprising variation, the ar-
rangement of narrative elements is fundamentally the same in the ma-
jority of classical detective novels.3 In fact, the genre has been remarkable
for the rigidity of its conventional structuresespecially during the 1920s
and '30s, when the conventions were frequently canonized as explicit
"rules" (for instance, by S. S. Van Dine or Ronald Knox). It is interesting
to note that such a narrowly defined plot-structure, which does not ap-
pear in need of interpretation, because no mysteries or ambiguities re-
main unresolved, should nevertheless have elicited a large variety of
divergent interpretations and thus have proved highly polyvalent. Most
critics writing about this genre seem to feel compelled to postulate
hypotheses about the causes of its wide popularity and the motivation
of its readers. Each of these hypotheses inevitably presupposes a specific
interpretation of the genre structures and is ultimately based on placing
the text in a specific context. Socially oriented critics, for example, such
as Stephen Knight, view the detective plot in a socioeconomic context
and generally interpret the crime as a threat to the privileges of the middle
class: the private detective, by successfully uncovering the criminal,
demonstrates the efficacy of one central class-valuebourgeois
individualismand thus confirms the ability of the social system to
preserve itself. The latent anxieties of the middle-class readers about the
stability of their society are thereby alleviated. Howard Haycraft, in con-
trast to such a socioeconomic perspective, reads the detective novel within
a political and constitutional context: the legal requirement of rational,
verifiable proof of guilt before the conviction of any criminal, which he
sees exemplified in the detective's methods of investigation, indicates the
advocacy of democratic principles as the central meaning of the genre.
Consequently, Haycraft postulates a strong interest in the maintenance
of such principles as the underlying reading motivation.
Within this field of polyvalent interpretations I should like to elaborate
a partly new reading, without, however, claiming a superior status for
it. My aim is primarily to demonstrate that the formula of detective fic-
tion, when viewed in the context of narrative and reading theory, assumes
additional consistency and significance. Moreover, the analogy of the detec-
tive's activities to sign-interpretation, meaning-formation, and story-telling
may provide new clues not only to reasons for the popularity of the genre
with particular groups of readers but also to the social and psychological
function of narrative in certain sections of our culture.
Described in the terminology of reading, the double plot-structure
(the combination of the two stories) can be outlined in the following
manner.4 The initial crimeas long as it remains unsolvedfunctions
as an uninterpretable sign, that is, one that resists integration into the
3See John G. Cawelti's typification of the classical formula (80-105).
4See Glenn W. Most and William Stowe's collection, especially their articles.
DETECTIVE AS READER 453
established meaning-system of the community. Because it consists of the
destruction of life and tends to discredit the validity of the system, it can-
not be ignored. Therefore it becomes vital for the community to uncover
the hidden meaning andby reintegrating the signto defuse it. The
progress of the plot (that is, the second story) is then presented as a suc-
cession of attempts to ascribe meaning to the sign by finding the missing
links to the accepted patterns of reality. This interpretive linking invariably
takes the form of a narrative, thus employing one of the most fundamen-
tal devices for generating coherence and meaningtelling the story of the
genesis of the crime. This notion of the "genesis of the crime" can be
said to imply with particular clarity the essential components of any nar-
rative as a highly organized as well as organizing structure: origin, agent,
causal connection, temporal sequence, aimor in the (incomplete) handy
formula often cited in detective novels: the motive, the means, and the
opportunity.
The attempt to read the mystery in this way presupposes the existence
of a text. According to a general convention of the genre, every murderer
inescapably leaves traces: the murder story is always in some way im-
printed "on the world." (The old dream of the perfect murderthat is,
a murder that would leave no readable signsagain and again proves
illusory.) In order to prevent detection, the criminal suppresses as many
traces as possible, and those that cannot be completely suppressed (for
instance, the dead body itself) he manipulates so that they point to no
coherent story at all (the crime then appears a "mystery") or to a dif-
ferent story (suicide, accident, murder by some other person). In a manner
of speaking, the criminal writes the secret story of his crime into everyday
"reality" in such a form that its text is partly hidden, partly distorted
and misleading. But although he tries to subject the whole text to his
conscious and, as it were, artistic control, some signs usually escape his
attention and inadvertently express their "true" meaning (his criminal
authorship). So, even if the criminal as a skillful author has managed
to rewrite the story of his crime in the coherent form of a different story,
these unmanageable signs tend to disrupt the appearance and create a
mystery.
From the perspective of the detective, the traces left by the criminal
appear as "clues," possible indicators of the hidden story of the crime.
Such clues are facts or phenomena connected with the circumstances of
the murderfootprints, objects found near or on the dead body, the
presence or absence of persons at the time of the murder, and so on.
The assumption of, and the search for, a hidden story inscribed in every-
day reality has the effect of transforming the world of the novel into a
conglomeration of potential signs. All phenomena may lose their usual,
automatically ascribed meanings and signify something else: a curried dish
for supper might be a cover for a poison, a dark suit could signify a waiter
454 MODERN FICTION STUDIES
or a gentleman, a person observed at a door might just have come out or
be about to enter or may merely pretend to do one or the other. Thus, by
effectively deautomatizing signification and making things "strange," the
enigma of the murder endows the everyday world with a rich potentiality
of unsuspected meanings. In fact, the world presents the (as yet) highly
ambivalent text of the hidden story of the crime. And the difficulties of
reading it properly are due to a threefold indeterminacy: at the outset
neither the limits of the text, nor the set of signs constituting it, nor the
code in which it is written are certain.
This textual indeterminacy is, however, only a temporary illusion
caused by the lack of pertinent information on the detective's part. His
task consists in delimitating the text by separating the relevant signs from
the mass of nonrelevant facts around it, until he is finally able to reduce
the polyvalence to the one true meaning, the true story of the crime.
For it is an essential premise of the classical formula that there ultimately
exists such a determinate meaning.
The main section of a detective novel, the protracted middle phase
of the plot (after the discovery of the dead body), is taken up by the
systematic development of the detective's interpretive operations. Typically,
detection means selecting and grouping signifiers and assigning various
signifieds to them. And these operations are guided by hypotheses about
what might have happened, that is, by trying out various frames of
reference, which could confer temporal and causal coherence and mean-
ing on the heterogeneous and contradictory conglomerate of facts confront-
ing the detective. The continual rearrangement and reinterpretation of
clues is, of course, the basic method of reading and understanding un-
familiar textscommonly called the "hermeneutic circle," which involves
devising interpretive patterns to integrate signs and then using new signs
to modify and adjust these patterns accordingly. One essential factor in
the detective's eventual success is his ability to question preconceived no-
tions and break through automatized modes of perception: because the
clues normally appear in suggestive contexts that automatically trigger
(erroneous) assumptions about their significance, the master-detective con-
sciously frees himself from such suggestions, thus being able to formulate
an unorthodox interpretation of the mystery. In Agatha Christie's The
Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), for instance, Poirot rejects the automatic
assumption (at that time more "natural" and therefore automatic than
today) that overhearing a person's voice necessarily indicates that he is
present and still alivean insight that permits Poirot to arrive at a new
(and correct) reading of the case.
Although the detective novel thus puts a premium on innovative inter-
pretations, in the final analysis innovation is only valued as the best
strategy for discovering the truth. For ultimately it is always the adequacy
of the reading, and not its creative quality, that is of paramount impor-
DETECTIVE AS READER 455
tance. That this should be so follows from the premise that there is one
and only one true meaning, as well as from the social function this mean-
ing possesses: the crime and its solution concern the basic order system
regulating the life of the community in the book, and these systems nor-
mally cannot tolerate indeterminacy (as is already evident from the urge
felt to solve the mystery in the first place). Accordingly, the convention
of the genre requires that the adequacy of the detective's reading is tested
he does this by producing internal or external evidence, that is, by evinc-
ing its logical coherence and by obtaining some new empirical proof.
Readings have to justify themselves on the basis of a rational process of
proof-gathering, and it is only this procedure of rational validation that
establishes the public power of the detective's reading. The fact that in
classical detective novels the evidence is frequently of an extraordinarily
intricate and inferential nature and would, therefore, hardly prove con-
clusive and convincing in a real court is in itself an indication of the
premise underlying the formula: the absolute belief in the power and ef-
ficacy of the verbal construct of a story as such and in the very rationality
of argumentation as the principle governing the process of narrative
reconstruction.
The main difficulty of the reading process is occasioned by the
criminal's attempts to prevent the detective from deciphering the true
meaning of his text. This is, basically, a contest between an author and
a reader about the possession of meaning, each of them wishing to secure
it for himself. (The contest within the novel is repeated on a higher level
between the novelist and the actual reader.) The reading process is fur-
ther complicated by the fact that there are always other characters involved
who are also guilty of something that they attempt to hidethe suspects.
Typically, these characters also tamper with the text of everyday reality,
changing or rearranging signs so as to conceal or transform the appearance
of their guilty little secrets. Thus the text is revealed as having more authors
than one and, consequently, as containing more meanings than oneall
of which can be classified as stories and are, in fact, recounted as separate
stories in the end. So, before the detective can read the criminal's mean-
ing correctly, he has first to disentangle and eliminate the various secon-
dary meanings and stories.
The multiplication of authors and meanings is matched, as it were,
by an analogous multiplication of readers. The detective has to compete
with one or more other readers, who, however, prove to be incompetent
the police. Because they are, as the public investigators of the case, of-
ficially authorized as readers by society, the amateur detective is frequently
hampered in his readings. The rivalry normally develops along the follow-
ing lines. By accepting the superficial appearance of a coherent meaning
as the solution (thereby often succumbing to the suggestions purposely im-
planted by the criminal), the police prematurely set out to close the text.
456 MODERN FICTION STUDIES
In practical terms, the result of formulating an incorrect meaning and
misconstruing the story is often the arrest of the wrong person, which
demonstrates that incompetent readings can have grave social
consequencesat least in the novel. At this stage the detective's inter-
pretive operations ordinarily aim at reopening the text. He destroys the
premature closure imposed by the policedisproving tacit assumptions,
discovering new clues, and generally reconstituting the multivalence of
everyday reality, if only temporarily. For in the end the detective's con-
tinuous reinterpretations of the clues are arrested, too, and he presents
his own closurein the form of the narration of the first story, which
restores the coherence of social reality in an unexpected manner (by in-
criminating the least suspected person), but without basically modifying
the familiar structure of the reality.
Now, this second story, the progressive reading of the first story of
the crime, is mediated in a manner that also presents it as an act of writing.
To begin with, this literally holds good for a narrative technique very
common in classical detective fictionthe employment of an individualized
narrator, usually the detective's friend or assistant, who is actually engaged
in chronicling the course of the detection. Poe invented this device, and
the most notable example is, of course, Doyle's Dr. Watson. This device
produces an interesting reduplication of the interplay of reading and writing
motifs.5 Whereas in the first story the criminal "hero" acts both as the
author and the writer of the text of his crime, there is a split between
roles in the second storybetween the detective hero (as a reader) and
his companion as the chronicler (who can neither properly read for himself,
nor even follow the detective's reading). Structurally, the companion's
unenlightened narration of the detective's reading causes the reproduc-
tion, on a higher level, of the discrepancy between the surface of the text
(the signifiers) and the hidden meaning (the signifieds) with which the
detective himself is confronted. This narrative device thus serves to stress
5The functions frequently adduced for this devicesetting off the detective's brilliance and mediating
between ordinary reader and super-detectivethus appear to be incomplete and somewhat superficial.
The effect of doubling the mystery of reading seems to be a more specific explanation for the popularity
of this narrative device during the classical period and is more in keeping with the often self-referentially
literary character of the detective novel. An interesting further variation of this constellation, by the
way, occurs in Rex Stout's novels. The cooperation between Nero Wolfe, the immobile brain, and Ar-
chie Goodwin, the practical tool, implies a partly modified ascription of writing and reading activities.
Nero Wolfe acts, of course, as the reader of the crime story, but instead of writing the story of his
detection himself, he dictates it to his coadjutor, Archie Goodwin. Archie thus functions twice as a non-
comprehending writer: he executes in practical respects Wolfe's story of investigation, which leads to
the apprehension of the criminal, etc., and he records and narrates the story of the detection, without
fully understanding these stories. What this amounts to (especially the first of these functions) is the
separation of authorial imagination (Nero Wolfe) and writing utensil (Archie Goodwin). Interestingly,
this separation may occur on the criminal's side, tooas a means of committing the perfect murder:
if the actual killer is separate from, and in no way connected with, the planning criminal, a mere utensil
employed by the hidden author, the criminal cannot be detected, because his authorship cannot be traced
through clues. An example is found in Patricia Highsmith's Ripley's Game (1974), which starts off with
this scheme and which narrates the planning, execution, and ultimate failure of the separation between
criminal author and writing utensil.
DETECTIVE AS READER 457
the fact that the detective's reading activities also constitute a text, a story
above the first storythe story of the detection, of which he functions
as the writer. In a more fundamental sense than indicated above, the
detective's reading can be described as an act of writing. Because the Dr.
Watson-figure fails to understand how the detective progresses in his in-
vestigation, the text of this second story (as printed in the book) for the
most part conceals the true state of affairs with regard to the investigation,
which places us, the actual readers of the novel, in a position analogous
to that of the detective: we are confronted with a signifying "surface"
whose signified meaning we are meant to find out by reading.6
So the printed text of the novel actually combines two different texts:
first, the narration of the detective's reading activities (seen from the out-
side); and, second, as the detective's reading assignment, the text of every-
day reality "made strange" by the mystery of the crimecomplete with
all the potentially meaningful signs, clues, and red herrings. That this
last-mentioned text should be completely included in the novel was express-
ly stipulated in the list of the rules drawn up by authors in the interwar
period.7 This simultaneous presentation of the two texts has a number
of consequences. The text of the novel can be said to have two authors
(at least): the criminal (who wrote the original mystery story) and the
detective (who writes the reconstruction of the first storychronicled in
the process, for the most part uncomprehendingly, by yet another writer,
as it were, his companion). As a result, the verbal structure of the text
is ambiguous: the detective's progress and the criminal's story are con-
cealed and decipherable, invisible and visible. And the two texts have dif-
ferent readersthe detective, the Dr. Watson-figure, and us, the readers,
who by comparing the original text of the mystery with the story of the
detective's reading attempts may try to compete with him. Moreover,
one can say that in the figure of the detective, the novel formulates its
own meaning. His final explanationdisclosing the criminal's story as
well as the history of his detectioncloses the meaning of both texts ef-
fectively and thus collapses all levels of writing and reading, stabilizing
the meaning of all signs. And with this complete closure the novel no
longer contains any interest for the reader. Because the mystery was initial-
ly defined as the meaning of the text, no relevance remains when the
meaning becomes extractable and the mystery is removed (the book then
leaves nothing to be desired). Herein seems to lie the reason why people
6On the other hand, to be sure, one has to mention differences in the distorted presentation of
these two stories and therefore in the difficulty of the reading task. The crime story as it appears distorted
in the form of clues, etc. lacks both the temporal order of its elements and their causal concatenation,
whereas the detection story in its recording by the detective's coadjutor presents the elements in their
chronological order, omitting only their causal connection. Besides, the delimitation of the crime story
is concealed for the detective (which clues belong to the criminal's story, which to other stories or to
none at all), whereas the detection story is normally well marked off from other actions in the novel.
All this seems to indicate that the task of the novel reader is easier than that of the detective, who
has the advantage, however, of possessing a far superior reading competence.
7See Ronald A. Knox's rules one and eight, and S. S. Van Dine's rules one and two.
458 MODERN FICTION STUDIES
normally do not reread detective novelsthe text has consumed itself.
Rereading a detective novel is, however, a revealing experience with respect
to the structures outlined: one can then clearly distinguish between the
texts and authors and read the two stories (that of the crime and that
of its detection) separately and at the same time.
Agatha Christie's famous novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd provides
an interesting example of both an extreme deviation from, and a close
adherence to, the narrative scheme of the classical detective novel. Christie
identifies the central agents of both stories with each other: the murderer
(the author of the first story) is also the narrator of the second story
(Poirot's investigation of the murder). The murderer's intention in nar-
rating the second story is to chronicle, for once, a failure on the part
of the great detective. In other words, the criminal tells the second story
to prove the unreadability of the first. The fundamental self-contradiction
inherent in his intention, namely, to make public that the meaning of
the first text can never be made public, seems to be the root of his even-
tual self-defeat. The course of the novel demonstrates that he is forced
to record his own failure in keeping his authorship of the first story hid-
den: that is, he is obliged to chronicle yet another of the great detective's
triumphs. Skillfully lured by Poirot, the criminal inadvertently conforms
more and more closely to the conventional role of the Dr. Watson-figure
as the chronicler of the second text. He is just as unable to see through
the detective's reading operations, which here refer to himself, and final-
ly he is even compelled to eulogize Poirot's ingeniousness in finding out
that hethe narratorwas the murderer.
This is an intensified version of the central contest acted out in all
classical formula novels, the contest between author (criminal) and reader
(detective) about the possession of the meaning of the (first) story. As
(almost) always in the genre, the author's intention ultimately proves in-
effectual. The reader, who is no ordinary reader, of course, but a super-
reader, always succeeds in extracting the meaning from the resistant text.
This is doubly evident in this particular novel, where the author of the
first story endeavors to gain control also over the second story by acting
as its narrator and, indeed, to prevent that second story from ever being
realized in the first place. Paradoxically, this relation between reader and
author is reversed at the next higher level. The real author (of the book)
always makes it a point of honor to prevent the real readers from being
able to read his presentation of the two stories before he permits them
to do so. This paradox highlights, in yet another respect, the central
significance of reading and writing activities for the narrative construc-
tion of the classical detective novel. In its elaborately contrived structures,
the detective novel thus presents a number of entangled writing-and-
reading contests that ultimately only serve to demonstrate the superior
power of writing (on the author's part), a power, moreover, that proves
DETECTIVE AS READER 459
itself in two consecutive ways: in first protecting the stories against be-
ing read until the very end and in finally producing a perfect as well
as comprehensive reading. What this paradox, in the last analysis, helps
to underline is the decisive power of the story and of narration for the
organizing concept of reality as implied in this type of detective fiction.8
What has been said so far about the writing and reading phenomena
on various levels clearly indicates that both phenomena have to be con-
sidered as acts. And explicitly considering them as acts in their own right
will help to throw light on one further dimension of narrativity in detec-
tive fiction. Paul Ricoeur's dialectical characterization of action as "the
interplay between being able to act and being bound to the world order"
(173) may serve as a simplified formula for the description of the com-
peting writing and reading activities in classical detective novels. The two
components of every actfreedom and constrainthere occur in a specific
arrangement. Under this perspective, writing a crime story essentially func-
tions as an act of freedom. The criminal attempts to realize himself and
to gratify his desires by freeing himself from the restraints of society and
its defining norms. By means of his story the criminal creates for himself
a free place, a place of his own outside society's order. And as long as
he is in exclusive possession of his story, he is, literally, free. The detec-
tive, on the other hand, acts as society's agent in order to restrict this
freedom and bind the criminal again to the constraining rules of society
through arrest and punishment (imprisonment or execution). The detec-
tive's means of achieving this is getting hold of his story, thus gaining
power over him and depriving him of his free self-determination.
In general, the basic reading concept embodied in the classical detec-
tive novel can be characterized, as William Stowe has shown, as a semiotic
practice that is based on the presupposition of a clear distinction between
object and subject, between the (assumed) objectivity of the hidden mean-
ing and the pure instrumentality of the detective's discerning intellect.
It is a case of code-reading, though the underlying simple constellation
is made complicated by having the message buried in a mass of other
signs, by requiring the prior decipherment of the code, and by having
someone send false messages. The classical attributes of the detective testify
to this instrumentalist concept of reading. He is predominantly defined
by his cold detachment from all human concerns, the clarity of his analytic
intellect, and his interest in the truth-finding process for its sake. In ac-
cordance with the assumed neutrality of thinking and language in the
procedure of reading and understanding the mystery, only one meaning
can be the correct one, and it usually appears as self-evident, once it is
8This foregrounding of the "literary" nature of the various activities in a detective novel extends
to some further motifs, for instance the reference frequently found in detective novels to the detective
genre itself (usually in the form of a character's pointing out that things are not as simple and stereotyped
as in a whodunit), which underlies the self-conscious literariness of novels written after the classical formula.
460 MODERN FICTION STUDIES
discovered and explained. Applying the finally discovered truth to restor-
ing the disrupted social order does not normally pose any problems. The
criminaland with him the threat to societyis simply eliminated. The
ease of the closure seems due to the conventional premise, in classical
detective fiction, of a basic congruence between language, thinking, and
reality that is only temporarily obscured by the criminal.
Departing from this instrumentalist reading model, the American hard-
boiled school (especially Hammett, Chandler, and Ross Macdonald) has
developed a more complex concept, which Stowe terms "hermeneutic"
(374). Here the interpretation, as practiced by the private eye, is presented
as an interaction between the reading subject and the object (the text) in
which neither side remains a stable entity. The detective's reading ac-
tivities affect the text (the mystery he investigates) as he in turn is af-
fected by it. The first story, of crime and criminal, keeps changing in
the course of its reconstruction in the second story. One manifestation
of this change is the instability of the mystery, the expansion of the story's
confines. The initial problem is usually simple and unimportant (such
as the theft of a gold coin in Chandler's The High Window), but in the
course of the detective's interpretive operations, the mystery shifts and
expands so that a wide net of connected crimes (such as counterfeiting,
blackmail, adultery, murder) is gradually brought to light. Moreover, the
text of the first story not only changes in the extension of its meaning;
it literally reacts to the reader's endeavors to read it. In order to protect
his guilty secrets from being exposed, the criminal starts committing follow-
up crimes, generally murders, that are intended to keep his story
unreadable for the investigator by removing betraying clues, namely possi-
ble informants, who mightagain, quite literallytell his story (whose
murders in themselves, however, also constitute new potential indicators
of the murderer's identity). The further the detective penetrates the con-
text of mystery and crime, the more corpses appear, providing him with
new clues to old problems but at the same time creating fresh mysteries.
While the detective's interference thus actually modifies and shifts
the meaning of the text, he himself is in turn also increasingly affected
and changed by the results of his interpretive efforts. Being at least in
part the cause of some of the crimes makes him implicitly guilty and com-
promises him morally. The influence this has on his self-image together
with his insight into the inextricably complex ramifications of the crimes
tends to produce frustration and disillusionment in him, which finally leave
him in a paralyzed state of profound weariness and melancholy.
One crucial further consequence of the interactional reading concept
in hard-boiled novels is the detective's loss of power over the first story
and its meaning. Although he is frequently still able to read the truth
in the text, he can no longer extract it, as it were, and employ it to remedy
injustice and disorder in society. In short, he cannot publish the story
DETECTIVE AS READER 461
anymore. This is due to a number of factors: the scarcity of irrefutable
material evidence and the extreme complexity of the interconnected crimes,
his professional dependence (he cannot turn in a client, if the client is
revealed as the culprit) as well as his personal involvement (he wants to
avoid hurting an innocent person or one for whom he cares), the general
corruption of society and of the police. So, on the one hand, the detective
is deprived of the freedom to act on the result of his reading; on the
other, the truth is useless and ineffectual, because society is not interested
in finding the hidden meaning, nor is there a general consensus about
the necessity of detection at all. The client, for instance, tends to dismiss
the detective once the investigation moves too close to his own guilt. The
detective's reading venture is thus no longer supported or even legitimized
by an interpretive community. The story has lost its social function and
potential power. In the society of the hard-boiled novel, it has ceased
to function as a regulating and ordering instrument. The sheer power
of money and political position has finally superseded its force.
This lack of confidence in the efficacy of reading and story-telling
is reflected in the changed mode of presentation of the second story. The
investigation is normally narrated by the hard-boiled reader himself, in
the first person, so that the classical separation between reader and
writeras in the Holmes-Watson constellationis given up. Consequently,
the literary character of the second story, as a chronicle, is deempha-
sized. Rather, the reader is decidedly given the illusion of the unmediated
presence of the detective's activities and experiences. At the same time,
the constantly shifting and expanding mysteries make it less possible for
the reader to compete with the detective in reading the story than in
classical detective novels.
In order to indicate the generally constitutive function of the writing and
reading contest for the different varieties of detective fiction, I shall now
sketch, by way of concrete examples, the respective narrative structures
of two further important subtypes, the crime novel and the police-
procedural. Francis lies' Malice Afordhought (1931) exemplifies that the inter-
play of writing and reading activities remains constitutive for the crime
novel, too, in spite of the extensive variation that the classical detective
formula has undergone here. Through the inversion of the perspective
the reader is enabled to follow the criminal's planning and executing
his writingof the crime story (a doctor killing his wife to be free to
marry someone else), with particular attention to the (successful) measures
taken by the criminal to preclude a correct reading of his story (planting
misleading clues, disguising the timing of his activities, and so on). This
relatively simple constellation is complicated in the course of a follow-up
murder scheme. This time suspicion is aroused, and the police start in-
vestigating: so, while the criminal is again proceeding to write his crime
story he becomes aware of the reading attempts on the other side, and
462 MODERN FICTION STUDIES
he tries to read the police's story of detection. The interplay of writing
and reading is now given an additional twist, however, in that the suc-
cess of his first story has made the criminal over-confident of his skills
as a writer and a reader and consequently somewhat careless in their ex-
ercise. The reader of the novel is thereby placed in a position to obtain
a clearer picture of the actual progress of detection as well as to develop
doubts about the actual efficacy of the crime scheme. Thus, for once,
the real reader finds himself in a better position than the protagonist to
read the true state of affairs with respect to the crime story as well as
to the detection story. Part of the suspense here is created by the nar-
rative device of the criminal's perspective, which is apt to force the reader
into a contradictory attitude, inducing him to sympathize with the pro-
tagonist in terms of perception and to be repelled by him in terms of
morality: for this reason the interplay of writing and reading between
criminal and police will be experienced with mingled anxiety and relief.
Ed McBain's King's Ransom (1959), a police novel connecting crime
novel components with hard-boiled tendencies, employs the method of
paralleling the two stories: the progressing story of the crime (kidnapping
a boy and, then, attempting to extort the ransom from the father) alter-
nates with the story of the detection (the police attempting to discover
the criminals' whereabouts and seizing them before they receive the money
or harm the boy). The alternating narration of the two stories is used
systematically by McBain to foreground the efforts undertaken by each
side at writing its own story, at reading that of the others, and at foiling
the other side's attempts to read its own side's story. The police rely
on material clues (such as the tire tracks) and, especially, on the criminals'
phone calls (instructions for the handing over of the ransom) for their
attempted reading of the crime story. Thus, the continuation of the crime
story itself serves as a major source of clues. On the basis of their (in-
conclusive) reading, the police proceed to write their story of detection
(for instance, by putting up road blocks). The kidnappers, in their turn,
try to read the police's progressing storyby listening in on the police
radio to find out about their measures. And they contrive to write their
crime story in such a way that it cannot be read by the police. Their
main device is a radio transmitter and receiver, by which they are able
both to listen in on the plans of the police and also to direct, through
automobile telephone, the route of the ransom-money car without risk
of detection. This contest is decided in favor of the police only through
betrayal: one of the criminals betrays their writing scheme to the police
through the very device used to implement it (by giving away details about
the planned continuation of the story). Since the reader is in the position
to watch alternately the progress of both stories, he very specifically
becomes the witness of a writing-and-reading contest. The crime-and-
detection plot is presented as a battle for the possession of stories, and
DETECTIVE AS READER 463
gaining knowledge of the story is tantamount to power and victory.
To conclude this redescription of detective fiction, I should like ten-
tatively to connect the reading in these novels with the reading of them.
Contextualizing detective fiction in terms of narrative and reading con-
cepts necessarily carries implications about the possible models of interac-
tion between the actual reader and the text, that is, about the manner
in which such stories can be read and about the psychological function
this reading might have. As far as the classical type is concerned, the
elaborate presentation of, and play with, the reading and writing pro-
cesses on several levels as well as the superior power ascribed to reading
and readers might account for its popularity among writers, academics,
theologians, and other intellectualssomewhat more specifically than
assumed by some critics, such as Marjorie Nicolson or Dennis Porter,9
who generally point to an analogy between detective and scholar or scientist
in their capacity to discover meaning, affirm rationality, and confer order
on chaos. The lonely and (socially) marginalized intellectual is shown to
possess the power to defuse the threats of disrupting social forces by simply
reading, that is, interpreting and explaining, them. Detective fiction's
valorization of interpretive order may be specified further still. The
anonymity and pervasiveness of the vaguely perceived threats to society's
stability10 are invariably reduced and averted by means o- story-telling: the
concluding narration of the crime, revealing the origin of the disruption,
identifying its individual agent(s), and predicting as well as entailing the
proper ending may be taken as a powerful confirmation of the significance
of stories and, indeed, of traditional literature, as fundamental social order-
ing structures. In a time when familiar, clear cut, and finite patterns were
starting to disappear from science (for instance, the theory of relativity)
as well as literature (for instance, modernism), the detective genre thus
may have seemed to offer to intellectuals reassuring proof of the validity
of the personal story. This social motive is probably supplemented by
the inherent appeal, for such readers, of watching their special profes-
sional skills of interpretation exercised in a thrilling and playful manner
and of being at the same time invited to participate in the game. The
very possibility of participating in the game, however, frequently creates
the paradox, mentioned above, of subtly undermining the affirmative ef-
fect. Whereas within the novel the detective invariably proves the superior-
ity of reading over writing, the novelist very often (I suspect) succeeds
in proving the reversethe superiority of his or her writing over the novel-
reader's reading skills. Advancing the above argument one step further,
one might suggest that the elaborate and ultimately paradoxical narrative
'See Chapter Twelve in his book (223-244).
,0The social changes to which the classical detective genre is thought to react are usually described
as political, social, or economic threats to the privileged position of the middle classes during the decades
around the turn of the centurythe growing political power of the working classes, trade-unionism,
widespread theft, etc. See Jerry Palmer (148-150).
464 MODERN FICTION STUDIES
organization of the classical detective novel, although ostensibly valorizing
the power of the story and of reading, in the last analysis stresses the
literary artificiality and playfully contrived nature of these ventures, thus
enabling the reader consciously to accept the plot as a deliberate game
and not to fall victim to the illusion.
In contrast, hard-boiled detective novels seem to presuppose a reader
who from the start is less optimistic about the efficacy of interpretive skills
and of curing problems by narrating their stories. Furthermore, he seems
to have lost faith in the possibility of finding an objective truth and of
establishing a simple order. These tendencies posit a changed concept of
realitya reality characterized by more substantiality and resistance to
the individual's actions. Thus, the change from the distinctly literary nature
of the narration in the classical formula to the more illusionist, unmediated
presentation of the second story could indicate a shift in the reader's in-
terest, a shift toward being directly present to social reality and experienc-
ing interpretive skills in a more realistic setting, an immediacy that may
involve more imaginative risks and therefore more intense thrills. Thus
another kind of narrative paradox is created: while reducing or cancelling
the social relevance and effectivity of storytelling within the book, the
hard-boiled novel as such surreptitiously reestablishes the unquestionable
reality of the private eye's world and, indeed, of his story.11
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Genette, Grard. Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1980.
Haycraft, Howard, ed. The Art of the Mystery Story. New York: Simon, 1946.
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Kermode, Frank. "Novel and Narrative." The Theory of the Novel: New Essays.
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nOutside the confines of the popular genre, modern novelists have significantly used the pattern
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DETECTIVE AS READER 465
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466