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Detail of an illustration prepared for the print version of The Globe and Mail by Neal Cresswell (Neal Cresswell)
Detail of an illustration prepared for the print version of The Globe and Mail by Neal Cresswell (Neal Cresswell)

Essay

The mystery of mysteries: What really keeps us reading Add to ...

The crime novel, specifically the murder mystery, is to the world of genre fiction what baseball is to the world of sports: the place where intellectuals figure they can get in on the action. Everyone from W.H. Auden and Martin Amis to Umberto Eco and Slavoj Zizek have unleashed high theory on the humble country-house slaying and the hard-boiled gumshoe bust-up.

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You can see the appeal. Murder mysteries and scholarship test the same skills and invoke the same gods. A puzzle must be solved, a maze navigated; every false lead, however tantalizing, must be tested and discarded. And at the end, there is the satisfactory clunk of truth falling into the world even as the hand of the detective falls on the guilty party’s shoulder.

The stakes are life and death, of course, which rarely happens in the life of the mind. Nevertheless, conventional murder mystery offers the ideal type of intellectual inquiry, with success guaranteed. (An unsolved murder mystery is not an aesthetic failure, it is a breach of aesthetic contract.) But, just as most baseball fans waste little energy contemplating the mind-blowing fact that the foul pole is actually fair, the appeal of murder is obviously wider than this. Let’s indulge the impulse to analyze that appeal a bit.

There is, most basically, (1) the pleasure of observing deduction in action, felt by scholars and non-scholars alike. Made famous by Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, extended if not refined by Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot and Father Brown, the ratiocinative powers of the detective mind sparring with those of a clever or desperate killer provide a visceral sort of mental stimulation. In fact, Holmes’s deductions are usually inductions, conclusions drawn from observed evidence rather than from reasoning as such; this fact does little to lessen the popularity of Sherlock’s celebrated “methods.”

Thus, the enduring reach of Holmes as a character, recently inhabited by actors as different as Robert Downey Jr. (as steampunk drama queen) and Benedict Cumberbatch (as postmodern sociopath). The game-of-chess metaphor is made clumsily literal in the former’s most recent outing, but in all cases the reader or viewer is asked along for the ride with just enough grasp of the facts to enjoy the full reveal at the end. In the cliché version, this comes with all the suspects gathered in a room, often enough in a country house, generating the label for a prominent subgenre.

On this point, W.H. Auden notes in his 1948 essay The Guilty Vicarage that he found it “very difficult” to read a murder mystery “that is not set in rural England.” This common prejudice highlights a second kind of appeal, namely (2) the spectacle of fall-from-grace violence. The disruption of Edenic appearances in the so-called “English cozy” works by nasty contrast: the bloody corpse found next to the delicate tea things. Even the twee antics of a Lord Peter Wimsey, with his penchant for incunabula and idiotic banter, are set off by the legal fact – mentioned more than once in Dorothy Sayers’s oeuvre – that catching a killer means killing a killer. Nor, for that matter, are the Great War trenches ever far from his claret-savouring mind.

There is, finally, (3) the incidental pleasures of entering the world in which the murder, and its detection, take place. This includes both the milieu, which for preference is a closed and somewhat esoteric place – Oxbridge colleges are, next to English villages, the ideal – inhabited by a cast of eccentrics with layered secrets lurking beneath a placid surface. The detective confronts this world as a disruption generated by disruption. His job is not to restore previous order or state of innocence, as in a Shakespearean comedy – here I take issue with Auden – but to act as the imperfect hand of human reason aghast at the fact of mortality.

There are numerous variants possible, as all fans know. Even within the classic English mystery, there is a range from witty and nimble (Ngaio Marsh or Michael Innes) to dark and probing (Ruth Rendell or P.D. James). You can likewise ring endless changes on the conventions of the genre by tweaking location or milieu, moving everywhere from medieval towns (Umberto Eco, Ellis Peters) to outer space (Isaac Asimov), with stops along the way at Nazi Germany (Philip Kerr), native American reservations (Tony Hillerman), baseball diamonds (Alison Gordon), New York high society (Gore Vidal writing as Edgar Box) and Pacific surfing towns (Don Winslow) – to mention just the ones that come readily to mind. Martin Amis’s 1997 philosophical “whydunit” murder mystery, Night Train, belongs somewhere nearby.

But I am now guilty of some semi-intentional blurring. I am categorizing kinds of appeal, while others would divide the genre by type: locked room, deductive, police procedural, private-eye yarn, thriller and so on. Auden, in a deft backhanded compliment, famously excluded Raymond Chandler’s superior Philip Marlowe books from the category of “detective story” because Chandler’s works are, instead, “serious studies of a criminal milieu, the Great Wrong Place” and so these “powerful but extremely depressing books should be read and judged, not as escape literature, but as works of art.”

For those who prize the seven complete Marlowe novels the way Janeites revere Miss Austen’s six, and even take some muted pleasure in Robert B. Parker’s two posthumous “collaborations,” the exclusion makes no sense. To be sure, these are works of art, with, among other things, the often imitated but inimitable voice that defines a certain American type, the damaged loner. But the books, and all their cognates (the work of Dashiell Hammett, Mickey Spillane, even James M. Cain, Brett Halliday, Donald Hamilton and Lee Child after their fashion) would not function without the basic core of murder and its investigation.

True, the solution of the murder is often incidental to a criminal plot or planned enterprise; or there are more murders than met the eye; or the reveal is given the reader as a kind of afterthought. These are the marks of literature beyond genre, and if Chandler transcends the conventional detective story it is only because, in rude and sardonic Marlowe, we have the transcendent detective. Thus the diverse yet plausible film incarnations: Dick Powell, Robert Montgomery, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, Elliott Gould. More to the point, Marlowe’s gift is blunt virtue – resoluteness, cracked courage, incorruptibility – rather than sheer brainpower. His inelegant crime-solving brings no relief, no elation, no return to anything.

And it must be Los Angeles, the city the angels have in fact deserted, where Marlowe finds work. All detective stories teach the same basic lesson, drawn from a distinction as old as philosophy itself: appearances mask reality. The glittering Hollywood neon is as false as the neatly arranged antimacassars or the finicky rituals of high table. The one who seems innocent is guilty; the apparently guilty, innocent.

Auden concludes by noting that Kafka’s The Trial is literature’s essential anti-mystery, where “it is the guilt that is certain and the crime that is uncertain.” Josef K., Auden says, is “a portrait of the kind of person who reads detective stories for escape.” A sinner, in other words, like all of us who are addicted to the fictive spectacle of guilt and its punishment.

Marlowe is a sinner too, but his lesson is different: He doesn’t invert the conventional mystery, he destabilizes its essence. Doggedly insisting on his daily rate plus expenses, Marlowe is a knight of faith, a tough-talking paladin who rises from a vicious pounding, again and again, to ask yet another awkward question, to pry under yet another shiny surface.

Marlowe knows that solving puzzles is one thing, justice quite another. As dedicated readers will know, for escape Marlowe plays chess – by himself.

Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto. His new essay collection, Unruly Voices, will appear in September.

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