Is the detective story fundamentally a postmodern genre?
During the ‘Golden Age’ of the detective story, between the two World Wars, the genre developed as a game in which ingenuity and surprise were much more important than characterisation or plausibility. The likes of Monsignor Ronald Knox and SS Van Dine created rigid lists of what was, and was not, permissible in a detective story, in much the same way as one would seek to establish the conventions of a round of Bridge – there were puzzles in the real sense of the word, constructed like crossword puzzles and frequently appealing to those in search of distraction by way of gentle brainteaser. Crime not as literature but as a form of narrative Sudoku in which the main virtue was the ability to create order from seeming chaos and succeed in tricking the opponent / reader. Inevitably many of the stories written then and shortly thereafter extended the ‘rules of engagement’ to include parody but such was the sense of ‘gamesmanship’ that knowing postmodern jokes and tropes started to enter the genre even before the term ‘postmodern had come into general use after the end of the Second World War.
Below I list some of the postmodern mystery stories that I have enjoyed the most – this is clearly a short and personal list of favourites and I would be very interested to know of titles that other readers would include in their lists.
THE HOLLOW MAN (1938) by John Dickson Carr
John Dickson Carr in his masterpiece The Hollow Man includes a celebrated chapter in which Doctor Fell, his Chestertonian detective (in the sense that he is a detective who actually looks like author GK Chesterton) makes no bones that he is taking time out from the narrative since it is only a story anyway and then goes on to provide a long and delicious disquisition of the variant aspects of the ‘locked room mystery’, of which this novel is itself one of the truly great exponents.
THE NEW YORK TRILOGY (1985-86) by Paul Auster
This loose trilogy of stories, that make up a sort of single book, speaks more to our desire for mystery and to act as detectives to investigate them than provide a coherent story. This is a very meta-textual work and Auster is happy to exhibit his literary antecedent on his sleeve, like Poe’s ‘William Wilson’, but isn’t that interested in solutions, though Uaster can write more conventional crime stories if he chooses (as he did with Squeeze Play which he published as ‘Paul Benjamin’ a name that recurs throughout his fiction). One suspects that Auster is disdainful of crime as a low genre but this a fascinating and influential book none the less.
THE MOVING TOYSHOP (1946) by Edmund Crispin
This highly diverting mystery is full of high spirits and makes lots of in-jokes as well as purposefully calling attention to the artifice of fiction writing at several point. For instance,
“Fen steps in,”said Fen. “The Return of Fen. A Don Dares Death (A Gervase Fen Story) …. Murder Stalks the University. The Blood on the Mortarboard. Fen Strikes back.” “What’s that you’re saying?” asked Cadogan (who had almost been suffocated by one of the villains and was only slowly recovering). “My dear fellow, are you all right? I was making up titles for Crispin”.
At another point, the heroes undecided at a crossroads while in hot pursuit in his less than reliable car, opt to turn left on the grounds that, “After all, Gollancz is publishing this book.”It’s a wonderfully entertaining and unserious story, with a shop that actually seems to move, but it’s the high spirits of the writing and the sheer enjoyment of stretching within the genre that makes it a true delight for connoisseurs.
RYNOX (1930) by Philip MacDonald
Philip MacDonald in Rynox (aka The Rynox Murder) and some of his other many novels of the period deliberately draws attention to the fictional construction of the story. Macdonald is now a somewhat forgotten author but his playful attitude and deployment of grand, exciting central ideas make for highly amusing entertainments that don’t take themselves too seriously.
‘Don’t Look Behind You’ (1947) by Fredric Brown
In Fredric Brown’s truly unique murder mystery short story ‘Don’t Look Behind You’, the complex tale provides an unforgettable and unsettling twist as it emerges that the actual reader is to be the intended victim.
THE FACE ON THE CUTTING ROOM FLOOR (1938) by Cameron McCabe
And then of course there are books such as Cameron McCabe’s The Face on the Cutting Room Floor which aim to surprise the reader not only by providing a detective story but by then pulling it apart by introducing the author himself into the narrative – most recently this was a trick repeated in And Then There Was No One by Gilbert Adair (below).
AND THEN THERE WAS NO ONE (2010) by Gilbert Adair
Adair’s affection for the detective genre, especially its Golden Age variant, is perfectly understandable if one considers how playful the genre could get in the 1920s and 30s. In this book, the third and seemingly final of his series featuring Evadne Mount, Adair seems to take recursive fiction about as far as it can go and yet tries to hang on to the vestiges of providing a genuine genre entertainment on top of his carefully calculated critiques and ironies about authors, criticism detective stories, the publishing industry and much more besides. The book of his that so far has really come closest to creating something new within the detective genre without forgoing his postmodern intention is A Closed Book, which I have reviewed separately.