Best of Postmodern Mysteries

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.

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.

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10 Responses to Best of Postmodern Mysteries

  1. Pingback: A CLOSED BOOK by Gilbert Adair | Tipping My Fedora

  2. Mrs P. says:

    I loved Auster’s trilogy when it first came out, partly because it reminded me in so many ways of Pynchon’s writings. Exactly as you say, such works ‘speak more to our desire for mystery and to act as detectives to investigate them than provide a coherent story’. I remember sitting for *hours* with Gravity’s Rainbow, drawing webs of narrative connections on sheets of paper in the vain hope that the whole thing would add up. Of course the whole point was that it didn’t; a neat authorial joke pulled off through the clever deployment and subversion of detective fiction conventions. Can’t tell you how much I love this kind of stuff!

  3. The equivalent books for film buffs (and I truly am one of they) would be David Thomson’s SUSPECTS, which takes characters and situations from two dozen movies and, rather brilliantly, creates a fascinating crime plot out of it – the reason i didn’t include it in my above list is that it is much more of a movie book than a crime novel, but if you know the difference between LAURA (1945) and ANATOMY OF A MURDER (1958) and what links these two films, then you should be in a for a noirish treat. And in this case, what starts out as a dialectical diagram becomes, in the end, a fairly straight coast-to-coast linbe across the US. I agree with you – when a meta-textual soup is made to just the right consistency, it’s pretty hard to beat for nourishment and crime books do seem particularly well disposed to become major ingredients (to flog that particular analogy to death).

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  6. Pingback: MURDER ON THE YELLOW BRICK ROAD (1977) by Stuart M. Kaminsky | Tipping My Fedora

  7. Ela says:

    Have you read Marion Mainwaring’s Murder in Pastiche, or Nine Detectives All At Sea? It’s a bit of a parody of several well-known detectives (Lord Simon Quinsey, for example) where all the detectives try their hand at finding out who killed someone on a liner crossing the Atlantic. That book revels in its artificiality, though doesn’t break the fourth wall, as it were.

    Gilbert Adair is a familiar name though I don’t think I’ve read any of his books. I like the idea of the Evadne Mount series.

    • Hi Ela, good to har from you. I recently got a copy of MURDER IN PASTICHE but have only skimmed through it so far. Many, like Patrick (above) loathed Adair, but I think he’s worth a shot though Patrick always makes a very good case – I really love Bruce’s CASE FOR THREE DETECTIVES and Berkeley’s POISONED CHOCOLATES CASE.

  8. Pingback: A CLOSED BOOK (1999) by Gilbert Adair | Tipping My Fedora

  9. Hana Saliba-Salman says:

    As an avid reader of the detective genre, I would highly recommend Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. They both play upon the rules of the classical detective genre, beginning with the title in the case of Haddon’s novel, in order to innovate the problem-solving end-oriented formua. Both are also about a quest with a disorder; th first is Tourette Syndrome the second is Asperger.

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