Crime and the Cultural Landscape: A Series on Detective Fiction

D etective fiction, though often considered an escapist genre, actually tells us a great deal about the real world. The best detective fiction, in addition to requiring rigorous plot and character development, provides readers with an opportunity to examine the beliefs and mores of different communities and eras and to consider human need and interaction and changing ideas of right and wrong. These readings, from over one hundred years of British and American mystery writing, explore the relationship between the genre and the differing social, political, and cultural climates that have served as its broader context.

Arthur Conan Doyle's A Study in Scarlet (1887) introduced the widely celebrated amateur detective Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, the stolid friend and foil with whom Holmes shares an apartment in Baker Street, London. A firm believer in the value of careful observation and deduction in solving puzzling crimes, Holmes abstracts the detective's task to an almost purely logical proposition, reflecting, perhaps, the values of the Victorian society in which he lives. The brilliant, but eccentric Holmes became the prototype for scores of detective geniuses and the Holmesian tale, a classic model for the British "whodunit."

In The Maltese Falcon (1929) and other detective novels, Dashiell Hammett established the prototype for the hard-boiled American private detective hero. Like the characters of Hammett's contemporary Ernest Hemingway, Sam Spade and other tough-guy Hammett heroes are laconic and self-defined men, frequently bruised but seldom defeated by unpleasant, sometimes violent experiences. The author's colorful stylistic blend of slang, wisecracks, and colloquial humor, captured memorably in Humphrey Bogart's film noir interpretation of the character and the San Francisco scene, has become a standard feature of the form.

The Nine Tailors (1934), a classic Golden-Age Mystery by British novelist Dorothy L. Sayers, takes place in the village of Fenchurch St. Paul in the East Anglian countryside. Lord Peter Wimsey, Sayers's popular aristocratic sleuth, applies his penetrating intelligence and insatiable curiosity to a crime ingeniously wound up in the ancient art of change-ringing. The novel is widely considered one of the best of the writer, whose detective fiction is admired for its well-researched backgrounds, distinguished style, observant characterizations, and intricate plotting, as well as for its amateur detective.

In Listening Woman (Tony Hillerman, 1978), the mysterious murders of a terminally ill old man and a young girl on a desolate New Mexico mesa baffle the state police and the FBI and leave the blind Navajo seer, Listening Woman, intoning cautionary visions of ghosts and witches. Hillerman's experienced detective, Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn of the Navajo Tribal Police, however, marshals his uncanny powers of deduction and knowledge of the ways of his people to solve the crimes. As in other Leaphorn novels, Hillerman successfully evokes both the beautiful desolation of the American Southwest and the pain of cultural clashes that can be as subtly colored as the landscape.

Heralded as "Britain's reigning queen of crime" by Newsweek magazine, P.D. James sets her novel Devices and Desires (1986) against the backdrop of contemporary nuclear power issues. Her detective, Commander Adam Dalgliesh, is on leave visiting a remote area of the Norfolk coast shadowed ominously by the Larksoken Nuclear Power Station. A psychopathic serial killer is on the loose, strangling one woman after another, and, like the reader, Dalgliesh is drawn into a web of hatred and violence. This subtle and powerful work of contemporary fiction, written almost a hundred years after Conan Doyle's A Study in Scarlet, presents a post-modern detective hero in a cultural milieu far removed from the Victorian world of Sherlock Holmes.

James Lee Burke's Black Cherry Blues (1989) updates the hard-boiled detective novel for the 1990s. His first-person narrative follows the sometimes tortured path of ex-cop-turned-private-investigator Dave Robicheaux through the seamier sides of life in the Louisiana bayou country and New Orleans. Combining toughness with vulnerability, Robicheaux struggles against his own demons, as well as former police buddies and a professional killer. Burke's gritty, yet poetic prose and acute sense of both place and the menaces of modern life create a compelling picture of contemporary life at its raw edge.

Suggested Further Readings

Nevada Barr, Track of the Cat
Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep
Agatha Christie, The Mysterious Affair at Styles
Patricia Cornwell, Body Farm
Amanda Cross, Death in a Tenured Position
Aaron Elkins, Icy Clutches
Dick Francis, Bonecrack
P.D. James, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman
Charlotte MacLeod, The Silver Ghost
Ngaio Marsh, Death in a White Tie
Sara Paretsky, Deadlock
Edgar Allan Poe, The Murders at Rue Morgue
Arthur Upfield, No Footprints in the Bush

General and Background Resources in Mystery and Detective Fiction

History of Mystery site
Information on the Edgar Allan Poe Awards for mystery writing
Stop, You're Killing Me! A Site to Die for. . . If You Love Mystery Books

Corpus Delicti of Mystery Fiction: A Guide to the Body of the Case, Linda Herman and Beth Stiel, Metuchen, NJ, 1974.
Critical Survey of Mystery and Detective Fiction
. Four volumes. Ed. Frank N. Magill Pasadena, CA, 1988.
Detecting Women: A Reader's Guide and Checklist for Mystery Series Written by Women.
  Willette L. Heising, Dearborn, MI, 1996. [also Detecting Women 2]
Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection
, Chris Steinbrunner and Otto Penzler.  New York, 1976.
Form and Ideology in Crime Fiction, Stephen Knight, Indiana, 1980.
Great Women Mystery Writers: Classic to Contemporary. Ed. Kathleen Gregory Klein, Westport, CT, 1994.
St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers, 4th edition. 1996.
Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers, 3rd edition, St. James Press, 1991.

Retired Discussion Series

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