the loneliness of the private detective

We've been watching the David Suchet "Poirot" series lately, and have just finished up the final six seasons. Who believes the plot in "Curtain," anyway? Nobody, that's who. But who can blame Christie for killing off the character and making him a murderer in the process, so that for practical purposes he's best off dead? Well done, Agatha.

I am not writing about Agatha Christie's "Curtain," however. I'm writing because it occurred to me last night, during "Elephants Can Remember," that I have a particular way of reading detective fiction. I've said before (because it's true) that I don't look at a mystery novel as a puzzle to be solved. I don't care whodunit, and if you look critically at Golden-age mysteries, the narratives are not logical chains leading from the committal of the crime to the solution. No, they are not, and the discussion of the arbitrariness of the mystery plot's resolution has been going on for at least a century by now. I don't even pay attention to the clues, I'll have you know, because I don't care a fig about that.

As we sat discussing "Elephants" before making tea, I told Mighty Reader that I read/watch detective fiction as a story that happens to the detective character. What do I think when I read a Poirot novel? "Oh, Poirot is interested. Oh, now Poirot is angry because he's been lied to. Now Poirot is feeling triumphant. Now he's kicking himself, poor Poirot." I never think, "Oh, it's the lady of the house, because she's secretly the mother of the neighbors' chambermaid" or whatever. Because I don't care about the mystery.

Frankly, I don't think most readers of mysteries (Golden-age mysteries, that is) care about the crime and the solution. If they did, they'd be awfully frustrated. See above denial of logical chain in mystery novels. I think most readers care about the observations regarding society, and about the personality of the detective. We want to see the detective at work in the world, and we don't so much care about what he's doing, so much as we care about how he responds to the world, to the actions of evil and good, of guilt and innocence. The mystery is just a bit of sweet fluff we pretend to be solving along with the detective (who always has knowledge that is withheld from the reader, because if the reader actually does get all of the clues, he solves the crime a hundred pages before the detective solves it because, as is also well-documented, the brilliance of the detective is a weak fiction that the writer and the reader contract into in order to get on with the story about the detective; it's not something that's actually borne out by the detective character on the page).

Where am I going with this? Nowhere, really, except that I continue to be fascinated by my own attraction to detective fiction, despite its flaws and essential intellectual dishonesty. Do writers of detective fiction actually convince themselves that the mystery puzzle is a) interesting, and b) solved through the collection of clues performed by the detective? I hope not, because that's a pretty large delusion. The flip side of this, however, is that all of the detective fiction I've read that abandons the silly conventions of mystery-as-puzzle, are failures as novels. I'm looking very hard at Paul Auster, but he's not the only culprit. The detective outside of the machinery of detective action is a non-entity. That might be an interesting subject for a novel, perhaps one that's actually been successfully written. I don't know what that novel is, though. Most of the contemporary metafictional detective stories I've read have been pretty frustrating (which is to say boring). I recall that Borges made something interesting, though I can't recall it in any detail.


  1. Where does Eco's The Name of the Rose fall into all this? It's been so long since I've read it I'm not equipped to discuss it intelligently, but I recall that behind the medieval setting and the philosophizing was a pretty old-fashioned detective story.

    1. I was thinking about Eco toward the end when I mentioned Borges, since the library in Rose is in many ways the library in that Borges story whose name escapes me. Eco's novel is, as you say, a classic detective story where--even if the clues could never lead the reader to the solution--once the solution is revealed, the clues and actions seem to satisfactorily fit it. It's very Agatha Christie (at her best) in that the mechanics of the crime are pretty straightforward, and the author spends most of his energy convincing the reader that it's a complicated case and layering all sorts of unrelated themes over the top. Plus, you get an interesting character as detective.

      I wrote a detective novel back in 2013 or so, and sometime soon I'll be submitting it to a publisher, so I'm interested in these things right now. There's a lot I like about the genre, but I have no respect for the puzzle aspect because, as a rule, it's done very poorly. I just read the first Holmes novel (A Study In Scarlet) and it's awful, truly bad stuff. Doyle improved over time, but he was off to a pretty rocky start. It fails as a mystery and as a story, and the only good thing about it is the voice and character of John Watson. At which Doyle was fairly successful, I think.

      Clearly I don't have any kind of well-thought-through point to make; but I enjoy thinking about mystery novels and fictional detectives.