Politics of Crime Fiction
By Mandika Sinha
What the detective story is about is not murder but the restoration of order.
Serious readers of crime fiction will instantly recognise the fact that this genre has to affinity to depict chaos and turmoil, be it on the individual or the communal level. This in turn makes crime fiction an ideal platform to raise vital issues of political nature as crime fiction has been used by crime writers to dissect various politics of representation, be it race, class, gender etc. But what is the politics of this genre which deals with such highly political issues? The politics of crime fiction can be elucidated by looking into two important periods in crime fiction namely—the Golden Age of British detection and the American Hard-Boiled tradition.
On a basic level crime fiction followed a plot structure as described by P.D James, a British crime novelist—
“what we can expect is a central mysterious crime, usually murder; a closed circle of suspects each with a motive, means and opportunity for the crime; a detective, either amateur or professional, who comes in like an avenging deity to solve it, and by the end of the book, a solution which the reader should be able to arrive at by logical deduction from clues inserted in the novel with deceptive cunning but essential fairness” (15).
This definition focuses on the idea of crime which is murder as being the centre of crime fiction. The crime novel is mostly centered on a brutal murder which plunges the society into a state of disorder. Hence, it is an apt vehicle to chronicle the various conflicts that a society as a whole undergoes as it effectively captures the anxieties of the individual as well as that of the larger state. This means that crime fiction deals with themes of political issues giving voice to the suppressed and marginalised communities.
It is evident that on a primary level, one of the reasons for the appeal of crime fiction is the central mystery being solved. The revelation of the criminal becomes a moment of triumph for the detective as well as the reader who is in pursuit of the killer. The process of the solving of the crime takes added importance in the light of the fact that the crime in solved due to human intelligence as opposed to luck and divinity. This idea is also reflected in “The Guilty Vicarage”, where W. H .Auden compares his love for this genre to an addiction—once he started reading a detective novel he states that he is unable to put it down. P.D James in Talking about Detective Fiction echoes a similar thought—“we are presented with a mystery at the heart of the novel and we know that by the end it will be solved. Very few readers can put down a detective story until it is solved” (140). Crime fiction feeds curiosity that is one of the basic human traits. Everyone enjoys a good mystery and feel a sense of satisfaction at a clear resolution. Auden concludes his essay suggesting that a crime when resolved allows us: “the fantasy of being restored to the Garden of Eden, to a state of innocence.”
Auden expresses the commonly held British view of the place of crime and its resolution in society. The central crime is considered to be a momentary corruption in an otherwise well ordered state of society. It is up to the detective then to solve the crime through rationality and bring the criminal to justice. With this the natural order of society is restored and a sense of innocence is regained. Hence, the rational detective has an important role to play in crime fiction. This emphasis on rationality finds echo in the statement that Knight makes about the figure of the detective—‘the classic detectives are clever, insightful and persevering rather than flamboyantly active or coincidentally fortunate like heroes of the detective past and of other sub-genres’(88).
In order to further elucidate this point, it is crucial to look into the Golden age of British detection. Some crucial elements of this era were the archetypal setting of a quaint English countryside in the British novels instead of the urban landscape. This choice of setting of a respectable upper middle class countryside was deliberate since murder becomes a violent disturbance in an otherwise ‘Eden-like’ surrounding. ‘In the detective story,’ Auden writes in ‘The Guilty Vicarage’, the setting:
Should be the Great Good Place; for the more Eden-like it is, the greater the contradiction of murder. The country is preferable to the town, a well-to-do neighborhood (but not too well-to-do – or there will be a suspicion of ill-gotten gains) better than a slum. The corpse must shock not only because it is a corpse but also because, even for a corpse, it is shockingly out of place, as when a dog makes a mess on a drawing-room carpet.
Thus, these English mysteries celebrated the rural almost pastoral landscape as seen in the iconic Miss Marple series written by Agatha Christie. The criminal usually belonged to the close circle of family, relatives and acquaintances and professional killers did not usually appear in these stories. The working and the lower class were also presented a suspects while the victim was a person of importance and wealth —‘The victim has some wealth and authority, a person against whom malicious hostility and envy can credibly be raised, and also, it would seem, a person whose wealth and status bring danger’ (Knight 87). The story in keeping with its puzzle form provided multiple suspects with motives who each had ample opportunity as well as an ability to commit the crime. The detective of the Golden age comes in like a redeemer who by a series of scientific and rational deduction comes to a logical conclusion. Hence, the quintessential Golden Age detective is one who solves crimes and restores order when society is threatened by an outside force.
While the Golden Age did sweep England, its effects were felt in America in the form of Hard-boiled fiction. The now perfected clue puzzle form was adopted by many writers who wanted to try their hand in writing mystery novels. The strict rules of this form acted as a challenge for many writers who added their own flavor to the stories as reflected in Dashiell Hammett’s ‘The Maltese Falcon’. The iconic image produced by this age is that—‘of the hardboiled world (private eye with a whisky bottle in a filing cabinet, femme fatale, rich – and usually corrupt – clients).[T]he image of the lone investigator cutting through the polished surface of society to reveal the decay beneath has an existential force that makes most crime fiction seem trivial. This is a world in which female sexuality is often a snare and a delusion, plunging the hapless protagonist into a hazardous world of carnality and danger; and while the structure of society (manipulative politicians, brutal police) may seem callously efficient, the classic pulp novels present a world in which all is illusion and fate can randomly destroy the protagonist” (Forshaw 33-34). While the British detective story was concerned with creating order and reassurance—“ a genre of reconciliation and social healing”(James 72), the practitioners of Hard-boiled mode were concerned with exploration of social upheavals—‘lawlessness, prohibition, corruption, the power and violence of [...] gangsters who were close to becoming folk heroes, the cycle of boom and depression- and creating detectives who were inured to this world and could confront it on their own terms” (James 72).
Raymond Chandler’s famous description of the private eye in The Simple Art of Murder goes:
“[…] but down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of a story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honour.” (18)
This important essay chalks out the difference between the traditional school of detective fiction and the Hardboiled mode and this description of the private eye sheds further light into this subgenre. Chandler envisions the private eye as a modern day knight in a quest to purge the society of its dark underbelly of crime. The world presented in the Hard-boiled narrative is no longer the boxed world of black and white which figured in its British counterpart rather it’s a world where clear answers no longer exist. Yet the Hard-boiled detective is an—‘idealised figure, a questing knight of romance transplanted into the mean streets of mid-twentieth century Los Angeles [..] motivated by his own personal code of honour’ (Scaggs 62). This sheds light into the one common ground that both these genre of crime fiction share. In both the British and the American version, the detective is given the sole task of shedding light to the truth and hence restoring order in the society whether it’s a corrupt or a peaceful landscape.
It is amply clear while these two subgenres are distinct in many ways, they do share the need for a clear restoration of order in the end. In both the readings, be it Hardboiled or Golden age of detection, the figure of the detective is projected as knight who will bring justice and hence, restore society to its former glory. This reading of the genre reveals that truth seeking is a vital and irreplaceable part of the crime novel. Since it assures the readers that in the face of great upheaval and crime there is always the assurance of the triumph of goodness. The morally corrupt is purged from the society and order is restored.
Therefore, when the politics of crime fiction is questioned, critics have remarked on the conservative leaning of crime fiction. A typical story in crime fiction begins with a crisis which destabilises the peace of a community. This crisis is eventually averted due to the presence of the detective. Though the protagonist may face many challenges along the way order is reinstated towards the end. The narrative may be about the most horrible crimes but the readers have solace that stability will be restored eventually. It is significant that Fredric Jameson in Raymond Chandler: The Detections of Totality writes that—“the moment of violence, apparently central, is nothing but a diversion: the real function of murder […] is for order to be felt more strongly” (7). This emphasis on order reveals the innate need readers have for a happy ending even from a novel which deals with chaos and thus reflects the inherent conservative leaning of crime fiction.
Auden, W.H. “The Guilty Vicarage: Notes On The Detective Story, By An Addict”, Harpers Magazine, 1948.
Brecht, Bertolt. “On The Popularity Of Crime Novel”, The Irish Review 31, 1986.
Forshaw, Barry. Death In A Cold Climate. UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
James, P.D. Talking About Detective Fiction. Oxford: Faber. 2009.
Jameson, Fredric. Raymond Chandler: Detections of Totality. UK: Verso. 2016.
Knight, Stephen. Crime Fiction since 1800: Detection, Death, Diversity. New York: Palgrave, 2010.
Scaggs, John. Crime Fiction. London: Routledge, 2005.