Mayhem and Murder

Mayhem and Murder: Narative and Moral Issues in the Detective Story

HETA PYRHONEN
Copyright Date: 1999
Pages: 352
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3138/9781442677128
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  • Book Info
    Mayhem and Murder
    Book Description:

    Both detective and reader attempt to solve the crimes in detective novels, relying on the same motifs but employing different narrative interpretations to do so. A unique and lucid examination of a complex genre.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-7712-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-2)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 3-28)

    In Philip Kerr’sA Philosophical Investigation(1995), a serial killer keeps a journal of his murders. He poses this question about reading to the reader he imagines one day perusing his diary. He regards reading as a self-reflexive activity that not only transports readers into a fictional world but also makes them aware of reading itself. For him, this 'rare ability to step in or out of the picture' (177) distinguishes reading. His choice of examples is interesting, for the detective-story authors he refers to - Arthur Conan Doyle and Raymond Chandler - are often cited to support the opposite view...

  5. I: Investigating ‘Whodunit’

    • 1 Projecting the Criminal
      (pp. 31-64)

      In Edgar Allan Poe’s The Purloined Letter’ (1994b) C. Auguste Dupin, by using a schoolboy’s reply about his success at a guessing game as an example, explains the method of effecting a ‘thoroughidentification’ and the ‘admeasurement of the astuteness of opponents’ as follows: ‘When I wish to find out how wise, or how stupid, or how good, or how wicked is any one, or what are his thoughts at the moment, I fashion the expression of my face, as accurately as possible, in accordance with the expression of his, and then wait to see what thoughts or sentiments arise...

    • 2 Abduction: Interpreting Signs for Narrative Ends
      (pp. 65-91)

      The generic conventions of the detective story hold that every criminal always leaves behind traces, imprinting in one way or another the story of the crime on the fictional world; from these traces a perceptive person can read this story. To avoid exposure, criminals attempt to camouflage and manipulate or distort the signs of their crimes, anticipating the possibility that someone might investigate their transgression. Their crimes constitute the ‘texts’ they ‘write.’ They are the ‘authors’ of at least two stories: the authentic story of the crime and the deceptive one(s). The ideal from the culprit’s perspective is a text...

    • 3 Fitting the Solution to the Mystery
      (pp. 92-126)

      The traditional view of the detective-story plot holds it to be constructed backwards. The idea of backward construction goes back to the founder of the detective-story genre, Edgar Allan Poe, according to whom the author has first to determine the solution and then to fashion the plot with that ending in view, to give it an ‘indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention’ (cited in Steele 1981–2, 561).¹ This notion of plot relies on an extraordinarily tight complementarity between the parts and...

  6. II: Investigating Guilt

    • 4 The Reading of Guilt
      (pp. 129-161)

      In John le Carré’sA Murder of Quality(1980), Inspector Rigby, enlisting George Smiley’s help, describes a murder to him:’ Stella Rode must have been struck fifteen to twenty times with a cosh or bit of piping or something. It was a terrible murder ... There are marks all over her body ... I’ve seen some nasty things in my time, but this is the worst’ (28, 31). The cruelty of this deed makes him wonder what kind of person would engage in such brutality. The Chief thinks ‘a maniac, a man who kills for pleasure or the price of...

    • 5 Putting Together an Ethical View of Life
      (pp. 162-190)

      ‘Ah, my friend, one may live in a big house and yet have no comfort,’ observes Hercule Poirot of the scene of the crime in Agatha Christie’sThe Mysterious Affair at Styles(1954), neatly summing up the sense of life embedded in the whodunit legacy. The affluent mansion is the emblem of the social standing characters hanker after in this tradition, and it is their mutual competition for such a standing which triggers crimes, introducing a disquieting instability into the social fabric. The spacious but uncomfortable house also functions as the conventional image of the self, constructed at the interface...

    • 6 The Anatomy of Good and Evil in Agatha Christie
      (pp. 191-227)

      ‘I want you to think of this place as a stage set’ (175) Miss Marple advises the other characters inThey Do It with Mirrors(1971), suggesting they give thought to ‘what exactly isbehindthe scene’ (176). She thereby points to the central organizing image of thetheatrein Christie’s work, for everyone plays roles in this author’s world.¹ Her characters resemble a theatrical company, comprising a dramatis personae of such stock social and comic types as the tyrannical landholder, the English rose, the siren-with-a-past, the army colonel, the secretary-companion, the endearing rascal, and so on. The Shakespearean notion...

    • 7 Symbolic Exchanges with Death: Raymond Chandler
      (pp. 228-257)

      Agatha Christie’s use of the theatre metaphor brings out the ritualistic nature of her society, where impersonation is based on the knowledge of conventions and the clever employment of reason. In Raymond Chandler’s world, the traditional theatrical terms lose their descriptive power, thanks largely to the fact that society no longer cares to monitor who is playing what role and by what means. The metaphors of the ‘big production’ take their place, emphasizing the importance of money, power, business relations, and competition. Because competition is now open, accepted, and universal, people need not hide their desire for social ascendancy. It...

  7. Coming to an End
    (pp. 258-264)

    This study examines the various ways in which reading detective fiction, at each narrative level, represents an elaborate process of figuration. It conceives of reading as a continual oscillation between moving forward and stopping this movement in order to reflect upon the fragments one has gathered, their interrelationships, and the whole they construct together. The purpose of this fluctuation is for the reader to comprehend the different figures of design that structure and organize the detective-story plot. As a concordant structure, this plot patterns the narrated material so that the reader grasps the relations of the plot’s beginning, middle, and...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 265-318)
  9. Works Cited
    (pp. 319-332)
  10. Index
    (pp. 333-338)