On The Context Of Detective Novels

I’m a fan of mystery novels, especially historical mystery novels that combine my love of solving mysteries and seeing them solved with my love of historical fiction in general.  Yet as someone who not only reads but also researches and writes, I find that mystery novels themselves tend to depend on a certain context that is not always appreciated.  Perhaps it would be worthwhile to step into the sorts of historical mystery novels that I have enjoyed.  An online acquaintance of mine has sent me a variety of noir books, some of them historical, based in Belfast.  I have enjoyed the novels of Chandler and Hammett which deal with Los Angeles.  I voraciously read the Brother Cadfael series of novels based in 12th century Shrewsbury, and am currently reading the Flavia Albia series from Lindsey Davis based in Domitian’s Rome, along with the Drew Farthering novels of Julianne Dearing.  This is a fairly diverse set of mystery novels to appreciate, ranging from the 1st century to the 20th, from the gritty streets of Belfast, Rome, and Los Angeles, to the country estates of rural England to a Benedictine monastery.

Yet all of them share a few qualities that allow us to appreciate the mystery novel and its necessary contexts.  What space is necessary in a given society for a private detective to be able to thrive?  What are the necessary conditions for a detective to have enough work to develop his (or her) craft?  Simon Maltman’s Belfast noir novels are written in the context of an area deeply divided by a long conflict between Protestant and Catholic.  The Brother Cadfael novels are set on the boundary between England and Wales in a period of civil war between the forces of King Stephen of Blois and Empress Matilda, whose son Henry would begin the fateful Plantagenet dynasty.  The Flavia Albia novels take place in a paranoid imperial Rome ruled over by Domitian.  The novels of Chandler and Hammett deal with the seamy underside of Los Angeles, a city of many divisions.  Indeed, detectives seem to thrive on space that is contested, where there are boundary concerns and a variety of conflicts between different ethnic groups and classes and political factions.  Why is this the case?

There are a few reasons for this.  For one, mystery novels thrive on private detectives who are beyond the reach of the state, although they often interact with agents of the state.  Brother Cadfael is a monk who is friends with Shrewsbury’s sheriff, a decent and honorable man, for example.  Flavia Albia first works with and then marries Manlius Faustus, a plebian aedile with police enforcement duties.  The detective must be on the side of the civic order but not too closely tied to it.  This requires a certain social structure, a generally (but not always) urban environment where there is sufficient space between the public and private realms that allows for private help for public institutions of law and order.  In short, a society must be free enough where there are niches for private detectives to flourish.  In addition, there must be enough conflict present within that society, enough violence and suspicion, for the detective to have something to do.  There must be bodies to identify, crimes to solve, and the best places for this to happen are in the seamier and dirtier sides of a society where public and private violence intersect and where organized criminal and business elements seek to defend their interests, sometimes with deadly force.  These are, by definition, corrupt societies with serious problems.

After all, the detective is supposed to be a sympathetic figure.  Most of the detective figures are therefore of elite status, but are not so far removed from ordinary society that they cannot be identified with.  Drew Farthering is the illegitimate son of a local elite with mixed English-French ancestry.  Flavia Albia is an adopted daughter of an Equestrian family with Senatorial connections on her adopted mother’s side, and her husband Manlius comes from a wealthy but hard-working plebian family.  Brother Cadfael is a middle-aged monk who spent his youth in the violence of the Crusades.  Someone must be of somewhat high status to be a detective, to have the education and background and resources necessary to acquire and keep up the necessary skills in forensics, regardless of what period they are placed in, but at the same time they must not be of high enough status that they would not enjoy or seek out the work of investigating crimes.  They must have enough civic pride to help out the official forces of law and order while retaining a certain independence from that officialdom, placing them in an awkward and ambiguous middle space.

And it is in that middle space that detectives and mystery fiction as a general thrives.  After all, the relationship of the reader of mystery novels has a similarly ambivalent view towards the official law and order that the hero of mystery novels does.  There is a respect for individual figures within that order, a good sheriff, a conscientious aedile, an indulgent police chief, but the protagonist (and reader) see the justice system as a whole as corrupt, and have decided to engage in it as an independent party rather than as a participant and reformer.  The decision is made to exploit the space between public and private where corruption lies as an ally of the forces of law and order but where enough distance is kept so that the hero is not seen as a part of that corrupt system himself (or herself).  In other cases, the private detective exists in spaces where there is little police presence at all, or wear the desire for privacy and secrecy on the part of elites would make it difficult to go to the police and face public scrutiny over a particular missing person or object.  To some extent, the existence of mystery fiction suggests a literate populace that seeks for the resolution of unsolved crimes and the thwarting of disorder, but where good people seek to maintain some distance from a social order that they view as corrupt and illegitimate in some fashion.  Perhaps there is a civil war going on, perhaps there is government that is viewed as corrupt, but for whatever reason, the mystery novel exists in a place where good people are seen as separate from systems of official authority, which suggests a society in some state of disarray or decadence, making the existence of the solver of mysteries a canary in a coal mine that something is indeed wrong with the society where he or she exists, whether or not we stop to think about that when we are enjoying the novel itself.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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2 Responses to On The Context Of Detective Novels

  1. Catharine Martin says:

    I agree; one of the most critical aspects of a good detective mystery novel is their make-up. The detectives’ backgrounds must be conducive to lending objectivity to the world around them. Thus we have the illegitimacy of one; adoptive status of another; and the other-worldliness of the monastery of the third–to atone for the bloody crusading sins of his youth. These individuals have chosen not to remain broken but, instead, to undertake each case of broken clues and form them into a cohesive pattern. They become whole each time they put every piece of the puzzle together to solve the mystery. Their work redefines who they are.

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