In my internet ramblings to find sources of literary criticism about mystery novels, I came across this fascinating essay by David Lehman, originally published in the Boston Review in Feb/March 2000. This passage stood out:
In detective novels, the initiating act of terminal violence–which characteristically takes place off-stage–doubles as a beguiling intellectual riddle. Only two people knew what really happened. One of them, being dead, can’t tell you; the other one won’t. The progress from ignorance to knowledge, mystery to enlightenment, parallels that from order disturbed to order restored. As the Great Detective figures out the culprit’s identity, he (or in some cases, especially recent ones, she) tidies up a case of violent disorder. We begin with a corpse and a smell as of corruption, the smell of guilt pervading all. We end with the fingering of the one party whose expulsion will prove the innocence of all the others.
Whoa. Dude, that’s deep. Lehman also talks about the enduring attraction of Agatha Christie (more on that from me later, as I’m currently re-reading – and really appreciating – key novels in her impressively prolific collection) and how “serious” fiction writers like Borges and Nabokov have lifted the mystery novel structure for their own literary ends. He speaks positively of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, two authors I’ve never been enthused about. And he’s gotten me interested in reading Ross Macdonald.
This is an impressive feat, as for some reason I’ve always dragged my feet about reading detective novels by male authors. It’s like I’m terminally 9 years old – boys! Ewww, gross, Dash and Ray have cooties! This aversion even includes Conan Doyle – I’ve read the stories and enjoy the plots, but the characters, especially Sherlock Holmes himself, annoy the crap out of me. Funny, though, I really like the classic movies featuring Bogart as Sam Spade, and the latest Sherlock series on PBS’ Masterpiece Mystery is terrific. Maybe I just need to watch versions of male-authored mystery stories on TV with hot guys involved?