The detective story has always been a game played between the author and the reader. It creates a world where logic, reason and process lead inevitably to motives, solutions, and the perpetrator. In a world that has become more and more complex, the traditional detective story reassures readers with logical plots that have the ability to “deliver us from evil and lead us toward the broad daylight of understanding [and] towards a restoration of the social order that the crime had so violently disturbed” (Bertens 196). The genre is also attractive to the writer as it provides a pattern to follow, a well-worn template that offers identifiable tropes as well as scope for invention and creative interpretation. For Murakami, it was a window into another culture, another way of life. In an interview with The Paris Review the Japanese novelist describes his novels as a marriage of Chandler and Dostoyevsky and says that by writing in this way, he alters the rules of the game by using the structure and the tropes of the hardboiled detective story to examine aspects of existence rather than re-telling a crime story from a Japanese perspective (Wry). According to Owen (qtd. In Rzepka, & Horsley 1996), “Innovations in detective fiction rely upon the standard rules of the ‘game’ for their effectiveness. The postmodern (metaphysical) detective novel goes beyond subverting the traditions of detective fiction, since these formulas are not enough to determine ontological answers (or, simply put, ‘reality’) in a more complex age”.
Murakami and the Hardboiled Genre
Murakami’s search for a voice and method by which to communicate his ideas was inspired by his love of hardboiled fiction and, more importantly, the novels of Raymond Chandler. As a translator of American fiction before he became a novelist, Murakami became heavily influenced by the books he translated into Japanese. His first two novels, described as “immature works” (Wry) by the author himself, did not employ the tropes of hardboiled fiction as they were short experiments with language and did not rely on structure. His third novel A Wild Sheep Chase, however, uses a wide array of narrative devices that can be found in the hardboiled novels of Chandler. Murakami himself acknowledges his third novel (the first he allowed to be translated) to be “the true beginning of my style” (Wry). As Hantke quite rightly points out, the hardboiled detective tradition has provided Murakami with “a blueprint for protagonist and plot”. The author went on after the success of A Wild Sheep Chase (1982) to use the same ‘blueprint’ in the the subsequent novels Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1985), Dance, Dance, Dance (1988) and The Wind-up Bird Chronicle (1995).
Subverting the tropes of detective fiction is hardly a new device and has been used extensively to parody the traditional detective story. Early versions of this type of story can be found in Borges and Nabokov and then the Nouveau Roman of French writers such as Robbe-Grillet. Another early version can be found in Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. These stories, however, all mimic Poe’s Dupin or Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Murakami, on the other hand, prefers to subvert the tropes of the hardboiled detective novel, “parody[ing] the human and fallible detective of the hard-boiled school” (Suter 93). Murakami is drawn to the fact that the hardboiled detective is personally affected by the journey he takes on. The author believes that the hardboiled detective genre provides him with the perfect vehicle to examine the themes that he is interested in exploring:
“as far as my thinking about the hard-boiled style” is concerned, Murakami explains, “I’m interested in the fact that [hard-boiled detectives] are very individualist in orientation. The figure of the loner. I’m interested in that because it isn’t easy to live in Japan as an individualist or a loner. I’m always thinking about this. I’m a novelist and I’m a loner, an individualist” (qtd in Rubin 6-7).
By adopting the central character, the structure, and the tone of the hard-boiled detective novel, Murakami finds an instrument that infuses his text with familiarity, which provides the reader with a way into the text. The tropes that one is faced with when reading the opening chapters of A Wild Sheep Chase are familiar in the same way a hardboiled novel’s plot is to a devotee.
A deeper reading of Murakami’s central character, however, suggests that hardboiled weariness functions as a defense mechanism against the trauma of modernity; rhizomatic connections open up and make it difficult to get a firm grasp of reality, which becomes open to endless interpretation. As a result, Murakami’s protagonists “embody the intuition, ubiquitous in late modernity, that the inexplicable has become commonplace: it is normal that abnormal things occur” (qtd in Merivale and Sweeney 7). A Wild Sheep Chase employs “a mystery type quest and an impossible search for meaning” (Suter 93). To create this ‘impossible search for meaning’ Murakami has employed two of the most compelling and common features of the metaphysical detective story; namely, the labyrinth and the non-solution, which highlight the rhizomatic nature of creating meaning and interpretation.
The Metaphysical/Postmodern Detective Story
Writers who have employed the elements of the metaphysical detective story use the genre “to address unfathomable epistemological and ontological questions: What, if anything, can we know? What, if anything, is real? How, if at all, can we rely on anything besides our own constructions of reality? In this sense, metaphysical detective stories are indeed concerned with metaphysics” (Merivale & Sweeney 4). The term was originally coined by Haycraft and later adopted by critics such as Holquist and Merivale. According to Holquist, the metaphysical detective story adopts the “method” of the detective novel but not its “telos.” He contends that
“postmodernists use as a foil the assumption of detective fiction that the mind can solve all: by twisting the details, just the opposite becomes the case” (173). Merivale defines this postmodern variant as “a text that parodies or subverts traditional detective story conventions - such as narrative closure and the detective’s role as a surrogate reader - with the intention, or at least the effect, of asking questions about mysteries of being and knowing which transcend the mere machinations of the mystery plot” (2). The metaphysical detective story, in short, simultaneously constructs and deconstructs the genre, using its conventions and formal properties to subvert its underlying ontological and epistemological assumptions (Shiloh 4).
For Murakami “the question that most often concerns him is one of identity - how it is formed, how it may be maintained, how it can be lost due to traumatic circumstances, and what its loss might mean to the contemporary society” (Stretcher 213). The author employs the tropes of the hardboiled detective novel in an effort to expose the mysteries that surround the character on the journey rather than the perpetrator or the victim. The protagonist, through his investigation, faces more personal concerns and crises and, as a result, the crime and investigation shrink into the distance. As Michael Holquist points out “If in the detective story, death must be solved, in the new metaphysical detective story, it is life that must be solved.”
Bertens, Johannes Willem. International Postmodernism: Theory and Literary Practice. Amsterdam: J. Benjamins, 1997. Print.
Hantke, S. (2007, 12). Postmodernism and Genre Fiction as Deferred Action: Haruki Murakami and the Noir Tradition. Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 49 (1), 3-24. doi:10.3200/CRIT.49.1.2-24
Holquist, M. (1971). New Literary History: A journal of theory and interpretation. Charlottesville, VA.: University of Virginia.
Merivale, Patricia, and Susan Elizabeth Sweeney. Detecting Texts: The Metaphysical Detective Story from Poe to Postmodernism. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania, 1999. Print.
Murakami, Haruki. A Wild Sheep Chase. Trans Alfred Birnbaum. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1990. Print.
Rubin, Jay. Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words. London: Harvill, 2002. Print.
Rzepka, C. J., & Horsley, L. (2010). A companion to crime fiction. Chichester, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell.
Shiloh, Ilana. The Double, the Labyrinth and the Locked Room: Metaphors of Paradox in Crime Fiction and Film. New York: Peter Lang, 2011. Print.
Strecher, Matthew. Dances with Sheep: The Quest for Identity in the Fiction of Murakami Haruki. Ann Arbor, MI: Center for Japanese Studies/U of Michigan, 2002. Print.
Suter, Rebecca. The Japanization of Modernity: Murakami Haruki between Japan and the United States. Cambridge, MA: Harvard U Asia Center, 2008. Print.
Wry, John. Haruki Murakami, The Art of Fiction No. 182. The Paris Review, 2004. Web. Summer, 2004.
Dr. Fiona Peters is Reader in Crime Fiction at Bath Spa University in the UK. She is a Patricia Highsmith scholar and is director of the Captivating Criminality project.