Book Review: Detective Fiction and the Problem of Knowledge: Perspectives on the Metacognitive Mystery Tale Reviewed by Eric Sandberg
Dechêne, Antoine, Detective Fiction and the Problem of Knowledge: Perspectives on the Metacognitive Mystery Tale (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). 347pp. Hardcover € 79.99. Reviewed by Eric Sandberg.
Short-listed for the 2018 International Crime Fiction Association Book Prize
Antoine Dechêne’s Detective Fiction and the Problem of Knowledge sets out to continue, and extend, the field of research more or less inaugurated by Patricia Merivale and Susan Elizabeth Sweeny in their landmark collection on metaphysical detective fiction, Detecting Texts (1999). It accomplishes this goal with elegance and erudition, and represents an impressive contribution to what is arguably the most understudies sub-field within the broader area of crime fiction studies.
Dechêne’s monograph is organised in five major parts. The first, “The Problem of Knowledge,” lays the theoretical groundwork for the close, comparative readings presented in the following four sections. After tracing the history and development of theoretical attempts to grapple with detective fiction which operates beyond the traditional confines of the ‘whodunnit’ – and identifying two main approaches, one of which sees it as a postmodern subgenre of classical detective fiction, the other as a genre on its own right, with its own history – Dechêne moves on to what may be the most controversial, and potentially the most influential, aspect of his work.
This (potential) controversy arises from Dechêne’s argument that a new terminology will allow for a better understanding of the phenomenon in question, and his replacement of the now traditional term ‘metaphysical detective fiction’ with his own nomenclature: this is a study, as is indicated in the subtitle, of the ‘metacognitive mystery tale.’ The term is offered for a number of reasons: it attempts to account for both the range of cognitive questions that are central to these narratives – their incessant questioning of the “possibility of indisputable knowledge” and the inevitable partial, constructed nature of what knowledge we do have – and for the conspicuous absence of professional detectives in them (38). Further, it rejects the possibility of a supernatural (e.g. religious) explanation of the fundamental mysteries of being. This revised nomenclature allows Dechêne to corral a wider variety of texts into his discussion that might otherwise be possible: ‘metacognitive mystery tale’ is a capacious rubric that helps us to see the links between a number of generic streams, from the Gothic to the fantastic to the sublime. It is an open question if this new terminology will be more widely adopted – there is a euphony to ‘metaphysical detective fiction’ lacking in ‘metacognitive mystery tales,’ and the weight of tradition is strong here. However, the main point is not whether Dechêne’s term catches on in the wider crime fiction studies community, but that it allows him to produce nuanced and fascinating readings of a range of next that might well slip through the conceptual nets of a different conceptualisation.
While this is not the place for an exhaustive summary of the four main sections of comparative literary analysis offered in Detective Fiction and the Problem of Knowledge, a brief discussion will allow readers to see, and appreciate, both the breadth of Dechêne’s coverage, and to identify chapters of particular relevance to their own work. Part two deals largely with the urban environments in which metacognitive mystery tales are frequently set, and focuses on the Baudelarian/Benjaminian figure of the flaneur, integrating a discussion of Poe with chapters on Borges and Auster. Part three focuses on the role of the grotesque, and deftly interweaves readings of Melville, Beckett, and Bolaño. Part fours deals with the notion of the sublime in relation to the “aporia that lie at the heart of each metacognitive inquiry” (8). The familiar figures of Henry James and (again) Poe are here discussed in relation to the much less well-known Uruguayan writer Horacio Quiroga. Part five, the delightfully titled “In Lieu of a Conclusion,” examines “Wakefield,” a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne whose titular character’s quest for self-knowledge fails in ways that neatly encapsulate many of the concerns of the metacognitive mystery tale, an ‘unreadable’ genre that Dechêne’s work goes a long way towards deciphering.
Bio: Eric Sandberg is an Assistant Professor at City University of Hong Kong and a Docent at the University of Oulu. His research interests range from modernism to the contemporary novel, with a particular interest in the borderlands between literary and popular fiction, especially crime writing. He co-edited Adaptation, Awards Culture, and the Value of Prestige with Colleen Kennedy-Karpat for Palgrave in 2017, and edited 100 Greatest Literary Detectives for Rowman & Littlefield in 2018. He is an assistant editor of Edinburgh University Press’s journal Crime Fiction Studies. He has recently published on Dorothy L. Sayers in the Journal of Modern Literature.
Book Review: Domestic Noir. The New Face of 21st Century Crime Fiction Reviewed by Linda Ledford-Miller
Laura Joyce and Henry Sutton (ed.s), Domestic Noir. The New Face of 21st Century Crime Fiction (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) 292pp. eBook £71.50. Hardcover £88.00. Softcover £89.99. Reviewed by Linda Ledford-Miller
Short-listed for the 2018 International Crime Fiction Association Book Prize
With a preface by Julia Crouch, fourteen essays by fourteen authors and an afterword by Megan Abbott, Domestic Noir focuses on the female experience, whether as victim or perpetrator. After an Introduction by Laura Joyce, general categories include “The Origins of Domestic Noir,” “The Influences of Gillian Flynn´s Gone Girl,” “Gendered, Sexual, and Intimate Violence in Domestic Noir,” “Home as a Site of Violence,” and “Geographies of Domestic Noir.”
In her introduction, crime writer Julia Crouch shares her invention in 2003 of the term “domestic noir,” and notes that women´s experience is at the center of this subgenre, and that the “home as sanctuary” is often subverted, with that supposed sanctuary “a cage, a place of torment, of psychological tyranny, of violence” (vii). But she also observes that women may be perpetrators as well as victims.
In “The Origins of Domestic Noir,” Fiona Peters argues that the works of Patricia Highsmith serve as a strong influence on domestic noir. Stefania Ciocia also examines a predecessor to contemporary works in her discussion of Vera Caspary´s novel, Laura, better known for the successful film.
The essays in “The Influences of Gillian Flynn´s Gone Girl” focus on “the archetypal domestic noir” of Flynn´s enormously successful novel in which the victim isn´t dead after all, herself perpetrates a crime, and in so doing manages to exonerate the (cheating) husband she had labored to make guilty of her disappearance and perhaps murder. Harry Sutton provides an overview of the history of crime fiction criticism and the complex relationship between successful, popular literature and formal literary criticism. Eva Burke repositions the question of whether Gone Girl is a feminist novel to investigate “the social obligation of female likeability” (81).
Section III, “Gendered, Sexual, and Intimate Violence in Domestic Noir,” contains three essays. Emma V. Miller focuses first on the female corpse as the passive role expected of women, countered by women “on the move” like Amy of Gone Girl and Rachel of Paula Hawkins´ The Girl on the Train. Leigh Redhead examines Gillian Flynn´s Sharp Objects and Megan Abbott´s Dare Me to argue that the contrast between adult females and teenage femme fatales in these novels constitutes a feminist critique of the double standards and sexism ingrained in contemporary Western society.
Nicoletta Di Ciolla and Anna Pasolini investigate the “violent mother” with an “intersectional analysis” of women versus mothers; the “multiplicity of female identity,” which suggests that though women may be victims of violence, they also may be survivors or even victimizers; and questions of power, not exclusive to gender relations (141). They observe that the social expectations of mothers are enormous, at the same time as social dysfunction may prevent mothers from meeting such expectations, leaving women to struggle to negotiate the tension between motherhood, victimhood, and a hoped for female agency.
“Home as a Site of Violence” is comprised of three essays that examine the home, not as sanctuary, but as alien, dangerous, or even deadly. Shelley Ingram and Willow G. Mullins examine Tana French´s gothic “psychodrama,” Broken Harbour. The middle class dream of the Spain family becomes the nightmare of the haunted house—haunted by the economic collapse of the Celtic Tiger and the family´s inability to perform the social and economic functions of their class. Ela Avanzas Álvarez discusses Liane Moriarty´s Little Lies, in which fine homes and membership in the privileged upper classes cannot save a wife from an abusive husband. Home here is a façade, not a sanctuary but a theatrical setting to satisfy public expectations.
Diane Waters and Heather Worthington analyze the relationship between the US cozy and domestic noir, which often share domestic and community spaces as settings. Domestic noir, however, tends to explore the psychology of its characters, and focus on alienation as a result of modern society, versus the community engagement of the cozy.
Section V, “Geographies of Domestic Noir” deals with works from beyond the United States and the United Kingdom. Rosemary Erickson Johnsen examines the Dublin Murder Squad novels of Tana French in the context of the Irish gothic, and the house as the site of gothic plots and characters, and even hallucinations by those characters.
Andrea Hynynen investigates the French thrillers by Pierre Lemaitre in translation, noting that despite the lack of a domestic noir tradition in France, or in thrillers in general, Lemaitre´s novels contain many traits common to the genre. The final essay, by Patricia Catoira, examines the translation, Our Lady of Solitude, by the Chilean writer Marcela Serrano, seeing it as an unconventional detective novel about a protagonist that is unable to write one herself.
Megan Abbott´s afterword closes the volume, commenting that popular crime fiction continues to be considered simply, and only escapist literature.
Domestic Noir is a refreshing addition to serious crime fiction criticism—to literary criticism, in fact. Well written and well researched, the essays engage the serious critic as well as a general audience. Highly recommended for scholars of crime fiction and for undergraduate and graduate libraries.
Bio: Linda Ledford-Miller is Professor Emerita of the University of Scranton, Pennsylvania, United States. She is Coordinator of the Annual Book Prize and Webmaster for the International Crime Fiction Association. She has degrees in English and American Literature from the University of California, Irvine, and in Luso-Brazilian literature and Comparative Literature from the University of Texas, Austin. She has published widely on travel writing and women writers. An avid reader of mysteries, she has shifted focus to crime fiction, working on Robert Downey Jr.’s interpretation of Sherlock Holmes, gender roles in the In Death series by the American J.D. Robb, the village mysteries of the Canadian Louise Penny, and the philosophical Inspector Espinosa series by the Brazilian Luis Alfredo Garcia-Roza.
Book Review: The Funny Thing About Murder: Modes of Humor in Crime Fiction and Films Reviewed by Anna Kirsch
David Geherin, The Funny Thing About Murder: Modes of Humor in Crime Fiction and Films (McFarland, 2018 ) $ 39.95 www.mcfarlandpub.com Phone: 800- 253-2187. Reviewed by Anna Kirsch.
The Funny Thing About Murder: Modes of Humor in Crime Fiction and Films promises to reveal the humorous side of crime. As a reference work, this book will be invaluable to those working on any of the authors covered, and this is a broad since Geherin’s work is, while not meant to be an exhaustive guide, covers 30 authors and 42 movies and television series. Notable authors include: Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard, Rex Stout, Edmond Crispin, Sue Grafton, Fred Vargas. Additionally, Geherin also discusses the work of Arthur Conan Doyle and his character Sherlock Holmes through his analysis of the BBC television series Sherlock. David Geherin is Professor Emeritus of English at Eastern Michigan University and the author of The American Private Eye: The Image in Fiction and Scene of the Crime: The Importance of Place in Crime and Mystery Fiction, both of which were finalists for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe Award. A review of his other most recent work Small Towns in Recent American Crime Fiction can be found here.
In The Funny Thing About Murder Geherin quickly characterises the three main theories of humour as:
1. The Superiority Theory, one of the earliest theories of humour with proponents such as Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Hobbs which suggests we laugh at others and find humour in the misfortunes of others because we feel superior to them
2. The Relief Theory with the notable proponents Sigmund Freud and Herbert Spencer which argues that laughter serves as a social and psychological release of emotional energy which serves as a cultural safety valve to address feelings about taboo issues that would otherwise not be expressed publicly.
3. The Incongruity Theory which was first proposed by Francis Hutcheson in 1725 in Thoughts on Laughter and more famously expanded on later by Arthur Schopenhauer. This theory is widely popular today and suggests that laughter occurs when there is an anomaly or incongruity relative to some framework of what we expect the world to be.
For the rest of the book, these theories are implicit as Geherin organises the book into individual descriptions of the authors/ films in question. None of the three theories on their own seems flexible enough to cover why we laugh, and Geherin himself does not explicitly state which of the three theories he favours instead informing the reader that he considers crime fiction as ‘an effective weapon in exposing mankind’s evil or foolishness” (8). This statement is most consistent with the relief and incongruity theories of humour. It would seem that for Geherin it is not why we laugh that is interesting, but rather the fact that we use humour as a narrative tool that has some applicability towards social activism. Geherin’s belief in satires ability to expose the evil and foolishness of the world is demonstrated by his decision to favour authors who actively use humour as a blunt force antidote to human stupidity such as his inclusion, among others, of Carl Hiaasen, Donald E. Westlake, and Joseph Wambaugh. Geherin also discusses author’s who are more quirky and understated in their writing, such as Fred Vargas and her Adamsberg series. This attention to the nuances of humour would suggest that Geherhin has a nuanced methodology behind his investigation of humour, but as with much of Gherhin’s work, that methodology is not made explicit to the reader.
Geherin’s ability to quickly summarize an author’s work is both a weakness and a strength. The organisation of The Funny Thing About Murder is reminiscent of his previous work in Small Towns in Recent American Crime Fiction which was broken into sections specifically devoted to a single author. Readers should be aware of Geherin’s tendency to bury his critical opinion within seemingly straightforward statements of fact, a habit that forces the reader to take the time to evaluate his opinions and decide which ones are representative of their own experience of the texts or authors in question.
Geherin’s eagerness to simplify can lead to statements that are only partially correct. For example, in his section on Elmore Leonard Geherin insists that Leonard “Never produced a series and seldom used the same characters in more than one novel” (61) which is a questionable statement because there are highly visible contradictions to this assertion. Leonard wrote Pronto, Riding the Rap, Raylan, and the short story collection ‘Fire in the Hole‘ which all featured the US Marshal Raylan Givens as well as two novels featuring Chili Palmer Get Shorty and Be Cool. Additionally, Leonard also had a character called Jack Ryan, not to be confused with the main character of Tom Clancy's series, in The Big Bounce and Unknown Man #89. It is clear from these examples that Leonard does repeat characters for specific purposes, and more importantly, that those marketing Leonard’s work interpreted these instances of using of the same character more than once as a series particularly in the case of Raylan Givens.
In Part II Geherin shifts his attention from humorous crime texts to humorous crime films and television series. Despite Geherin's confident textual analysis of humour in crime fiction in Part I the shift from a textual to a visual representation of comedic crime fiction seems to make him retreat in Part II into a style that reads like an extended film synopsis. One positive thing about Part II is the way Geherin separates different kinds of crime films into sub-genres such as the familiar heist/ caper films and cop films, but also into categories that recognise the importance of the audience's perspective in a narrative. In addition to the division mentioned above, heist/ caper films from cop films Geherin adds two more sections that divide films into narrative perspectives. One where the film focuses on the thought process of the criminal with the aim to encourage the viewer to be sympathetic to the criminal through watching and participating with them as they craft the crime and another where the viewer is focused on the detective, whether they are amateur or professional, and their personal struggles to catch the criminal. However, this is not enough to allow Geherin to finish his work with the same clear textual analysis he began the book with.
The Funny Thing About Murder is undeniably an enjoyable read. For the non-academic crime aficionado, the book offers an intelligent and witty summary of numerous authors writing humorous crime series . However in a classroom setting The Funny Thing About Murder is perhaps slightly disappointing for those searching for an explicit methodological exploration of the humour in crime fiction. However, because of Geherin ‘s tendency towards summarisation, The Funny Thing About Murder has great potential as a reference work to comedic crime series which should hopefully assist in the pursuit of a more targeted approach to the study of the use of humour in crime writing.
Bio: Anna Kirsch completed her English Studies MA at Durham University and is currently doing a PhD on violence and consumerism in crime fiction. She is also the Book Reviews Editor for the International Crime Fiction Association. Her thesis was on Environmental Ethics and Morality in Carl Hiaasen’s Crime Fiction. Her research interests include Crime Fiction, American Studies, Gender Studies, and Environmental History. Her Twitter is @kucerakirsch.