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.