Book Review: Female Corpses in Crime Fiction: A Transatlantic Perspective Close, Glen S, Female Corpses in Crime Fiction: A Transatlantic Perspective (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). 261 pp. Hardcover €69.99. Reviewed by Tsz Yan Audrey Chan
Short-listed for the 2018 International Crime Fiction Association Book Prize
S.S. Van Dine famously claimed in his twenty rules for writing detective stories that there must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse better. He argued that the cadaver arouses the readers’ horror and desire for vengeance, under the premise that they are humane in nature. Glen S. Close’s Female Corpses in Crime Fiction: A Transatlantic Perspective questions this basic assumption with an exploration of the crime genre spanning from Edgar Allan Poe’s classic detective stories to the present-day American TV series CSI.
Glen S. Close’s Female Corpses in Crime Fiction: A Transatlantic Perspective makes a feminist attack on this convention, arguing that female corpses have been sexualised and dehumanised in a 180-year corpus of different sub-genres of Hispanic and Anglophone “necropornographic” crime fiction. Rather than exhaustively criticising the male-oriented nature of the genre, Close re-examines the phenomenon as an embodiment of male subjects’ inferiority complex as derived from their inseparable link with the maternal entity. However, Close overlooks certain aspects of the social values within some of the artistic movements he covers when criticising artworks through a feminist perspective.
Close introduces his reading of the portrayal of female cadavers in crime fiction through a Kristevan perspective, that is, by highlighting the relationship between male subjective identity and the maternal body. By Citing Kristeva, Close describes that ‘the male subject finds itself ever threatened not only by corpses and other forms of bodily waste, but also by signs of female sexual difference such as menstrual blood, the object of innumerable taboos in patriarchal cultures’ (17). To extend from such notion, Close implies that exposing the horror of signs of female sexual difference like menstrual blood, the misogynistic narrative of crime fiction serves to turn the mother into the abject in order to gain a male autonomous male identity. Unable to bear “the unpayable debt of life” to their mothers, male crime fiction authors refuse their corporeality and thus repress semiotic and maternal prehistory (16-18). With an introduction to the nota roja (yellow journalism), Close illustrates how yellow journalism unveils the public hunger for morbid arousal and “realness” with cover photos that display revealing female corpse and emphasis on their professions with sexual implications. This sort of journalism offers a foundation for necropornography, and is linked to similarly sadistic covers of novels such as Mickey Spillane’s.
The first section of Female Corpses in Crime Fiction, ‘Necropronography in Modern Crime Fiction’, traces back from the graphic descriptions of nota roja, to the history of the “morbid theatre” to shed light on how necrophilous voyeurism gave birth to the rise of necropornography in crime fiction. Long before the rise of “cadaveric literature”, Close notes (citing Philippe Ariès’ historical survey) that Eros and Thanatos converged as early as the late fifteen century in the theatre and Baroque paintings (37). Therefore, crime fiction relies on an inheritance of gothic aesthetics. He notes that the feverish visits to public Paris morgues (59) and popular erotic descriptions of sex murders in journalistic publications (43) inspired Edgar Allan Poe to write ‘The Mystery of Marie Rogêt’ and ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’. The heritage of morbid theatre went further in hardboiled detective novels, with the motif of striptease, frequently appearing. With the repetitive appearance of striptease both on a wide range of book covers and in hardboiled narratives themselves, Close further elaborates how the morbid theatre expanded in pulp crime fiction. The historical account in this particular chapter is rich, examining the visual elements of baroque art, journalistic presentation, and popular crime fiction, and offering the reader with a historical understanding of the rise of necropornography.
Moving onto Hispanic hardboiled novels, Close, who is an expert in contemporary Hispanic crime fiction, refers to the historical and political context of Spanish fascism to investigate its interest in voyeurism and sexual subjugation. He explains the commonly sexualised cadavers of blonde and red-haired women as the “sexual manifestation of the envy and resentment of politically isolated and repressed Franco-era Spaniards” in response to the liberal post-war U.S. consumer society (90-92). In addition to the interpretations of Llaugé Dausá’s ‘lustful frenzy as propaganda of Franco dictatorship’s sociosexual policies’ (102), Close notes the emergence of the sadistic tendency of Hispanic novela negra from the Spanish Civil War. As a result, under the Francoist Spanish influence with respect to its Catholic strictures on non-procreative sex, prostitute-women are punished and their identities obliterated in Hispanic novela negra. Returning to the Kristevan ideas, Close notes that sexual subjugation is often added in the works to make women incompatible with rational personal autonomy – this is interpreted as an attempt by the male subject to achieve autonomy from their maternal bond (125). While Close’s professional expertise on contemporary Hispanic crime fiction raises expectations in the reader for a deep analysis of the historical and political context surrounding contemporary Hispanic crime fiction , his overwhelming accusations against the novela negra could have been more firmly grounded in relation to the way Franco’s military background, and the lack of a constitutional system, turned Spain into a breeding ground of misogynistic Hispanic narratives.
In ‘Femicide and Snuff’, Close contrasts revisionist crime fiction and snuff fantasies to remind his reader of moral responsibilities. He focuses on Roberto Bolaño's novel 2666, and how it achieves its revisionist function through an inconclusive narrative. Close considers 2666 as counter-literature of the novela negra, because it considers the victims’ perspectives with empathy and bureaucratic impassiveness without eroticising the corpses (144). Unlike conventional crime novels, 2666 stresses on the inner consciousness of characters instead of the sexual representations of female bodies. To emphasise the rise of the revisionist, Close contrasts 2666 with snuff fantasies that entertain the readers with imageries of dismembered and sexually violated female corpses. Through exposing extreme snuff fantasies in the genre of porno-historical novel such as Federico Andahazi’s El libro de los placers prohibidos to the reader, especially the removal of sexual organs and brains, he shifts the attention back to Kristeva’s theory of abjection as the male subject attempts to decipher “the principle of life” and to eliminate the sexual source that threatens their rationality (196). Here again, although Close relates his criticisms to an interesting Kristevan perspective, he puts too much attention on the contrast between the misogynistic narratives of snuff fantasies and the “empathetic” counter-literature. The discussions are somewhat one-sided and his attacks on Actionism (the movement was in heated countercultural debates regarding the sublimation of aggression and the artistic and political uses of violence during the 1960s) (160) and the hardboiled formula fail to do justice to artists who are particularly important in art history in relation to war and violence. His condemnation of artists for encouraging violent portrayals of female corpses under the disguise of artistic freedom is too dogmatic and devalues other forms of art. His approach to the hardboiled genre disregards its social values, for example, its resistance to the endemic violence and the trauma caused by the Second World War, or the decay of the social structures during Prohibition. The accusation that Actionist works are simply masochistic representations is problematic.
Finally, Close wraps up his monograph with a thorough examination of the development and changing representations of women and female corpses in new crime fiction such as TV drama. He makes a fair comment in his major analysis of CBS’s very successful CSI, he first acknowledging that the inclusion of female forensic pathologist and the emphasis on sympathy for victims defuse any potential erotic frisson (209). This is, as Close claims, a sort of progress for the genre. However, he also argues that the excessive scenes of female corpses in the popular show is another presentation of morbid theatre. These scenes serve to feed the “reality hunger” of the audience, therefore, the “CSI effect” again encourages us to perceive cadavers as “forbidding yet fascinating emblems of realness” (214). This is an effective conclusion with an examination of the contradictory “feminist” narrative of new media, especially when it comes to the tension between political correctness and ratings.
Female Corpses in Crime Fiction: A Transatlantic Perspective is an inspiring, and in many ways interesting text, in terms of the tension between maternal bonds and male autonomy. I believe that this book contains valuable teaching material considering its new Kristevan feminist perspective providing students with a theoretical framework for a feminist reading. However, there are downsides to Close's approach, some of which Close acknowledges in his conclusion, where he writes that he is aware of potential criticisms regarding his strong opinions. While I have nothing against his bold voice, Close's writing exhausts his reader with endless aggressive attacks on different misogynistic representations in modern crime fiction, and his arguments do not, in my opinion, pay sufficient attention to the social values of certain forms of art. His repeated condemnations undermine his point regarding the expression of the male desire for autonomy from the maternal underlying many sadistic narratives. Close provides the reader with many interesting perspectives, including Activism and Francoist Spain as catalysts of such narratives, but, his examination is overwhelmed by conventional feminist readings.
Bio: Audrey Chan is a final-year undergraduate student at City University of Hong Kong and currently an exchange student at the University of Nottingham. She studies English and has particular academic interests in postmodern novels and metaphysical detective fiction. She also works as a student research assistant at CityU for a project named Extending the Literature Classroom: Creating Spaces for Student Discovery, which presents a self-discovery framework to students enrolled in literature courses.
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.