Detective Fiction and the Problem of Knowledge: Perspectives on the Metacognitive Mystery Tale reviewed by Eric Sandberg
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.
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.