Theory and Practice of Classic Detective Fiction

By Jerome H. Delamater; Ruth Prigozy | Go to book overview

3
An Ideal Helpmate:
The Detective Character
as (Fictional) Object and Ideal Imago

Timothy R. Prchal

There is a common—and rather weak—thread that runs through many attempts to psychoanalyze the wide appeal of detective fiction. This thread ties readers' infantile conflicts to symbols found in detective stories. Geraldine PedersonKrag, for example, states that the genre “attempts to present a more satisfying, less painful primal scene from the standpoint of the unconscious. This fictional primal scene satisfies the voyeurs who gazed with strained attention at the scene of parental coitus” (212).1 Charles Rycroft amends this theory. He argues that reading such stories is not “analogous to a traumatic neurosis” but “a form of manic defense”; they offer self-exonerating oedipal dramas. In Rycroft's view, the reader first identifies with the criminal, who victimizes a parent figure, and then, identifying with the detective, denies feelings of guilt (230-31). Most recently, Albert D. Hutter has asserted that detective fiction does not reenact the past but reconstructs it. Still, this reconstructive act “is most gripping when it is in opposition to an equally powerful sense of mystery—not merely the mystery of the crime, but of human experience more generally” (200). The primal scene makes Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone gripping just as the oedipal conflict makes Oedipus Rex gripping, according to Hutter.

The common thread tying the appeal of detective fiction to infantile conflicts snaps under the weight of two problems, however. The first is one of applying a single universal motive or response to readers with widely variable psychological makeups. “Readers bring to the text more than their fantasies,” writes Aaron H. Esman; “they bring their total personalities to the reading task, and thus to suggest that there is a single right or wrong way of reading a text is a prescriptive position that ignores the diversity of human attitudes or motives” (19). Certainly some of the people who enjoy the genre have reached relatively sound psychological maturity. Indeed, Rycroft seems to

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