Theory and Practice of Classic Detective Fiction

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

17
The Bureaucrat as Reader:
The Detective Novel in the
Context of Middle-Class Culture

James E.

As has often been noted, of all the popular literary forms in the twentieth century, detective fiction has been by far the most fully developed and the most widely read. The genre that became widely popular at the end of the last century is many times more popular a hundred years later. Three key questions for the student of popular culture are presented by the unprecedented popularity of detective fiction: Why has the mystery attracted such a large international audience, why does this audience continue to grow, and what does this popularity tell us about our culture? Put in more personal terms: What does the reader of detective fiction get from the habitual reading of mysteries; what pleasures does a detective novel give that are not provided by other popular literary forms? These are the questions that give direction to the following discussion.

Briefly stated, my thesis is this: The hero of detective fiction is an idealized bureaucrat who speaks directly and deeply to the needs of readers, who themselves function as bureaucrats in their jobs or some other aspect of their lives. I would expect many of the readers of this chapter to bridle at such a suggestion since “bureaucracy” and its derivatives are commonly used pejoratively, usually in tones of high moral outrage. Even those who study bureaucracy seldom have anything good to say in its behalf. The tone of the following description by Henry Jacoby is typical:

The term bureaucracy refers to the fact that man's existence is directed and controlled
by central agencies; not only is he unable to escape from the regulation and
manipulation, he seems to depend on it. The overpowering anonymity of the control and
the impenetrability of large powerful administrative machines produce fear and
discontent. In spite of universal education and increasing use of the printed word and
electronic media, the individual finds it increasingly difficult to understand the
machinery. He has less influence on what happens in society now than before, because

-177-

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