Mystery Fiction and Modern Life

Mystery Fiction and Modern Life

Mystery Fiction and Modern Life

Mystery Fiction and Modern Life


An Analysis of How Codes of Modernity are Reflected in Detective Thrillers and Make Them Believable

The detective novel is both a product of the twentieth century and a response to the needs of readers forced to deal with social and political insecurities of the time. Thus codes of modernity are the essence of the genre, and its plausibility relies upon the degree of the readers' expectations, demands, and vicarious experiences. Even one of mystery fiction's hallmarks, the seemingly improbable but consequential encounter with strangers, is assimilated in the modem sensibility, which has been shaped by concepts of trust and confidence, of rationalism and emotion, of expertise and amateurism, and of ideology and morality.

This intelligent and probing analysis of the detective novel shows how the fictional world portrayed by the mystery writer is perceived as parallel with the actual world. This apparent unity of the fictional thriller and veritable circumstance would make it possible for some high-ranking,diplomat to outwit his adversaries by emulating the exploits of Sherlock Holmes. Similarly, a professor of medicine might assign students the study of Arthur Conan Doyle's stories as exercises in detection or in drawing inferences, for like the work of Holmes the practice of medicine connects visible symptoms to their invisible causes.

In the light of this concept of modernity Mystery Fiction and Modern Life examines works by Doyle, Edgar Allan Poe, John Buchan, Eric Ambler, Dashiell Hammett, Ross Macdonald, Tony Hillerman, Agatha Christie, Helen MacInnes, Patricia Cornwell, Marcia Muller, Sara Paretsky, Anthony Price, and others.


An utterance is an action and hence often a move in a game.

Martin Hollis, The Cunning of Reason

H istorically stable elements of mystery fiction, I argue in this study, are systematically linked to constitutive features of modernity involving issues of knowledge, trust, risk, and power that arise in the course of everyday social interaction. To sketch the broad outlines of this argument, let us briefly examine two stories: a recent newspaper article describing occupational risks associated with selling real estate (Bowles 1996), and John Katzenbach The Shadow Man (1996), a typical mystery novel.

Real estate agents "'get paid to meet strangers and take them to empty houses. That's your job'" (Bowles 1996). Although the vast majority of those strangers are legitimate clients, a few are not: from 1980 to 1992, seventy real estate agents were killed on the job--more than the number of prison and jail guards slain in the line of duty during the same period. Showing empty houses to strangers thus involves a measure of risk. That risk can be minimized by changes in policies and procedures--for example, declining to meet a prospective buyer after dark simply on the basis of a telephone call. Nevertheless, the job does require showing empty houses to persons an agent does . . .

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