Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

The Detective's Story: Rivaling Kin of the Detective Story

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

The Detective's Story: Rivaling Kin of the Detective Story

Article excerpt

This essay attends to the phenomenon that the detective figure, a constant of the detective story, becomes a variant in contemporary literature. It considers "the detective's story" a more adequate term than "the detective story" to discuss stories about the detective although it is not yet recognized as a generic category. This essay holds that the detectives story has always already coexisted with the detective story, and that the detectives story discloses epistemological and ontological issues the detective story ignores or obscures. Kazuo Ishiguro's When We Were Orphans (2000) and Graham Swifts The Light of Day (2004) are two examples of the genre because both exhibit a postmodern bend of generic conventions of the detective story. The two novels present the detective figure as a fallible being predisposed to imprudence and impulse; he may set out to solve mysteries but in the end discovers deception and disillusionment in his own life. They arrest a world of epistemological indeterminacy and ontological disorientation, in which the protagonist is at once Sherlock Holmes the detective and John Watson the narrator. He works in Holmes' profession but investigates with Watson's intelligence and judges with his sentiment. The knowledge he has is limited, the evidence he gathers is misinterpreted, and the truth he eventually learns is not by his own reasoning.

The detective story and the detective's story coexist as rivaling kin; they anticipate and encompass each other. The detective story operates as a discourse of logicality, reconstituting the causality of a crime through the detective's sagacity and intelligence. It presents the detective as a genius who alone notices imperceptible signs and infers from seemingly irrelevant incidents a semiotics of transgression. The detectives story, by contrast, exposes the detectives folly and blindness, and for that reason the authority of interpretation shifts to the reader, who alone must tackle the various secrecies that comprise the detective's story and find a closure among the infinite interpretations it opens to. The genre has long appeared in mass media though it is sometimes categorized as psychological thriller. One of the notable examples is Vertigo (1958), to which the storyline The Light of Day bears some resemblance. A former police officer turned private detective, John Scottie Ferguson, is framed in a murder case he unknowingly helps his client commit. The suspense of the film hinges on Scottie's acrophobia and sentiment because his professional action is obstructed by his fear of height and his judgment compromised by his obsession with the woman he is hired to follow. Dazed and bereft, the private detective becomes an accomplice of his client's murder scheme. Current examples of the detective's story on screen are Sherlock Holmes (2009) and BBC TV drama Sherlock (2010). Both adaptations rework generic conventions of the detective story, adding human qualities to the legendary detective figure. They present Sherlock Holmes as a fallible figure with personality flaws, and these failings inevitably impede his professional judgment. From time to time, Holmes finds himself unwittingly implicated with the rascals he endeavors to capture, or tricked and tormented by Irene Adler, the woman he yearns for.

Sophocles' Oedipus the King is probably one of the oldest texts in which characteristics of the detective story and the detective's story remain equally evident. The Greek drama tells the story about King Oedipus of Thebes, son of King Laius and Queen Jocasta. Before Oedipus is born, an oracle at Delphi predicts that he will one day kill his father and marry his mother. In dread of the prophecies, Queen Jocasta has a shepherd abandon the newborn Oedipus in the mountain. The shepherd, out of sympathy, gives Oedipus to a messenger from Corinth; the messenger then carries the baby to King Polybus of Corinth, who raises him as his own son. When Oedipus grows up and learns about his fate through an oracle at Delphi, he leaves Corinth to avoid the tragedy of killing Polybus, whom he believes to be his father. …

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