Academic journal article Texas Journal of Women, Gender, and the Law

Solution to Dissolution: Detective Fiction from Wilkie Collins to Gabriel García Márquez

Academic journal article Texas Journal of Women, Gender, and the Law

Solution to Dissolution: Detective Fiction from Wilkie Collins to Gabriel García Márquez

Article excerpt

The distinction's always fine between detection and invention.

-Mary Jo Salter1


The detective novel, as a literary genre, has traditionally presupposed a legal culture in which the guilty can be identified and their crimes satisfyingly punished, a culture in which the central question is "whodunnit?" Yet, over its history, the detective novel has had a dialogic relationship to the legal culture it depicts, undergoing transformations that reflect as well as affect those observed in the law.2 The degree to which the detective narrative is framed by a shared faith in a solution has diminished, and skepticism about both the factual and procedural aspects of detection and punishment has taken hold.3 This paper seeks to explore the congruence between these fictional moves and the corresponding transformation of cultural attitudes about law and legal institutions.4

In novels written just over one hundred years apart, Wilkie Collins and Gabriel Garcia Marquez pursue symmetrical, if inverted, paths in their exploration of fact-finding, legal institutions, and gender norms through the genre of detective fiction. In THE LAW AND THE LADY,5 Collins uses a search for the truth by a solitary and unconventional woman detective to provoke doubt and suspicion about legal institutions, fact-finding, and gender norms, only to reverse himself and, ultimately, endorse and instantiate those norms. Conversely, in CHRONICLE OF A DEATH FORETOLD, García Márquez begins with a certainty rooted in stereotype-an "honor killing"6 whose circumstances are beyond doubt and whose rationale is equally acceptable within the community in which it occurs7-then reverses himself as well, moving toward indeterminacy, and revealing the impossibility of a satisfying fact-finding or a corresponding assessment of blame. In so doing, he erodes and inverts the gender stereotypes and norms of law and conduct that he had depicted, superficially, as unassailable.

These two novels share the structural tactic of reversing direction, although their start and end points are at opposite poles: Collins moves from the subversive to the conventional, as Garcia Marquez moves from the conventional to the subversive. Each explores the relationship between gender stereotype and the possibility of determining a singular objective truth about an event. Each also considers the legal institutions for assessing blame and assigning an appropriate punishment.

This paper examines the century-long transformation of detective fiction as exemplified by these two works and the corresponding transformation of the legal culture they purport to depict. I contend that the literary shift away from rigid gender norms and narrative closure parallels cultural and institutional shifts away from an expectation of unanimity of perception, clarity in fact-finding, and acceptability of verdicts. I also contend that the one cannot occur without the other: the objectivist detective fiction of one hundred years ago depends for its success upon a certainty of human perception and action that inevitably resolves itself into stereotype, including stereotypes of gender. Similarly, the postmodern posture of ironic skepticism, of necessity, erodes stereotypes of gender and conduct, since those are built upon an expectation of uniformity and consistency that skepticism undermines.

II.THE LAW AND THE LADY: Reconstituting Norms Against Attempted Subversion

In THE LAW AND THE LADY, Wilkie Collins begins his narrative with the possibility of a heroine who will sweep away distorting conventions and boldly reveal truth where it lies hidden from the view of those maledominated legal institutions from which she and all women were excluded at the time.8 This possibility, we find, is tantalizingly dangled before the reader only to be withdrawn and replaced with the polarized gender norms of Collins's day. For the reader of Collins' time, this tease was considered "sensational"9-exciting but also terrifying-since it threatened to undermine or even eradicate gender codes that were deeply inscribed in the Victorian culture of his readers. …

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