Not So Much “Whodunnit” as
“Whoizzit”: Margaret Millar's
Command of a Metonymic Sub-Genre
John O. Thompson
The concept of metonymy can be especially useful as an analytical tool with which to examine one of the most important ways in which the detective genre has been able to deepen and complicate itself. Almost everybody who tries to use metonymy for any critical purpose does so inspired by Roman Jakobson's deployment of the metaphor/metonymy opposition in his classic essay “Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances.” The fundamental argument of that essay depends on a dichotomy that long predates Jakobson, being at the center of “associationist” psychological speculations at least since John Locke. This is the dichotomy between resemblance and contiguity as motivating links between one mental operation and the next. Basically, Jakobson lines up a wide variety of formal aspects of verbal art as involving resemblance (or contrast, as antiresemblance) and counterposes to these an equally wide variety of ways in which contiguity is the principle at work in the text. The classical rhetorical figures that Jakobson brings in to head these two columns, so to speak, are metaphor and metonymy respectively.
“[I]t is the predominance of metonymy which underlies and actually predetermines the so-called realistic trend,” wrote Jakobson; “following the path of contiguous relationships, the realistic author metonymically digresses from the plot to the atmosphere and from the characters to the setting in space and time” (78). Jakobson did not himself ask whether the contiguity principle might be generically super-exploitable within certain types of plot construction, or whether the roll call of the characters might itself be something mat a systematic play with aspects of contiguity within a fiction might pleasurably and instructively “make strange.” Our contention is that crime fiction in general, but especially in the hands of its most talented exponents (such as Agatha Christie and Margaret Millar), is a realm in which the contiguous comes into its own in just diese ways.