“The Game's Afoot”:
Predecessors and Pursuits of
a Postmodern Detective Novel
Kathleen Belin Owen
The detective story today inevitably finds itself judged by the reader's experience of the genre's ancestry and traditions. A postmodern detective story cannot evade the context of the detective fiction genre it is “post” to, but the postmodern detective story seeks not to evade or eliminate echoes of its genre's traditions; rather, it embraces the traditional, then turns it right on its head. We often think of postmodernism as inventing such deconstructive inversion, but these inversions actually find their beginnings within the very tradition of British ratiocinative detective fiction. The dilemma confronting postmodern detective fiction is that the nature—the “formula”—of the detective tradition calls for a grounding in episte-mological inquiry that postmodernism has abandoned to modernism's realm in favor of ontological pursuits (McHale 10). Hence the seeming contradiction of a postmodern detective story, which cannot establish itself epistemologically, but seems to need to do so in order to exist as a detective story at all. Does this mean the death of the detective story, the “doomed detective,” in the postmodern age?
The distinctions between epistemological and ontological inquiries do not remain rigidly separate when applied to the detective genre. Certainly the postmodern detective novel inverts form, content, and expectations found in the traditional detective story; however, it need not leave behind epistemological issues while embracing ontological ones. Further, not all postmodern critics discover the postmodern absence of epistemology that others proclaim. Michael Holquist, for example, posits a different view: He maintains that postmodernist writers have used the detective story genre as a means to “experiment with the possibilities, limitations, and the power of conscious perception and the search for knowledge” (173). The result is the “metaphysical” detective story form. Using Holquist's argument, then, there is a thriving, though transformed,