February 4, 2007

The Magic of Detective Stories

I grabbed I, The Jury from among the paperback books on my grandaunt’s bookshelf one day while I was visiting her because on the front cover a blonde is taking off her blouse while a man sitting in a chair is pointing a gun at her.

The recent addition of The Mike Hammer Collection, Volume 1 (containing I, The Jury, Vengeance is Mine, My Gun Is Quick) to my library of detective/crime novels reminded me that the first popular novel I read was I, The Jury. I was in my freshman year in high school, and I chose the novel for two reasons: we didn’t read such novels in class and the picture of the blonde taking off her blouse. I, The Jury introduced me to the magic of hardboiled detective stories. It was filled with the two things to excite a teenage boy, violence and sex. Like any teenage boy, I secretly wanted to make love to the beautiful woman on the cover and, since I was small for my age, to be as tough as Mike Hammer, who didn’t take crap from nobody. I was a very impressionable young boy and often lived in my imagination.

I didn’t read another detective story until I was in college when, rebelling against the required reading, I returned to my teenage reading and discovered Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Chester Himes. My greatest discovery was Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” which was one of very few required stories that I enjoyed. After I graduated, I discovered the greatest detective storyteller, Arthur Conan Doyle, and his creation, the greatest fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes.

In examining why I find reading detective stories magical, I took a clue from the poet W. H. Auden who, in his essay “The Guilty Vicarage,” stated that an analysis of the kind of detective story he enjoyed might “throw light, not only on its magical function, but also, by contrast, on the function of art.” For him, the story conforms to “certain formulas” for example, the setting is rural England and the “basic formula is this: a murder occurs; many are suspected; all but one suspect, who is the murderer, are eliminated; the murderer is arrested or dies.”

I look not for honesty, art, or reality in detective/crime stories, but for how well contrived (yes contrived, for all fiction is mere contrivance) is the story. Did the author so involve me that I didn’t notice his tricks? Did he bring it off? Most of all was the story entertaining? Did the author stick to the formula of the genre or deviate from it? Yes, I like such stories because they have a basic formula that allows me to judge how entertaining they are.

Thus, the magic of detective stories is in their adherence to the classical virtues of storytelling. The formula makes sure that they always have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They hold the attention by keeping the reader asking “and what happens next” and forcing the reader to wonder, “how will it end?”

Although I sometimes enjoy the intellectual exercise some detective stories provide because I am of a philosophical turn of mind, I don’t favor the classical closed-door or puzzle stories. When I read detective/crime stories, I only occasionally wish to exercise my mind. Mainly, I want to lose myself and become the detective, or more exactly, follow him as he moves ever closer to solving the case.

I like the hardboiled detective stories because of the slam-bang, kick the villain in the balls action. Whether we admit it or not, we readers of hardboiled crime and detective novels like experiencing the violence vicariously in the same way we enjoy watching a hard hit on a quarterback.

Now that you know the kind of detective/crime novels I like, you can judge when I’m showing in my analysis of such novels.

I am now reading plain brown wrapper: an Alex Powell novel by Karen Grigsby Bates. I hope to post my analysis next month.