Notes on Literature / Quotes and Links: The Detective Story Structure of British Genre Fiction

I happen to be reading A. S. Byatt’s gorgeous novel, Possession. It is, I feel, as close as a novel could get to being delicious. Chock-a-block with exquisite poetry, discussions of Freudian symbolism, Feminism and Literary Theory, and lush allusions to Victorian literature and Fairy tales, it’s a veritable treasure trove of quotable quotes. However, more on these and Possession in a future post. In this post, I’d like to briefly comment on these insightful couple of lines from the novel:

“Literary critics make natural detectives,” said Maud. “You know the theory that the classical detective story arose with the classic adultery novel–everyone wanted to know who was the Father, what was the origin, what is the secret?”

It had always been my belief that any work of British fiction, whatever the genre, inevitably has the structure of a detective story. Be it an Agatha Christie mystery, a P. G. Wodehouse novel, an M. R. James ghost story, an Arthur Machen weird tale, a Hope Mirrlees or Diana Wynne Jones fantasy, or even an episode of Yes Minister, the central conflict and hence the source of narrative thrust is a conundrum, one that is not necessarily a murder mystery. The form of the plot is dictated by a conviction that there is always a solution to this central conundrum and that it’s only a matter of re-casting it into a solvable form. This, of course, is the essential framework of a detective story. Michael Dirda points out here that Bertie Wooster and Jeeves are Holmes and Watson, but with their roles reversed. And who, who has ever viewed an episode of Yes Minister, would doubt the teleological (hence detective story!) nature of its cleverly convoluted plots with their serendipitous coincidences and British bureaucratic intricacies? British ghost stories, by their very nature, are mysteries–albeit ones with supernatural solutions–and the antiquarian tales of M. R. James are some of the best of their kind. Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist, while a fairy tale in some senses, is also an astonishingly good detective story (so is Diana Wynne Jones’s fabulous Charmed Life, by the way) with one of the key narrative threads being a forty-year old murder mystery.

Not all practitioners of British fiction subscribed to the relentless logic and rationalism of which the classical detective story is an epitome. It’s interesting, however, to note that even when their intention was to undermine rationalism their attack utilised the tools of the detective story. As S. T. Joshi notes in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Arthur Machen’s selected tales (The White People and Other Weird Stories):

… one could easily imagine Machen writing an accomplished detective novel, but of course he never would have done so, for the notion of resolving all loose ends, and thereby emphasizing the rational intellect’s understanding of the world, was anathema to Machen. For him, something of mystery must remain as a bulwark against the relentless march of science. And yet, in its way The Terror is nothing more than a logical working out of all possibilities, so that, by a process of elimination, a single explanation–even if it is supernatural–remains as the only viable solution to the case.

And while on the subject of British fiction as Detective fiction, I would like to point out that Possession is a meticulously constructed and beautifully symmetric detective story too; one that casts a couple of scholars of Victorian literature as detectives employing the tools of literary theory to solve a literary mystery.

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