Beyond the Limitations of Mystery Fiction

chandlerartThis week I assigned two essays to my “Thrillers: Page to Screen” class, both of which were suggested to me by Art Taylor in his comment to my August 14th post, “My Philosophy about Mysteries.”

The first essay, “The Simple Art of Murder” by Raymond Chandler, makes a case for the literary merit of realistic, hard-boiled detective fiction, championing it as social commentary that sheds light on the dark, gritty life of urban America in the ’30s and ’40s.  He criticizes the hopelessly unrealistic classic deductive novel so popular in the Golden Age of mysteries during the World Wars.  In a nutshell, he claims that because a puzzle mystery must conform to its design and not to its characters’ emotions, it almost always blunders when trying to represent believable character motivations.

The second essay, “Literature High and Low: The Case of the Mystery Story” by Geoffrey Hartman, argues that the mystery story, as a type of story, is essentially flawed.  Hartman writes, “For a mystery story has always been a genre in which appalling facts are made to fit into a rational or realistic pattern.”  He insists that the mystery story, a slave to audience expectation, must close with a reasonable and ultimately reductive conclusion—the mask pulled of the murderer, the villain vanquished.  The mystery that most interests him is the absence of logic, the intangible, the sublime.

I find that I agree and disagree with both positions.  Chandler’s criticisms of the puzzle mystery are fair, but I don’t think one can cast an entire type of mystery to the side because of its frequent failures.  Hartman believes that for a work of literature to stand above other works, it must embody a mystery that the reader experiences but doesn’t fully discern, suggesting its greater and deeper truth.  I agree, but again, why does an entire genre need to be kicked to the curb?

I really do believe that mysteries and thrillers, if explored through character, can both comment on social conditions and contain bits of intangible truth.  Of course, this requires seeing a genre beyond its narrow marketplace descriptions, but I believe it can be done and has been done.  In fact, reach all the way back to Wilkie Collins’ Moonstone for a great example.


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Filed under Blogs I like and read, Movies, Random Thoughts, Teaching and Writing

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