“The phantasy, then, which the detective story addict indulges in is the phantasy of being restored to the Garden of Eden, to a state of innocence, where he may know love as love and not as the law. The driving force behind this daydream is the feeling of guilt, the cause of which is unknown to the dreamer.”– W. H. Auden
Or, as P. D. James put it, the detective story is not about murder, “but the restoration of order.” As I’ve mentioned in this space before, I love the Sherlock Holmes stories and the Lord Peter Wimsey novels–I’ve read them all many times. Likewise, the novels of Agatha Christie and Rex Stout. They are all what is often called “classical” detective fiction, that is, they depict the crime, the clues, the resolution and the denouement, where the hero explains what happened. They differ in what I call “the scenery”: the surroundings in which they take place, and the flourishes attributed to the characters. Christie’s work, for instance, might be called “provincial” because her stories usually take place in small, self-contained communities (including trains and ships) and the characters are limited to suspects and those who represent the norms of her “village.” Stout’s Nero Wolfe also operates in a small space, despite the fact that most of his tales take place in New York City.
Holmes and Wimsey, on the other hand, let the outside world in. Sayers’ aristocratic sleuth, in particular, operates in expansive venues, and world events are not far from his mind. Love, too, finds Lord Peter, a pleasure(?) denied Wolfe and Holmes (except, maybe, for “that woman,” Irene Adler) and Jane Marple and Hercule Poirot. All, however, seek the restoration of order and, in the end, they find it, to the great satisfaction of millions of readers.
Some say detective fiction is petering out because there are no new plots to interest the reader. That presupposes that people read it only for the “puzzle.” I disagree. I believe readers of every generation are still seeking Auden’s Garden of Eden, his “state of innocence.” The book I’m writing now, The Onyx Unicorn, will be the first of my contributions to the canon. I’ll describe it more fully in my next post.