Mysteries and Conspiracies: Detective Stories, Spy Novels and the Making of Modern Sciences, by Luc Boltanski

Sharon Wheeler on an ambitious investigation of crime fiction and its relation to modern society

September 4, 2014

Dan Brown has a heck of a lot to answer for. Not only could you guarantee that you’d stumble over half a dozen abandoned copies of The Da Vinci Code every time you travelled by train during its best-selling heyday, but he also inspired an avalanche of paranoid thrillers populated by mad monks, religious icons and a gutsy chap and gal careering around Mitteleuropa in search of a conspiracy.

The thriller genre has also seen a considerable shift over time – from the post-war period to the fall of the Berlin Wall to the peace process in Northern Ireland and the events of 9/11 – in its choice of aggressors. It’s entirely possible that our gutsy chap and gal now may be running from their own side – although admittedly this is not an entirely new development. The protagonists could be the shadowy spooks of John le Carré’s world, the high-ranking spies in former MI5 chief Stella Rimington’s books, Dan Fesperman’s seen-it-all old hack, or the ordinary people simply trying to survive in wartime in Alan Furst’s novels.

Mysteries and Conspiracies: Detective Stories, Spy Novels and the Making of Modern Societies is, then, a timely attempt to map earlier influences on these modern-day subgenres. Luc Boltanski, an eminent French sociologist, sets himself the ambitious remit of exploring the nature of reality, paranoia, modes and forms of government and the exercise of power. In the process, he ranges across not only literature but also politics, sociology and psychology. Clarifying his aim, he says: “What was most important for me was not to make a contribution to the history of the detective novel – that would greatly have exceeded my expertise, especially in light of the vast erudition that has been mustered by specialists in the genre – but rather to emphasize the relation between the emergence of a literary form and the development of modes of governance that constituted the political environment for that genre.”

Early chapters focus on Arthur Conan Doyle and Georges Simenon, and Boltanski teases out the links between English and French writers

The main period under consideration – about 1860 to 1914 – offers fertile territory for Boltanski’s investigation, and his decision to focus on French and English texts hinges on the growth of the nation state. Although this period precedes the perceived Golden Age of crime fiction of the 1920s and 1930s, it allows Boltanski to acknowledge the debt that Golden Age authors owed to Edgar Allan Poe and Wilkie Collins, and to make passing reference to the likes of le Carré more recently.

Early chapters focus keenly on two of the genre’s greats, Arthur Conan Doyle and Georges Simenon, supplemented by references to Émile Gaboriau, the early exponent of courtroom dramas whose Lecoq mysteries will be less well known to non-francophone readers. Boltanski teases out the links between the English and French writers who, he observes, would have been familiar with each other’s work. Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson are characterised as loyally defending the state and social order, although readers may raise an elegant eyebrow at Boltanski’s assertion that Mycroft Holmes – who appeared in only four of the stories – is the real hero on the grounds that he’s a secret adviser to the government and perhaps even head of the Secret Service. (Still, I’m sure Mark Gatiss wouldn’t have minded a promotion to top billing in the BBC’s recent adaptation, Sherlock.)

Simenon’s Maigret seems, however, a rather unexpected choice to support this book’s thesis, as by Boltanski’s admission the mysteries he solves aren’t political. In fact, Boltanski adds, political crimes or affairs of state have tended not to be central preoccupations of French crime fiction, although Dominique Manotti’s recent conspiracy thrillers suggest that this is no longer the case.

It is at this point, though, that Boltanski’s rather hand-waving approach to the matter of genres and definitions becomes problematic. Although his intent is not literary analysis, it might still make sense to delineate what distinguishes crime fiction from thrillers from spy novels, and would reinforce his arguments and choices of text. And it seems odd not to acknowledge the work of scholars such as Jerry Palmer, whose 1978 work Thrillers: Genesis and Structure of a Popular Genre set the standard in the field.

Perhaps it is significant that the book really seems to hit its stride in an ambitious chapter 4, which turns the spotlight on John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, where the hunter is also the hunted as the spectre of war looms across Europe. (There’s also a nod to Eric Ambler’s 1937 Background to Danger, which inverts The Thirty-Nine Steps by presenting a left-wing hero.) Here, Boltanski argues convincingly that spy novels may have inverted values, where the state may be the aggressor and not the victim. Frustratingly, he mentions but does not dwell on two key texts that would have supported his argument that the nation may win over the state: Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands (1903) and Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male (1939), which, like Buchan’s novel, show a hearty sportsman-hero looking to save his country with the same bluff determination that he’d apply to scoring a try or hitting a century.

Given the extent to which spy movies and thrillers have moved on, the chapter might have benefited from something more than a simple assertion that war novels differ from spy novels, and I’d have liked to have seen Boltanski devote more time to the texts to add meat to his theories. Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel The Secret Agent, for example, which gets a passing mention, has much to recommend it to this book’s focus on paranoia and the growth of the nation state.

Mysteries and Conspiracies is a book that might best be described as busy. Boltanski’s enthusiasm is infectious, but the text would have benefited from a tougher edit to help firm definitions early on and keep a clear thread running throughout. It has the feel of a collection of challenging conference papers whose delivery would be sure to provoke lively debate into the early hours. He sets up intriguing premises – was Buchan paranoid, for example? – only to hop off like a magpie in search of shiny attractions elsewhere, beckoning the reader to follow. This can be seen most markedly when the final chapter suddenly shifts gear, abandoning mysteries and thrillers (aside from a mention of Franz Kafka’s classic paranoid text The Trial) to consider the regulation of sociological enquiry.

When I sat back to reflect on this book, it felt like the monograph equivalent of a word cloud, as reality, the fantastic, capitalism, politics, the nation state, the Anglo-Saxon crime novel, liberal society, paranoia, specularity, symmetrisation, unveiling and anti-Semitism all jostle for the reader’s attention. It’s hard to be certain who it will appeal to most, and the prose can be heavy going (although as is always the case with a translated book, it’s difficult to pinpoint the source of the problems). Boltanski has more than enough material here for a challenging and valid series straddling several disciplines. He’s an engaging host, and if he sends us back to the original texts with ideas blossoming, then he’s done his job.

The author

Poet and scholar Luc Boltanski was born in Nazi-occupied Paris in 1940 to a Corsican mother and a Russian Jewish father. When he was two years old, his father abandoned the family after a noisily public argument. When the city was liberated, Luc and his brothers Jean-Élie (now a linguist) and Christian (now an artist) discovered that Boltanski père had, in fact, been concealed under the floorboards of their 7th arrondissement flat all along.

A student and later a colleague of Pierre Bourdieu, Boltanski is director of studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris, and is widely considered one of the most influential French sociologists of the 20th and 21st century.

He is arguably best known for an influential 1999 study co-written with Ève Chiapello, Le Nouvel esprit du capitalisme, which was proclaimed “a magisterial work” in Libération by Bruno Latour and published in English in 2006 as The New Spirit of Capitalism. Mysteries and Conspiracies, which first appeared in French as Enigmes et complots: une enquête à propos d’enquêtes, won the inaugural Prix Pétrarque de l’essai France Culture–Le Monde prize.

Boltanski left home at 20 as an ardent supporter of the socialist National Liberation Front in Algeria’s war of independence. In the ensuing years, he has remained associated with the Left, most recently with the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste, founded in 2009.

His latest work, co-authored with Arnaud Esquerre and published in French this year, is Vers l’extrême: Extension des domaines de la droite. It surveys the “drift to the far Right” both electorally and socially. Boltanski told Les Inrocks of his conviction that it is vital “not to let the extreme Right seize, as it is trying to today, the right to define what is a problem, what is urgent, which questions are central”.

In a joint Le Monde profile in 2008, Boltanski’s brother Christian proclaimed him “Catholic and mystical”. Boltanski retorted: “Surely not. I have no inner life – it is the world that interests me. But I do not see why modernity should cut us off from a large part of humanity: demons, rituals, ghosts. I refuse to be assigned to an identity. I immediately want to betray. Throughout my life, I have fled and betrayed. My family, my first wife, Bourdieu. Purity is the sole form of identity, and the worst of sins is the vitriol of the soul.”

Karen Shook

Mysteries and Conspiracies: Detective Stories, Spy Novels and the Making of Modern Societies

By Luc Boltanski
Translated by Catherine Porter
Polity, 320pp, £55.00 and £17.99
ISBN 9780745664040 and 4057
Published 29 August 2014

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