Shadows that lurk in the puzzle's dark heart

Detective Fiction
January 5, 2007

Aimed primarily at undergraduates, Charles Rzepka's Detective Fiction is a cultural history that is attentive to the needs of students, defining its terms clearly and patiently filling in the intellectual and historical background that shaped the genre. It is also, however, a study that has much to offer the reader who is familiar with detective fiction and its antecedents.

The book is a lucid and fascinating exploration of the cultural changes that influenced the 19th and early 20th-century development of the genre. The primary questions Rzepka addresses concern the impact of shifting approaches to the scientific study of the material universe (for example, geology and evolutionary biology) and of the human mind (the psychoanalytic reconstruction of unknown events in an individual's past experience).

A study that intends to provide a detailed cultural history must necessarily narrow its focus in some ways. Rzepka achieves this by concentrating on detective fiction of "the mystery type" - that is, those stories that present readers with an ongoing problem, a series of clues that prolongs inductive activity and secures their active participation in imaginative reconstructions of past events.

It is this foregrounding of the "puzzle element" that creates a distinct subgenre within detective fiction, the "detection" narrative, in which the activity of solving a crime (instead of simply reporting the activities of a detective) is crucial. Rzepka argues persuasively that its close alliance with cultural and historical developments ultimately helped to turn what was originally just a subgenre of detective fiction into its dominant form.

Detective Fiction contains very full and lively discussions of Edgar Allan Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L. Sayers and Raymond Chandler; additionally, Rzepka gives fairly detailed attention to the work of, for example, Wilkie Collins, G. K. Chesterton, Agatha Christie and Dashiell Hammett. The study also gestures towards more comprehensive coverage of the genre, sweeping in its final chapter through six further decades of fictional detection, from Mickey Spillane and Ross Macdonald to Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code . This section of the book is perfectly passable as a sketch of subsequent developments, but is less substantial and less original than Rzepka's other material.

Given its somewhat rushed conclusion, the title of Rzepka's book is perhaps misleadingly broad. The chosen focus is, however, a very rewarding one - and, as Rzepka says, there is not room in a cultural history such as this to explore a huge range of texts. His focus is rightly on those novels and stories that most fully support and illustrate the cultural-historical thrust of his analysis.

Lee Horsley is senior lecturer in English literature, Lancaster University.

Detective Fiction

Author - Charles J. Rzepka
Publisher - Polity
Pages - 280
Price - £55.00 and £16.99
ISBN - 0 7456 2941 4 and 2942

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