In “The Guilty Vicarage” (1948), W.H. Auden said he suspected that the average reader of detective fiction was, like himself, a person who “suffers from a sense of sin”. His essay both outlines a model for understanding how the specific plot conventions of the detective narrative work and identifies something that he calls the “detective story addict”. Although she does not explicitly engage with Auden, Mary Evans picks up on these two ideas in The Imagination of Evil. She lightly explores a number of works of detective fiction from the past two centuries, seeking to understand how and why murder, in particular, is at the heart of this most popular of genre fictions. In doing so, she also implicitly seeks to understand why so many of us read and reread these novels about murder.
While this study surveys a number of detective novels, it is also, more crucially, an examination of the social understanding of evil. Auden argued that the detective story addict experienced a fantasy of being restored to a state of innocence at the end of any detective novel. He was writing specifically about the golden age of British detective fiction - encompassing the work of Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie and Michael Innes, among others - and some have identified this expulsion of evil as being particularly characteristic of this subgenre. But Evans is more interested in those stories that do not provide a returning sense of order: as any viewer of The Wire can tell you, the sense of the impossibility of order has its place in detective fiction. To quote the Bible (and Agatha Christie), evil is everywhere under the sun.
In the past 20 years, there has emerged an abundance of detective fiction criticism, a sign that the field is beginning to come into its own. Because this is such a popular genre - as any visit to Waterstone’s will demonstrate, not only do many new authors of detective fiction appear each year, older authors such as Margery Allingham and Raymond Chandler have also maintained their popularity - it is simply not possible any longer, in the vein of earlier detective fiction criticism, to provide an overview of this vast literary field.
While not seeking to provide a comprehensive overview, The Imagination of Evil does follow a teleological structure, beginning with detective narratives in the early 19th century and following a fairly well-trodden path from Dickens to Conan Doyle, and from Christie to Dashiell Hammett. It is only in the sixth chapter, which is a reading of “an ethic of human existence” in contemporary detective fiction, where Evans opens out her study - and she is to be particularly applauded for considering such authors as Henning Mankell and Bernhard Schlink - to a more sustained consideration of the responsibilities of writing about murder.
One example of this is Evans’ consideration of attacks on children in the final chapter. She argues that attacks on children reinstate a notion of evil as a personal trait: that the attacker is positioned, by the media and by society more broadly, as pure evil. Here she asks some uncomfortable questions about the seductive quality of children and how the figure of the paedophile has been constructed. Despite many detective fiction narratives focusing on horrifically violent acts of incarceration, mutilation and murder, Evans asks why no major writer of crime and detective fiction has “produced a work which matches anything like the real-life horror of the deaths of the children killed by Mary Bell or Ian Brady and Myra Hindley”. There do seem, then, some areas that even detective writers, dealers in death and destruction, find too difficult to take up.
This brief discussion leads to the most important topic of her study, and returns us to Auden’s questions: what does a detective story do? And what do readers want from it? The book takes as the title of its final chapter the title of Thomas de Quincey’s 18 essay “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts”. De Quincey suggested, Evans notes, that rather than condemning murder, we should examine how murder is committed: the aesthetics of the act. Writing some 15 years before Edgar Allan Poe inaugurated the field of detective fiction with his three short stories (two of which included violent deaths), de Quincey speaks to ongoing and recognisable concerns and fascinations with violent death.
Evans opines that it is absolutely vital to consider this aesthetic of murder because, in doing so, compelling questions about evil and ethics can be found and partially answered. If we continue to buy crime and detective fiction in such quantities, she argues, it is because “a belief in the existence of crime is central to a continuing belief in our own capacity for moral order”. This answers Auden rather neatly: a detective story allows us to believe we are, at heart, most civilised.
The Imagination of Evil: Detective Fiction and the Modern World
By Mary Evans
Continuum, 208pp, £60.00
Published 22 October 2009