The research for the book then, is a combination of a lifetime’s reading and exhaustive preparation for my PhD thesis. The book as it now appears, however, bears little relation to my thesis and has evolved as my interest in the influences on the detective genre has grown.
As with everything in detective fiction we start with Poe – he invented the modern detective story and pretty much all his ideas for the conventional story still hold sway. He
even made the first story a locked room mystery, so in every sense it is a seminal piece. We owe, therefore, a debt to Poe for so much, but predominantly a transferable narrative structure, the characters of the detective and the companion/narrator and the idea of pure
reason as an overarching theme. But as I was writing what really struck me was the relationship between his irrational stories of the Grotesque and Arabesque and the seemingly antithetical, severely rational Dupin texts. To me the latter appear as a response to the chaotic world of ‘The Black Cat’, ‘The Premature Burial’ etc. The fact that Poe abandoned the detective story after just three attempts is significant; the idea of a
world based on the strictly rational just appeared untenable.
I actually alighted on the idea of the seminal role played by the locked room mystery through re-reading the novels of John Dickson Carr, and the way in which they related to ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’. Here was a form which encompassed everything
that the classic detective story was about, impenetrable mystery, a closed narrative and resolution. But most of all they contain, as I argue, a narrative of enclosure that is, the
investigation of the crime is enclosed by the story of the crime and its solution. This impression is closely reinforced by architectural and thematic similarities – all of which led me to believe that this was a new and interesting way in which to view the genre. So the chapter on Dickson Carr is the heart of the book because although his texts are rigorously conventional in nature they simultaneously contain burlesques of the genre and represent a turning point in detective fiction. These subversions manifest themselves as illusion – both in the intricacies of plot but also as reflections on the genre itself. In The
Hollow Man, as in other books of his from the thirties, he displays a brand of self-reflexivity that borders on deconstruction, many years ahead of its time. Just read the chapter ‘The Locked Room Lecture’; you can scarcely believe that this avant-garde passage, which shamelessly draws attention to the book’s fictionality, is taken from a text written in the so-called Golden Age of the genre. So as well as being a supremely orthodox writer Carr is also a gateway into the metaphysical stories of Borges and Auster, where the conventions of the detective story are tested as never before.
Whilst one can hardly write a book about the locked room mystery and not include Dickson Carr, other choices still have to be made because of the volume of material out there. For instance, one such I made in Narratives of Enclosure was to include a chapter, in a book about detective fiction, on Dickens’s ‘The Signalman’. This will have surprised some and filled me with a good deal of apprehension. This ghost story, however, must be amongst the most celebrated examples of short fiction ever written, that defies generic
boundaries, and, like all writing of this calibre is capable of universal application. It is too, a seminal story which ushered in the railway story as a new form of mystery. In this particular case it conveys perfectly the relationship between the enclosed workings of the psyche and the physical enclosure that railway architecture and landscape provide. In other words it possesses that sense of mystery, inquiry and exclusivity, the same relationship between theme and structure to be found in conventional detective fiction. The whole piece is strewn with claustrophobic enclosure. Which brings me to my most
earnest hope for the book – it is to demonstrate that detective fiction in all its constituents, theme, narrative structure, plot and language displays a particular homogeneity. Above all, I argue that the recurrent feature of this cohesion is enclosure, exemplified by the
locked room, a context which holds the whole text together. If I have not got this across then I have failed.
As a footnote to this chapter, I see that Kate Colquhoun has just published a book about the Briggs case, which I refer to briefly in this chapter. Her book is entitled: Mr Briggs’ Hat: A Sensational Account of Britain’s First Railway Murder. This will be high on my future reading list.
So my hopes are to convince the reader that the detective story, wrapped up in its self-conscious, homogenous world, has created its own literary space by repeating a series of conventions which make it familiar, but distinct. It begs a further question on my mind that maybe this is a trait of the modern popular genre generally that could account for its popularity. I have not thought this through yet to the fullest extent but, alongside all the familiar descriptions of narrative structure, plot and identifiable readerships, could a
lateral definition of this kind of genre be that it creates for itself a separate, inviolate world, in order to confront the problems of the ‘real’ world. The crucial point being that such a setting is discrete; its displacement ensures a purity of approach unhindered
by the contingencies of the outside world to which it relates. Thus in this idealised state the detective invariably brings order from chaos, and in spy fiction, as Eco has remarked on the formulaic content of the James Bond spy series, the triumph of the West
over the forces of subversion is guaranteed. Anyway something to ponder …
My thoughts are already turning to my latest project. For some time I have wanted to research the relationship between detective fiction and the ghost story, and I will be
outlining my initial thoughts on the subject in my next blog.