the imaginative conservative logo

detective fictionOnce after Mass, on a rare lazy Sunday afternoon, I dropped by the train station’s news agent and browsed the book rack for a light read—something one would pick up in an airport to keep occupied, but not busy. I picked out Deborah Crombie’s Leave the Grave Green. The blurb on the back cover reads:

“When Connor Swann, the dissolute son-in-law of renowned and influential [opera singers] Sir Gerald and Dame Caroline Asherton, is found floating in a Thames River lock, the circumstances eerily recall a strangely similar tragedy. Twenty years ago, the Ashertons’ young son, Matthew, a musical prodigy, drowned in a swollen stream while in the company of his sister Julia—Connor Swann’s wife.”

It was a great read—a welcomed break from Jane Austen’s tediousness, Jacques Lacan’s rude jokes, even from John Milton’s overwhelming nature. (Do not get me wrong: I love Milton. But in too-large doses he can be over-overwhelming.) Leave the Grave Green was just what I needed. Aside from the gripping plot, Mrs. Crombie is an American writing about England. I think, in a way, non-Brits “get” British crime drama in a way the British do not. We can all revel in the plot, the characters, the twists and turns; but, sadly, the English might mot be able to fully appreciate its sublime English-ness. Mrs. Crombie writes for the American audience, capturing the English vintage that makes the genre resonate with us colonials.

But, anyway: toward the end of the novel, as the suspects list begins to narrow, one character gives a little metatextual speech:

It’s fashionable these days to pooh-pooh the Golden Age crime novel as trivial and unrealistic, but that was not the case at all. It was their stand against chaos. The conflicts were intimate, rather than global, and justice, order and retribution always prevailed. They desperately needed that reassurance… The detective always got his man. And you’ll notice that the detective always operated outside the system—the stories expressed a comforting belief in the validity of individual action.

Anyone who follows The Imaginative Conservative will immediately remember Joseph Pearce’s essay, “The Vulgar Mob: Arguing with G.K. Chesterton.” Mr. Pearce (I think rightly) expresses concern over Chesterton’s apparent views of human nature in his mythopoeic detective novel The Man Who Was Thursday. Mr. Pearce writes: “In many ways the novel was a reaction against the radical pessimism of Arthur Schopenhauer and the iconoclastic cynicism of Oscar Wilde.” Chesterton moves sharply in the opposite direction, placing almost unqualified faith in his commonfolk. What worries us is that Chesterton’s humans, as Mr. Pearce astutely points out, resemble J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbits more than John Q. Public. Mr. Pearce writes: “The problem is that the common man, as championed by Chesterton, is a figment of the optimist’s imagination. He is an idealized figure in an idyllic world.”

Did Chesterton’s philosophy suit detective fiction, or did he tailor his creative genius to fit within the genre’s conventions? The former seems more likely. Mr. Pearce goes on to blame Hilaire Belloc for Chesterton’s hyper-optimism, explaining that “Belloc allowed his French patriotism and republicanism to blind him to the horror and reality of the French Revolution, a blindness which Chesterton, as a disciple of Belloc’s historical perspective, seemed happy to share.” Chesterton famously wrote: “I was brought up a Liberal, and have always believed in democracy, in the elementary liberal doctrine of a self-governing humanity.” He seems just as convinced by the reliability of mankind as the detective genre demands. His optimism is both literal and fictive.

Whence, then, does the stereotype of detective fiction being “conservative” come? We can be sure it is widespread, even mainstream. Take, for instance, Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle’s renowned Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory. In the chapter on ideology, they write: “Detective fiction may be understood to have a conservative ideological form because of its generic investment in the restoration of the status quo.” The explaination is too long to quote at length, but if I might summarize: The villain in a detective novel must have two traits: (1) They must be an isolated offender. The ultimate “victim” of the criminal act is society; the detective acts, not in the interests of his client alone, but as an agent of order and conventional morality. (2) They must be morally culpable—i.e. not totally insane. So, too, must the detective. He may even work outside “official” channels to restore balance. Common law, decency, and conventional morality are not abstractions; they are incarnated in the detective, plaintiff, the public—and the reader. We, the many, root for the detective against the lone criminal (or small conspiracy). It is inherently majoritarian. If the reverse were true—if the “criminal” were a victim of social circumstance—society would be culpable.

Yet is that all really “conservative”? It is if we define “conservative” strictly as one who supports the status quo. But if that is all we mean, there is no point in bringing ideology into the game at all. As the classic Boromir meme might have it, “One does not simply… conserve.” There is no such political philosophy that unreservedly defends the status quo, and to give a name for that tendency is useless. During the French Revolution, the Royalists defended the contemporary status quo—the Ancien Régime. However, during the Khrushchev administration, Stalinists were the “conservatives,” opposing Khrushchev’s moderate liberalizing agenda. Do Bennett and Royle really believe there are such people who adhere to this “conservatism,” favoring the Bourbons today and Stalin tomorrow, simply because that is how things were at the time?

Likwise, we can predict that a detective novel written in pre-Revolutionary France would assume Ancien Régime moral and political norms, whereas one written in pre-Khrushchev Russia would assume Stalinist moral and political norms. Those are the “societies” whose agent the detective would necessarily serve as. So let us interrogate this point a bit further. What could we expect of a pre-Revolution French detective novel? For one, our “society”—our common man—would not be morally upright and ethically trustworthy. At best, he would be utterly bovine; the detective would have to goad clues out of him with chocolate and silver coins. At worst, he would refuse to cooperate out of fear, greed, or indifference. The “good” would be the infinitismally small upper two estates: the paternalistic church and aristocracy. Likewise, the detective would never work outside official channels: his authority as an operative of justice would be dependent on their authority as Justice incarnate. This does not resemble classic detective fiction at all. And yet it is authentically conservative—both in the philosophical sense, and in that it upholds the contemporary status quo.

Now, I try not to mix my politics and my literature. But it seems to me that, if any philosophy underlies the structure of detective fiction, it is classical liberalism. It must entail a worldview wherein human nature is benevolent enough that injustice can be localized in an individual. This is not at all conservative, seeing as conservatives believe in man’s Fallen nature—his pride and corruptibility. Only a world where men act in their rational self-interest and freely dispose of themselves to the needs of their community can there be “one bad egg.” There is no such thing as one bad egg in the conservative worldview. There is no unswerving Holmes; no innocent, faithful Doctor Watson. There is a planet populated by men and women variously doing good and evil, and neither one nor the other exclusively.

But I do not think this necessarily needs to be a political issue. It seems more likely that traditional detective fiction is simply a thoroughly enjoyable medium. Do we need to constantly be assailed by “realistic” representations of our fellow man? Does the fact that the genre operates on a flawed premise detract from the experience? I do not think so. Take it from the professional: We can make our “stand against chaos” while still acknowledging the chaos. We can construct miniature, well-ordered universes and take a brief respite in them. What is essential is that we do not spend our whole lives immersed in that fiction. As the master wrote,

With the disappearance of the idea of Original Sin, with the disappearance of the idea of intense moral struggle, the human beings presented to us both in poetry and prose fiction today, and more patently among serious writers than in the underworld of letters, tend to become less and less real…

Detective fiction, as we have discussed, is not real, or even realistic. We are not so one-dimensionally good or evil. And that is all right—so long as we can differentiate between our optimistic imagination and our pessimistic reality. We cannot rightly survive without either, after all.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. 

Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
9 replies to this post
  1. I submit J. Mark Bertrand’s Roland March trilogy as illustrative of good contemporary detective fiction that is not progressive. The final book in the trilogy, Nothing to Hide weaves in allusions to Dante and Song of Roland.

    • Here’s a situation that arises continually in the Lew Archer novels: someone Archer is investigating is surprised to learn how much he knows about them. In Black Money Kitty Hendricks voices this surprise in virtually those very words –“How do you know so much about me?” Usually, though, the knowledge Archer has obtained when this question comes up turns out to be peripheral – that is, it doesn’t bear directly on the solution to the case but is just a part of the hopelessly tangled morass of action and information Archer is working his way through. In the novels that most critics and scholars seem to feel comprise the mature Macdonald style – The Galton Case through The Blue Hammer – the reader is constantly being thrown off the scent this way.
      http://postmoderndeconstructionmadhouse.blogspot.com/2014/12/ross-macdonald-black-money.html#.VIJIcdLF_xA

  2. In I, The Jury, Mike Hammer risks his life to avenge his murdered friend, who saved his life in WWII. Courage, loyalty, and an unshakeable dedication to moral truth – what’s not for a conservative to love?

  3. I’m not sure if Chesterton totally maintained support for the French Revolution. By the looks of it “The Man Who Was Thursday” was done before “The Everlasting Man”, the first “Father Brown” story or his conversion to Catholicism. He had apparently written “Orthodoxy” around that time and been an active Anglican though.

    On the other matter I don’t think conservatism necessarily requires that no one can be particularly bad or good. A belief that human nature is flawed or fallen certainly doesn’t mean everyone sins roughly the same amount or approximately as severely as another. In fact I think classic conservatism recognizes distinction and variation.

    Also I’m not sure detective fiction even absolutely requires a completely black-and-white “detective is good, the criminal is bad” mentality. Batman: The Animated Series, of all things, could have examples of this as he’s called “the detective.” In it he’s riddled with various guilts, but additionally his “rogues” are often not simply “bad people.” In one, “Baby Doll”, he even lets her cry on his cape. In the episodes involving “Clayface” he offers to help cure him, though he does ruin Clayface’s efforts to steal a cure for himself. I don’t read detective fiction much, but I think it allows for the criminal to be a nexus of bad behavior while not being an irredeemable or exclusively bad “other.”

  4. This prompted me to peruse about half of The Drowning Pool – 133 pages or so – to see how many similes I could count. (I’m using the Vintage Crime Black Lizard edition from May 1996). I counted thirty four and no doubt missed a few. (REVISION 11/30/14: The number is much higher. Going back over the work a second and third time I see I missed a lot in my initial sweep.) I haven’t done the legwork, but I think some of the later books might have a slightly higher ratio. That’s a lot, but in any case I would argue that many of Macdonald’s similes are so strong that they infinitely enrich the work. Not only that – they are so strong that they put many “serious” writers of fiction to shame.
    http://postmoderndeconstructionmadhouse.blogspot.com/2014/11/ross-macdonald-drowning-pool.html#.VHv-w9KUeRZ

  5. This prompted me to peruse about half of The Drowning Pool – 133 pages or so – to see how many similes I could count. (I’m using the Vintage Crime Black Lizard edition from May 1996). I counted thirty four and no doubt missed a few. (REVISION 11/30/14: The number is much higher. Going back over the work a second and third time I see I missed a lot in my initial sweep.) I haven’t done the legwork, but I think some of the later books might have a slightly higher ratio. That’s a lot, but in any case I would argue that many of Macdonald’s similes are so strong that they infinitely enrich the work. Not only that – they are so strong that they put many “serious” writers of fiction to shame.
    http://postmoderndeconstructionmadhouse.blogspot.com/2014/11/ross-macdonald-drowning-pool.html#.VIO0wdKUeRZ

  6. Rather than reading the Archer stories solely as mysteries, thrillers, entertainments, and detective stories (though of course they can exist solely on that level for readers who are interested in them as such), we’d do ourselves a favor to consider them in a few other ways as well. In the massive reference work World Authors 1950-1970, published by the H.H. Wilson Company, Macdonald wrote that The Galton Case and Black Money “are probably my most complete renderings of the themes of smothered allegiance and uncertain identity which my work inherited from my early years.” Of course, in Black Money the smothered allegiance occurs between the lovers Ginny Fablon and Tappinger.
    http://postmoderndeconstructionmadhouse.blogspot.com/2014/12/ross-macdonald-black-money.html#.VJES5NKUeRZ

  7. Just as you’re about to become submerged in gloom reading Ross Macdonald, you can, at least temporarily, be perked up by this sentence in Find a Victim: “His living-room was the kind of room you find in back-country ranch houses where old men hold the last frontier against women and civilization and hygiene.”

Please leave a thoughtful, civil, and constructive comment: