«IF ONLY THIS WERE A DETECTIVE NOVEL Self-Referentiality as Metafictionality in Detective Fiction Malcah Effron Thesis submitted towards the degree of ...»
IF ONLY THIS WERE A DETECTIVE NOVEL
Self-Referentiality as Metafictionality
in Detective Fiction
Thesis submitted towards the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the School of English
Literature, Language and Linguistics at Newcastle University,
Supervisor: Dr. Stacy Gillis
This thesis constitutes the first attempt to examine formally the use of self-referential
forms in the detective genre. By focusing detective fiction’s self-referential invocation of the genre within its narratives, it explores the relation between generic boundaries and the boundaries between reality and fictionality. Because the self-referential moments in detective fiction maintain the realistic representation of the narrative frame, they unselfconsciously indicate the textuality of the detective form, so they never wholly expose the disjuncture associated with metafiction. This creates an impression rather than an awareness of metafictionality. These self-referential moments in detective fiction directly relate to critical explication of metafiction because they negotiate the boundaries of reality and fictionality, particularly as implied in fictional narrative. Since these forms appear throughout detective fiction, my project tracks this self-referential examination of the boundaries of reality and fictionality across subgenre. As this examination continues throughout these forms, self-referentiality in detective fiction suggests that the nature of reality is the one mystery that the detective genre has not— and perhaps cannot—solve. To explore this, Chapter One considers self-referential statements that explicitly acknowledge detective fiction and its tropes, which I call overt self-referentiality. Chapter Two broadens the criteria, examining intrageneric intertextuality, where the texts refer to classic examples of detective conventions.
Chapter Three explores the self-referentiality implicit in the figure of the detective protagonist who is a detective writer. The self-referentiality in these moments metafictively engages with the boundaries of text and criticism and of reality and fictionality. By considering how these moments work simultaneously to construct and deconstruct the boundaries of the genre, this study of self-referentiality provides a method for considering deviations as a means of underscoring, rather than simply undermining, our understanding of what constitutes a novel. As it exposes the critical analysis of literary construction embedded within the detective genre, this thesis challenges both the division between the popular and the literary and the dominant association of metafictionality with experimental art, revealing the philosophical debates about the nature of reality in literary realms not traditionally considered as metafictional.
Between 2006 and 2009, this thesis was written with the generous support of the Newcastle International Postgraduate Scholarship, and I am grateful for this financial assistance.
I have also been incredibly blessed by the love and support of my parents, Rochelle Adler and Mark Effron, who have made it both possible and easy to come to England and complete my Ph.D. Also, special thanks to my mother for introducing me to the detective genre and encouraging me in this pursuit. As in all things, she was correct about my research: I should have started keeping notes when I was sixteen.
I owe a great debt of thanks to my friends and colleagues who have supported me, intellectually and emotionally in all my endeavors throughout the doctoral studentship.
While all my friends have made the Ph.D. a rich and rewarding experience, I offer a
special thanks to those who went above and beyond and helped me edit this thesis:
Victoria Adams, Sarah Burton, Katherine Farrimond, Rebecca Gill, Dr. Siân Harris, Talya Leodari, Margaret Love, Amy Slowik, Maureen Sunderland, and Ellen Turner.
In addition to these friends and editors, I owe an irreparable debt of thanks to my best friend and principal editor, Vanessa Guglielmo, who has read and corrected the first draft of everything I have written since 2004.
Most importantly, my sincerest thanks to my supervisor, Dr. Stacy Gillis, who has advised and encouraged me through this thesis and the larger world of academia in an official capacity since 2006 and unofficial capacity for even longer. Stacy was the first to show me that it is possible to write both intelligently and unapologetically about detective fiction. For all her help, but especially for this, I am immensely grateful.
Because of Dr. Fell’s recognition of his place in a detective novel, John Dickson Carr’s The Three Coffins explicitly breaks from realistic, or mimetic, narration into metafictional self-consciousness, locating a reader’s extratextual position in relation to them.1 By shifting the textual criminal investigation to a metatextual discussion of detective story patterns, Dr. Fell’s comment anticipates Tzvetan Todorov’s foundational criticism of detective fiction as a form where “[w]e have no need to follow the detective’s ingenious logic to discover the killer—we need merely refer to the much simpler law of the author of murder mysteries” (86). The epigraph has come to serve as detective fiction scholars’ benchmark for self-referentiality.2 But, rather than exploring such statements that interrupt the narrative, this thesis examines the self-referential statements criticized in the epigraph, those that occur when the narratives pretend they are not detective novels. This thesis thus explores moments that self-referentially, yet In this novel (also published as The Hollow Man by Hamish Hamilton in the United Kingdom), Dr. Fell investigates two murders that are variations on the lockedroom trope, as they occur at approximately the same time, with the same weapon, in two different locations, with fresh snow separating the two places. This allows for Fell’s extended exposition on the locked-room trope that follows the epigraph. Summary footnotes will appear with the first mention of each text in the thesis and will not be repeated in each chapter.
Some of these critiques are analyzed later in the introduction (see page 2).
Others include Robert Champigny’s appendix on Dr. Fell in What Will Have Happened (1977) and Martin Priestman’s reference to this passage in Detective Fiction and Literature (1991).
unselfconsciously, invoke the genre within the narrative frame. This self-referentiality, which critics also address in its similar form of self-reflexivity, indicates moments where a detective novel refers to generic forms within the narrative. When these comments break the mimetic frame, they behave metafictively, as they expose generic selfconsciousness engaging with the boundaries between reality and fictionality and between fiction and criticism. This textual self-consciousness is predominantly assumed the domain of experimental fiction, so these anomalies in genre fiction have received much critical consideration.3 By focusing instead on moments that do not break the narrative frame, and thus simultaneously create a mimetic and a metafictive experience, this thesis explores the relation between generic boundaries and the boundaries of reality and fictionality.
Because of its self-consciousness, critics frequently consider the epigraph’s selfreferentiality, but Lee Horsley rejects the idea that this self-referentiality implies metafictionality. She claims that Carr’s work “is not a novel that seeks to destabilize our sense of the outside world. [The epigraph] might strike us as distinctly postmodern [but it] is very much part of the […] self-referential world of ‘classic detective fiction’” (12).
Horsley limits detective fiction’s self-referentiality both to a basic plot structure and to a subgenre, namely the “classic” puzzle-oriented whodunit.4 These limits echo Carl See the previous footnote for examples of such attention.
Many terms are used to describe the classic detective narrative that rose to preeminence in the period between the two world wars; I refer to novels of these varieties as whodunits. These novels emphasize the investigation of murder in a closed setting with a defined cast list of suspects, as exemplified by earlier writers like Agatha Christie in the United Kingdom and S. S. Van Dine in the United States and are perpetuated by modern writers like P. D. James in the United Kingdom and Martha Grimes in the United States. The conventions of this form are clearly delineated in works like Howard Haycraft’s Murder for Pleasure (1941) and Julian Symons’s Bloody Murder (1972).
Malmgren’s sense of self-referentiality in the detective genre as “a subconscious desire to treat the world as if it were a book, [and] to invest the world with the essential traits of a well-formed book: readability, decipherability, intelligibility” (47). Malmgren confines this “preoccupation with textuality” to the “mystery” subgenre, his name for Horsley’s “classic detective fiction” (12). In these cases, self-referentiality is described as a limited trope rather than a pervasive intellectual query. Susan Elizabeth Sweeney goes farther in her generic inclusion of self-referentiality than Horsley and Malmgren, noting its pervasiveness when she argues that “all detective stories refer, if only obliquely, to their own fictionality and their own interpretation” (3). Nevertheless, Sweeney defines this as a metaphor for overall structure rather than as a metafictive narrative intrusion.
While these critics focus their analysis of self-referentiality on Dr. Fell’s “candidly glory[ing]”, my argument focuses on the self-referential “elaborate excuses” that pervade the genre, seeking to maintain the integrity of the narrative frame. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928), Hercule Poirot exclaims, “‘This shall be a “roman policier” à nous. We will investigate this affair together’” (90; original emphasis).5 In Edmund Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop (1946), a character finds it an “[a]lmost a locked-room mystery; certainly an ‘impossible murder’” (129).6 More recently, in Patricia Cornwell’s forensic detective story Body of Evidence (1991),7 a character suggests the situation “[h]as all the trappings of a mystery novel” (188).
Similarly, Ruth Dudley Edward’s contemporary academic whodunit suggests This novel recounts Hercule Poirot’s investigation into the death of daughter of a wealthy American that happens on a train between Paris and Nice.
In this novel, Oxford professor Gervase Fen and poet Richard Cadogan chase clues through Oxford to discover who murdered an old lady in an apartment above a toyshop that disappeared.
This novel tells of medical examiner Kay Scarpetta’s investigation into the murder of a reclusive romance novelist.
“[s]omeone who has spent so much time devouring crime novels knows one must always suspect the butler” (114).8 Because these moments maintain the narrative frame, they create an impression rather than an awareness of metafictionality: they never wholly reveal the disjuncture associated with metafiction. These moments thus provide a model for subtle metafictional narratives.
Setting the Scene: A Brief History of Critical Approaches to Detective Fiction Janice MacDonald states that “[t]he three most popular stances to take regarding detective fiction have been labeled as the psychological approach, the sociocultural approach, and the historical method. Of course, most of these methods are interested in detective fiction primarily as artifact rather than art” (61). By calling attention to detective fiction’s traditional status “as artifact rather than art,” she acknowledges its scholarly appropriation predominantly as a sociological case study, or, in the case of literary studies, as a counterpoint for art.9 This can be seen in the titles of detective fiction criticism, which examine the genre as entertainment or pleasure rather than as In Carnage on the Committee (2004), the murder of the chair of a literary prize committee is investigated with a mystery writer Robert Amiss and an English professor Baroness Jack Troutbeck as the principal detectives who assist the police detective, Ellis Pooley. As the self-referential implications of the detective writer in the detective genre are the basis for Chapter Three (see pages 192-258), I will not discuss this aspect here.
Todorov uses this positioning to reintroduce the study of genre in The Poetics of Prose (1977), in which he notes “there is a happy realm where this dialectical contradiction between the work and its genre does not exist: that of popular fiction [so t]he articulation of genres within detective fiction therefore promises to be relatively easy” (44). This ease provides Todorov with a model he can expand to “high” art.
Similarly, Brian McHale uses popular genres to outline the epistemological-ontological differentiation between modernism and postmodernism: “Science fiction […] is to postmodernism what detective fiction was to modernism: it is the ontological genre par excellence (as the detective story is the epistemological genre par excellence)” (16).
literature.10 W. H. Auden (1948) claims, “For me, as for many others, the reading of detective stories is an addiction […] Such reactions convince me that, in my case at least, detective stories have nothing to do with art” (146). While Auden later confesses that this passion for addictive texts can still illuminate the features of good aesthetics (147), the initial impulse behind his piece explores how someone with “highbrow” tastes could enjoy “lowbrow” reading,11 but this premise assumes a “lowbrow” readership.
Auden’s claims indicate the resilience of the association of detective fiction with “lowbrow,” despite Q. D. Leavis’s earlier refutation of this correlation in Fiction and the Reading Public (1932). Using sales statistics, Leavis argues: “there is no reason for supposing that novelettes are bought exclusively by the uneducated and the poor” and “the social classes named here [the professional and upper-classes] as forming the backbone of the detective-story public are those who in the last century would have been the guardians of the public conscience in the matter of self-indulgence” (277, 51).