Why Do We Read Detective Stories?

by Mara Jebsen
Sexy_target02 All men must escape at times from the deadly rhythm of their private thoughts. —Raymond Chandler

Last month I was a tourist for the first time in my life. I went to Athens and two islands in the Aegean sea. On the tiny island of AntiParos I felt a curious emptiness I associated with the matte heat of the blue air, and if I had a thought, it was that I could not think.

But you can’t stare at the sea endlessly. So I did what lots and lots of people do—I read detective novels.

And yesterday I devoured yet another Agatha Christie. And Saturday I watched the entire Bourne Trilogy in a sitting. At first I thought I was just maintaining the dusty mindlessness of my vacation. But no. The thing is I don’t know why I love detective novels, spy novels, thrillers–and I’m trying to get to the bottom of it.

And so, a little sleuthing. It turns out lots of wildly clever people have taken a stab at understanding the draw of the mystery, the thriller. But the results are disheartening.

Just last summer Joan Accocela did a piece in the New Yorker on Agatha Christie. It was sort of a bio piece, but the verdict on whether or not Christie was a ‘real artist’ (most of the time) seemed clear. It’s revealed that Christie herself understood her characters as little chess-pieces to be moved about committing murder willy-nilly. Acocella’s article implies that the pleasure we get from a suspense novel has more in common with the joy of completing a crossword than it has to do with art, or literature. And according to the biographical sketch, Christie is no help in this. I’m a poet, and as a supposedly ‘literary’ person who feels mildly guilty reading formulaic mysteries, my guilt is totally confirmed when I learn that the author felt guilty about writing them.

But what is going on here? Why would Christie and I repeatedly submit to this exchange of guilt- feelings, each sure that we are somehow superior to the shameful activity we’re engaged in?

I should know the answer to this, because Edmund Wilson, on whom I have a gi-normous (post-humous?) literary crush, and whose literary opinions I generally swallow whole, tackled the problem back in 1944.

In “Why Do People Like Detective Novels” he practically torches the entire genre. Because he recognizes, and is immediately scornful of, the formula. He calls the prose mawkish. Worse, his ultimate answer to the title question is utterly damning. He claims that the general guilt and terror of the period after the great wars was so strong that no one could pin down the responsible party, and that readers were merely aching to find clear villains to punish.

So according to Wilson, these suspense stories are not only bad art, but possibly bad for us, as if the reading of them were an act of cowardice, the books providing a literary version of the scapegoat.

I’m struck by this, but also suddenly I want to break up with Edmund Wilson. In a way I think he is unqualified to answer the question: “Why do people love detective stories?” because he so obviously does not.

And then Raymond Chandler is not as much help as I want him to be. In his essay on the topic, included as a preface to “The Simple Art of Murder” he says essentially the same thing regarding the form that Acocella and Wilson have asserted—and very elegantly: “There is a very simple statement to be made about all these stories: they do not come off intellectually as problems, and they do not come off artistically as fiction.” His notion is that the detective story writer (but he is essentially speaking of himself) must up his game to address both the artistic and the ethical problem Wilson laid out. The detective story writer must create a hero who is a bit more complex, who inhabits a darker, more absurd world.

I don’t know why, but I’m unsatisfied. I don’t always love Raymond Chandler.

So I’ve been trying to think, think, think. If a thriller is a guilty pleasure, what is the origin of the guilt and the origin of the pleasure? This isn’t just about detective stories, but about Law and Order, TinTin, James Bond, etc. (I don’t like Steig Larsson, but that’s another essay). If I actually try to imagine my own mind suddenly bereft of every Columbo I’ve ever watched, every Dick Francis novel, what have I lost?

Steaming horses in cold English countrysides. Frowsy California palm trees on hot avenues in the early morning. The dirty white rooftops of Tunisia.

Life, fast and brightly colored in, and reduced to a few slender lines. Poetry, in short, but of an unpoetic kind. Places of soft fierce voices, clear little houses, clear little strange worlds where people eat kippers and retire to drawing rooms.

All books take place on an island of construed space created by the author. Ultimately, because the plot must be driven forward, and, as these writers mostly admit, complexity and character development get sacrificed in the name of suspense, the few details the good suspense writer does include must be evocative to the point of incandescence. It is the art almost of the sketch, the cartoon. And the best practitioners, eschewing the work of character development and lyricism, get this part right.

And there’s something else:

I am not at all sure that real life is about character development, at least insofar as that phrase suggests a kind of progression. From what I notice, we are most of the time the same, or regressing, or looping back or forward to some minutely different version of ourselves. On Oprah and reality tv and in ‘good literature’ characters are consistently forced to break down to catharsis, to ‘show their true colors’ ; to perform some radical break from their former selves that astonishes the audience.

But for all the wild unreality of the detective novel and the spy film, there is something realistic and recognizable about the little wooden chess-piece characters they feature, who perform the same miracles over and over. Miss Marple and Jason Bourne and Sherlock Holmes never show their true colors. They are marvelously stoic. And largely static, as we are ourselves.