In 1948, poet W H Auden confessed to a passion:
‘For me, as for many others, the reading of detective stories is an addiction like tobacco or alcohol. The symptoms of this are: firstly the intensity of the craving – if I have any work to do, I must be careful not to get hold of a detective story for, once I begin one, I cannot work or sleep till I have finished it.’
In “The Guilty Vicarage”, Harper’s Magazine, May 1948.
One doesn’t have to look far to see that many people feel the same, even now. Detective fiction, in all its forms, is as popular as ever.
Since Auden wrote his article, many words — in books, in magazines, in academic journals — have been devoted to analysing the appeal of detective fiction. (In fact, when I first began looking into this I was surprised by the volume of this work.) Much of the discussion focuses on the central mystery plot, which is, of course, unavoidable, in that for detective fiction, the mystery plot is the definitive element.
Of course, for readers of mystery fiction a lot of this work might seem a waste of time.
We already know why we like it.
If we’re asked, we would talk about amenable characters. Or we might say that a detective novel will always be plot-driven. At least we know what we’re going to get. Or we might say we enjoy the mystery, trying to work out who committed the murders.
There’s the thrill of finding the solution to the problem. And there’s the thrill of mystery, the thrill of not knowing.
There’s just so much ple-e-easure.
In this and later posts, I’m going to delve more deeply into the pleasures of murder mysteries. Hopefully there’ll be some new insights and the process will enrich our enjoyment of reading.
But first … a Frenchman.
The texte de désir
In The Pleasure of the Text (1975), French literary theorist Roland Barthes dismissively assigns detective fiction to a category he calls the texte de désir. Mystery stories, according to Barthes are scarcely literature at all. He proposes that with these books a reader ignores any pleasure that might be obtained from verbal texture or play and simply follows a linear narrative, driven by a desire to get to the end.
Which is, apparently, a bad thing.
(There will be more about the supercilious Monsieur Barthes later.)
Not just the ending
In a way, if we’re trying to understand the appeal of mystery fiction, it does make sense to focus on the end point, because this is the source of pleasure that’s perhaps the most easily apparent — that huge pay-off that is gained when the solution to a mystery is found.
And fair enough. The reader’s desire to find out who committed the murders, combined with the suspension of the answer, act together as a significant structuring force of the mystery plot. They are a big feature of the reading experience. In other places I talk about some of the satisfactions of the endings of mysteries: closure and the thrill of finding out.
But I think it’s also important to consider the reading experience in its full complexity and to identify pleasures gained, not just at the end of a mystery novel, but in the beginning and the middle as well. Because it’s not only the end that’s important, is it? It’s not as if readers are putting up with pages of pain or frustration or boredom, just for the satisfaction of finding a solution. There are pleasures throughout the whole process.
One is simple familiarity.
“The Gypsy Girl” 1628, by Franz Hals via Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Gypsy_Girl
“Looking for Crime” by Joseff Thomas on Flickr
“Roland Barthes” https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2727868
References and further reading
Auden, W. H. (1948), “The Guilty Vicarage”, Harper’s Magazine.
Barthes, Roland (1976), The Pleasure of the Text. trans. Miller, R. London: Cape.