Reading for the Plot

Reading crime novels is entertaining. In earlier times, when people first started analysing the appeal of mystery fiction, one of the claims was that it was popular because it offers a clear plot line, which is lacking in some serious fiction.

In the New Yorker magazine, in 1945, prominent literary critic, Edmund Wilson, wrote:

“The novel has become so philosophical, so psychological and so symbolic that the public have had to take to the detective story as the only department of fiction where pure story-telling survives”

from “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd”, 1945.

Wilson wasn’t endorsing this argument. He was describing it as an attitude held by other people. But the idea appears in many places. One example is a book chapter, “Only a Detective Story”, by Joseph Krutch, in an early work of scholarship, The Art of the Mystery Story (1946).

art of mystery story


The emphasis on narrative can be seen as a weakness.

Edmund Wilson wrote two articles about detective fiction in The New Yorker, one in 1944 and one in 1945. They were both fairly acerbic. Despite an admission that he enjoyed the stories of Sherlock Holmes, he insisted ‘you cannot read such a book, you run through it to see the problem worked out.’ Wilson thought the characters in detective fiction are never fully realised, but are contrived to fit the plots.

“The addict reads not to find anything out but merely to get the mild stimulation of the succession of unexpected incidents and of the suspense itself of looking forward to learning a sensational secret.”

from “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd”, 1945.

Wilson would say that that makes detective fiction a less important form of literature.

“As a department of imaginative writing, it looks to me completely dead.”

Similarly,  in Harper’s Magazine in 1948, poet W. H. Auden, after declaring his passion for detective fiction, went on to suggest that mystery stories, with their dependence on plot, necessarily fail as works of art.

Mystery novels are plot-based.

They consist of a ‘long sequence of logically interconnected human actions that succeed one another in time’ (Dennis Porter, 1981, p86.) In them violence occurs, either on or off-stage, relationships are untangled, histories are pieced together, detectives are given or uncover concrete pieces of information. But, above all, things happen. There is an expectation across the genre, of narrative drive.

Detective fiction is an exemplary form of narrative.

A little bit of theory … just bear with me …

(or, if you want to, you can go straight to the punchline. It begins: “One of the large categories in which we think”.)

In his book, S/Z (1975), Roland Barthes (yes, him again) described two elements of plots with are concerned with temporal ordering.


He gave them fancy names (French literary theorist: lots of fancy names for things). This might be off-putting, but if you want to think about detective novels and their plots it is actually a very useful distinction, and it’s worth spending a moment on these ideas.

The proairetic (Yes. I know.) The proairetic code is what we would normally think of as plot. It’s the series of actions in a novel, each of which leads to further action, and so creates suspense and forward movement. The hermeneutic code refers to the facts that are revealed through these actions — the series of questions and answers that structure a story, the array of information that is constructed and reconstructed by the reader and only fully revealed at the end.

When it’s put like that, you can see that detective stories provide exemplary versions of these two fundamental elements of fiction.

Peter Brooks (Professor of Literature at Yale, and much easier to read than Barthes) suggests,

‘the clearest and purest example of the hermeneutic would no doubt be the detective story.’ Reading for the Plot, 1984, p18.

All right. So detective stories are extreme examples of plot-based fiction. Does this mean they are a lesser form of literary art?


Is narrative something to be disdained?

Plot is often considered by literary critics as ‘the element of narrative that least sets off and defines high art’ (Peter Brooks, 1984, p4).

Book Write Typewriter Paper Writing Notebook


I have literary friends who I know would agree. In fact, this assumption permeates informal literary discussions — the idea that true literary experience is about the beauty of words and discovering and developing philosophical positions, or examining complex and subtle ideas. Reading a genre novel quickly, just to find out what happens, is a lesser form of literary experience.

(Of course, many detective novels are rich in literary qualities other than plot. This will be the subject of later posts.)

But is narrative trivial?

“One of the large categories in which we think”

Peter Brooks is Professor of Literature at Yale University, and therefore quite respectable in literary academic circles.



In his book, Reading for the Plot, he examines and defends … well, reading for the plot.

Brooks argues that, far from being a trivial aspect of a novel, put there to keep us entertained while we absorb a lot of beautiful language and higher literary meaning, narrative is actually a valuable element in its own right. In fact, it reflects some of the basic patterns and structures of human thinking. Plot is central to our experience of life in general.

For one thing, narrative ‘is of and in time’ (p10).  It reflects to us our experience of time. It is one way in which humans express an awareness of mortality and ‘time-boundedness’ (p22).

Cambridge Professor, Frank Kermode in The Sense of and Ending (1967) suggested that we give our life meaning by seeing it as a story, with a beginning, a middle and an end.

Kermode The Sense of and Ending


Kermode sees the creation of the fiction plot as parallel to a human need to view all moments of existence in relation to notions of a beginning and an end. In understanding our lives, we need to see every moment as part of a time-based progression leading to an end point. The creating of fictional narratives parallels this thought pattern. The moments in a narrative only attain full meaning in relation to the end of the story.

In other words, the creation of narrative is an attempt to impose a pattern on time, and this is a reflection of the way in which we attempt to make sense of our own life span.

time and narrative

There is a similar set of ideas in Time and Narrative (1984 -88), a revolutionary three-volume work about experience and meaning, in which French philosopher Paul Ricouer suggests that we understand time and experience through narrative construction. (His style can be quite challenging and his argument is labyrinthine. Fortunately his ideas have been analysed and clarified in a book by an American Professor of English and American Literature, William Dowling. See below.)

Jerome_Bruner_1936 copy

More recently, cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner has suggested that acts of imagination and the creation of imaginary worlds are fundamental aspects of the functioning of our minds, and that these are constructed according to narrative principles.

“We organise our experience and our memory of human happenings mainly in the form of narrative — stories, excuses, myths, reasons for doing and not doing and so on.”
“The Narrative Construction of Reality” (p 4)


If you want to get psycholanalytic about it …

(and if you don’t you can skip this paragraph)

According to Brook’s formulation, a narrative begins in a situation which contains a strong element of desire and this desire is a force which drives the story forward. The plot passes through a series of temporal sequences which delay or divert from the satisfaction of that desire, but ultimately, the end point is reached.

Again, it is easy to see that detective fiction provides a clear example for this model of plot.

Brooks relates his description of plot to Freud’s pleasure principle and death drive. Maybe that could be a subject for another time.

One of the large categories in which we think.

The point is that narrative is not some lesser element of a novel.

Rather it is

‘one of the large categories in which we think … the product of our refusal to allow temporality to be meaningless, our stubborn insistence on making meaning in the world and in our lives.’

Brooks, p323.


References and further reading

Auden, W. H. (1948), “The Guilty Vicarage: Notes on the Detective Story, by an Addict”, Harpers Magazine, May 1948.

Barthes, Roland (1975), S/Z. Translated by R. Miller. London: Cape.

Brooks, Peter (1984), Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative. Oxford: Clarendon.

Bruner, Joseph (1981) “The Narrative Construction of Reality”, Critical Inquiry, 18, Autumn 1991.

Bruner, Joseph (1987), Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Cambridge, Massachussets, Harvard University Press.

Dowling, William C. (2011) Ricoeur on Time and Narrative:An Introduction to temps et récit. Notre Dame, University of Notre Dame Press.

Kermode, Frank (1967), The Sense of and Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction. New York: Oxford University Press.

Krutch, Joseph (1946) “Only a Detective Story” in Haycraft, H. (ed), The Art of the Mystery Story. New York: Simon and Schuster, pp 178 – 185.

Pellauer, David and Dauenhauer, Bernard, “Paul Ricoeur”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition),

Porter, Dennis (1981), Detective Fiction and Literature: the Figure on the Carpet. New York: St Martin’s Press.

Ricoeur, Paul (1984-1988), Time and Narrative, trans. K. McLaughlin and David Pellauer, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wilson, Edmund (1944), “Why do People Read Detective Stories?”, The New Yorker, 14th October, 1944.

Wilson, Edmund (1945) “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” The New Yorker. 20th January, 1945.


“A father reading a novel with an affecting plot to family”, Wellcome Images via  Wikimedia Commons

“Roland Barthes Circa 1970” by aly on Flickr.

The Art of the Mystery Story available from Amazon.

The Sense of and Ending available from Amazon.

Time and Narrative available from Amazon. 

“Jerome Bruner, circa 1936” on Wikipedia.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s