Here's a couple of books on detective stories I managed to read recently:
Isn't Justice Always Unfair?
by J.K. Van Dover and John F. Jebb. Broad survey of the Southern detective story from its creation (by quasi-Southerner Edgar Allen Poe) to its practitioners in the mid-nineties. The authors establish that a set of concerns—“Land, Race, Past, Law, and Technology,” (358) crop up again and again when Southerners set their hand to the genre, though they suspect that the similarity isn’t strong enough to be definitive (ibid). The best part of this book is the section on William Faulkner; after that, too many authors enter the scene and the writers are obliged to divide chapters among numerous countryside-based authors and New Orleans- and Miami-based detectives. Still, these chapters bring me more up to date on the genre than my Golden Age sensibilities would otherwise, and I certainly want to check out some of the authors they cover in these sections (Sharyn McCrumb and Margaret Maron seem promising. If the effect of this survey is somewhat diffuse, that can’t be helped; the field, even when narrowed to Southern authors, is a broad one (interestingly, no Golden Age authors operated out of the South—presumably because it was too rural).
More interesting to members of this board, though, will be Robert S. Paul's Whatever Happened to Sherlock Holmes? Detective Fiction, Popular Theology, and Society.
Here’s one that started well; the introduction lays the purported groundwork for Paul’s thesis, and I like it. He argues that popular fiction mirrors the theological (not in the sense of "dogma") presuppositions of the society. I like the themes he points to while arguing for the basically theological nature of detective fiction. Unfortunately, the book kind of errs after that: first by falling into rote recitation of authors and qualities, and then by too clearly revealing the author’s agenda. I might be inclined to agree with many of the concerns Paul raises about late-twentieth century Europe and America, but his arguments aren't really developed. If anything, they're flippantly dismissive of modern critiques of religion and a little too optimistic about the era before "social religion" began to fade. And it really bugs me that an interesting study transforms into polemic at the end, with Paul entering evangelist mode and calling for a return to religious piety (though not, perhaps, traditional religion—he leaves that option open but unpressing). A straightforward examination of themes and sociological import without lapsing into sermonizing would have been more effective. Because the rest of the book is so survey-oriented, he doesn’t have enough substance to support the weight of such a heavy assertion.
That said, there’s some good stuff here: his surface-level but interesting treatment of P.D. James, his chapter-length study of Agatha Christie, and the Introduction are the best aspects. However, much of his work is irritatingly surface, and never fulfills on the promise of its Introduction. It would be interesting to compare this book to Holy Clues
by Kendricks, which I recall as dealing more effectively with similar themes. In each case, the general thrust is the same: that the detective, by paying close attention to "bits of matter" is doing more than solving a murder; he (or she) is affirming the basic rationality of the universe, and so finds himself/herself on the track of the greatest Mystery of all.
Edited by NBooth, 09 May 2011 - 11:05 AM.