Monday, August 19, 2013

Mysteries and the rule of law

In his classic book on Golden Age mysteries, Murder for Pleasure, the critic Howard Haycraft makes the claim that the detective story can exist only in a democracy. The reason for this, he states, is that autocratic governments don’t care about punishing the right person, the individual who actually committed the crime. And of course autocratic governments don’t provide any protection for individual rights, whereas in a democracy there are strict rules of evidence and other means of protecting the rights of individuals.

In fact Haycraft is confusing democracy with freedom [or what we call a liberal democratic republic, using the older sense of the word "liberal"--ed.], a mistake most people make. The thing that guarantees the rights of the individual is the rule of law, not democracy as such. ....

It is important to note that Haycraft is talking about the actual detective story, not crime fiction in general. ....

It’s interesting that the puzzle type of detective story reached its peak of popularity in the 1930s. It remained very popular for some decades after that, but it is certainly no longer the dominant form of crime fiction. Does this reflect a change in society? .... [more]
W.H. Auden argued that the true detective story required not only "rule of law" but:
...an innocent society in a state of grace, i.e., a society where there is no need of the law, no contradiction between the aesthetic individual and the ethical universal, and where murder, therefore, is the unheard-of act which precipitates a crisis (for it reveals that some member has fallen and is no longer in a state of grace). The law becomes a reality and for a time all must live in its shadow, till the fallen one is identified. With his arrest, innocence is restored, and the law retires forever. ....
His criteria for the authentic detective story were rather strict:
Completely satisfactory detectives are extremely rare. Indeed, I only know of three: Sherlock Holmes (Conan Doyle), Inspector French (Freeman Wills Crofts), and Father Brown (Chesterton). The job of the detective is to restore the state of grace in which the aesthetic and the ethical are as one. Since the murderer who caused their disjunction is the aesthetically defiant individual, his opponent, the detective, must be either the official representative of the ethical or the exceptional individual who is himself in a state of grace. .... [more]
My reading for pleasure encompasses thrillers, noir, police procedurals, etc., and detection proper, which latter does, I think, require a society with the rule of law and the story ought to end with the just restoration of order.