Monday, February 13, 2017

Hard lessons

In a good essay about the appeal of murder mysteries Alan Jacobs reflects on his enjoyment of such television series as Inspector Morse and its sequel Lewis. He writes "These shows are, it’s often said, old people’s television: Inspector Morse was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth, and I’d be surprised if Her Majesty didn’t keep up with the later developments," and he "wonder[s] whether the detective story as a genre is made for people with more than a few years behind them." Jacobs:
...W.H. Auden, in a famous essay about detective fiction, speculated that the fundamental logic of such fiction involves the portrayal of an apparent Eden that is broken by the intrusion of crime, and the specific crime of murder, so that by the intervention of clever and wise persons the social world can be healed and order restored—but not the original order since the dead cannot be brought back to life. “Murder is unique” among crimes, Auden says, “in that it abolishes the party it injures, so that society has to take the place of the victim and on his behalf demand restitution or grant forgiveness.” This is a kind of legal fiction, this substitution of the society itself for one who can no longer seek, or benefit from, justice: in a broken world, things can never be what they were. But partial restoration is better than none, and hope for it is a reasonable aspiration, one claimed by those who have known what the poet James Wright calls “The change of tone, the human hope gone gray.” The satisfactions of the murder mystery are real but somewhat grim, in ways that perhaps best suit the no-longer-young. They are anything but utopian.

In the murder mystery, society does not simply stand in for the victim, it undergoes its own development, for if the story begins in a seemingly orderly and peaceful world, the operative word in that description is “seemingly.” Its initial state is, Auden says, one of “false innocence,” and a murder does not bring evil into society but rather reveals the evil that is already there. The human tendency to take complacent pleasure in a fictional innocence is something that can best be seen in a small and mostly closed society, which is why so many classic detective novels are set in places like English country houses or long-distance railways or isolated villages....

In Auden’s essay on detective fiction he muses on the curious fact that many of its fans have no interest in other “genre” stories—romances, Westerns, science fiction, fantasy—and he speculates that the mystery offers something unique: “I suspect that the typical reader of detective stories is, like myself, a person who suffers from a sense of sin.” ....

And so we’re left with a world in which justice is hoped for but never fully achieved, in which sin and crime can be exposed and punished but never, never quite, paid for—at least not by us. Hard lessons, but ones we all learn if we live long enough. .... [more]