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Preface to “Rational Scrutiny: Paradoxes and Contradictions in Detective Fiction”

Albert Einstein is alleged to have remarked, “Intellectuals solve problems; geniuses prevent them.” A popular saying goes: “Thinkers think; doers do.” Writer Thomas Sowell, himself an intellectual, adopted an ambivalent position on the frequently deleterious role of intellectuals in politics and society. Julian Benda blamed intellectuals for organizing and sanctioning political hatreds in Europe. Raymond Aron blamed intellectuals for fostering the ubiquity of Marxist solutions to capitalism and “democracy,” which solutions “trickled down” to the ranks of “doers,” the political activists, propagandists, and embedded “teachers” of literature in grade school on up to the groves of academe.

Detective fiction, as a rule, employs both “intellectuals” and “doers.” Detectives solve problems; detectives usually do something about them. Problems cannot be solved until they are grasped, understood, and counter actions are identified. In the mystery and detective fiction genres, detectives solve problems that are criminal in nature. Crimes are a consequence of human volition; it is the detective’s task to solve them. The problems must first arise before the detective can act. He does not act in a vacuum. He cannot “prevent” problems caused by others, or of which he is not yet aware, because they are products of human volition.

I do not know of a single fictional detective, other than possibly the finicky and eccentric Nero Wolfe, who claimed to be a “genius”: Not Sherlock Holmes, not Mike Hammer, not Inspector Dalgliesh, not Hercule Poirot, not Charlie Chan, not Miss Marple, not Phryne Fisher. Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade solved their problems in their own humble but inimitable ways, not even boasting of their cerebral energies, and certainly would deny that their cogitations were in the least “intellectual.” Some detectives plod along a trail of clues until they reach a solution, earning bruises and cuts and other injuries along the way, not all of them physical. Others solve them with panache, flair, and a flash of “genius” without a scratch to show for their efforts.

In this volume of nonfiction I present excerpts from my own two fictional private detectives who take the “intellectual” approach to solving crimes: Chess Hanrahan, who specializes in solving “moral paradoxes,” and Cyrus Skeen, a denizen of the third decade of the last century. Both are college graduates and veterans of the New York City Police Department. Hanrahan went to Fordham University, quit the force after a tongue-lashing by a district attorney, and became a private detective. Skeen is a Yale graduate who spent a short time on the force as a plainclothesman before following his avocation of writing short stories, and moved to San Francisco where he gleaned most of his story ideas from his private investigations.

Readers of the print and Kindle editions of their stories (and also patrons of the audio book editions) will be familiar with their “inner narrations” or spells of introspection as they sort through a whirlpool of facts, appearances, and chimeras. Hanrahan operates on a motto he culled from a philosophy student’s test paper: Nothing that is observable in reality is exempt from rational scrutiny. Skeen has no motto, and later in his series is moving away from short story writing to publishable essays that plumb the motivations of the criminal mind.

Hanrahan’s motto could just as well have read: Everything that is observable in reality is subject to rational scrutiny. However, the negative form of the question or proposition better emphasized a universal rule of investigation for the paradox-busting sleuth than did the positive form. Hanrahan, introduced in With Distinction as the chief of police of a university town, is still licking his wounds after being called on the carpet by a district attorney and the press over his killing a criminal who was about to do him harm. In the course of investigating the murder of a philosophy professor at the school, he befriends a graduate student who instructs him in the importance of philosophy. The lesson enables Hanrahan to revive his self-confidence enough that he returns to New York City and opens his own investigation agency.

Cyrus Skeen, on the other hand, is introduced “cold” and ready for action in China Basin, and already knows the importance of philosophy. Like Hanrahan, he takes ideas seriously, but is more quickly able to analyze and resolve a problem. The Hanrahan novels, written in the 1970’s and 1980’s, reflect the condition of society and politics of the period.

The Skeen series was inspired, in a manner of speaking, by an invitation from Western Illinois Press (shortly after the publication of First Prize in 1988) to submit an article for an anthology of articles on detective fiction. I wrote and submitted the essay, which debunked the common academic premise that Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon was a cryptic critique of capitalism, because Hammett’s left-wing stance was well-known. (The Maltese Falcon was serialized in Black Mask magazine in 1928-1929, before it was published as a book by Knopf.) My article was rejected. Western Illinois Press subsequently published The Cunning Craft: Original Essays on Detective Fiction and Contemporary Literary Theory, by Robert G. Walker and edited by June F. Frazer, in 1990.

Not wanting my research on Sam Spade’s period to go to waste, I decided to write an “answer” to The Maltese Falcon, which, while it is a tightly plotted novel and compelling in its story-telling, was too dreary in spirit – almost claustrophobic – and in contrast to the careless, happy-go-lucky temper of the times. Thus, China Basin was born in 1990, set in the same week of December 1928 in which Spade investigated the murder of his detective agency partner, Miles Archer.

Without having to read The Cunning Craft (few copies of the book are available anywhere, except in a handful of libraries, and those for sale go for outrageous prices, one for over $200, pretty steep for a 203-page book), one glance at its table of its contents, fourteen entries in all, telegraphs its “post-modernist,” “critical theory,” and “deconstructionist” character. I would like to read The Cunning Craft, should I even be able to obtain a copy of it, but I’m afraid that would be revisiting the torturous times I have read the murky screeds of the minions of the Marxist Frankfurt School.

For example,  I crawled through Ray Carney’s American Vision: The Films of Frank Capra (Wesleyan University Press, 1986) when it first appeared, marveling at how a simple movie could be dissected to distraction, Carney having the hubris to get inside Capra’s head to tell you what the director was actually “doing” in the way of “textual readings.” A blurb on the back cover of the reissue of the book in 1996 is almost hysterically funny:

“Ray Carney places the work of Frank Capra in the great tradition of American transcendentalism.…Capra emerges as something far more radical than the social realist he is often taken to be – a visionary determined to unleash ‘mysterious, distinctive, personal energies that defy social understanding and control.'”

Don’t believe me about The Cunning Craft? Because Amazon Books doesn’t have a convenient “look inside” option for its listing of The Cunning Craft, I searched for and found the table of contents on the WorldCat site. See for yourself.

  • Locked rooms: detective fiction, narrative theory, and self-reflexivity / S.E. Sweeney –
  • “His appearance is against him”: the emergence of the detective / Robin Woods –
  • The detection formula and the act of reading / George N. Dove –
  • Poe’s philosophy of aesthetics and ratiocination: compositions of death in “The murders in the Rue Morgue” / Catherine J. Creswell –
  • Deconstructing Moriarty: false Armageddon at the Reichenbach / Thomas J. Farrell –
  • Controlling discourse in detective fiction, or caring very much who killed Roger Ackroyd / Carl R. Lovitt –
  • Ethical romance and the detecting reader : the example of Chesterton’s The club of queer trades / William J. Scheick  –
  • Strong poison: love and the novelistic in Dorothy Sayers / Gayle F. Wald –
  • Jameson, genre, and gumshoes : The Maltese falcon as inverted romance / Jasmine Yong Hall –
  • Agatha Christie: modern and modernist / Nicholas Birns and Margaret Boe Birns –
  • A heap of broken images : hardboiled detective fiction and the discourse(s) of modernity / Scott R. Christianson –
  • From interpretation to “intrepidation” : Joyce’s “The sisters” as a precursor of the postmodern mystery / Kevin J.H. Dettmar –
  • Lost in the hermeneutic funhouse: Patrick Modiano’s postmodern detective / Jeanne C. Ewert –
  • The feminist counter-tradition in crime: Cross, Grafton, Paretsky, and Wilson / Maureen T. Reddy.

My article, called the “Wizards of Disambiguation,” among other purposes, meant to shatter the Progressive party line in academia and in literary criticism that The Maltese Falcon was a kind of proletarian novel. I write that, while Hammett had Red sympathies, his hero, Sam Spade, was not some kind of signifying avatar of communist ideology, and that all the Frankfurt School-inspired “deconstructive” interpretations and “readings” of the novel were just so much hooey and dissimulating double talk. I include in this volume the text of “Wizards.” (The essay has also appeared in one of my collections of columns, Boarding Parties and Grappling Hooks, published in 2013, in whose introductory remarks I wrongly accuse the Western Michigan University Press of soliciting an article from me, when it was Western Illinois University Press.)

It would be fair to say that the authors of The Cunning Craft‘s essays and articles are all practitioners of the specialized patois of the deconstructionists, one invented by Jacques Derrida, and developed in different directions by “intellectuals” like  Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Noam Chomsky, and other descendents of Immanuel Kant and Karl Marx, in search of “pure  presences” in language, a lingua franca of a high priesthood of the academic literary clergy dedicated to dissecting literature, and whose end was to note or even create specious irrelevancies and perform epistemological lobotomies on the minds of their students and the reading pubic. They clearly do not observe everything that is observable in reality, and have no interest in having their arguments scrutinized or examined too closely, lest they be revealed as purveyors of a pseudoscience as groundless as phrenology.

In homage to a detective novelist whose work has endured for over half a century, I append his words about detectives who are both “intellectual” and “doers,” who are individuals who populate a culture in which independent thinking and justice too frequently are absent.

“In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.

The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor — by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things.

He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks — that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.

The story is the man’s adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in. If there were enough like him, the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in.”

                     ― Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder

 

Excerpted from the preface to Rational Scrutiny: Paradoxes and Contradictions in Detective Fiction by Edward Cline.