Metamorphoses of Detective Fiction from Poe to the Present
Detective Fiction is one of the most popular types of genre fiction; at the same time, since its invention in the mid-19th century by Edgar Allan Poe, it has proven itself capable of combining entertainment with sharp-edged social commentary and critique as well as profound philosophical insights about language and representation. Created by Poe and perfected by Conan Doyle, detective fiction popularizes the modern scientific outlook (forensic science and the hypothetical–deductive method). The “clue puzzle” structure engages the reader’s own powers of detection and ratiocination, inviting the reader to emulate the detective and perform the same activities of mental reasoning. At the same time, detective fiction is also about the relationship between state authority and justice. In classic detective fiction, crime is a transgression of the norms of an essentially just system; the hard-boiled variety of detective fiction was born in the 1920s in the U.S. as disillusionment set in about the equation between justice and the state. The tough, disillusioned U.S. hardboiled detective who takes the law into his own hands and who uncovers crimes within the (corrupt) state (rather than outside the domain of law and order) in turn has inspired the creation of minority detectives—gumshoes of color. Chester Himes’ Cotton Comes to Harlem, for example, traces black-on-black crime in Harlem to structural racism. Finally, postmodern anti-detective fiction, invented by Jorge Luis Borges and perfected by Paul Auster, parodies the rationalist conventions of classic detective fiction, turning the machinery of retrospective clue puzzling inside-out. This course will survey the above-mentioned landmarks of the genre’s development from Poe to the present, as well as more recent Chicana (Corpi) and Cuban (Padura Fuentes) incarnations that use the detective genre to explore U.S. minority history and to memorialize an American cult figure abroad (Hemingway in Cuba). The course overall goal is to demonstrate how far one single genre defined by four ingredients (a mystery, a detective, an investigation, plus the “puzzle element”) can be stretched and how much ground it can cover—while never ceasing to provide fun entertainment!
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet (Dover Thrift Edition);
Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep (Random House/Vintage 1992);
Chester Himes, Cotton Comes to Harlem (Random House/Vintage 1988);
Lucha Corpi, Cactus Blood (Arte Público Press 2009);
Paul Auster, City of Glass (Penguin 1987);
Roberto Bolaño, Distant Star (New Directions 1996)