“It is no easy trick to keep your characters and your story operating on a level which is understandable to the semi-literate public and at the same time give them some intellectual and artistic overtones which that public does not seek or demand or, in effect, recognize, but which somehow subconsciously it accepts and likes.”
Raymond Chandler, from an April 16, 1951 letter to Bernice Baumgarten (his editor at Brandt and Brandt Literary Agency)
The other day I was reading a blog post by a friend, JJ at his blog The Invisible Event, on the topic of how various detective stories are quite similar each to the other: the post is called “When Inspiration Becomes Theft”. JJ makes a first cut at parsing the problems involved in two kinds of similarities found in works of detective fiction. Sometimes the stories are related to real-life crimes: he mentions Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express as referencing the 1932 Lindbergh kidnapping case. And sometimes the stories are related to each other: he mentions Christie’s And Then There Were None (1939) and its similarities to the 1934 film, The Ninth Guest, based on a 1930 book, The Invisible Host (by Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning).
As sometimes happens, JJ’s interesting discussion sent me off in a direction quite far removed from the original inspiration. This is because I’ve been doing a lot of speculation lately about a number of approaches to questions like why people read murder mysteries / detective fiction / crime fiction, what they are learning when they do it, and what is likely to happen in the future with this genre.
Here’s a word that’s been rattling around in my head for a while: intertextuality. It’s defined in various ways in various places (I suspect this is because its use was begun by semioticians in the 1960s, Kristeva and Barthes, and now it has different meanings in post-modern contexts). I have three shades of meaning for it as it applies to detective fiction, but first here’s a standard definition that will get you on the right track; thanks, as always, to Wikipedia.
Intertextuality is the shaping of a text’s meaning by another text. Intertextual figures include: allusion, quotation, calque, plagiarism, translation, pastiche and parody.
But as Wikipedia also notes, “As philosopher William Irwin wrote, the term “has come to have almost as many meanings as users, from those faithful to Kristeva’s original vision to those who simply use it as a stylish way of talking about allusion and influence.”
I’m going to use it in a particular way here to talk about detective fiction, and note that I’m making distinctions among three kinds of intertextuality.
- Real life shapes detective fiction; detective fiction shapes real life, and some detective fiction shapes other detective fiction.
As noted in The Invisible Event and elsewhere, some detective fiction is inspired by/steals from other detective fiction and/or real life crimes — and vice versa. Murder on the Orient Express contains an intertextual reference to the Lindbergh kidnapping. In another mode of this intertextual relationship, Elizabeth Linington’s Greenmask! is a story whereby an old J. Jefferson Farjeon novel inspires a “real-life criminal” (in a novel) to copy the methods of that book’s murderer in order to divert suspicion from himself and send the police chasing a non-existent serial killer. There are at least two cases on record where high-school students have been inspired by Stephen King’s Rage (as by Richard Bachman) to take their fellow students hostage at gunpoint. This intertextuality process can be like the formative process of cliches and tropes; if enough other texts refer to a crime, or a mystery, or a criminal, that concept becomes a cliche. Modern-day detective fiction is intertextual in its marketing; two intertextual references that I’ve seen on book covers recently are “This will delight P.D. James fans” and “This criminal is a modern-day Raffles!”
- Each book in a series of novels about the same detective shapes the other books in that series. The second variety of intertextuality in detective fiction is internal; the best example is my own observations on the Miss Silver novels of Patricia Wentworth, where the same descriptions of the same pieces of clothing, and the same supporting characters, appear again and again in novel after novel. I think it’s safe to say that this is associated with the way in which series characters are created and built. It may be that Sherlock Holmes started it all, with the Persian slipper of tobacco, the supportive Mrs. Hudson, and the ever-present hypodermic for cocaine. Certainly I am not alone in being able to draw a rough freehand map of Nero Wolfe’s office and properly place the red leather chair … and Kinsey Millhone is constantly accompanied by her all-purpose black dress and her Volkswagen Beetle.
- Every solution to a puzzle mystery shapes every other solution to every other puzzle mystery.
The final variety of intertextuality is most interesting to me because it appears to be a peculiar property of detective fiction. That is, at least in terms of detective fiction / puzzle stories / Golden Age mysteries and others that choose to follow in their footsteps, every mystery assumes in its solution that the reader is intertextually familiar with the solution to every other existing mystery, and the author makes an implicit pact with the reader that the solution to this particular volume will not repeat any “trick” or effect or subterfuge that has been demonstrated in any other story. Without getting into detail, the reader is quite safe from reading a brand-new mystery where the answer to “who killed a child-murdering kidnapper in the confines of a snowbound vehicle” is “everyone” — that’s because that’s already been done, and quite well too. More to the point, authors know it and readers know it, and each knows that the other knows it. And since the author knows that the readers know it, the author cannot produce a version of this old book where, say, a blackmailer is murdered aboard an airplane by everyone else aboard. “It’s been done!” the reader will cry, and quite rightly too. But the justification for this cry is Type 3 intertextuality.
If you think about it, this kind of self-referential intertextuality (Type 3) is peculiar to the literary tradition that started with Golden Age detective fiction, at least when you compare it to other large-scale genres. Romance stories, for instance, are quite the opposite; every story of young love exists in a kind of romantic bubble, where the young lovers — and with any luck, the reader — all exist outside real life. No other love stories are invoked. Westerns resolve into a handful of sub-types (settlers versus Indians, gunmen versus other gunmen, etc.) but there is very little intertextuality in the stories each to the other. And while the worlds of science fiction are many and all wildly different, it is an uncommon exercise for one writer to create within the universe of another, as if a Dune-ean sandworm were to attack the Los Angeles of Blade Runner. But in detective fiction, this Type 3 intertextuality of solutions is embedded at a very basic level, and in a way that no other genre of fiction either requires or displays.
Admittedly there is a kind of intertextuality that operates above the level of genre fiction. Romances don’t require you to admit the existence of any or all other romances, but if the author mentions Romeo and Juliet, it will not be misunderstood. Neither will it be misunderstood to mention the star-crossed lovers in a Western, a mystery or a science fiction novel; their intertextuality is at a scale that transcends genre. Similarly there is a kind of type 3 intertextuality that is below the level of usefulness and is generally ignored.
Yes, it is accepted intertextuality that one writer does not copy the solution of another writer’s mystery; but there are some areas of situational intertextuality that have become more like sub-genres than any kind of rule-breaking. If Chapter 2 of your mystery reveals that an elderly millionaire has invited eight of his quarrelling relatives to his snowbound country estate, changed his will, and given his staff notice, you will not be surprised when he’s murdered. But you should also not be offended by the fact that he’s been murdered with the same blunt instrument, or poison, or pistol as the last six such Golden Age mysteries you read where that situation happens. You might be surprised in Chapter 19 if the corpse has been stabbed with an icicle of frozen blood that promptly melts and confuses estimations of the time of death, but I daresay you will not be surprised to learn that that’s been done a couple of times before. If you set out to write — or deliberately set out to purchase and read — a Golden Age country house mystery, the list of reasonable methods, characters, motivations, and locations available is quite small. Mystery writers cannot help repeating them; in order to avoid suggestions of that intertextuality that is plagiarism, they generally try and make them as different each from the other as possible. Patricia Wentworth’s Wicked Uncle (1947) and Ngaio Marsh’s A Man Lay Dead (1934) are practically the same book in many, many ways, but I don’t think they support an allegation that Wentworth was in any sense trying to “copy” Marsh. They’re just both country house mysteries about the same kinds of people committing the same kind of crime in the same kind of location.
And why have I been so fascinated by all three types of intertextuality? Well, after my lengthy burbling, you may have forgotten the quotation from Raymond Chandler with which I started this post. For detective fiction, what are the “intellectual and artistic overtones which that public does not seek or demand or, in effect, recognize, but which somehow subconsciously it accepts and likes”? Based on demand, I’m going to suggest that intertextuality — at least types 2 and 3 — meets that definition. I’ll go as far to suggest that it is an important part of the reason why detective fiction continues to be published. Most readers haven’t the faintest idea of what intertextuality is, and yet subconsciously they accept it and like it.
I’ve been really digging into an old reference book, Julian Symons’ Bloody Murder, and finding that I continue to disagree with much of what he had to say about detective fiction. (I may well publish a long article in the near future called something like “Where Symons Got It Wrong” ;-).) I’ve always felt there was something vaguely bogus about his contention — and if I do him wrong in summarizing it, I’m sure I’ll hear about it — that we read detective fiction because we enjoy seeing a state of peace and order being broken and then restored by authority. Honestly, I’ve been reading mysteries for 50 years and I’ve NEVER felt like that.
The two reasons that I actually DO think that people read mysteries took a long time for me to figure out; I’m not sure if they comprise a complete list, just that they seem to be characteristics that to me explain a lot of why people read mysteries. One is because they like the experience of intertextuality (all three types) and the other is because they like … a concept I’ll call indoctrination. I look forward to discussing that one at length in the near future, and I’ll merely leave the name as a hint of things to come.