Detective Novels

Umberto Eco discussing the formation of his tastes in a Paris Review interview said:

I began to wonder if I had a bizarre sort of split personality. On the one hand, I was interested in the most advanced functions of language in experimental literature and art. On the other hand, I relished television, comic books, and detective stories. Naturally I asked myself, Is it possible that my interests are really so distinct?

One element of which, the detective story, brings immediately to mind the comments of Borges on the same topic:

In this chaotic era of ours, one thing is has humbly maintained the classic virtues: the detective story. For a detective story cannot be understood without a beginning, middle, and end… I would say in defense of the detective novel that it needs no defense; though now read with a certain disdain, it is safeguarding order in an era of disorder.

While considering this connection, one’s mind cannot help but recall Alain Robbe-Grillet’s observations on Borges and the detective novel in his own Paris Review interview:

Do you know Borges’s preface to Adolfo Bioy Casares’s The Invention of Moral? In it, Borges maintains that all the great novels of the twentieth century are detective novels, and he mentions Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, Faulkner’s Sanctuary, Kafka’s The Castle, and many others. Then he explains why. It seems that the structure of police investigation is very close to the technique of modern novels, in particular the non-resolved investigation, as in The Castle. The difference is that in the traditional detective novel there must be a solution, whereas in ours there is just the principle of investigation. Detective novels are consumer products, sold by millions, and are made in the following way: there are clues to an event, say a murder, and someone comes along and puts the the pieces together in order that truth may be revealed. Then it all makes sense.

This is only partly accurate, as Borges spends more time lauding adventure stories than he does detective novels in that prologue, both in the service of praising the value of conventional plot in fiction. However, he does say:

Detective stories — another popular genre in this century that cannot invent plots — tell of mysterious events that are later explained and justified by reasonable facts.

Which, to get to the point, is also a description of all learning, progress and science.

This entry is part of my journal, published December 10, 2012, in New York City.