To what extent are writers also detectives in the novels you have studied?
The crime and the detective novel and their conventions have changed considerably over the last century. As societies have changed, these genres have adapted and branched out to meet the needs of writers attempting to express new concerns. Edgar Allen Poe’s detective novel, The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841) follows conventions we would now consider to be traditional in mystery writing.
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Bearing a close resemblance to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, we find a detective who relies on reasoning and deduction to solve a mystery that to all intensive purposes appears unsolvable; a locked room mystery such as Doyle’s The Speckled Band (1892). In America, between the world wars, emerged the ‘hard-boiled’ private eye novel, featuring tough private investigators, often themselves outcasts from society. Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett are examples of authors from this school of detective fiction.
After the Second World War there was increasingly a feeling that literary fiction was an inadequate means of accurately describing the horrors of the modern world. ‘New journalism’ emerged, a term coined by Tom Wolfe to describe non-fiction novels by authors such as Truman Capote. His true crime novel, In Cold Blood (1965) is one of the texts that will be examined in this essay. Later in the century literature became more preoccupied with issues of alienation as a result of city living and capitalist expansion. Postmodern concerns were expressed in detective metafiction, such a Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy (1987).
This novel will also be examined. Lastly, this essay will look at James Ellroy’s My Dark Places (1996). Ellroy himself has described this as an “investigative autobiography”, but it also contains elements of the police procedural novel, which came into being in 1940’s America. This sub-genre deals with the more detailed elements of police detection, in comparison to that of the private eye. The extent to which writers are also detectives in these three texts varies greatly. The fact that they are all very different in terms of the sub-genres of detective or crime fiction makes direct comparison difficult.
Therefore this essay concentrates on each in turn, drawing together the main arguments in the conclusion. I have tried to give equal attention to each text, but the fact that each story in Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy can stand alone as an individual piece of writing has made this difficult. In New York Trilogy, the distinction between writer and detective is particularly indistinct. This is complicated by the fact that Auster continually subverts the conventions of the detective genre that are expected by the reader.
For instance, in a detective novel there is generally an expectation on the reader’s part that a crime has been committed, and that the mystery surrounding this crime will be solved thereby restoring the social order. In the first story of the novel, City of Glass, no crime takes place. The central character, I will for now call Quinn (this term as I will later explain is also problematic), accepts a surveillance job, which only becomes a mystery when his employers, Virginia and the young Peter Stillman disappear.
Rather than providing a solution to this mystery the novel instead throws up more questions and leaves the reader increasingly confused. It is with this central character, Quinn, that the distinction between writer and detective first becomes unclear. Quinn is an author of detective fiction. He has created the character Max Work, a private eye, under the pen name of William Wilson. At this stage Quinn has already to some extent become a detective. For Quinn the roles of, “the writer and detective are interchangeable”1.
Both the writer and the detective must look out in to the world and search for thoughts or clues that will enable them to make sense of events. They must both be observant and aware of details. Quinn appears to exist only through the existence of Max Work, “If he lived now in the world at all, it was only at one remove, through the imaginary person of Max Work. “2. He even finds himself imagining what Max Work would have said to the stranger on the phone after receiving the first call. Perhaps this is why the next time he answers the phone to the stranger he finds himself taking on the identity of the unknown detective, Paul Auster.
Surely this is not an action one would expect from the uncomfortable writer Quinn, but one that could be easily identified with the confident private eye Max Work. From this moment on, Quinn the writer has also taken on the physical duties of the detective. Adding to the complication, by taking on the identity of an unknown and apparently non-existent detective named Paul Auster, Quinn also takes on the identity of an existing writer Paul Auster, who agrees to cash the checks paid to Quinn by the Stillmans. At this point Quinn (as his name suggests3) has five identities.
Three of these are writers and two are detectives. As a detective, Quinn finds that the thought processes in which he must engage are not dissimilar to those of a writer. As “Dupin says in Poe… ‘An identification of the reasoner’s intellect with that of his opponent'”4is necessary. In this case Stillman senior is the opponent. This is similar to the process in which Quinn must put himself in the fictional Max Work’s place in order to determine what course of action he might take in order to make him appear realistic to the reader.
In the second story of the trilogy, Ghosts, the reader is introduced to Blue, a professional rather than sham detective. A man named White hires him to watch a man called Black, and to make weekly reports on his movements. In contrast to the first story in which the writer becomes detective, in this we see the detective become writer. Faced with very little understanding of the case he has embarked upon, Blue finds himself making up stories in order to bring some meaning to the position he is in, “Murder plots, for instance, and kidnapping schemes for giant ransoms.
As the days go on he realise there is no end to the stories he can tell. “5. Blue is hardly restricted in the number of theories he can advance because he possesses only a small number of facts they have to meet. The detective becomes a writer in his attempt to reconstruct a possible crime. This can be seen in any number of detective or crime novels, including In Cold Blood and My Dark Places. According to Peter Huhn in his article ‘The Detective as Reader: Narrativity and Reading Concepts in Detective Fiction’, … he text of the novel can be said to have two authors (at least): the criminal (who wrote the original mystery story [by committing the crime]) and the detective (who writes the reconstruction of the first story).
As a detective, Blue has never previously had difficulty with writing reports. It is only when he sits down to write his first report on Black that he encounters a writers struggle to find a way of adequately expressing events. Before, action has always held “forth over interpretation”7 in his reports. As he feels pulled towards interpreting events he becomes more a writer than detective.
In one report he even includes a completely fictitious observation, that he believes Black is ill and may die. The incident in the Algonquin Hotel, in which Blue approaches Black under the guise of a life insurance salesman named Snow, the reader is made aware that perhaps Black is also a private detective (unless he is lying). If we take this to be the case then it could be considered that Black the private detective is also a writer, in that his actions determine those of Blue. Blue must follow him wherever he goes, is trapped by Black’s routine and so Black is, in effect, writing Blue’s life.
Conversely then, the same must be true for Blue. If Black really is a private detective, as Blue is, then Black must follow Blue, becoming trapped in his routine. Blue is therefore the writer of Black’s life. In the third story, The Locked Room, the central character, an un-named author is a writer who turns detective in an attempt to locate his childhood friend Fanshawe. Until Fanshawe contacts the narrator in a letter, he has been presumed dead. Initially, the process of detection begins under a pretext of writing a biography of Fanshawe’s life. As a writer of a biography, one is expected to stick to facts, as is a detective.
However, as this biography would be written under the illusion that Fanshawe is dead it would actually in effect be a work of invention rather than accurate reconstruction. The narrator tells us, “The book was a work of fiction. Even though it was based on facts, it could tell nothing but lies. “8. Thus, in this story, the central character even through the process of detection remains, in essence, a writer. The extent to which writer is also detective in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood must be looked at in a very different way due to the type of crime novel it is.
Tom Wolfe has as I have mentioned, described it as ‘New journalism’. Capote himself, however, distances his novel from this school of writing. He views his work as “creative journalism” as opposed to for instance, a “documentary novel”9. The distinction for Capote is that to be a good creative journalist a writer must have experience in writing fiction so that he has the necessary knowledge of fictional writing techniques. Writers trained in journalism for example would not possess the skills needed to write a creative journalistic piece, but are more suited to writing documentary novels.
Capote’s distinction is relevant to the question because it gives us an insight into the extent in which In Cold Blood was created as a compelling true crime novel, largely based on fact (by a writer), in comparison to the extent in which a crime and it’s effects was accurately reconstructed and completely based on fact (as a detective would attempt to do). In order to determine the real extent to which Capote as author of this novel was also a detective a number of issues need to be addressed. To begin with the opinion that in researching and writing In Cold Blood Capote was in fact acting as a detective will be examined.
The research Capote undertook in writing this non-fiction novel was indeed extremely thorough. He arrived in Holcomb in November 1959, the same month of the murders and a month before Dick Hickock and Perry Smith were arrested. He was therefore present during the time in which the initial police investigation was taking place. He conducted hundreds of interviews with residents of Holcomb, and other individuals who had come into contact with the two murderers. Some of these interviews, as he told George Plimpton in an interview for the New York Times in 1966, went on for three years.
Capote also undertook “months of comparative research on murder, murderers, the criminal mentality,” as well as interviewing, “quite a number of murderers” in order to gain a perspective on Smith and Perry10. In his interviewing of Smith and Perry after their arrest, he acted to a great extent as a detective is expected to. As the men were kept apart following their arrest, Capote was able to cross-reference their interview answers in order to determine fact from fiction, “I would keep crossing their stories, and what correlated, what checked out identically, was the truth”11.
In Cold Blood has been widely accepted as an extremely accurate portrayal of the Clutter murders and the following investigation. However, the opinion that In Cold Blood was as much a work of fiction as of fact needs to be considered. Within this novel there are several instances in which Capote could be said to have used artistic licence. The clearest example of this is the last scene of the novel in which Detective Alvin Dewey meets murdered Nancy Clutter’s childhood friend at the graveyard in Holcomb, four years after the family’s deaths, ‘And nice to have seen you, Sue.
Good luck,’ he called to her as she disappeared down the path, a pretty girl in a hurry, her smooth hair swinging, shining – just such a young woman as Nancy might have been. 12 We know this to be an utterly fictitious scene because, according to Dewey’s biographer Gerald Clarke, Dewey never met Susan Kidwell until the executions of Smith and Hickock in 196513. According to Capote, however, the meeting at the graveyard took place the previous May, in 1964. In the novel, the reader also cannot escape a feeling that Capote is somewhat biased towards Perry Smith.
As a writer, personal opinions and feelings are perfectly acceptable inclusions in a reconstruction, but as a detective they are not. Of course this bias may arise directly from Capote’s observations of the two men, and of factual, psychological evidence. In which case this would be a fair assessment. However, it has been suggested by some that this bias arises from Capote’s feelings for Perry Smith and the relationship they developed whilst Capote was conducting his research. Ned Rorem, referring to a dinner conversation with Truman Capote in 1963, said of Capote “he seemed clearly in love with him [Perry].
It must be remembered however that this is just speculation. In Cold Blood has also been seen as a polemic against capital punishment and the American justice system. By indicating in the novel that Perry Smith was in a “psychological cul-de-sac”15 at the time he committed the murders he insinuates that the death penalty was an unjust sentence. With regard to Capote’s attack on the justice system, his criticism can clearly be seen in his account of the jury selection for the trial, The airport employee, a middle-aged man named N. L. Dunnan, said, when asked his opinion of capital punishment, ‘Ordinarily I’m against it.
But in this case no’ – a declaration which, to some who heard it, seemed clearly indicative of prejudice. Dunnan was nevertheless selected as a juror. 16 If this is indeed a polemic, it must be the case that opinions and facts in opposition to Capote’s argument would have been left out. This would make him more writer than detective. He himself confessed that, I make my own comment by what I choose to tell and how I choose to tell it. It is true that an author is more in control of fictional characters because he do [sic] anything he wants with them as long as they stay credible.
But in the nonfiction novel one can also manipulate. 17 Ellroy’s My Dark Places is also a true crime novel containing, as I have mentioned, elements of autobiography and of the police procedural. Unlike In Cold Blood, in which the reader is aware of the culprits’ identities from the beginning, it is more of a ‘whodunit’ in that the reader does not know who the murderer is. Through the process of detection, and with the help of a homicide detective named Bill Stoner, Ellroy retraces the initial investigation into his mother’s murder in the hope of finally solving it.
As in New York Trilogy, however, the reader is denied the solution and restoration of order generally expected from (and often desired in) a detective novel. The novel is written in four parts, and the extent to which Ellroy is both writer and detective varies with each one. The first part, ‘The Redhead’ is Ellroy’s reconstruction of the original investigation. Although true crime, this section reads as a police procedural novel, involving meticulous detail of each piece of evidence and information collected at the time.
Ellroy has had to take on the role of detective in this section in order to reconstruct events as they happened at the time, 1958, thirty-five years before his own investigation. Unlike a fictional police procedural, in which the reader expects at least a portion of the evidence to be significant in solving the case, in the end it proves to be useless. It is Ellroy’s inclusion of this irrelevant information that increases the extent to which he is also detective. Rather than using it as a plot device, he has included it for the purposes of accuracy.
This section is also largely devoid of emotion, regardless of the significance of the case to Ellroy. The title, ‘The Redhead’ is an example of this emotional absence; it provides a superficial physical description of Ellroy’s mother with no real clue as to her identity. Ellroy himself, as narrator, is absent. He appears only as a character in the drama, the murdered woman’s son. Unlike the last section in the novel, Ellroy does not appear as a detective. The second part of the text, ‘The Kid in the Picture’, is autobiographical.
It traces Ellroy’s personal involvement in crime, such as going on “righteous burglary”18 runs, and his development as a writer of crime fiction. In this section Ellroy is clearly writer rather than detective. This is made even more evident as he mentions novels written by him during this period, such as L. A. Confidential – which he describes as a novel “all about me and L. A. crime”19. The third part of the novel, ‘Stoner’, introduces the reader to the detective Bill Stoner, the man who will eventually aid Ellroy in the search for his mother’s killer.
This section is a biography of Stoner’s life and cases as a homicide and later as an unsolved crime detective. Ellroy himself is again absent from this section. As a writer he would had to have investigated the events in Stoner’s life that are mentioned here. Thus, in writing this section Ellroy has had to, in effect, engage in detection. The other way in which Ellroy could be seen to also be a detective in this part is the language he employs. Much of the information we are given reads as would a police report.
As Blue in New York Trilogy is accustomed to writing reports in which “action holds forth over interpretation”20, we see Ellroy writing in the same manner. This can be seen in the following extract, The Soto guys let her in. Karen verbally attacked John’s common-law wife and ran out of the apartment. The wife chased her. They traded insults on the sidewalk until 2:00 in the morning. John Soto ran down. He made his wife go upstairs. The whole of this section is written in the same manner. In contrast to In Cold Blood there is no emotion or interpretation, only facts.
For this reason, as Ellroy’s novel also deals with true crime, it could be said that Ellroy is a detective to a greater extent than Capote because he sticks more rigidly to the facts. The fact that the reader finishes this novel with a sense of dissatisfaction (as the case is not solved) could also add credence to this idea. This is because as a self-consciously literary exercise, rather than accurate detection, In Cold Blood manages to create a sense of suspense even though the reader knows who has been killed and who committed the crime.
Ellroy instead recounts facts as they were rather than attempting to satisfy readers’ expectations. Conversely, if we are talking about conventional detective literature, we could say that Ellroy is less of a detective (in the traditional manner) for the very reason that he fails to solve the crime, thereby failing to restore social order. The final section, ‘Geneva Hilliker’, is that in which Ellroy is most evidently a detective as well as writer. This section of the novel details Ellroy’s own investigation. It follows his collation of evidence, false leads followed and the final (if unsatisfying) resolution to Ellroy’s story.
Even if the reader does not find out who killed Geneva Hilliker, they, as Ellroy does, find out about her and her life. For Ellroy this provides some closure, as we would expect from a crime novel. It is not conventional to the genre but does resolve some of the questions Ellroy hoped to answer when he embarked on the investigation, thus consolidating his position as detective (however temporarily). In each of these novels, writers have to a considerable extent also been detectives. It is difficult to determine whether this is truer in any of the texts than in the others due to the different ways in which this has been the case.
In My Dark Places and In Cold Blood, the authors of the novels have also carried out acts of detection in the research carried out for those novels. In New York Trilogy we see characters that happen to be either writers or detectives exchanging these roles. It may be said that any author is to some extent a detective, whether they are researching a factual book, or writing a fictional novel in order to discover something about the world in which they live. As Quinn believes, “the writer and detective are interchangeable”21.