Form and Ideology in Crime Fiction (1980) by Stephen Knight

Not the world’s most gripping title, I admit, but I remember finding Knight’s Crime Fiction since 1800: Detection, Death, Diversity (2010) very interesting, so decided to give this one a whirl. Can’t be too bad, despite the title, if it is talking about Poe, Doyle and Christie. Right? Right?

Well…. yes and no, with a greater emphasis on the yes. In a nutshell this book has some interesting ideas but it is definitely a slog to read through. In another nutshell the book looks at some key texts and authors, with a view to considering how their form impacts the ideologies they espouse; what world view are they trying to validate for readers?

The first chapter explores The Newgate Calendar, The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794) and Les Memoires de Vidocq. The first of these, sees quite a medieval mind set towards crime, with community policing being the established mode of crime fighting. Knight however, carefully highlights the instances where the writers of the Calendar, have had to gloss over elements of the tales they tell, in order to overlook some of the glaring contradictions between the worldview given and the actual reality of the world the individuals are living in. This was a useful chapter in emphasising how the familiar sight of the alienated individual detective was not something crime/mystery writing adopted readily, with Godwin’s novel showing a strong distrust of an individual being the sole fighter of a crime. In fact the original ending to the novel sees the story’s amateur sleuth un-vindicated and driven mad.

Knight’s second chapter deals with Edgar Allan Poe’s Augustus C. Dupin and looks at ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ ‘The Mystery of Marie Roget’ and ‘The Purloined Letter.’ Despite the somewhat dense writing I did enjoy Knight’s exploration of the imaginative vs. rational in this series of stories, as well as the ‘illusion of logic’ that they present. In particular Poe’s faith in abstract rationalist armchair sleuthing to solve real flesh and blood crimes seems to have taken a significant dent during the process of writing the second of these stories. It was based on a real life case, yet the direction Poe’s solution went in, shows him to be wildly off course from the truth, as he in fact had to alter his ending to reflect how that case progressed. He definitely seems to hedge his bets and reduce the emphasis placed on his story being based on real case in a first place. On a side note this chapter also seems ideal if you want to encounter disturbing Freudian readings.

Next up of course is Sherlock Holmes, with Knight focusing on The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. In these stories the individual enquirer is certainly upheld as the discoverer of the truth, the person who can reveal the chain of events which have led up to a crime. The illusion of science and logic is once more present, with Knight commenting that these stories supported, ‘the captivated readers[‘] faith in modern systems of scientific and rational enquiry to order an uncertain and troubling world.’ One interesting nugget I came across in this chapter was how according to Adrian Conan Doyle there was a version of A Study in Scarlet (1887) that did not feature Sherlock Holmes. Equally in order to be induced to write, the short stories comprised in The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1905), Doyle was given a £100 for every 1000 words. Not bad! A reading I did find intriguing was with ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip,’ which Knight suggested was an allegory for Doyle’s increasingly negative relationship with his Holmes stories, work that he pursued more and more just for the money.

Following on from this Knight looks at Agatha Christie, in particular Poirot and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926). Knight is keen to stress how Christie eschews providing comfort for her readers ‘in an active, heroic, male stereotype,’ which I agree with when it comes to Poirot, though I think it a little unfair to say he is a ‘partly despised heroes.’ He isn’t referring to Christie’s attitudes here but the readers, (or so it seems to me), saying that Poirot ‘is never given the adulation that the thrusting authoritarian detectives of crime fiction are accorded by their less self-conscious, less self-made readers.’ Equally whilst some characters in the book do not appreciate Poirot’s nationality or manners, there are many more which see Poirot, in a kind of heroic light, as the man who can solve their various dilemmas and problems. One sentence that did grab my attention was this one: ‘Her stories realised the attitudes and resolved the anxieties of many people, especially women, whom earlier crime stories did not interest or satisfy.’ Not sure what evidence Knight is basing this on, but I wonder if it is true? So if anyone has any additional information on crime fiction and its readership please do share.

The final two chapters cover Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, with a close reading of Farewell my Lovely (1940) and Ed McBain’s first four 87th Precinct novels. Regular readers of the blog won’t be surprised that these chapters held very little interest for me, though they did remind me why I have never tried a Chandler or McBain novel.

So yes whilst there were some interesting ideas in this book, not sure it was really worth the read. Guess I have taken the metaphorical bullet for everyone – your welcome!

Rating: 2.5/5

2 comments

  1. If you don’t much care for Knight’s book, which I haven’t read yet, you probably won’t like Ernest

    Mandel’s Delightful Murder: Social History of the Crime Story. Like Knight’s approach, it’s ‘ideological

    criticism’ but from a Marxist point of view – which is probably not your thing at all.

    Like

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