Are Detective Stories Literary?

by Gayla Nelson

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        In order to answer this question, I believe there is first a criteria that must be met. I do not believe that just anything that is published under this genre is worthy of serious study.  There is no question that Sophocles' Oedipus Rex and Shakespeare's Hamlet are considered literary works.  Students in literature classes have studied them for centuries and they are detective stories.  While they may not have been labeled "detective literature" in those courses, they do meet the criteria for the genre.

        The closer we get to modern times, the harder it is to ascertain the worthiness of this genre, simply due to the question of - will these works stand the test of time?  While that is not the only methodology of selection, it is obvious that there are those literary critics who strictly uphold the "canon" and are not always open to innovative modes of teaching literature.  The selection process becomes much more the burden to the professor building the course. An element of the development of the curriculum that seems critical is the sequence in which the works are presented to the student.

        As the genre developed, studying the sequence provides a clear picture of the changing attitudes and the abilities, particularly in science and technology, as civilization marched forward.  We see the change in attitudes, such as those towards the police from contempt and superiority, as seen through Agatha Christie's famous detective, Hercule Poirot in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, to cooperation with Graham in the Thomas Harris novel, Red Dragon.  The growing acceptance and appreciation of the detective from the police perspective is remarkable.  We also see how society either accepted or rejected early discoveries such as fingerprinting and psychological profiling in Caleb Carr's The Alienist, or the reliability and accuracy of eye-witnesses in Edgar Allan Poe's The Murders in the Rue Morgue.  This reflects what is going on in society and is not one of the principal roles of great literature to serve as a mirror of the times?

        While earlier detective novels such as Wilkie Collins' Moonstone and Josephine Tey's Daughter of Time relied almost entirely on physical evidence, interrogation of witnesses, very little on forensic science, and certainly none on psychological aspects, later books such as Red Dragon and The Alienist dealt with police corruption, media interference, cooperation amongst agencies, and other modern day issues that today's more sophisticated reader demands, or at least expects. rejection of anything scientific may have at one time been in vogue in the literary community, but today's reader is living in an advanced scientific and technological world with television shows sharing the most sophisticated forensic science ever known to man right in our own living rooms and readers demand explanations that in other genres may be left to the reader's imagination.  Today's detective literature cannot ignore or discount the impact that DNA analysis now has on criminal investigations.  It must be implemented as part of the plot or it simply won't work.

        While detective literature may not have held a place in the literary world in the past, it is important that the literary world not lose itself in "art for art's sake" and ignore the impact that this form of literature has on today's society.  That impact is seen on a daily basis on television shows, movies, and the popularity of the study of crime.  It is a sign of the times.  The recent terrorist attacks have made the study of criminal activity a priority in the minds of most Americans. Studying detectives in literature allows us an insight into the mind of the investigator: a mind that is critical to our very survival in today's world.  We can only imagine the books that will be written in the future as a reflection of today.

         These are the early days of serious study of detectives in literature, but I believe that this genre will continue to grow, and in time, gain acceptance and appreciation from the literary world. As in all things new, there is resistance.  So, while some may discount it today, future generations will study the detectives of each time period, just as we study the ancients, the Greeks, Shakespeare, and the great writers of American literature.  It is not only worthy of serious study, but important to our historical perspective.

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