commissaire inspector dottore

academic and personal thoughts on detective-inspector novels

essays may contain spoilers


I'm fascinated with crime fiction. I'm not alone. Many people like me – middle-aged, middle-class, addicted readers, with money for books (or alternatively a library card) and with some leisure time (discretionary or enforced) – love to read crime fiction. American writer Heywood Broun said that "in the march up to the heights of fame, there comes a spot close to the summit in which a man reads nothing but detective stories." I'd amend the statment: in the march toward retirement and the grave, there comes a spot where you spend most of the rest of your days reading detective stories.

For me, it may have come at the age of six. I have written elsewhere [Raritan 16.3 (Winter 1997)] about the indelible appeal of the Hardy Boys (and I'm not alone in that, either). I collected a whole cobbled-together set of Hardy Boys, half old beige hardcovers with lurid dust-jackets, half blue-bound postwar revisions. They're on my office shelf as I write.

Across the office is another collection of detective novels, Georges Simenon's numbered set of postwar Maigrets: numbered 1-53, in uniform mass-market paperbacks from Presses de la Cité. Though here too I have cobbled the set together: most have black and white spines and blurry cover photos, printed c1990, but many are from other decades, their covers – garish or understated as the era demanded – offering a miniature history of French book design.

And I'm not alone in loving Maigret. Yet many of my literate friends, in and out of academia, treat detective fiction as a mindless pastime. It can be a mindless pastime, at times, but so are other kinds of intellectual pursuits, even of the highest brow. Yet our society – and by this I mean practically the whole literate globe – places great emphasis on detective fiction, and devotes enormous money and time to its consumption. "Escapism" is hardly the reason why. I think instead that crime fiction is a way of understanding the world, a complicated, contingent, multifarious set of lenses that people use to try to understand people, systems, and emotions. I want to devote some serious time here to describing and understanding those understandings.

Of course, I don't really need to defend serious academic interest in detective fiction. A huge amount of scholarly activity is devoted to crime fiction. I hope to document some of it here, while contributing to it. What may need explanation is the choice of a "native digital," popular, immediately public format. I have been writing for the Web for a long time, mostly in formats that mimic print, like my Guide to Baseball Fiction. cid is in some ways no exception: it's all text, and it emulates print essay collections and print bibliographies. Yet it will not "read like a book," having no real direction. In some ways it will resemble 1990s-style web projects that were conceived as "hypertext" works, centerless and recursive. There's no particular place here to start or finish. There's only that link at the top left that takes you back to start somewhere else, or a trail of links from or to one page or another.

cid is like a blog in that new material will continually appear. Not just new essays or entries, but rethinkings of old ones: the dates at the bottom of the page will show when an item was first put up, and when I've most recently changed it. Yet here too it's a little different, in that I provide no backwards blog-style chronology of postings. The site is designed to look static while constantly changing. It is not what it appears – just like the mystery stories it studies.

I am 57 years old as I begin this website, a long-since-tenured full professor with a long way to go till retirement. I have published three books, 33 articles, and several digital works. I've done about everything an academic typically does, and like Heywood Broun all I want to do now is read detective stories. I could try to write about them in more "conventional" ways, for peer-reviewed publications. But I am impatient, and increasingly I don't fit in well with current practices of peer review – despite my long engagement with them as author, editor, and reviewer. Besides, digital media are becoming the standard practice of my day. I might as well act conventionally for once.

Any claim an academic makes about not wanting to write another book should be suspected as covering an inability to write another book. I probably can't write another book at this point. I lack … perhaps not the individual Sitzfleisch, given that I'm sitting in a stuffy office for hours on end writing this website. But I lack the patience to wait for a print text to come out, and the grace to engage with others who play a part in the print process: copy-editors, peer-reviewers, publishers. I don't mean that to sound as snotty as it may come across. People in the academic-publishing business are by and large very talented and very well-intentioned. But the process itself, with its checks and balances and internal inertiae, is one that inevitably drains the life out of a process which (at least to entertain the aging and impatient me) must be infused with spontaneous discovery.

Academic publication involves submission, revision, accommodation – and too often, oblivion. If cid ends up an oblivion dump, it will at least be a direct-to-oblivion publication, and not one that has been through agonies of compromise and adjustment.

Every door that closes opens a window, as they say. Foregoing print also means foregoing closure. Unlike a book that must be completed and remain static, web writing can continually grow and change. Part palimpsest and part organism, a web project can twist around on itself and rethink where it's going. If I change my mind about something, I can go in and revise the text itself, not just suffer a half-baked thought to persist for hundreds of years on acid-free paper. I can incorporate unwieldy appendices and documentations that no publisher in their right mind would print. I can alternate short and long forms. Web publications can do several things at once. I hope cid will do them.

One odd but deliberate feature of cid is that all its pages are drafts. Melville has Ishmael say of Moby-Dick that the book "is but a draught – nay, but the draught of a draught." But even Melville finished, or at least abandoned, Moby-Dick. I intend to make every page public as soon as I draft it and to leave all of them unfinished. The dates at the foot of the page will show how old or new the composition. Publication in process seems in some ways like a really bad idea. But it's at least an idea. It's enabled, seductively, by the 21st-century ease of publishing text with a click of the touchpad. Bloggers do that all the time but more rarely revisit their earlier work. I intend to revist often: to be composing all parts of this site at all times – some just a little slower than others.

I read English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish; accidentally I also have an interest in Danish and Icelandic literature, though I can't read more than a stray word of either language. Thus I will quote from originals when I can (translating into English myself), and from translations when I can't read the original. Among my goals is to heighten consciousness of translation. Native speakers of English take it for granted that the entire world will eventually come to them. We sometimes think of "foreign" languages as an irrational veneer of gibberish over the universal clarity of the English language. But the global dominance of English means that there are far more English-language writers than English readers can read. As a result, writers of Krimis in other languages face an uphill battle getting their work read in English. A Swedish author may find that his or her work gets into Danish, Norwegian, and German but not into English, or finds a UK publisher but not one in the United States. If it seems at times that American bookstores are crammed with Swedish mysteries, reflect that even at that a relatively small percentage of Swedish crime fiction reaches English translation, and a smaller percentage of that reaches the US.

If one only reads English, one doesn't appreciate the international breadth of the detective-inspector phenomenon in fiction, even given the saturation of print and video with detective-inspector stories. There are far more polars even in the languages I can read than I will be able to take in in a lifetime – to say nothing of all the languages, like Swedish, that I can't.

I'm obviously writing in English and will leave nothing untranslated; but in parts of this site, like the bibliographies of translations, I will use scraps of many different languages, in the interests of comparative literature and of the principle that we ought to embrace the fact that other languages exist – even as English, the great centripetal global linguistic monoculture, seems determined to supplant the world's other tongues. I also want to acknowledge the hard work and creativity of translators. I came to this project obliquely by writing about translation and doing some translation that will likely never see the light of day; but that initial discipline has led me to see the entire genre of crime fiction, and the thousands of writers collaborating internationally to share it across borders, in a new light.

As a result, I've put bibliography at the heart of my project, attempting to account for first editions, popular editions, and translations into those languages closest to me, as well as listing selected criticism and scholarship.

Why do this at all … well, as noted, I may return here and rethink that question as I progress. I need to keep busy, for one thing. As an active professor of literature, I need to keep displaying my learning. I want to take this work to conferences and share it verbally. Above all I want a project that I can't finish and won't grow tired of.

Academic work is a balancing act. One wants to show off, but without bragging; to display culture and taste, but without pretension; to appear committed and politically engaged, but without insufferableness. One wants to work on something substantial and serious but one wants to love it and evince delight. If cid works, it will allow me to do these things. It's a chance to scrape off a little more of the ignorance I've accumulated over decades in university life, and enjoy doing it. And academic work can be a refuge. One can of course take refuge in a book one wrote 20 years ago, but an active fortress is better than a barricaded tomb :)

Feel free to suggest new books I should read to, and I'll try to get to them. If I write an essay here about a book, I'll always have read the whole thing. Books represented just by bibliographical entries I may have read, or started, or merely glanced at. I am trying to strike a balance between representing my own reading experience, and making cid useful for those who want to have different reading experiences.