commissaire inspector dottore

academic and personal thoughts on detective-inspector novels

essays may contain spoilers

on omniscience

Omniscient narratives, of course, are always an illusion. The writer knows everything about his or her story … well, maybe not everything, but everything knowable. There are tons of things a writer doesn't care about, in putting a story together, but unless he or she is chronically drunk, the writer will know the relevant stuff for as long as it takes to compose it.

For the purposes of cid, I'll define omniscient narratives as those told from a potentially unlimited number of perspectives. Such narratives are part of the detective-fiction scene from the earliest examples. Émile Gaboriau, in his Lecoq novels, uses this device. Each section of the narrative is told in free-indirect style, using one character or another as the focus. Very early in the history of the genre, then, in the 1860s, we see the mutual adaptation of a kind of flexible omniscience and the needs of the detective novel, where information must be concealed or revealed strategically.

"Ominiscient" in this sense thus does not mean "told by a teller who knows everything." Such narrators do exist in 19th-century fiction, in the novels of George Eliot, Victor Hugo, Anthony Trollope, Leo Tolstoy, and others. In such fictions one always hears an individual voice – usually aligned with the author – who really does know everything, except when he or she artificially claims to be unaware of something (Trollope is fond of such coyness, and it's used par excellence in Herman Melville's Billy Budd).

In detective fiction you tend not to get that all-knowing narrator because it would be really annoying. If you know everything, then why are you bothering to conceal the better half of it? Although we know the author is concealing the better half of it anyway, we are more amenable to such deception when the author conceals the concealment itself.

Third-person limited or restricted narrator works very well for the purposes of concealing concealment. If the narration comes from the outside, and the characters experience the action close to the time of its occurrence, then no deception is apparent: detectives, witnesses, victims, even criminals know only a limited part of the story, and we experience that limited vision in its immediacy. As Tzvetan Todorov (via translator Richard Howard) says "there is no point reached where the narrator comprehends all past events, we do not even know if he will reach the end of the story alive" (47). Todorov, however, associates this narrative mode with the hard-boiled 20th-century American "thriller," which is sometimes told in first-person mode. But the effect of such immediate and restricted narration is actually fairly common in third-person narratives of the 19th century.

The difference between Monsieur Lecoq and Raymond Chandler's Marlowe novels is that in Gaboriau's third-person "omniscient" narrative, each character gets to experience a portion of the narrative, which moves seamlessly in and out of a succession of characters' minds. That's in fact what most readers would now call "omniscient," though it's an omniscience made up of a series of highly limited perspectives. The detached narrative voice has the freedom to move amont those limited perspectives, and thus builds up a sense of knowing everything, mosaic-like.

The contrast between omniscient and restricted perspectives, in detective-inspector (and many other kinds of) fiction, is thus more of degree than of kind. First-person stories are different in kind; they are always told by one of the characters, and if the same person tells the whole story, we are always bound to their point of view (whether the telling is retrospective or immediate). John Scaggs notes a salient distinction:

The appearance of objectivity that the third-person narration creates distanc[es] the procedural from the first-person narratives of hard-boiled fiction. (93)

But omniscient "mosaic" narratives" are just looser, compound versions of third-person restricted narratives, which are also fairly common in detective-inspector fiction (usually with our detective inspector as the focal character). Both types of third-person narrative represent objectivity, and in each, that objectivity is rhetorically created and is something of a pretense.

Initially I had thought of cataloguing novels here at cid by narrative types, but I quickly realized that almost all detective-inspector novels are omniscient narratives. The major exceptions, somewhat rarer overall, are the strictly limited third-person perspectives that a few series authors prefer. Series heroes like Maigret and Montalbano monopolize the focus of their narratives.

Todorov, Tzvetan. "The Typology of Detective Fiction." Translated by Richard Howard. In The Poetics of Prose (Oxford: Blackwell, 1977). 42-52.

Scaggs, John. Crime Fiction. London: Routledge, 2005. [The New Critical Idiom]