commissaire inspector dottore

academic and personal thoughts on detective-inspector novels

essays may contain spoilers

on violence

Murder mysteries are violent, that's obvious enough. Yet crime fiction manages and directs the violence it represents in specific ideological and affective ways. The many sub-varieties of crime fiction deal very diversely with the violence inherent in the artistic treatment of crime. My purpose here is to think about the violence specific to the detective-inspector genre, and how that violence intersects with or stands out from violence in other crime genres, other literary genres, and in other arts and rhetorics.

Murder by definition is a violent outrage. It's thus somewhat paradoxical that murder in crime fiction can at times be comic, reassuring, self-parodic, or absurd. S.S. Van Dine's often-cited rules for mysteries (1928) treat murder as basically something to snicker about:

There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better.
Van Dine's remarks are somewhat fey throughout, but they are fey in the service of realism and soberness, so it's the more remarkable to read this chuckling treatment of the violated body of the deceased. Among the things that Van Dine prohibits are "willful tricks or deceptions," "spiritualistic seances, crystal-gazing, and the like," "the realm of fantasy, in the Jules Verne manner," "The final pinning of the crime on a twin, and other such gimmicks. Nothing should detract from "a fascinating and truly beautiful murder."

Such ideas are still vestigially disturbing, even though they were expressed almost 90 years ago and concern a genre that, in the late 1920s, was still minding its manners when it came to depictions of gore. (John Scaggs says of Agatha Christie, for instance, that "her inter-war fiction is characterized by its absence of violence, and by its curiously sanitized and bloodless corpses," 43.) Of course detective-novel violence can be stylised and cartoonish – sometimes literally cartoonish, though at that, the graphic novel can sometimes be extremely graphic. But always, at the center of this genre, there is a life taken before its time, a life that has been hard to wrest from its owner, a body that has been violated, processes that have come to an unnatural halt.

Always, and from the start. David Bell notes that

on the threshold of the development of the detective genre in the French context with [Émile Gaboriau's] L'Affaire Lerouge, one finds a cruelly-mutilated body … This particular type of fiction is somehow anchored in the description of a disfigured corpse produced by a murder. (93)
Bell goes on to observe that Gaboriau was channeling Edgar Allan Poe and the carnage of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." We are attracted to scenes of extreme violence even as they repel us. As genres grow and develop – or perhaps, merely as they age – we need more and more of a fix of violence to keep us impressed.

The intensity of violence in the real world probably doesn't increase over time. "It cannot grow by an inch or an ounce," said Yeats of the violence of death, whether incurred in warfare or crime or possibly just passing away in one's sleep. Atrocity is a constant, and everyone dies exactly once. Yet there is a kind of observational fallacy that can be generated by changes in rhetorical conventions governing the representation of violent death. "Back then" death was presented genteely, decorously; torture took place in secret. Crime occurred in black and white and in long shots. Nowadays, death is brutally and viscerally portrayed, torture public and protracted, and crime is in color, HD, 3-D, IMAX, and in ever tighter closeups. "Back then" and "nowadays" are a sliding scale, and any present is always in a "nowadays" relationship to a previous brutal "nowadays" which has become "back then."

In free indirect style, the protagonist of Mons Kallentoft's 2007 novel Midvinterblod [Hiver] muses that

C'est comme si tout s'aggravait, au fil du temps. Comme si les limites de la violence étaient sans cesse repoussées.

[It's as if everything gets worse as time goes on. As if the boundaries of violence just get pushed outwards, all the time.] (58)

Bell, David F. "Reading Corpses: Interpretive Violence." SubStance 86 (1998): 92-105.

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

Van Dine, S.S. "Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories." American Magazine, 1928.