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13 july 2010
Resisting Arrest by Robert Rushing is that rare thing: a fascinating academic book that makes a scholarly argument, while entertaining readers who know and love its topic. Rushing ranges from Andrea Camilleri to the Teletubbies with aplomb. Though I should warn readers that his subtitle – Detective Fiction and Popular Culture – is a misnomer, like so many subtitles. Despite his instructive excursus into the theory of Teletubbies, Rushing doesn't talk about "popular culture": his texts are drawn from the high canon of film and detective fiction, not from pulp or fan-fiction or the Internet. The book's other flaw is that Rushing tends to repeat himself. While the parsimonious explanation for these repetitions would be that the book was weakly edited, I suspect an intentional enactment of theme. Rushing's point is that we readers of detective stories, like the detectives we follow, can't help but repeat ourselves.
Yes, I saw myself in Rushing's analysis. I cathected, at a tender age, the pleasure of reading series mysteries – preferably ones with numbered spines that could be arranged in order on a shelf. The Hardy Boys were my gateway drug, but as a young teen I read just about any mysteries available in series. Nero Wolfe, Ellery Queen, Charlie Chan – the pulpiness or dubious cultural sensitivity of the text didn't matter; what mattered was a corpse, a criminal, and a solution. As a preteen I liked Ellery Queen best because of their "challenge to the reader": a challenge I rarely overcame, but which promised that the book was soluble in the same way a math or science textbook might be, with none of the passion-drenched impasses that characterized "adult" stories.
After enough adult passion had drenched me, I graduated to the noirish side of crime fiction, zipping through the surprisingly small but very rich œuvres of Chandler, Hammett, and Cain. I started to collect Simenon in English, then in French, and after a labor of years owned more than 50 sequentially-numbered paperback Maigrets, still the core of my library. If you surf this website for a few moments, you will learn my series-mystery obsessions of the past few years.
Rushing begins Resisting Arrest by asking, as several highbrow critics of pulp mystery have wondered, why anyone would read these endless series of books. They really are mostly the same. And it's not just that such novels repeat themselves within series, but that one series comes to be pretty much like another, so that a waspish inspector in Holland comes to seem rather like one in Sweden, and a snowbound sleuth in Alaska isn't greatly different from one in Iceland.
Rushing, using neo-Lacanian theory in non-lethal doses, argues that we don't read the classic mystery for the reasons that commentators have assumed. The "puzzle" mystery, like my favorite Ellery Queen, has long been seen as a fantasy world where, outraged by murder with a lead pipe in the billiard room, we long for an ace deducer to set the world back on its slightly stuffy course. That might be so for one mystery. But like children playing with blocks, we read series to see order restored at the end of one novel just so we can knock it over again at the start of the next.
In fact, we don't really want our heroes to solve the mystery: after all, when they do, the book is over, and with it our fun. We want them to solve another and another. Hence the suspicion, shared by Pierre Bayard, that in most of the great mysteries, the great detective arrives at the wrong solution. And hence too the most common "twist" on the detective story, as old as Oedipus: that the killer is really the detective himself. (And I promised that actor in the West End that I wouldn't tell!)
Neo-Lacanian critics following Slavoj Žižek have long noted that in "hard-boiled" mysteries with no clear resolution, the detective (Sam Spade, Lew Archer) recognizes and (usually) resists his "desire." (Think of The Maltese Falcon, where Spade resists almost everything – sex, money, guns, booze – despite acknowledging a fondness for it all.) By contrast, critics have seen the Hercule Poirot or Nero Wolfe kind of sleuth as insulated from desire, fussing over moustaches or orchids but never awake to all the kissing and rights-to-the-jaw that their noirish counterparts thrive on.
Well, it may be that the classic detective isn't one for romance, but his darker addictions show here and there, like Sherlock Holmes's seven per-cent solution. And though he's relatively free from the shocks that flesh is heir to, the puzzle-solving detective compensates by obsessively seeking out obsession itself. Rushing adduces Monk, that nearest of latter-day heirs to Holmes, who most boldly displays his OCD. But you could say the same of any of them, couldn't you? Take Columbo, of the invisible wife and dog named Dog – the guy is sadistically addicted to toying with perps. You know he did it, Columbo! Put the cuffs on the guy already. Or Jessica Fletcher, who doesn't seem to have a libidinous bone in her body; but the woman would get seriously strung out if she went a day without absolving a niece from murder.
Our greatest criminalist minds are unable to surrender their obsessions. Like them, Rushing concludes, we share a taste for the same-only-different, repeated ad infinitum. Or for that matter, the same-only-not-so-different. Lacan called this process jouissance, and Rushing calls it, more simply, "enjoyment."
Rushing, Robert A. Resisting Arrest: Detective fiction and popular culture. New York: Other Press, 2007.