"A thousand other mysteries": Detection's changing formula

Jeanne Carol Ewert, University of Pennsylvania


The dissertation traces the evolution of detective fiction in the twentieth century, examining changes in the structure of its narratives, in the cultural and philosophical assumptions which sustain it, and in the role and character of the detecting subject. Beginning in medias res with Raymond Chandler's claims for a decisive break from classic British detection, I examine hardboiled detection's roots in the fin-de-siecle and in the fiction of Poe and Conan Doyle. Chandler shares his precursors' fear of a society in decline and of evil lurking beneath the feminine mystique. Like them, he creates a detective whose stern asceticism provides an escape from the female, foreign, degenerate Other. These late nineteen century concerns are shared not only by Chandler's hardboiled contempories, but by the women writers from whom he is careful to distance himself. Mary Roberts Rinehart, for example, succumbs to the same femme fatale myth prevalent in the detective fiction of her male contemporaries. The second half of the twentieth century, however, will redefine the character (and gender and race and sexual preferences) of the hardboiled detective, this time creating detecting subjects who belong to groups considered suspect by their earlier counterparts. Detectives who are strong (and sexual) women, who are black, who are homosexual, who participate in marginalized cultures, for the first time force a reexamination of the character of the detective and of the nature of the Other. Finally, the dissertation examines hardboiled detection's transformation into "metaphysical" detective fiction, a self-conscious genre that parodies the conventions of the detective story so as to undermine its formulas. Metaphysical detective fiction features a protagonist whose quest is changing, who no longer lives in a predictable world where puzzles are solved on the last page and criminals revealed for what they are. Induction and causality become increasingly suspect in these works and the quest of the metaphysical detective is ontological rather than epistemological. The dissertation concludes by examining the ways in which the reader's participation changes as the genre changes.

Subject Area

Comparative literature|American literature|Romance literature|British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Ewert, Jeanne Carol, ""A thousand other mysteries": Detection's changing formula" (1995). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9532170.