The appeal of the detective reflects a desire for resolution of ambiguity in a complex world. The narrative momentum, the reflection of the detective, the surprises and the twists, are all satisfying to us in this way. What I would love to see you explore is the morality and philosophy of the detective as the ‘one good purposeful person’ even when riding boundaries of social acceptance, pushing into the noir world and even playing the antihero. As much as we need the resolution of ambiguity, we need the satisfaction of detectives to whom we can look up in times of ambiguity.
— Simon Terry, Blog comment
Desire is the engine of life, the yearning that goads us forward with stops along the way, but it has no destination, no final stop, except death.
— Siri Hustvedt, Living, Thinking, Looking
It is human to clutch at simple answers and shunt aside ambiguous, shifting realities.
— Siri Hustvedt, Living, Thinking, Looking
In Together, his study of cooperation, Richard Sennett highlights a transformation in sociable behaviour that characterised the medieval era. Education and commerce witnessed the emergence of the professional, and with it a shift in ethics and behaviour from chivalry to civility. The aristocratic knight was usurped by the lawyer, the doctor, the banker, the merchant, as the Renaissance paved the way for our modern world.
Even as the relevance of the knight and his chivalric code faded, though, the figure persisted as a cultural archetype. Tales of King Arthur’s court, for example, and the legendary adventures of its knights, particularly the quest for the Holy Grail, endure today. The ethics and philosophy of the early middle ages are not entirely lost, for they remain packaged in narrative form. The myth of the solitary hero is maintained even in an age where collaboration and cooperation are the norm.
Interestingly, concurrent with the shift from chivalry to civility was the democratisation of words. No longer was the written text the preserve of Latin speakers, monks and the clergy. The printing press enabled the dissemination of ideas to a wider readership. With the printed book, knowledge could be quickly codified and shared at an unprecedented scale, and in contemporary as well as archaic languages. Stories, like genes, had always been carriers of culture. Now, though, they could be written down and read by many people in diverse locations, not just verbalised and heard in communal assemblies.
In the middle of the 20th century, Raymond Chandler was a purveyor of words whose interests straddled the boundaries between the chivalric and the prosaic, whose hardboiled narratives exposed the darkness and corruption hiding behind civilised veneers. In his 1944 essay ‘The Simple Art of Murder’, Chandler focuses on a particular type of modern professional: the private investigator. Like Arthur’s knights, this is a figure who constantly embarks upon quests, for missing items, more often for missing people, thieves, kidnappers, blackmailers, murderers.
‘The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure.’ Chandler sets out the template for his own series of Philip Marlowe novels, in which the intrepid detective, time and again, ventures into the mean streets in service of both client and a personal sense of honour and morality. Yet, for all of Chandler’s protestations, there remains a sense that the detective is themself tainted, their heroism a deceit, self-perceived and projected for consumption by others.
The lineage, extending back through Arthurian legend and on to Ancient Greece, does little to dispel this unease regarding the ‘heroic’ detective. Whether it is the myth of Oedipus, the first detective, the tale of the Fisher King or the story of Jake Gittes in Chinatown, there are shared motifs, common themes. The realm is corrupted, a wasteland requiring regeneration, with the central figure either implicated in its decline or impotent to effect change. Oedipus solves the Sphinx’s riddle, but commits the crimes of patricide and incest. Gittes uncovers Noah Cross’s criminality but is unable to bring him to justice, a passive bystander to the death of the woman he loves, herself the victim of Cross’s incestuous abuse.
Joseph Campbell’s hero adventure model, with its foundations in Jungian theory, suggests that each journey is one of self-discovery. We venture into the labyrinth and find ourselves at its centre. The Minotaur is our shadow, part of our identity. This applies equally to the knight’s quest as to the detective’s investigation; their curious pursuit, assimilation and assessment of clues.
Sometimes the Minotaur, the darkness, triumphs. In Angel Heart, for example, Harry Angel discovers that it is himself he has been seeking, that he is responsible for the horrific crimes he investigates. Similarly, in Memento, Leonard Shelby is the true object of his own search, his memories conveniently corrupted or discarded as he transforms into serial executioner. In Blood Simple, the venal private investigator Visser, enacts and fabricates crimes, falsely apportioning blame, murdering at will.
Even Chandler’s own creation, Philip Marlowe, becomes executioner in Robert Altman’s 1970s reworking of The Long Goodbye. His personal code of ethics have become so skewed, his sense of betrayal so intense, that he feels able to take the law into his own hands. A move echoed by Richard Bone in Cutter’s Way, even if he holds his friend’s dead hand to the pistol that murders the corrupt patriarch.
In many respects, the 1960s and 1970s shifted the game. Chandler’s knightly detective was shown to be out of time, an anachronism unsuited to a context of political intrigue and investigation, public inquiries, impeachment proceedings and warmongering. The establishment was rotten at its core, and the true detectives were shown to be investigative journalists, like Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, wielding typewriters and pens rather than guns.
A new pattern was revealed that continued through the subsequent decades, amplified in recent times by cyberleaks and whistleblowers. The more that is revealed, the more new questions arise. Answers obfuscate rather than illuminate. The simple is rendered complex. The detective is as ill-defined, as difficult to pin down as the mysteries they investigate. Lew Griffin both writes and is written, a fiction within a fiction. In Pynchon’s novels, his male detectives lose themselves in drug-induced hazes while his female investigators lead themselves to the edge of paranoia.
Yet, for all that, there is something appealing about this investigative figure. Or at least those who have ventured into the labyrinth and either conquered or integrated the Minotaur. Their thirst for knowledge, inherent curiosity, pattern recognition and sense-making capabilities, as well as their aptitude for narration, for working out loud, have much to commend them. What they lead us to in most cases, though, is not resolution of ambiguity but rather an acceptance of and comfort with it. They are not heroes, just regular folk, like you and me, deriving temporary and contextually convenient understanding of an ever-changing world. Civilians retaining a hint of the chivalric, the romantic, in the modern day. As ambiguous as the ambiguities they detect.
Ambiguity asks: Where is the border between this and that? … But ambiguity is inherently contradictory and insoluble, a bewildering truth of fogs and mists and the unrecognizable figure or phantom or memory or dream that can’t be contained or held in my hands or kept because it is always flying away, and I cannot tell what it is or if it is anything at all.
— Siri Hustvedt, Living, Thinking, Looking
The immediate result of this formal change is that the detective no longer inhabits the atmosphere of pure thought, of puzzle-solving and the resolution of a set of given elements. On the contrary, he is propelled outwards into the space of his world and obliged to move from one kind of social reality to another incessantly, trying to find clues to his client’s whereabouts.
— Fredric Jameson, Raymond Chandler
There’s no completion in patterns,
For patterns are constantly restitched in new patterns.
There’s no completion in history, which kneels
bare and mute at the feet of the future.
— Alan Lightman, Song of Two Worlds
This post was written in response to the challenge laid down by Simon Terry in the blog comment cited at the top of the page. I picked up his gauntlet and enjoyed the provocation. It continues a conversation we started a few years ago, which initially resulted in The detective. The topic is also central to chapter 9 of The Neo-Generalist.
- Donald Barthelme, Not-Knowing (Counterpoint, 1997).
- Maud Casey, The Art of Mystery (Graywolf Press, 2018).
- Raymond Chandler, ‘The Simple Art of Murder’ in Pearls are a Nuisance (Penguin, 1964).
- Steven D’Souza and Diana Renner, Not Knowing (LID, 2014).
- William Marling, The American Roman Noir (The University of Georgia Press, 1995).
- Richard Martin, Mean Streets and Raging Bulls (Scarecrow Press, 1997).
- Todd McGowan, The Fictional Christopher Nolan (University of Texas Press, 2012).
- Richard Sennett, Together (Penguin, 2013).
- Jon Thompson, Fiction, Crime, and Empire (University of Illinois Press, 1993).