A Matter of Focus

I have often bemoaned here how most contemporary detective novels actually were novels about or with detectives, which is not quite the same thing. However, having had lots of time lately to think about the issue again, I’m slowly driven to the conclusion that this evolution, far from being an aberration, is the logical outcome of a process that started back in the Golden Age.

Early and pre-WW1 detectives were devices as much as they were characters. Their place in the narrative was that of a deus ex machina needed to solve the puzzle to which they remained exterior throughout – things came, not happened, to them. They were protagonists only insofar as the stories wouldn’t work without them but the reader never really got to know them – the Watson stood in the way. I have often written in the past about that character and its role in detective fiction but I don’t think I emphasized enough how he (for he is most often a « he ») is ultimately our sole source for everything we know, or don’t know, about the detective. The Watson is not some neutral observer; he picks and chooses what he tells us about his subject and his own subjectivity strongly colours it. Most of the Sherlock Holmes we believe we know is not the « real » human being but a reconstruction according to John H. Watson, M.D. This remains true even when the Watson is not the narrator: What does The Thinking Machine do when Hutchinson Hatch is not there to pester him with cases to solve? Futrelle never tells us.

The detective as viewpoint character was one of the many novelties in E.C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case, and one that is often overlooked despite its crucial importance to the development of the genre. Suddenly it became possible for the reader to see what the detective saw, to be privy to their thoughts and even sometimes feel sorry for them. This new approach didn’t enter the mainstream immediately. Watsons and other sidekicks didn’t disappear overnight. The « Detective Hero » as Ross MacDonald put it was immediately embraced by writers with « literary » ambitions but the old model still retained some fire, culminating with Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series that are both the apex and the swan song of the « pure » holmesian tradition. By the end of the decade however, nearly all « serious » detective stories were told from the detective’s viewpoint, with the hardboiled school going one step further by granting them the right to tell their stories themselves.

Having the detective now occupying center stage entailed the need for sharper, deeper characterization and greater interest in their private lives. Simenon had shown the way with his Maigret novels, which are as much about the Commissaire than the cases he solves. Fictional detectives became more and more complex characters portrayed in a (almost) realistic way emphasizing their humanity. As a result, the relationship between reader and detective changed too. The Great Detective of the past was someone to admire and little more; both writers and readers now wanted them to be someone to like and relate to. This double shift in focus and expectations was the true death knell of the « traditional » detective story – but once again it didn’t come from nowhere. Granted, some Golden Age masters would feel quite lost in today’s landscape but many others – I’m thinking in particular of the « advanced » wing best incarnated by Dorothy L. Sayers – would rejoice.

Julian Symons was wrong: not only the Golden Age was not a dead end, but it may even have been a beginning.

 

 

 

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