On Detective Fiction

Last edited: 2.03pm, Jan 12, 2014.

When I was little, I told people my favorite books were fantasy. Somewhere in my late teens, I realized I was reading way more science fiction than I was fantasy, probably because there was a slightly smaller chance of coming across some stupid teenage romance story. Anyway, a year or two ago I came to a new realization once again: I read more mysteries than anything else. Here’s a few reasons I’m so fond of the genre.

But first, two notes. By “detective,” I refer to both the professional and the amateur. It can be the police officer, a private investigator, a lawyer, or a grade school teacher who unfortunately discovers a dead body and gets caught up in the whole mess. Secondly, I try to read a variety, but I favor those set in large American cities, most of which involve murders (thus “murder mysteries), and my reasons will, unfortunately, show this bias.


So, the reasons. Firstly, good detective fiction is the POETRY of the City (I ignore for the moment the small town mysteries or the ones in abandoned castles). The mystery writer is by necessity familiar with the city about which he writes. He knows the highways and the alleys. He knows where the truck drivers gather at the end of their shift for a drink. He knows where the drug dealers peddle. He knows the history of that old church on the corner. He knows the homeless men by name. He knows what music the small Italian restaurant plays. He knows where to get good Chinese take-out. Detective fiction causes the City to become new.  It opens your eyes to details you have never noticed. The mundane city becomes Poetry. The setting is all important. London for Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown; New York for Nero Wolfe and his errand boy Archie; L.A. for the likes from Philip Marlowe to Harry Bosch. You cannot uproot the detective. You cannot cast put Holmes in Chicago anymore than you could chase Marlowe from L.A. Holmes will forever lead us dancing through the cobbled streets of London, whereas Marlowe will have us driving down Hollywood Boulevard on a hot and lonely summer night.

Detective fiction, by nature of its genre, deals with the darkest side of humanity. It records the darkest nights of the City. The detective crawls from the drug crazed alleys of blood to the beautiful homes of highest society, which in turn are tapestried with corruption, intrigue, backstabbing, no less depraved than the meanest streets. The detective witnesses all this. The writer does not shield us from such horrors. Yet still, he cannot but write of this city with a tender lovingness.

Slowly, his eyes came up and he looked through the kitchen window and out through the Cahuenga Pass. The lights of Hollywood glimmered in the cut, a mirror reflection of the stars of all galaxies everywhere. He thought about all that was bad out there. A city with more things wrong than right. A place where the earth could open up beneath you and suck you into the blackness. A city of lost light. His city. It was all of that and, still, always still, a place to begin again. His city. The city of the second chance.

– excerpt from final chapter of “A Darkness More Than Night” (Harry Bosh), Michael Connelly

One has no right to write of a city one does not love. Detective fiction depicts the darkest nights, but even there he seeks, perhaps desperately, the faint gleam of the stars.


Secondly, detective fiction is not burdened by PLOT. Oh yes, plot is all important, but it is always the same plot: a problem arises (someone is murdered, or someone is missing, or someone received threatening mail), and the detective seeks the culprit, and finally brings him to some form of justice. Everyone knows what to except, so the author is not distracted by trying to think up some new development. (In some other genre, for example, the young high school teacher has now built a meaning bond with his rebellious students. and what should I write in the next novel?) Instead, he can focus on what he find of interest: an ode to the city, or some comment on the criminal justice system, or character development. Because we know where the plot is headed, we can tarry along the way and enjoy the scenery, finding delight in the little details. Of course, maybe we might also act like normal people and take joy in the intellectual challenge of trying to crack the mystery before the main character. But if a piece of detective fiction is merely plot, it is not worth reading, much less re-reading.

Another nice thing about a piece of detective fiction, especially is the current market, is that you can usually be certain than most of the immorality happens on the side of the culprit. If you pick up that novel about the young high school teacher, you have no idea what sort of situations she might find herself in if the author gets bored. She might have a troubling relationship with her alcoholic mother and abusive father, or she might be overly reliant on a boyfriend, or might be pursued by a distasteful cast, or… well, general drama. Perhaps some people like drama, but I’m not too fond of it. Detectives are generally too busy trying to solve a murder to deal with family drama or entertain girlfriends, lucky for me.

I am also very fond of detective fiction because it never pretends to be more than what it is. While the story about the young high school teacher might aspire to be treated as good literature that explores the importance of human relationships or whatever passes for good literature these days, the detective story has no such misguided aspirations. Detective fiction will never rise out of the fate of a mere massmarket paperback, mere pulp fiction, and so the author generally focuses simply on trying to tell a good story. Oh, very often it turns out that it is more than merely a story. It usually offers something a little deeper, a little more lasting than a mere story, but it never does so under for the sake of appearances. The author writes as he does because he can’t help it.


Lastly, and most importantly, detective fiction is one of the few contemporary books which still engage in that primal battle of GOOD AGAINST EVIL. There is something beautiful about that. The world is a broken place, and each detective, no matter how broken he himself is, tries to do wage battle against darkness. They don’t always win, but they sure try.

They don’t do it for the money or the glory either. These men walk through the dirt and the slime because they care. They get beat up, they get shot at, they get worn down by the worries of others, and nobody likes them. Most of them earn next to nothing (Nero Wolfe being the obvious exception), and there are no promotions in sight, but they stick to their miserable jobs, because they care.

We work on obscure, unimportant, apparently irrelevant deaths of people who don’t matter and who never did…we spend out time looking into dead men’s faces, round their rooms, into the motives of their friends, if any, lovers and enemies…. we never make excuses about being undermanned, nor do we care if the case we’re investigating never gets into the papers, nor becomes a national manhunt – and when my friend Sergeant Macintosh was killed by the man he had trapped in a bedsitter off Edith Grove last year, there was no posthumous George Medal for him. No murder is casual to us, and no murder is unimportant, even though murder happens the whole time in a city like this.

~ Chapter One, “He Died with His Eyes Open,” Derek Raymond

These are men who care. And though they walk through the darkest streets of the city and witness the worst of humanity, yet somehow, they hold on to their principles. It is not that they are not tainted by the very darkness they fight, but they do not compromise. They have their own moral code – and sometimes I don’t agree with them. But I respect them, even if they are fictional characters, for holding on to that faint glimmer of starlight even as they walk through the valley of the shadow of death. The detective who bluffs his way into the office of the city official and proceeds to grill him about his questionable income is surely no less valiant that St. George taking on the dragon, though often more lonely.


But night will soon be drawing to a close, and my eyes are finally drooping (sleep did not come easily), so I’ll leave you with these thoughts. Please do comment, if it so pleases you. And may you have sweeter dreams than I’ve had.




I love cities. Which is a relatively new development – only the past two years or so.
I used to hate cities (though I have spent all my life in those giant conglomerations of dirt and cement and polluted air and grime). But increasingly I have come to realize that cities are a place of so many stories, so many dreams.

Not houses finely roofed or the stones of walls well builded, nay nor canals and dockyards make the city, but men able to use their opportunity.
~ Alcaeus

People come to the city, always, in pursuit for something. Yet just as they come with a bright hope of some better future, so many also leave their dreams buried beneath the cold hard pavement, and grow weary and cold themselves, while others resign themselves to hold eternal vigil over vague memories of a happier time.
Cities are not kind places.

I love being in the city, because each day you brush shoulders with so many people, each with their own story to tell. Some are heroic, others tragic, some have come-of-age, others are cocky with the arrogance of youth, some are thousands of miles from home, others have never left town, some will tell you stories of wars and battles they fought in far away lands in days gone by, others would show you where he was knifed just last week, some are young and single and struggling so hard to raise their child on their own, others are whitehaired couples happily married for over half a century.

Not all stories are pretty. Not all are happy. But each story is the valiant struggle of a human being. When you are told such a story, you are offered a brief glimpse into another’s life, another’s soul. I don’t know about you, but I am honored to be offered such trust. Perhaps because I grew up on the milk of stories – from children’s books to fantasies to memoirs -, and perhaps because I am training in the profession of a historian, I feel a duty to seek out these unheard stories. I feel a pressing need to preserve a little, even a little, of these men and women who are such an integral part of the fabric of the place I call home, before time and the City whisk them away so that we never cross paths again.

Do you now understand my love for cities?

I am travelling soon, to Athens, and the rest of Greece, and finally, a brief little visit to London. So many cities! I can’t help but think to myself, so many stories to hear! Admittedly, I will be surrounding by an inconveniently comfortable bubble of friends and teachers. But I assure you I will find time to wander, and to hear stories, and to bear a solemn witness to the tears and laughter of others.