The end of a detective story

by Neil

Spendy and Ulkar get me thinking about detective fiction again. Ulkar talks about the detective as a positivist figure, uncovering scientific truths. I think this is especially true of the earlier fictional detectives, like C. Auguste Dupin and Sherlock Holmes. Surveying more recent works, Spendy says the detective’s job is to get to the bottom of it,” idiomatically. How do you know what the bottom is? When you’ve found the truth, obviously. Although the thing with fiction is that the whole thing is definitionally not true. So what does it mean for one not-true thing to be more true than another not-true thing?

Most popular mystery writers make it extremely formally obvious when the truth is found. Agatha Christie puts everyone in a room together and the solution is explained, and after a token struggle for the gun, the culprit says you’re right, I did it, I wanted the tontine money for my bastard granddaughter but now I see the error of my ways.” Or something like that, I don’t know. My mom used to watch a lot of Masterpiece Mysteries.

As a reader of detective novels, you’re not actually looking for the truth” of events that are not true, you’re looking for some effect that lets you know” the solution has been found. Sometime in the 20th century, people figured out that the effect could be generated without the solution. Famously, the solution” to The Big Sleep leaves one murder totally unexplained, because Chandler stitched a novel together from multiple unrelated short stories. But after all the confrontations at the edges of society, all the gunfights and near-gunfights, all those beautiful dames trying to mislead our hero, who even cares about that?

Some stories even set the parts against each other. In Borges’ Death and the Compass,” the detective finds a solution that really feels like the solution to a detective story. It’s got Kabbalah! Everyone loves Kabbalah! Unfortunately, he is totally wrong, the initial crime was just a random robbery, and the other crimes were constructed to look like they had a clever solution by a villain who has a vendetta against this detective. In this story, there’s a Lestrade figure, the lazy cop who just wants to get this thing off his desk, and that guy is totally correct. But this does not satisfy the reader’s desire for the Truth. Then again, the reader isn’t the one who gets shot at the end of the story.