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What Is the Appeal of Detective Fiction? Dashiell Hammett's "The Continental Op" as Exemplar

06/26/2015 05:15 pm ET | Updated Jun 26, 2016

The first-person narrator is the imposer of order in a world of chaos--or rather, deceit, lies, hypocrisy, where nothing is as it seems. And yet reading a classic of noir fiction like Dashiell Hammett's The Continental Op is a revelation. For a "literary fiction" writer, the surprise is how much of so-called literary paraphernalia is just that--paraphernalia, not central to the story. What is story? Holding most elements of character static allows the writer of the detective story to pay attention to plot convolutions. Plot substitutes for character. Rather, plot redefines story as the absence of that whose lack we don't feel.

In the stories in The Continental Op--my favorite of all of Hammett's books--the author typically starts off with a slight premise: a person in need calls the fat detective of the title for help, usually to find a missing person, but we know that the solicitor of help is probably soon going to end up dead, the victim of his or her own desire to trust.

Trust is in deficit in this kind of fiction. We've learned to trust the narrator of literary fiction, where story moves according to realist premises. The hard-boiled detective story is a narrative of irrealism, where the initial premise is just a foothold into a world where nothing can be trusted. And this lack of trust is bound to reflect on the author and by further extension reflect on the nature of all storytelling.

It is thus a more advanced--because more cynical and pessimistic--way of storytelling than straightforward realism, because it makes the reader complicit all the way into the bargain. Literary fiction suffers by comparison because it elicits sympathy for everyone, it seeks to be democratic, it adheres to the bourgeois dogma of liberalism: that everyone is potentially equally gifted to make something of themselves, that people's souls can always be rescued, after appropriate personal and collective intervention. Hammett will have none of that. What a relief for a literary fiction writer to be unburdened of the whole false apparatus of perpetual progress!

In detective fiction we experience a dual movement of time, simultaneous in progression, a slow one and a fast one, a real-time one and a hyper-accelerated one, superimposed on each other.

The normal progression of time is the detective's mind unraveling the clues, clues not so much to character--he instantly deciphers character, and is never wrong--but to the nature of the nasty deed committed and hidden from view. Its full exposition arrives at the climactic moment.

The faster progression of time is the one where the reader's mind is racing ahead of the narrator, often coming up short, taking sideways and byroads, unnecessary but compulsive detours, trying to keep up with the mind of the narrator, who will in the end lead to the complete truth.

The perpetual clash between these two forces of time, the familiar one (which the narrator monopolizes) and the unfamiliar one (about which the reader speculates), is what holds all the narrative tension, all the readerly interest. Multiple gaps open up in this clash, forcing us to rethink the nature of story, and thereby the nature of humanity.

Why is reading this kind of fiction a guilty pleasure? Because we are always--if the writer is any good--outwitted by the narrator, and because our lack of wit, or inability to grasp the complete plot at the get-go, is something we take pleasure in, it's an excuse to forgive us the distractions of our frenzied mind. We need a crutch (the detective's calm, cautious, deliberative, intuitive mind) to make sense of what had at first seemed nonsense, and we are at liberty not to bemoan our independence.

A literary novel one picks up and drops at will, not afraid of losing some great mystery or secret. It can be resumed at a later point--or not. There are no real secrets in literary, character-oriented, fiction; or at least, most of the time that is not the crux of the story. Which means that we endow the characters in literary fiction with something akin to omnipotence, which is definitely not the case in detective fiction.

In literary fiction, godliness is everywhere--or godlike powers. In detective fiction, it is nowhere, but if it does exist anywhere, it's in the figure of the detective. But what an impoverished, restrained, enfeebled, unpoetic omnipotence! It is a hollowness of the human soul as powerful as any proscribed by the greatest modernist writers, and this writing is to be weighed no less than at par with the most influential names of modernism. Indeed, this is one of the most powerful of all the branches of modernism, and possibly even its root (if we think of Poe, Collins, and Conrad as forerunners).

The urge to make rational sense of chaos is what the reader is constantly brought up against, and the strong suggestion is that rationality is pure illusion. Often in Hammett's stories the matter could easily have ended up otherwise than it does. A woman or man may have made a more noble choice, not pursuing money but love for instance, but he or she doesn't. Yet they were so close. Or we'd like to think they were. Rationality has nothing to do with their choices anyway.

It's almost fair to call this writing existentialism without illusions, existentialism without fear, existentialism without courage, and in the interwar period perhaps there was no purer form of being, no more direct approach to innocence.

The detective, let there be no mistake about it, is innocence personified, even though he is the wiliest of them all, he's got all the crooks and gangsters and murderers figured out. The external representation of this same phenomenon, the honorable, straightforward, up-to-no-tricks policeman, is just for public consumption; the existential horror is embodied in the detective.

The detective, it is fair to conclude, is the narrator's ideal human subject. He's not just a convenient tool to tell a story, whether from autobiographical experience (as was true in the case of Hammett's experience as a Pinkerton detective, and his claim that all his characters were based on true-life cases) or not.

The detective shows the ideal manner of processing the data of everyday reality, of perceiving the extraordinariness of things, of letting the supernatural and mysterious shine through by giving in to the flow of events, not imposing oneself on disorder to make order before it's time to do so. The criminal will hang in the end; he or she always will; just let it come, don't force the issue. Timing is all-important!

This is the meaning I get from the extreme chaos of a story like "The House on Turk Street," the tremendous frenzy of who is up to what, until the role of each protagonist in the thickly layered plot is finally made clear; in the duration of that unfolding frenzy, the detective must not hasten events, must not force things to a head.

Detective fiction seeks to teach intuition and imagination, rather than a checklist or to-do type of approach to solving mysteries. The mysteries in question involve crimes, petty or large, but there is no reason a similar approach may not be applied to the greatest mysteries, including the most salient one of why we allow ourselves to die, or to put it differently, why we go so calmly and unresistingly to our deaths, knowing the matter is inevitable.

The vamps the Continental Op encounters are never able to seduce him, though they try; his mind is too pure to take a leap into a useless detour when the real mystery is always waiting to be figured out.

What motivates the detective in the end, as a matter of generic rule?

Not so much profit or fame--one or the other is usually declined, sometimes explicitly--but the pursuit of the solution itself, very much like a research scientist or a dedicated scholar yet without the illusions of academic knowledge. We are born and we live with the shadow of mystery hanging all over us, like a cloud that has descended low on the street, over our house, has penetrated into our immediate quarters, and we don't know how to process its elemental force, what it constitutes.

The mystery of human motivation is that there is no mystery other than what the reader/narrator/detective already knows. The plunge into this necessary conflation requires imagination of a very high order, which in story after story in The Continental Op comes at us in the form of shattered pieces of a social reality not subject to any further analysis. The social scaffolding is thin to the point of vanishing; in its thinness, however, is thickness of a kind not accessible to social realists. Where does this thickness come from?

Anis Shivani's recent books include Karachi Raj, The Fifth Lash and Other Stories, and Anatolia and Other Stories. Books forthcoming in 2015 include Soraya: Sonnets and Literature in an Age of Globalization.

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