Detective Fiction Scholarship: Why Do We Ignore the Experts?

You know how it goes. Last weekend, I wrote up all my loose blog ideas (bar one, see next week), and thought, “Now I can get on with writing up my thesis. No distractions!” Whereupon, a friend says, “Jamie’s on fire with his blog. Hey, everyone, let’s all post something once a week for a month!” So — here I am, taking up the write-a-blog-a-week-for-a-month challenge (#AcWriBloMo – oh, yes). Appropriately, Het has blogged about her idea. I’ve reasoned that taking part will be a good way to touch on academic stuff, as well as keeping discipline in this stressy write-up month.

Today, the detective fiction expert Curtis Evans updated his blog. I think that much of his post should be essential reading for early career researchers looking at detective fiction or an equivalent strand of popular culture. Discussing the Cambridge Companion to American Crime Fiction (ed. Catherine Ross Nickerson; CUP, 2010), Curtis draws attention towards what is missing from the volume — and it’s a lot.

In fact, for an overview of the field, the Companion is remarkably elitist. As Curtis points out, the primary sources discussed by contributors belong to a limited range of authors: for example, Edgar Allen Poe, James M Cain, and Raymond Chandler. No surprises there. Major contributors to the field of American crime fiction are completely lacking:

[I]f you are looking for anything on Melville Davisson Post, Arthur B. Reeve, Erle Stanley Gardner, John Dickson Carr — was he counted as British?–or Ellery Queen, you will search in vain (wait, Gardner is listed as the author of an article) […T]he Companion [also] overlooks Phoebe Atwood Taylor, Craig Rice, Elizabeth Daly, Helen McCloy, Helen Reilly, Cornell Woolrich and most mid-century American women suspense writers as well.

You can sense his frustration when he notes that the volume as a whole seems to categorise the American tradition as hardboiled and masculine, dismissing any of the texts or authors who challenge either or both of these presumptions as mere imitators of “the” British tradition. Quite rightly, he is miffed by Nickerson’s editorial swipe at “connoisseurs and collectors, with their endless taxonomies, lists and value judgements.”

Ellery Queen is the American detective story, Anthony Boucher once wrote–but then I suppose Boucher was just one of those mere connoisseurs and collectors.  What did he know?

Unlike some detective fiction enthusiasts, Curtis Evans is not anti-academia. He has a PhD in history and a very scholarly approach to his blog and articles for CADS. He has also authored and edited a number of volumes for McFarland, most recently Masters of the Humdrum Mystery (2013) and Mysteries Unlocked: Essays in Honour of Douglas Greene (2014). I consider his blog to be a major resource for anyone interested in golden age detective fiction.

Recently, I properly explored Bill Peschel’s website for the first time. He is an American enthusiast who has self-published annotated editions of books by Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie. He has also compiled notes for various other titles which are viewable on his website. Although Bill was sceptical about the Agatha Christie conference I organised in April, asking, “will there be enough material?” and being generally amused by the idea of detective fiction schoalrship, he has meticulously searched and archived obscure points of the texts that interest him — that is a big part of the researcher’s job. In fact, he’s done a better job than I of collating Ariadne Oliver quotes.

Another blog, which has been around longer, is Martin Edwards’ Do You Write Under Your Own Name? Martin Edwards is a crime writer but also a golden age expert and previous archivist for the Detection Club. You will see his name in connection with various recent releases from HarperCollins and the British Library. He knows what he’s talking about, and uncovers some obscure gems on his blog. In the absence of a scholarly journal devoted to the golden age, it is the nearest thing and i am frankly amazed never to have seen it cited in research.

Now that detective fiction is a respectable topic of study in most universities (I’m still treading barren land in the conservative environs of Exeter), literature reviews can look odd. Post-1990 sources cited are of course attached to university presses and learned journals, while pre-1990 sources can include Howard Haycraft’s popular 1949 guidebook Murder for Pleasure (Heinemann), Robert Barnard’s Agatha Christie: A Talent to Deceive (Collins, 1980), and essays for anthologies and magazines by Dorothy L. Sayers….  these all clearly provide the intellectual engagement and rigour that gets academic work off the ground. Thing is, exactly this kind of scholarship is still going on today but we’re ignoring it because of academic elitism.

My own PhD thesis concerns queer theory and the detective fiction of Agatha Christie. If I hadn’t read the latest volume of queer literary theory then I’d be a laughing stock at the Viva. Why is it any less of a responsibility — I’d say, an imperative — to keep up-to-date in the field of detective fiction and what it means? Like many Christie academics, I make some quite big claims about her impact on literary scenes – e.g. she wrote one of the golden age novels with a female narrator, and one (well, three) of the only pre-1950 British whodunits to feature a child-murderer. Such claims wouldn’t have been possible without getting in touch with the above experts and others – they know more about the field than I ever will. How is that different to emailing a leading Joycean?

To summarise: as academics (and, let’s face it, most of us studying literature have some level of hidden fandom) we cannot ignore the rich archives, taxonomies, and research that enthusiasts continue to bring to the table.

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2 thoughts on “Detective Fiction Scholarship: Why Do We Ignore the Experts?

  1. This made me laugh – firstly at my own inopportune timing (sorry!), and then secondly at all Curtis’s excellent ire.
    I’m so glad for this heads up – I had no idea this guy even existed, and he’s clearly, as you say, extremely useful for people working on these kinds of genres.

  2. I’ve belatedly caught up with this very interesting post. Thanks for the kind words. I can’t claim to be an academic myself, but I do find plenty of interest in the increasing amount of academic discussion of crime fiction..

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