Detecting the Margins: New Perspectives on the Critical History of Detective Fiction (Panel)


Cultural Studies and Media Studies / Anglophone

Mollie Eisenberg (Princeton University)

Since its emergence from the periodical press into the first mass-market novelistic craze, detective fiction has occupied a liminal position in the margins of critical study—a popular genre, a “literature of escape,” that nevertheless seems to make a claim to, and find purchase in, more rarefied aesthetic and intellectual precincts. Michael Holquist styles detection as a guilty pleasure of the reading classes: “The same people who spent their days with James Joyce were reading Agatha Christie at night.”

Because of this tenuous position, academic critics of detection often experience themselves as operating in a critical vacuum, obliged to defend their object of study—as a result, there are more beginnings than middles in the scholarship of the genre. But the critical history of detective fiction is far from sparse: beyond the (persistent) debate over its literary status, the genre has galvanized generalists (Barzun, Haycraft, Symons); attracted the attention of scholars working from materialist, historical, and cultural-studies approaches; supported major critical work (D.A. Miller’s The Novel and the Police, Mark McGurl’s The Novel Art); and fascinated theorists (Lacan, Jameson, Boltanski, Moretti). And as detection proliferates into new styles, hybrid forms, and diasporic territory, it shows no sign of going away.

To move beyond the received sense of critical absence that hamstrings its study, then, the genre’s scholars must play detective: gather the clues, match story against story, synthesize a narrative that matches and contextualizes the facts. This panel solicits new understandings of the critical history of detective fiction. What are its consensuses and its controversies, its conceptions and misconceptions, its crucial terms, lacunae, and stakes? What can reconstructing its critical history make visible about the genre? What can that reconstruction, and the fact of its necessity, make visible about criticism, its institutional contexts, its methods and practices, and its margins?

Scholars of detective fiction often experience themselves as working in a critical vacuum, reading and thinking against the grain of canon and lacking a critical lineage and foundation. This makes evident the strange invisibility of the critical history of detective fiction—the marginalization of a vein of study that has in fact been in continuous and fairly robust practice since the beginning of its genre and extends far beyond the persistent debate over that genre's literary status and attendant worthiness as an object of study. What is made visible (about the genre and about criticism's practices, methods, margins, and conditions) by the reconstitution of a critical history of the detective genre, and by the fact of its necessity? This panel solicits new understandings of the intertwined histories of detective fiction and its criticism.