The [detective] story has at its heart the crime of murder, often in its most horrific and violent form, yet we read the novels primarily for entertainment, a comforting, even cosy relief from the anxieties, problems and irritations of everyday life. Its prime concern–indeed its raison d’être–is the establishment of truth, yet it employs and glories in deceit: the murderer attempts to deceive the detective; the writer sets out to deceive the reader, to make him believe that the guilty are innocent, the innocent guilty; and the better the deception the more effective the book….The detective story deals with the most dramatic and tragic manifestations of man’s nature and the ultimate disruption of murder, yet the form itself it orderly, controlled, formulaic, providing a secure structure within which the imaginations of writer and reader alike can confront the unthinkable.
This same chapter opens with the following quote:
The detective novel…is aimed above all at the intelligence; and this could constitute for it a title to nobility. It i in any case perhaps one of the reasons for the favour it enjoys. A good detective story possesses certain qualities of harmony, internal organisation and balance, which respond to certain needs of the spirit, needs which some modern literature, priding itself on being superior, very often neglects.
This thought-provoking observation comes from Le “detective novel” et l’influence de la pensée scientifique, by Régis Messac. Written in 1929, its subject is the history of the French detective novel, or ‘roman policier’ as it is usually termed in France. According to the book’s description on Amazon – or rather, my translation of that description – Messac submitted this work as a doctoral thesis while studying at the Sorbonne. It was apparently the first work on this subject to be received there and has since come to be considered a pioneering study.
I’m grateful to P.D. James for this reference; I had not previously heard of Monsieur Messac. In the introduction to his survey of detective fiction, Professor Charles J. Rzepka of Boston University singles out “Regis Messac’s magisterial dissertation” for special praise. (I am not sure if this treatise has been translated into English.)
This might be a good time for me to recommend “The Little Old Man of Batignolles” by Émile Gaboriau. This story (or short novella) is included in The Dead Witness, Michael Sims’s excellent collection of Victorian mysteries. (Also to be found in that same collection is “The Diary of Anne Rodway” by Wilkie Collins.)
I recently came upon a site called Detnovel.com. While not comprehensive, Detnovel has lots of interesting material on various aspects of mystery novels and films. It comes to us courtesy of Professor William Marling of Case Western Reserve University. Professor Marling has a special interest in noir fiction