Archive | September, 2008

PULP Precedents: Putting the Detective into Detective Fiction

10 Sep

Part psychoanalyst and part physical detection, part author of his own tale and part a product of his own time, the Detective has long been a symbol for the modern era of science, justice and the search for meaning in an increasingly anarchic world.

Old Scotland Yard

The Detective archetype also plays a pivotal role in some of the most famous Pulp fiction, from the original Bat-Man in Detective Comics and the first mention of the Continental Op in a 1923 issue of Black Mask magazine to The Maltese Falcon in 1941 and Polanski’s Chinatown, through to its numerous incarnations on the CSIs and investigation shows enthralling audiences worldwide. From their inception in England in 1843, the literati were already ascribing a specific character to the “detective police”; Andrew Wynter:

Stiff, calm and inexorable, an institution rather than a man… a machine, moving, thinking and speaking only as his instruction book directs… He seems… to have neither hopes nor fears.

Illustrations from a physiognomy text book: how to assess despair from appearance alone.

And more than this, they were the height of modernity. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) was yet to be published, but it was only the centre of a storm of scientific curiosity and academia; phrenology – the study of the human skull to determine the facets of the individual’s mind – had become an almost-accepted science; and physiognomy told the intelligentsia that character could be assessed from outward appearance alone. The original detectives, with little recourse to forensic science, had quickly to learn how to be both physiognomist and phrenologist. In 1860, Darwin predicted a time

when we regard every production of nature as one which has had a history; when we contemplate every complex structure as the summing up of many contrivances, each useful to the possessor.

Summing up with science and pseudo-science could have been a job description for the original detective police officers. Of the eight men who were initially assigned to the group, the most convincing case for the origin of an archetype has come in Detective Inspector Jonathan ‘Jack’ Whicher, whose profile in Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is as compelling as those of his fictional counterparts. Whicher was described by his colleagues as intelligent, quiet, of a perfectly ordinary stature and appearance, but full of the gall required to bluff out pickpockets and con artists. To Whicher, “finding out” a murderer was all about the “summing up of many contrivances”.

Constance Kent, prime suspect in the Road Hill murder case investigated by Whicher

Constance Kent, prime suspect in the Road Hill murder case investigated by Whicher.

The case that Summerscale covers involved an unsolved child murder at a country house in Road – a town near Bath – and the various family secrets and psyches that came to light during the investigation. Whicher was, at the time, in correspondence with Charles Dickens, whose interest in the detective phenomenon had begun almost as soon as their existence was made public. He eulogised them in an 1850 magazine piece as

respectable-looking men of perfectly good deportment and unusual intelligence… with an air of keen observation and quick perception when addressed.

But his primary fascination was with their psychological make up – what made them so effective at their jobs and why they above all others could ‘find out’ a suspect and convict them on the basis of nothing more than “keen observation”. Whicher reportedly told Dickens the tale of his apprehending a horse-thief on the basis of appearance alone. Whicher, alone in a country pub, told the man:

It’s no use. I know you. I’m an officer from London and I take you into custody for felony. I’m not alone here, whatever you may think. You mind your business, and keep yourselves to yourselves. It’ll be better for you.

Dickens’ Bleak House featured Inspector Bucket, a character based on Whicher’s colleague Charles Frederick Field; the first fictional police detective, he was a “sparkling stranger”. Though, like Whicher or Field, Dickens focussed on outward appearance and physical attributes (as well as names) to determine character, he also acknowledged in the unfinished Edwin Drood that “circumstances may accumulate so strongly even against an innocent man, that directed, sharpened, and pointed, they may slay him”.

The Whitechapel murders launched detective fever which surpassed even the tale of Road Hill. Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone pitted detectives and local investigators against a country house theft of a precious gemstone, and protagonist Sergeant Cuff’s investigation turns on psychology. He asks a suspect:

Do you feel an uncomfortable heat at the pit of your stomach, sir? and a nasty thumping at the top of your head?… I call it the detective-fever.

But Collins also wrote in 1860 in high praise of Eugene Vidocq, a French master criminal turned detective, who was “impudent, ingenious and daring”, and who went on to be the basis for Victor Hugo’s Inspector Javert and Jean Valjean. As in the Jack the Ripper case, the alluring detective had to share the stage with the equally intriguing criminal whose ingenuity kept his crimes under wraps.

The Detective had, in the minds of Dickens, Collins and many more authors, become one of the most interesting ‘metatypes’ that they had encountered. Their primary function echoed that of the authors they intrigued – creating a plot from nothing, following the clues that were laid out for them until they could string together what had happened, until they could introduce a coherent narrative.

Holmes in "Scandal in Bohemia", Strand Magazine, 1891

A Holmes illustration, Strand Magazine 1891

The concept of ‘detective as author’, perhaps most evident in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, brought the archetype into the public consciousness, made it fascinating, and dropped it into popular pulp fiction. The metatype went on to find its way, via Doyle and other writers, into the Pulp magazines of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The very British institution of the closed-house murder or theft (a la Road Hill or Collins) hit its peak with the Hound of the Baskervilles tale, but Doyle’s stories sat alongside those of Agatha Christie and PG Wodehouse. The psychological elements of the type did also find their way into American adventure periodicals such as the Argosy.

It is not surprising that tales of the stoic, observant Victorian police officer might merge into the mythos of the lone, law-keeping sheriff in the new West of the United States. Fanciful Dime Magazine tales of those heading in a westerly direction played up the same sense of mingled familiarity and exoticism which attracted the British public to horrific murders resolved by ordinary, plain-clothed men. And like the Penny Dreadfuls in England, Dime Magazines exalted in the tales regardless of their accuracy. Amidst Westerns and Detectives, others such as HG Wells were exploiting this

Beadles Dime Novels, the origin of a name

Beadle's Dime Novels, the origin of a name

familiar/exotic fascination with ‘speculative fiction’, the precursor to sci-fi.

Born in 1888 in Chicago, Raymond Chandler started out writing (by his own admission) terrible poetry in British literary magazines. But after his move back to post-World War I North America, he moved into the Pulp realm with stories in Black Mask magazine. Uniquely situated as a trans-Atlantic Pulpist, his Philip Marlowe embodied the very essence of the original detective police with an American twist. The thoroughly modern city-dweller, the lone sheriff, but also an aspirant criminal psychologist and complex character.

What is more, Marlowe – and by extension Chandler – also used a very Dickensian method of character assessment: physiognomy is alive and well in the wealthy world of 1930s LA. In The Big Sleep, he describes General Sterwood:

an old and obviously dying man watched us come and go with black eyes from which all fire had died long ago.  His long narrow body was wrapped… in a travelling rug and a faded red bath robe.

Basing his summing up on both outward appearance and assessment of inward character, Chandler echoes – albeit less directly – Dickens’ style. Miss Havisham had

bridal flowers in her hair, but her hair was white… I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes.

Marlowe is both a detective like Whicher and Field, and a Pulp hero interacting with outlaws and bandits in a new world. Chandler’s strength as a detective writer was in his balancing the depressing realism of a Whicher (taking on the tawdry characters in LA, the vicious killings, the adultery and indiscriminate relationships) with the romantic magic of Pulp westerns and superheroics (the style he employed in describing Marlowe’s world.)

But it was only with movies such as The Big Sleep that the detective became entrenched in the public consciousness.

Humphrey, in a shot from The Big Sleep

Humphrey, in a shot from The Big Sleep.

In turn, the tropes of film noir – stark chiaroscuro, stock types (gangster, detective, PI, femme fatale) and convoluted plot – came directly from the fusion of expressionism and Pulp stories. The archetype that leading men such as Humphrey Bogart embodied almost became the standard for generations of quiet-but-tough title characters. The style also played into a greater interest in the underlying psyches of the detective characters. Post-Freud, the eroticism and repressed violence often bubbled over into the action. Freud compared his role to that of the detective:

the task of the therapist is… the same as that of the examining magistrate. We have to uncover the hidden psychic material; and in order to do this we have invented a number of detective devices.

From phrenology to physiognomy to psychoanalysis, the modern Pulp Detective was born. In reality a complex character, but also an archetype appropriated by Victorian authors. Like Dickens and Wilkie Collins, the “detective police” had to be great readers of men. Post-Darwin, post-modern and post-science, their task was to find out the culprits on the basis that everyone was a product of their own character and experience, that personalities were cut-ups. Author of their own work, the detective remains one of the most important – and most modern – Pulp icons, from Jonathan Whicher and Darwin to Philip Marlowe and Freud, all by way of Pulp fiction.

DLR 10.09.08

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