GLEN COVE, NY — Once, detective stories were an
essential element of popular fiction. That their golden age has long
passed is a sad commentary on today’s
educational and cultural environments.
Detective stories were often written by respected writers, such as
G. K. Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Arthur Conan Doyle. Isaac
Asimov wrote detective/science fiction stories that followed the classical
pattern. The books usually came bound with a floor plan of a large
country house next to the title page. The heroes of these stories were
an eclectic group: a member of the House of Lords, a Jesuit priest,
a Belgian detective, and a recovering drug addict who lived with his
doctor in London. Whatever their differences, the common element these
unlikely characters shared was that they were not police detectives
conducting official investigations. This exclusion was, indeed, the
subject of good-natured self-ridicule by the authors.
The classic detective story typically began with a murder in a country
house large enough to have a dozen suspects on hand. The police detective
assigned to the case always picked the wrong suspect. Readers were
introduced to all the suspects, and along the way, were given well-disguised
clues as to which one was actually guilty. At the end, the hero exposed
the guilty party, usually in the presence of every character in the
book. This would be a chance for readers to either congratulate themselves
on getting it right or wonder how they had gotten it wrong.
Unfortunately, the detective story has been replaced by another kind
of book. Janet Evanovich’s seventeenth novel about Stephanie
Plum recently was in first place on the fiction best seller list. These
books feature a heroine who is forced by the need for money to work
as a bounty hunter for her cousin’s bail bond agency in New Jersey.
Typically, she witnesses a murder while trying ineptly to arrest a
person who has skipped bail. She is romantically involved with two
people: a police officer who went to high school with her and a strange
and powerful head of a security company who is known simply as Ranger.
Her grandmother and her main coworker are eccentric. Her chief nemesis
is a high school classmate who is a much better female bounty hunter.
The books are amusing and well written, and while they resemble detective
stories, they differ in substance. Ranger usually solves the murder
by introducing a new character or organization not previously mentioned
in the book, or by explaining a new motive of which there was never
any hint. In other words, there is no hope of figuring out the end.
This difference is crucial. Once, popular crime fiction challenged
us to use imagination and logic to solve mysteries. Today, crime fiction
simply asks us to sit back and read about the adventures, clothes,
and romantic life of the heroine until Ranger gives us the answers.
There are several reasons for this. In the past, the curricula of
high schools typically included a rigorous course in logic. This is
no longer true, and we can see the results in the decline of logical
thinking and the substitution of slogans for arguments. Related to
this is the rise of relativism that ultimately implies that the illogical
answer and the logical answer to a question have equal validity.
Only slightly less important in explaining the decline of crime fiction
is the destruction of imagination. A large part of our entertainment
comes in large-screen, full-color images. This format does not challenge
the imagination the way a book or a radio story does. Even more destructive
of the imagination is the abandonment of virtually all restrictions
on explicitness in our entertainment.
Our crime fiction today is written for people without logic or imagination
— and not surprisingly, it is vastly inferior to a good Father Brown
or Lord Peter Wimsey novel.
The Confederate Lawyer column is copyright © 2011
by Charles G. Mills and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, www.fgfBooks.com.
All rights reserved.
Charles G. Mills is the Judge Advocate or general counsel for the
New York State American Legion. He has forty years of experience in
many trial and appellate courts and has published several articles
about the law.
See his biographical sketch and additional columns here.
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