Death becomes them

The Mysterious Romance of Murder is not meant as a replacement, or an updating, of critical surveys of the detective genre such as Julian Symons’s Bloody Murder (1972) or David Lehman’s own The Perfect Murder: A study in detection (1989), which covers a wide historical range and includes a reading list. Rather, as Lehman explains in an afterword, his new book represents a reluctance to leave the topic behind, or to leave his ideas about crime novels and films scattered among the various periodicals in which many of them have already been published. The book is, essentially, a love letter to the items in its subtitle: “Crime, detection, and the spirit of noir”. Noir, in this book, does not need italics, and it can be a noun as well as an adjective.

A wide-ranging introduction runs quickly through early examples of criminals and detectives (including Oedipus, who is both), then focuses on familiar antitheses: the classic detective geniuses (and their less brilliant narrator-companions) versus the lonely private eye of noir fiction ; a society in which the police are merely incompetent versus one in which they are corrupt; women as helpless victims versus women who are sexy and dangerous. There are bite-size discussions of film noir topics such as the femme fatale, drinking, smoking, wisecracks and soundtracks, and there are a lot of book and film reviews. Although Lehman looks briefly at some subgenres, including spy fiction and campus murder novels, he makes no attempt to cover all the hybrid forms. He mentions The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, for instance, not for its medieval setting, but for its intriguing relation of the fictitious blind librarian Jorge of Burgos to the historical blind librarian Jorge Luis Borges, himself an experimenter with the detective genre.

As this emphasis indicates, the book is chiefly interested in the literary quality of crime fiction, rather than its incidental information about historical periods or police procedure. In The Perfect Murder Lehman had already said that detective novels “implicitly and automatically flatter the literary critic, whose own work so frequently resembles a species of detection”. In fact, many people now compare themselves to detectives: actors look for clues about the characters they are to play; scientific researchers attempt to crack codes; On the couch or engaged in self-analysis, many see themselves both as victims and as detectives in search of the who prevented them from reaching their full criminal potential. We also enjoy finding aspects of noir in our favorite genres. For me, that means the black humour of the Jacobean tragedy. In John Webster’s tragedy The White Devilwhich one character calls a “night-piece”, the villainous Flamineo comes out with wisecracks even when he is being stabbed to death (“Oh, what blade is it? A Toledo or an English fox?”).

Although critics of noir like to emphasize its subversive and disturbing qualities, its popularity is more likely to be due to what Lehman calls its “mysterious romance”. Like Beatrice and Benedick, men and women begin as enemies and are jolted into love by violence. (Audiences would love to see Beatrice and Benedick go on to solve the crime that leads to Hero’s near-death.) The wisecracks are the bridge between the two states.

The real originality of this book lies less in its critical comments than in its creativity. Lehman, who is also a poet, includes poems, his own and others’, inspired by or imitating noir. He even offers a haiku. His style ranges from chatty – “and Thelma Ritter gets offed, and Jean Peters gets beaten up like you wouldn’t believe” – to elaborate allusions recalling Philo Vance or Lord Peter Wimsey: a passage in Eric Ambler is “a heteronym in the manner of the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa”. After the punchy “Hammett can slam a story shut”, he adds: “as (to draw imagery from abstract expressionist painters) a Barnett Newman shuts the door after an Ad Reinhardt black-on-black turns off the lights in the room where Mark Rothko has pulled down the shades”. This, I take it, parodies the recondite allusions for which the detective genre is notorious (as is, in fact, the author of The White Devil). Literary quotations are used as both epigraphs and title in innumerable novels. The title of Nicholas Blake’s Thou Shell of Death (1936; Blake later revealed himself to be the poet Cecil Day-Lewis) is a clue as well as a quotation. As Lehman points out, Humphrey Bogart’s Marlowe even quotes Shakespeare at the end of The Maltese Falcon.

Noir characters not only quote but are quotable, and Lehman gives plenty of examples of put-downs and come-ons. As if conversing with another aficionado, he compares favorite actors and moments, repeats favorite wisecracks and tries to recreate the pleasure of the initial experience. In his casual way he also sparks ideas. The effectiveness of The Power of the Dog – meaning both Thomas Savage’s and the film made from it – resulted, I realized, from a twist on what Lehman calls the “inverted detective story”, whereby one watches the crime rather than the detection process. What the detective usually reveals at the end – the killer’s motive, means and identity – is visible throughout Savage’s story, but it is only at the very end that we realize there has been a crime.

Most readers will, like me, know fewer than half of the books and films discussed here, and will want to hunt down the ones that sound most interesting. My new discovery was The Horizontal Man by Helen Eustis, a hybrid “mystery” from the 1940s with a campus setting, a vivid depiction of mental illness from the inside and an initially hostile couple who spoke in wisecracks. How often does a critical book actually make one want to read the books it discusses?

Lois Potter is the Ned B. Allen Professor Emerita of the University of Delaware. Her most recent publication is Shakespeare and the Actor2022

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