Murder in the Wasteland

The mystery novel, to borrow a line from Original Sin, has all the virtues of its defects. "The mystery," Baroness James explained in a recent Washington Post interview, "deals with the planned murder" and is thus confined to a certain formulaic structure in which a detective protagonist confronts an often unsavory lot of suspects, all of whom must be plausible as potential killers; and, through his own deductive powers, exposes the perpetrator and makes right a universal order disturbed by the open rebellion that is murder. The killer is most often either a supreme egotist who kills for personal gain or satisfaction, or a vengeful Ahab whose angry rejection of the universal order amounts to blasphemy. Thus, in some ways, the mystery novel, which so often utilizes stereotype and structural formula along with a recurring protagonist for the sake of a stable point of view, is supremely predictable. The mystery has had great difficulty, therefore, in being accepted as am thing but diversion by modern critics, who have been trained to look down their collective noses at the very concept of form in art. After all, the mystery has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and is predicated on form and structure, conflict and resolution. In the conventional mystery novel, the murderer will be found out.

What many critics have long forgotten is the purpose of the form. The mystery, like Greek tragedy,...

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