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Reviewed by:
Ronald G. Walker and June M. Frazer, eds. The Cunning Craft: Original Essays on Detective Fiction and Contemporary Literary Theory. Macomb: Western Illinois UP, 1990. 210 pp. No price given.

This collection of fourteen essays exemplifies what I would call the third era of modern criticism about detective fiction. We can locate the first period of interest in the Golden Age apologias for the genre, the type written primarily by practitioners like Dorothy Sayers, Freeman Wills Croft, or S. S. Van Dine. These treatises treat detective fiction as a serious game or diversion but never as a kind of writing that functions in the same ways as other literatures. The second wave appears in the 1960s and 1970s when the study of popular/mass culture becomes a legitimate form of inquiry and analysis; yet detective fiction is still treated as a form separate from "high" literature. An inevitable consequence of the critical revolution of the 1970s and 1980s has been the blurring or obliteration of strict distinctions between "high" and "mass" art. As the editors observe, the central questions is "no longer who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd but why and how they care, what form their caring takes. These are more properly questions addressed by criticism, and it is surely not coincidental that detective fiction has attracted a growing number and variety of responses from literary theorists and critics in recent decades."

The collection can be divided into five "approaches" sections. The first three essays focus on the general interconnectedness of detecting mysteries and the activity of reading. The writers use principles of narratology, Foucauldian cultural poetics, and Iserian reader-response to elucidate works by Poe, Wilkie Collins, and various other writers. The essays in the second section provide detailed analyses of narrative discourse (using various deconstructive techniques) in touchstone texts by Poe, Doyle, and Christie. In the third section, the shifting boundary of double-labelled works—detective novels that might also be called ethical romances, mimetic novels, or medieval romance are examined. The approaches here include reader response from Iser and Fish as well as generic definitions from Frye and Jameson. In the penultimate section, the essays analyze modernist and postmodernist works from perspectives derived from Derrida, Lacan, Greimas, and Barthes. The final essay provides a developmental feminist analysis of four contemporary feminist detective works.

Aside from this formal organizational pattern, the essays inform each other in all sorts of unexpected ways. Woods' cultural poetics essay on the necessary [End Page 348] emergence of the detective figure in the 19th century (using Foucault's Discipline and Punish) provides an excellent historical and theoretical segue into the deconstructive readings in the essays by Christianson, Birns and Birns, and Farrell.

This collection provides uniformly excellent readings of the "canonical" texts of detective fiction. As noted in the afterword, it certainly delves into the political and gendered ideologies embedded in detective fiction, perhaps more thoroughly into politics than gender. The absence of an essay using feminist narrative theory to examine breakdowns, changes, or experiments in using forms other than the traditional phallocentric narrative structure seems a significant absence. Another important absence is any significant discussion of racial or postcolonial ideology in the genre. Perhaps the second best effect (after the revelations of the essays) of Cunning Craft is my desire for the quick appearance of a second volume that deals even more thoroughly with these two issues as well as other aspects of a genre more flexible and expansive than we ordinarily conceive.

Larry D. Harred
University of Wisconsin—River Falls


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pp. 348-349
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