- The Case of the Disappearing Enigma
Asked to give examples of detection narratives, one might first mention paradigms of the detective genre from either the classical or hard-boiled traditions. But the study of detection need not be restricted to the generic as familiarly construed. 1 Our interest in detection is transgeneric, which is why we speak in terms of “detection narratives” rather than the detective genre. We are as interested in detection narratives that exploit the generic tendencies of suspense or comedy as we are in nongeneric narratives that feature an investigation of some mystery or crime. While what we have to say about detection, interpretation, and narrative explanation is generally applicable to both literary and non-literary detection narratives, our five main examples are all unapologetically taken from cinema. We have selected these five just because they are unlikely to strike anyone as an intuitively obvious group of films. They are The Thin Man (W. S. Van Dyke, 1934), a mystery/comedy; The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941), standardly cited as the earliest film noir and a paradigm of the cinematic hard-boiled detective genre; All The President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula, 1976), a political thriller based on Bernstein and Woodward’s nonfictional investigation of the Watergate break-in; Nicholas Roeg’s 1980 Bad Timing, a nongeneric film about sensual obsession; and Woody Allen’s 1993 comedy of manners, Manhattan Murder Mystery.
Whether focusing on the investigation of a crime, the unraveling of a puzzle, or the solution of a mystery, detection narratives exhibit what Frank Kermode calls “a specialized ‘hermeneutic’ organization.” 2 As such, they call for a particular sort of investigation: namely, a hermeneutical one. Often we think about hermeneutical investigations as [End Page 123] interpretations and assume that the proper object of such interpretations is a text. Thinking primarily about literary texts, David Novitz argues that the function of such explanations is to “solve certain puzzles, answer certain questions, dispel confusions, or eliminate doubts about . . . the theme of a work or its plot, [or] about the actions, motives, or machinations of fictional characters. . . .” 3
Of course, interpretation is not restricted to literary texts, nor to answering specific questions about such matters as theme or plot or character motivation, nor does Novitz suggest it is. But when the object of interpretation is a text—literary, cinematic, legal, or other—it is arguable that interpretation is not restricted to those localized aspects of the text which we take to be puzzling. Novitz’s position is that interpretation only occurs when one confronts a specific puzzle or problem. What we understand directly is not, on this account, interpreted; interpretation is required only where we do not understand. The consideration of detection narratives suggests that understanding and interpretation are more closely related than Novitz seems to allow.
In our attempts to make sense of the course of action of any detection narrative, there is always the question whether we have understood a given situation, event, action or statement correctly. It is always a question whether we have correctly distinguished between clues and red herrings. Detection narratives operate on the basis of a continual questioning—both for the detective and for the reader or viewer—as to whether we do, in fact, understand what is happening.
This questioning attitude is keyed to the uncertainty as to whether we have correctly recognized what information is salient, which characters’ testimony is trustworthy. At various moments in any detection narrative, the detective (or reader/viewer) will have reason to question the reliability of their own assessment of what is going on. There is the risk of being mistaken, but also the risk of being deceived. So the appropriate attitude to detection narratives is an interpretive one, an attitude that asks questions about what is presented.
Of course, particular questions cannot even be sensibly asked in the absence of a larger interpretive framework which gives the particular question its point. Not only the detective, but the reader or viewer, is well advised to contextualize any particular event or action as a (potential) part of what we call, adapting a notion of David Carr’s, an action of large...