- Interview with John Irwin
According to your Preface, your last book, The Mystery of a Solution: Poe, Borges, and the Analytic Detective Stories, inspired you to move from analytic detective to hard-boiled detective fiction. In Unless the Threat of Death is Behind Them, you discuss similarities and differences between the hard-boiled genre and Poe's work, concluding that for all the differences between them, Poe was very influential. Are there connections between Poe's work on the perverse and the hard-boiled theme of the uncanny that speak to your analysis of being your own boss (concepts of coherent self/developed identity etc.)?
Let me give a roundabout answer to this question. I originally became interested in writing about the analytic detective story in Poe and Borges because it seemed to me that the genre, as Poe originated it in the three Dupin stories, was mainly concerned with doubling, and since I'd written about doubling in two previous books (Doubling and Incest: A Speculative Reading of Faulkner and American Hieroglyphics) and since Poe figured significantly in both those works, it was a natural progression to write about doubling in Poe's detective stories and also about Borges, who set out a hundred years after the appearance of the Dupin stories to double the genre's origin with three detective stories of his own that formed a kind of creative/critical commentary on the genre's tradition. But where Poe's detective stories are central to analytic detective fiction, they probably function more as negative influence (a go-and-do-otherwise paradigm) for hard-boiled fiction, while the Poe stories that are a positive influence for hard-boiled fiction are those that explicitly or implicitly elaborate the "perverse" as a motive (e.g. "The Imp of the Perverse," "The Black Cat," "The Tell-Tale Heart") for the characters' self-consciously committing an action that is against their own best interests. What led me from the analytic detective stories to hard-boiled fiction was to some extent the fact that the latter had come into being in opposition to analytic detective fiction, had positioned itself as a more realistic form of detective fiction, though it was soon just as stylized as the analytic variety. And what seemed to me most interesting [End Page 171] and significant about hard-boiled fiction was that it gained much of its power from annexing to people's innate interest in solving a mystery, the presentation of what seems the central conflict in the lives of most modern Americans—the conflict between their work and their personal relations. In The Maltese Falcon and all the Chandler novels that conflict is solved by the detectives unashamedly opting for their work over their love for a beautiful woman, while in Double Indemnity and High Sierra the protagonist is destroyed by choosing a personal relationship over his work. And though the hard-boiled novels I discussed are considered popular fiction rather than high-art fiction, yet it seemed to me that some of these popular works confronted more real, and really serious, issues and confronted them in a more artful and entertaining way than did a great deal of modern high-art fiction, hence the reason for their popularity and for their staying power.
Again connecting The Mystery of a Solution with Unless the Threat of Death is Behind Them, does detective fiction as a whole deal with anxieties about reality, control, and fragmentation (analytic dealing in much different ways than hard-boiled)?
Yes, probably it does, but not in ways that interest me.
Did you select the major texts with which you work because they were the author's seminal work? Or because they provided the best to work with in terms of text and film adaptation? What is your textual selection process and was there another book that you would have liked to analyze in-depth for this project?
I selected the texts because I thought that they were each the author's best book or books, because each had had a distinguished film adaptation, and because...