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  • Formal Investigations: Aesthetic Style in Late-Victorian and Edwardian Detective Fiction
  • Heather Worthington (bio)
Formal Investigations: Aesthetic Style in Late-Victorian and Edwardian Detective Fiction edited by Paul Fox and Koray Melikoglu; pp. 239. Stuttgart: Ibidem, 2007. $42.20 paper.

It is not often that the words "detective fiction" and "aesthetics" are coupled; certainly there is an aesthetic pleasure to be found in the perfection of the puzzle epitomized in the work of Agatha Christie, but detective fiction's popular success has tended to locate it as lowbrow literature and hence inappropriate for aesthetic consideration. Early critical work on detective fiction, perhaps most notably by Dorothy L. Sayers and Howard Haycraft, sought to relocate this popular form as artistic and aesthetic, as a genre of fiction that imposed order on chaos and that in its conformity, methodology, and satisfying closure could be argued to improve on nature. In similar spirit, Formal Investigations deliberately considers fin-de-siècle detective fiction in terms of aesthetic style.

Paul Fox's masterly introduction analyzes an 1888 Punch cartoon depicting the transgressive pleasures of reading about murder in order to demonstrate how art imposes order in the representation of crime whether visually or textually, through aesthetic form. He suggests that "the detective's craft is the personification of aesthetic ordering within crime fiction" (ix). As Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes represents the apotheosis of the detective, the collection appropriately commences with Holmes, analyzing both the Victorian and Edwardian periods, before culminating with an analysis of E.C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case (1913). While Holmes is a recurring figure, the delight of Formal Investigations resides in the contributors' selection of eclectic literature, a selection that brings to the reader's attention detective fiction that has previously attracted little criminographic criticism while simultaneously offering new insights into canonical crime narratives.

Most closely engaged with aesthetics are Paul Fox's "Devolved Forms: Aesthetic Solutions to the Contentious Style of Arthur Machen's 'The Great God Pan'" and Elizabeth Anderman's "Interpreting the Work of Art and Reading Clues: Aesthetics and Detection in Wilkie Collins's The Law and the Lady." Both [End Page 267] use the concept of art ordering chaos, and Fox argues convincingly that in Machen's "detective story," a chaos of seemingly fragmented and multi-generic narratives represents "the chaotic nature of existence" (62). Anderman considers the plenitude of visual imagery in The Law and the Lady, focusing on the physically deformed Miserrimus Dexter and his paintings. She suggests that, as in Pater's theorization of aesthetic artistic appreciation, visual clues in Collins's detective fiction must be read at a sensory as well as a literal level in order to see and appreciate—to comprehend—the whole picture.

Lucy Sussex's "The Art of Murder and Fine Furniture: The Aesthetic Projects of Anna Katharine Green and Charles Rohlfs" makes a direct link between the crafts of furniture making and of writing detective fiction, demonstrating the couple's "shared aesthetic project in terms of Arts and Crafts ideals [...] that the fine art of fictional murder can be paralleled with the creation of fine furniture" (159) and its representation in their work and lives. The essay adds an American dimension to the collection and introduces the theme of domesticity, which is also the focus of Rudolph Glitz's "Horrifying Ho(l)mes: Conan Doyle's Bachelor Detective and the Aesthetics of Domestic Realism." Glitz suggests that, while Holmes's detection makes commonplace the apparently exotic crimes with which the detective engages, providing aesthetically pleasing closure and a superficial restoration of order, in their location of crime in the domestic sphere and in the context of interfamilial relationships, the narratives also criticize contemporary social reality.

The domestic is again foregrounded in Alison Jacquet's "Domesticating the Art of Detection: Ellen Wood's Johnny Ludlow Series." Jacquet contends that "the domestic is the operating aesthetic" (181) in Wood's short detective fictions and that the domestic sphere proves to be a site of struggle, the female-authored stories demonstrating a discursive complexity absent from contemporaneous masculine detective narratives. The proliferation of the female detective in the 1890s is explored in Therie Hendrey...


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pp. 267-269
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