Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Heroes of our Civilization

A couple of weeks ago Lawrence Auster noted that this month marked the hundredth anniversary of the return of Sherlock Holmes. He calls Holmes and Watson "heroes of our civilization."

He's right about that. Great detective stories and mysteries are profoundly moral at their core despite being hugely entertaining Sadly, the "evolution" of the detective and mystery genre in recent years has focused on eroding that core.

In From Dawn to Decadence, Jacques, Barzun wrote of mystery novels:

Later observers psychologized and said that reading the tales purged the lust for mayhem. This showed complete ignorance, since the genre does not dwell on the physical act of murder and the corpse is usually disposed in the first few pages. What the stories satisfied was fascination with method-- an aspect of scientism-- coupled with the pleasure of seeing crime put down; in other words, Reason and Right..... crime fiction stacked the cards against the killer and concentrated on justice and the rare mind endowed with 'ratiocinative power'.
That discreet disposal of the corpse is largely a thing of the past. Especially on TV and in movies the emphasis is on more gore in bright colors in extreme close-up in super-slow motion. (See any episode of CSI or its imitators). It seems to me that there is a wide gulf between "Carol Greene was stabbed and murdered" and "the blade was heavy and serrated. It sliced the carotid arteries and cut part way through the vertebrae." One is about a moral transgression and a human victim. The other is about skill, technique, and equipment. (See related post here).

Once upon a time a single murder was enough to propel a novel. Many short stores, in fact, had no mayhem at all. Holmes foiled bank robbers, jewel thieves, and blackmailers in many of the stories. Now we seem to be obsessed with serial killers. Without a high body count, a novel gets relegated to "cozy" status.

Figures like Holmes or Peter Wimsey are fictional and bear little resemblance to real detectives. But they are hyper-realistic compared to the serial killers in modern thrillers. Writers like Thomas Harris have turned the detectives into somewhat intelligent bureaucrats while making the killer the one endowed with the rare mind. Philip Marlowe is only the " personification of an attitude, the exaggeration of a possibility;" Hannibal Lector bears no resemblance to real serial killers. He is the personification of an impossibility as a criminal, but the perfect example of moral rot as an "artistic" creation.

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