Frye and Detective Fiction


The conclusion of the 1939 film adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, starring Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes.

Further to Professor Mondo’s earlier post, here is one of  a number of Frye’s observations in the notebooks on the detective story, via Bob Denham’s Northrop Frye Unbuttoned.

I don’t think that I have either a highbrow or a lowbrow pose about detective stories, but I don’t really quite understand why I like reading them.  I read them partly for the sake of the overtones.  I’m not a connoisseur of them: I can never guess what the hell’s up when the detective pulls out a watch and shouts: “My God, we may yet be in time!”, shoves the narrator and half the country’s police force into a taxi, dashes madly across town and finds the girl I’d placidly thought was the heroine all equipped with a blunt instrument & an animal snarl.  I’m always led by the nose up the garden path in search of a false clue, and I never notice inconsistencies.  And I always get let down when I find out who dun it.  As I say, I like overtones.  A good style, some traces of wit & characterization, a sense of atmosphere, and a lot of the professional intricacies of the game can go to hell.  Yet I want a good novel in that particular convention & no other.  The answer is, I think, that I’m naturally a slow & reflective reader, & make copious marginalia.  In the detective story I live for a moment in the pure present: I’m passively pulled along from stimulus to stimulus, and, ignorant & idle as that doubtless is, I’m fascinated by it.  Yet I seldom finish with disappointment. (67)

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One thought on “Frye and Detective Fiction

  1. Tamara M

    I find the same kind of pleasure from reading airport crime novels, Stuart Woods and the like. The instant gratification of the fast-paced plot seems to be a perfect Sunday afternoon diversion. I like to keep a couple in my reading rotation to keep me fresh for the more in depth reading that usually consumes me. How nice to know that Frye also appreciated the value of the casual read.


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