Only Immaterial Witnesses and Cluelessness: The Anti-Detective in Literature and Film

I propose two theories as to the origin of the detective as an important figure in the collective unconscious.  One, that detectives are the byproducts of the paradigm shifts in thoughts and ideals.  For example, if you read medieval literature or plays, it’s unlikely you will come across a detective character (Umberto Eco played with this period in his detective book The Name of the Rose).  However, the nineteenth century was littered with detectives.  Just about every major novelist tried their hand at a detective novel.  The more well-known examples would be Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series and Poe’s Daupin stories.  You could say though that the detective only exists as a carryover from the Age of Enlightenment.  It’s from Hume that we get the idea that empirical proof is necessary to prove anything as true, hence the detective’s search for clues.  Newton’s heliocentric cosmology convinced people (sooner or later) that not everything was written in the stars, and suddenly a person’s murder wasn’t seen as fate but as something human.  So one theory would be that this line of thought matured in the nineteenth century, and gave us the detective.

The other theory would be that detective’s were byproducts of the times themselves.  For instance, Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Poe’s Detective Daupin both originated in highly industrialized cities: London and New York respectively.  Within these cities, poverty was widespread, and populations were high.  With so many people about, anonymity set in unavoidably.  Within this swell of faces, murderers showed up more and more.  The murderers themselves were very likely themselves byproducts of poverty and anonymity.  Jack the Ripper would be the most famous example.  Sherlock Holmes as a character first gained popularity right around the same time that the Jack the Ripper murders were happening.  Holmes then was a fictional hero that made people think there was justice, that someone was looking out for them, and that deductive reasoning could find the killers.  The same can be said of Daupin.

But what of the anti-detective?  The anti-detective is a character type is that is showing up more and more over the past 50 years or so.  If the term isn’t known to you, the anti-detective is one that is characterized as, in many ways, ineffectual or jejune, or misled, or one who uses strange methods.  Here’s a list of examples of anti-detectives.  As much as possible, I tried to list these in chronological order, so as to give the semblance of a pattern.

Detective Milton Arbogast from Psycho (1960):  I don’t know if I’d necessarily call Milton the start of the anti-detective, or perhaps as the logical end of the detective.  He’s a mostly forgettable character from the Hitchcock film Psycho, and probably the least important of the key characters.  If you rewatch the film and pay especial attention to him though, I think you’ll find his character rather provocative.  In movies from this time and before, detectives were so frequently these sort of magical characters, who were benevolent and quick to figure out the villain’s ploy.  Think of Edward G. Robinson’s insurance agent who foils the villain’s schemes in Double Indemnity, or of the amiable detective in Les Diaboliques who solves the case even though it’s entirely byzantine.  Milton Arbogast greatly resembles both of those characters, something that was very likely intended by Hitchcock.  The difference is, Milton is easily duped, then murdered, and accomplishes very little.  He does the things detectives are expected to do: he investigates, questions people, follows his nose, snoops and so on.  All his actions though only lead him to the right place at the wrong time, when he is killed by a man he still thinks is an invalided old woman.  In his expression, as he is being slashed and as he falls down the stairs, the viewer sees shock–but is it the shock of dying, or the shock of realizing something he did not understand was going on?  In the penultimate scene of the film, a man explains the killer’s actions, and this man is a psychologist.  He is the one who plays the role that the detective would normally play, except, in Hitchcock’s vision, it’s the psychologist who succeeds where the detective cannot.  The detective is now the one who is outdated.

Oedipa Maas, from The Crying of Lot 49 (1966):  I’ll keep this section brief because I’m planning on writing up a much more detailed post about the Thomas Pynchon novel.  For now, let me just point out that Oedipa is a woman who is put in the position of being a detective when she is made the executress of her ex-boyfriend’s will.  She begins to understand that there was more to the man than he let on, but as she investigates his doings, she’s placed on a path that only spirals outwards, whereas the detective’s usual quest is one that follows a relatively straight and linear course.  This is, in the truest sense, the first anti-detective novel.

Harper (1966):  This anti-detective character Harper was the eponymous hero of a film that came out in 1966 played by Paul Newman, and whether this is a directly mimetic exchange or just an example of the zeitgeist is largely open to conjecture.  Harper is a detective in a post-Psycho world where detectives are no longer adequate.  He may or may not even know this; his nihilistic attitude suggests much.  His quest involves following leads that seem largely arbitrary, as if the plot is in place only to take Harper (and the viewer) to different areas in California to provide social commentary.  Over the course of the film, many characters die but in the end you’re left wondering if Harper, in all of his journeying, actually achieves much of anything.  Doesn’t John Barth in Chimera say that the quest is the key?  Well the search is the solution with Harper.

Pulp (1972):  This Michael Caine film was hardly seen when it was released, and hasn’t had much of an audience since.  Thematically, it’s very similar to Harper.  In this story, the detective is a man who had previously spent large amounts of his time cranking out pulp mysteries and romances, but wants something else to occupy his time with.  He is then hired to write the biography of a fading film star (played by Mickey Rooney), who is himself killed, leading the novelist on a quest that resembles his fiction.  The question that’s asked is, is he doing this justice, or just for entertainment?

City of Glass (1985):  As an anti-detective novel, Paul Auster’s novella City of Glass is second only to The Crying of Lot 49 in terms of subverting the genre and taking it in new directions.  Largely by coincidence, a man is sent on a strange quest by picking up the phone to a wrong number.  The person on the other end of the line happens to be asking for Paul Auster.  The narrator then accepts, falsely claiming he is Paul, which sets him down a mind-bending path, including a scene where he meets the real (?) Paul Auster.  Solving the mystery only means dissolution: dissolution of the narrator’s personality, as well as the dissolution of the novel itself.

Twin Peaks (1990):  Kyle Maclachlan’s character special agent Dale Cooper is, in my opinion, the most likeable and interesting of anti-detectives discussed here, even though, as an anti-detective, his role is open to scrutiny.  Maclachlan had already played a much more overt anti-detective in Blue Velvet.  In Twin Peaks, his character at first seems much like the detective as we typically picture one, except that his methods are different.  He subverts the entire detective tradition as it derives from Hume.  Instead of relying on empirical methods, he goes so far as to rely on messages he hears in dreams.  Hume was an agnostic who hewed to logic and reality as much as possible; Dale Cooper though, while his religion is never stated, believes in the ideal that all things are in some inexplicable fashion, all things are interrelated.  He allows for the possibility of chance or coincidence, but doesn’t much believe in them.  This is showed very clearly in a scene where he throws rocks at a bottle, knowing that if he were to hit the bottle, this would mean something portentous.  By these methods, he does find the killer, but it takes him so long, you’ll wonder how effective his methods were.  You’ll also wonder, is he the hero of the story, or is he the story itself?

Night Train (1997):  The Martin Amis novel Night Train is in some ways similar to Harper, where the mystery at the core gives the story a chance to deliver a wide range of social commentary.  In the case of Night Train, it’s dark social commentary about what Amis sees to be the ills of America.  In the beginning, a detective becomes aware of a young woman who recently died of an apparent suicide, but the story turns into an inversion of the locked room mystery cliche.   As the detective questions everyone who knew the deceased, she ends up finding out more about the girl’s life than the details of her death.  The reader has to wonder, is there a mystery, or does the protagonist simply want there to be a mystery?

The Dark Knight (2008):  In Christopher Nolan’s immensely popular film The Dark Knight, Batman, who previously held the epithet of being the world’s greatest detective, becomes, in effect, the world’s greatest anti-detective.  For the detective, so much of their lives revolve around utilizing a logical power of deduction, but for Batman, this power of his breaks down when he meets the Joker, who is himself a self-proclaimed agent of chaos.  Earlier in the film, Batman is able to catch a Chinese gangster through the traditional methods, but with Joker, all of his powers of deduction come to naught.  He fails right and left, with tragic results.  How does he eventually corner the bad guy?  Not by asserting any virtues of the individual mind like the typical detective story, but by using technology to access every security camera in the city and asserting a godlike omniscience.  This isn’t the fable of an enlightened man triumphing by logic alone, but is instead a reinstatement of the Medieval outlook where the individual is decentralized as the force of change.  What’s darkest about this film is that it’s not God who is reinstated as the power to turn to, but the Patriot Act.

My question to the reader is, if Holmes and Daupin were byproducts of their times, what do the anti-detectives above tell us about our times?  Has postmodernity robbed us of logic to use as the basis for assumptions, so much so that the detective is, at best, a pleasant if unrealistic fantasy, like the ones we see on Law & Order, or read about in mass market paperbacks?  I’m inclined to think so.

Click on the image above to view my new book of short stories, The Madness of Art.


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