The Detective Story by Jorge Luis Borges

I would say in defense of the detective novel that it needs no defense; though now read with a certain disdain, it is safeguarding order in an era of disorder. That is a feat for which we should be grateful (Borges 134).

While flipping through Borges’ book, On Writing, his essay The Detective Story caught my eye as, admittedly, I have little experience with the genre. That struck me as strange, since it seems like exactly the sort of thing I’d be all over. Anyways, I’m not sure that I would attribute this lack of experience to the “disdain” he mentions in the above quote.

I do believe I know what he’s referring to, but I wouldn’t say the detective novel is unique in this regard, as most genre fiction deals with it to some extent. Taking fantasy and science fiction, two of my favorite genres, we can see that both have been so heavily influenced by just a handful of authors that many of their conventions are continually repeated over the years.

I say this, for example, with J.R.R. Tolkien and his seminal The Lord of the Rings trilogy in mind. How many fantasy novels have had tall, elegant elves with pointy ears and gruff, ax-wielding dwarves since then? Or some mystical embodiment of pure evil laying dormant for centuries before needing to be vanquished by some unexpected hero?

Borges dedicates the greater part of his essay on Edgar Allan Poe, who, as it turns out, is credited for being the father of the detective story. I don’t know if that’s common knowledge, but I had no idea! I find it odd that I knew that he almost certainly suffered from crippling depression, that he had married his wife, Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe, when he was 27 and she was 13 (whoa, dude – different time, different custom, I guess), and that the cause of his death is a matter of debate… but I didn’t know he founded an entire genre!

Borges’ praise is mixed though, as you can see in the quote below:

Now, Poe was a man who, as we know, lived an unhappy life. He died at the age of forty, given over to alcohol, melancholy, and neurosis. We have no reason to enter into the details of the neurosis; we need only know that Poe was a very unfortunate man who lived predestined for misfortune. To free himself from it, he took to ostentatiously displaying and perhaps exaggerating his intellectual virtues (Borges 127).

JEEZ, Jorge. Kick a man when he’s down, why don’t you.

Anyways, one such case of this, according to Borges, is Charles Auguste Dupin, a creation of Poe’s and the first detective in literature. He very pointedly mentions that Dupin, the genius detective, is who Poe believes himself to be, and that Dupin being French is just Poe (kind of) covering his tracks.

When Borges isn’t roasting Poe, though, he shares a couple of the most prominent traditions detective stories:

  1. The detective is always highly intelligent, and the case is solved as a function of that, and not more realistic reasons, like informants or carelessness on the part of the criminals.
  2. The narrator is usually said detective’s friend and is quite a bit less intelligent, presumably to bridge the gap between readers and the detective.

He also leaves us with five detective stories by Poe, along with other notable entries. I’ll be making a point of reading all of these during my challenge.

By Poe:

  • Thou Art the Man 
  • The Purloined Letter
  • The Mystery of Marie Roget
  • The Murders in the Rue Morgue
  • Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym

By others:

  • The Invisible Man by G.K. Chesterton
  • Death and the Compass by – well, look what we have here – Jorge Luis Borges

All in all, The Detective Story is an essay that makes a few interesting points but wanders in subject far too much to really drive those points home. I had to read it twice through because I wasn’t quite sure what exactly his point is. I’m convinced I’ve yet dialed in on it, but I don’t think I’ll be giving this one a third read. Onwards!

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