Detective stories are essentially conservative

This is a theme I have pursued over the years, being mostly conservative (with a small c, as one needs to add in Britain) and a great lover of detective stories.

Consider what happens in a detective story, even a modern one that purports to have a leftward (or “enlightened”) leaning: A crime, probably murder, is committed, possibly followed by similar crimes. The world is turned upside-down as a result. Together with the detective, we cannot rest until the perpetrators are discovered and brought to justice. The perpetrator is at the very least prevented from repeating the crime. Human life is sacrosanct. Murder is wrong, no matter how you look at it. It is the ultimate crime. It destroys nature’s balance, which can be restored only by the culprit’s discovery and his or her punishment. In a century that saw the casual elimination of millions of people, this highly moral attitude became and remained attractive to many people. This has continued into the new century, which has not started off too well.

I have written about it on the Conservative History Journal blog (here, here and here). Most recently I managed to get an article on the subject on to Taki’s Magazine. Enjoy.

7 thoughts on “Detective stories are essentially conservative”

  1. Helen, this is quite convincing. It is interesting that Stalin loved Sherlock Holmes. I suppose he found comfort in a fictional world ruled by law and order where human life had value. To him that was a fantastic utopia.

  2. I agree with this assessment, and have even written about it a bit myself. The detective as restorer of equilibrium is ultimately a reassuring figure, I think (although writers like William Ruehlmann have argued that the hardboiled detective, being a man of action rather than a classical “thinking machine” a la Holmes/Dupin, has fascist overtones. Personally, I’m more interested in the Private Eye as working class hero, as opposed to the more upper-class detectives of a Christie.

    Indeed, as the son of two murder victims, I find myself even more particularly drawn to highly conventionalized detective stories now than I was before my folks were killed. There is real comfort in the idea that some kind of justice is ultimately done, either in legal or rougher forms. Thanks for poosting this.

  3. A detective – or policeman – can bring about some sense of equilibrium to the families. I don’t believe the overused term ‘closure’ really applies – the best analogy of living with something like ‘Prof Mondo’ endured is a wound that never heals but leaves a lot of scar tissue.

    I also have some experience on the matter.

    But if the perpetrator(s) are brought to justice there is some sense of equilibrium to the family.

    And if they aren’t – in this world anyway – I have no doubt that justice eventually comes.

  4. You’re right. Those whose occupation puts them in the courtroom on a regular basis see some of the bad guys go free, or get convicted of something much less than what they actually did. Sometimes that’s caused by one jury holdout and you realize there are some who don’t see the need to “restore nature’s balance,” as you say.

    It can go the other way as well.

    I disagree with the present trend of naming courthouses “Justice Centers.” It gives the impression that justice happens there all or most of the time. Too often it doesn’t.

    I’m so glad to be retired.

  5. What is decidedly un-conservative about the modern mystery is that in the overwhelming majority of cases, the perpetrator is a white, male … usually an executive or somehow connected to the ‘military-industrial cartel’ … and the victim is a pure-hearted female or minority – the victim of male-centered power-seeking or greed, or a wealthy, white husband lusting after some youger woman and offing his innocent, devoted wife in the pursuit. No matter how they cut it, wealthy white men are the standard murderers … a bit out of touch with the reality that most violent crime is actually minority on minority, and rich white men are actually a pretty law abiding, non-violent bunch.

  6. I agree that the detective story is basically conservative. It provides a sense of justice lacking in the real world. Arguably, the classic detective story harkens back to a time when everything, even crime, was of the intimate scale. Today, criminal justice is institutional, carried out by people who strive, out of necessity, for emotional disconnectedness. The “system” catches evil do-ers and the “system” judges and punishes them.

    Interestingly, the classic detective story ends where the classic comic book superhero story ends, with the identification and apprehension of the subject. In the story, there is never any doubt that the detective/superhero got the right person. In the real world, apprehension is just the beginning of the process of validation and punishment.

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