On the Narrative Thrills of Detective Fiction
Amanda Dennis Unpacks the Inspiration for Her Debut Novel
Detective fiction taught me early about reading and desire. I remember with particular clarity those moments near the end, the delicious denouement, the satisfying un-knotting, when the cornered criminal would confess, lay out all the details—most of which we already knew, because we’d been following the cool-as-a-blade logic of Nancy Drew, Hercule Poirot, or Auguste Dupin—and yet, it was a keen pleasure to see the threads untangling, the gaps in understanding filled: a rush of pleasure like a major chord. It is this promise of pleasure, lacquered over crime’s inexplicable horror, that gives the detective story much of its propulsive energy.
My novel, Her Here, borrows the structure of the detective story—a point I didn’t connect to my formative reading until I reencountered my childhood bookcases in the summer of 2019, cleaning out my childhood home in advance of its sale. I found shelves of hardbacked Nancy Drews, which I’d devoured before I was ten; the older books had woven blue covers with orange lettering, hand-me-downs from my grandmother’s childhood in the 1940s. I found the young adult thrillers I’d exhausted next (Christopher Pike, R. L. Stine) before graduating to meatier tomes, like Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone. From these, I had learned to savor subtext and understand the more intricate rhythms of desire—for resolution, for the release of the terrible tension with which the books would always begin.
My novel’s protagonist is Elena, a woman in her late twenties, navigating a phase of life when we can ask, with unabashed philosophical intensity, how do I live? To capture a woman at the end of this existential phase, feeling like she’s running out of time, I reached intuitively for the frame of the detective story: my protagonist finds herself swept up in the task of looking for someone who had disappeared six years before the novel opens.
Her Here might qualify as an anti-detective novel because there’s no solution to the problem of existence, no way to wrap things up and return to the status quo. Yet, as the novels of Tana French remind us, the detective is hyper-attentive, focused to the point of obsession, superhumanly observant, and keen on causality and motives—like a writer. Hanging my character’s existential search on the hook of detective fiction gave me a way to explore the diffuse pain of longing and loss; Elena is suddenly pulled taut, her malaise channeled into the practical task of finding someone, of finding Ella. Suffused with clues and signs, her world becomes charged with meaning.Detective fiction taught me early about reading and desire.
Most surveys trace the origin of detective fiction to Edgar Allen Poe’s 1841 story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” in which Poe’s fictional hero, Auguste Dupin (who also appears in “The Mystery of Marie Roget” and “The Purloined Letter”), solves the murder of two women, a mother and daughter, in Paris. What makes the character of Dupin compelling to writers—he inspired Arthur Conan Doyle, among others, and even my own visit, on the occasion of my 12th birthday, to the Poe National Historic Site in Philadelphia—is the pleasure he takes in solving a crime, in proving that what seems at first impossible is in fact possible.
Dupin’s chipper confidence suggests that the inexplicable horror of crime can be solved by the application of causal reasoning, a supposition gently undermined by Poe’s signature tales of fantastical horror. In “The Man of the Crowd,” for instance, the titular character, a symbol of the nature of crime itself, eludes the increasingly obsessed narrator, and, as in other Poe tales, madness and the supernatural lurk much closer to the surface. In the Dupin stories, Poe seems to exalt in the form of detective fiction, even as his content subtly mocks—or at least questions—the triumph of ratiocination over the irrational.
Even so, Dupin’s pleasure in his detective work is similar to that afforded by narrative, to the heightened quality of our observations when they are aligned with a purpose. In the pattern of the detective’s mind, the smallest details are meaningful. In my novel, Elena scours the journals of a missing woman—random jottings—with a specific objective: to solve the mystery of Ella’s disappearance. The detective novel is the most thrilling of narrative genres because of how closely we are asked to pay attention. Meaning is everywhere, and if we miss it, we are lost—in insignificance, in the wrong kind of mystery.Her Here might qualify as an anti-detective novel because there’s no solution to the problem of existence, no way to wrap things up and return to the status quo.
One paradox of the detective story is the uncomfortable identifications it assumes. Despite the insistence on the reasoning power of the discrete, individual mind, the private I/“eye” must project itself into the mind of the criminal other, forging an identification between them. There’s the danger of the searcher turning into the object of the search, which is something that happens to the protagonist-searcher of my novel as she finds herself identified with the lost woman.
Elena is so consumed by her search for Ella that her own identity unravels, revealing both the dangers of existential searching and the necessary threats it poses to one’s comfortable illusions. There’s a mad matching of characters in my novel: a mother who is missing a daughter meets a daughter who is missing a mother, and the structures of their longings bind them together, unified in the search for what will complete them: Ella.
My appropriation of the detective novel is uneasy, aware of how it lays out the genre’s machinery of attenuated resolution, or suspense. The questions Elena is asking—questions about how to account for loss in such a way that it makes it possible to survive it—are what a wise writing teacher of mine once called “true” mysteries. They are the mysteries to which the writer does not know the answer. The mysteries in my novel converge on the missing Ella: if she can be located—if her case can be closed—then the pain of loss can be overcome. To restore Elena to movement, to life, there had to be desire, there had to be the expectation, the list of suspects, the episode in July that promises to reveal where Ella is and how she can be found.
For all of what it may hide, narrative is a way of looking at the horror through a veil. That we know it is a veil doesn’t matter; it allows us to look, to live, to mean. There are ways to use the pleasures and thrills of narrative while at the same time pointing to its artifice. It’s not in the solving of a crime that I find the power of the detective novel; it’s in believing that there is a solution.
Her Here by Amanda Dennis is available now via Bellevue Literary Press.