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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

My summer of story: the detective encounter

Edgar Allan Poe invented the detective story. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” his first, came out in 1841 and featured an almost magically observant amateur detective, plus his his much-impressed sidekick narrator. Arthur Conan Doyle later based his better-known detective on Poe’s Parisian sleuth Auguste Dupin, and called Poe “the father of the detective tale” in his preface to 1902's The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Added Doyle: “The secret of the thinness and also of the intensity of the detective story is, that the writer is left with only one quality, that of intellectual acuteness, with which to endow his hero.”

Like so many readers I'm drawn to detective stories, and clearly Doyle’s idea has evolved. Today’s sleuths have complex lives and tough problems of their own. I’m in the middle just now of Colin Dexter’s ninth Inspector Morse novel, 1991’s The Jewel that was Ours; and Morse’s alcoholism comes through even more plainly in print than in the famous British TV series. But this week I also read “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” — and what strikes me especially is something that I don’t think is often linked to the detective tale, but which I suspect is really central to its powerful appeal.
    The American psychologist Rollo May published a book in 1975 called The Courage to Create. In it, he suggests that what most engages us with any creative work is how honestly and openly its creator engaged with making it. May calls this his theory of encounter. He explains it this way: "Creativity occurs in an act of encounter and is to be understood with this encounter at its center."
    In other words, it isn’t the cleverness of the plot, the vividness of description, the grippingness of action, or the believability of the characters that most pulls us into a story; it’s how totally here the writer was when writing it. This is a striking theory, and it has stayed with me. I connect it with the appeal of so many activities that plunge us unthinking into the flow of the moment: rock climbing, surfing, playing music. The more we’re here, the more we feel alive.
    Could this be true of story — both of writing and reading it? If so, how about the detective story?
    In — I would bet — just about every one ever written, staged or filmed, the detective, whatever his/her quirks or weaknesses, always solves the crime by the strength of his observancy — by what he or she notices, observes, and puts together from that observation. So maybe the truest appeal of the detective story is not that a crime is solved or a puzzle comes into a solution. Maybe it’s that, in following along, we too are pulled into observancy. In other words, we too are pulled toward moment-to-moment awareness.
    After Auguste Dupin and his unnamed narrator-sidekick have visited the scene of a gruesome, seemingly unsolvable double murder in the Rue Morgue apartment, “He then asked me, suddenly, if I had observed anything peculiar at the scene of the atrocity,” the narrator says. Soon after, Dupin tells his friend: “You have observed nothing distinctive. Yet there was something to be observed.”
    One hundred fifty years later, Inspector Morse is distracted in nearly every scene by his need for a drink or his closeness to a drink. This makes him more interesting by far than Poe’s Dupin — who has, as Doyle observed, just one quality, a keen mind. Morse also has a discerning love for classical music, and a perpetually failing need for someone to love. He is a struggling human being with personal depth; but he is also, just like Dupin and Sherlock Holmes, more keenly observant than anyone around him.
    One key element of the detective story that Poe’s first one gives us is that all the pieces and clues are laid — however unspotted by us — before the reader as the narrative unfolds. We have all the information the detective has, which makes it all the more amazing to us when close to the end he puts it all together in a way that we almost saw, that we might have seen, but that we never ... quite ... did.
    That’s the secret key, I think: to be drawn toward seeing. To be drawn toward observancy means to be drawn into the moment, and in the moment lives the encounter that opens to vitality. We follow the detective not only toward the murderer ... not just to the riddle of a death ... but toward the experience of being really, truly alive.

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