Excerpts from Ernest Mandel's Delightful Murder: A Social History of the Crime Story

From the Preface

"Let me confess at the outset that I like to read crime stories. I used to think that they were simply escapist entertainment: when you read them, you don't think about anything else; when you finish one, you don't think about it again. But this little book is itself proof that this way of looking at it is at least incomplete. True enough, once you finish any particular crime novel, you stop being fascinated by it; but equally, I, for one, cannot help being fascinated by the enormous success of the crime story as a literary genre." (vi)

"This is obviously a social phenomenon: millions of people in dozens of countries in all continents read the crime story. Not a few of their authors and quite a number of capitalist publishers have become millionaires by producing that peculiar commodity. They have guessed right about the needs it satisfies as a use-value--or to put it in current parlance, they have correctly gauged its demand curve. Why is this so? What is the origin of these needs? How have they changed over the years, and how are they related to the general structure of bourgeois society?" (vi)

"[H]ow do the laws of individual psychology intersect the great curves of social ideology and of social evolution as a whole?" (vii).

"To a large extent, the genre belongs to that portion of literary output that the Germans call Trivialliteratur, which involves no small amount of 'mechanical writing,' when authors compose, decompose, and recompose story lines and characters as if on a conveyor belt. The personality of the authors in such cases is relevant only in that it makes them able and willing to write in such a way." (viii)


From Chapter 1, "From Hero to Villain"

"In Primitive Rebels (1959) and Bandits (1969), Eric Hobsbawm has shown that 'social bandits' are robbers of a special type, whom the state (and the oppressor classes) regard as outlaws but who remain within the bounds of the moral order of the peasant community" (1).

"[I]t is significant that Spain, the country that gave the bandit story its name as a literary genre--the picaresque novel--was where the decay of feudalism was deepest and where the process of its decline was more protracted, leaving society in an impasse for centuries." (2)

"Interestingly, Sigmund Freud showed great preference for good bandit stories, and, according to Peter Bruckner (Freuds Privatlekture, Koln 1975), drew a parallel between psychoanalysis and the picaresque novel which was like a mirror of society from below, dragged along the streets." (2)

"The tradition of social protest and rebellion expressed in the bandit stories emerged from a mythified history and lingered on in folk tales, songs and forms of oral lore. But it was welded into literature by authors of middle class, bourgeois, or even aristocratic origin: Cervantes, Fielding, Le Sage, Defoe, Schiller, Byron, Shelley. Their works were written essentially for an upper class public--quite naturally, since they were the only ones apt to buy books at the time." (4)

"A society like this can still deal with its malefactors without specialists--or at least its ideologues think it can. There is no need for a police or detective hero in these yarns, only a good lesson in Christian piety at the end. By the eighteenth century, of course, this was fast becoming anachronistic, and some of the Newgate Calendar stories are already showing the first deviations from the rules." (4)

"But this evaporation of a sense of security had occurred among the petty bourgeoisie and the literate layers of the working class well before it did among the upper classes and high society" (5).

"By the beginning of the nineteenth century, professional criminals, unknown in the eighteenth century, had become a reality" (5).

"[Balzac] related the rise of professional criminals to the rise of capitalism and the consequent emergence of unemployment. 'Each morning,' he wrote in his Code des Gens Honnetes, 'more than twenty thousand people [in Paris] awake with no idea of how they will eat at noon.' It was hardly surprising, he added, that such circumstances led to the emergence of a class of professional criminals." (5)

"The new popular theatre and popular press were, after all, businesses, and why should they not try to increase their profits and accumulate capital by catering to the public's taste for nerve-tingling stories about murders, real or imagined?" (6)

"The rising preoccupation with crime is best exemplified by Thomas De Quincey's On Murder considered as one of the Fine Arts, which appeared in 1827.... De Quincey had been editor of the Westmoreland Gazette in 1818 and 1819, and had filled its columns with stories about murders and murder trials. In his 1827 essay he actually insisted upon the delectation with murder and speculation about whodunit among 'amateurs and dilettantes,' thereby opening the way to Edgar Allen Poe, Gaboriau and Conan Doyle. He also initiated the link between popular journalism and writing about murder, which would involve Dickens, Poe, Conan Doyle and so many other crime story writers, up to Dashiell Hammett, E. Stanley Gardner and other contemporaries." (6)

"To be sure, these are no longer 'good bandits' in the old sense. Their criminal acts are treated as the deeds of scoundrels. But they have hearts of gold nonetheless, and redeem themselves through parental devotion to more or less innocent young victims of upper-class cruelty or police persecution. They are figures of transition: no longer the noble bandits of yesteryear, but not yet the heartless villains of the twentieth-century detective story." (7)

"To understand why this evolution continued, why this literary genre did not stop at that transitional phase but instead went all the way in the transformation of the noble bandit into the evil criminal, we must examine both the objective function of popular literature and its ideological metamorphosis during the last half of the nineteenth century." (8)

"It answers a need to overcome the growing monotony and standardization of labour and consumption in bourgeois society through a harmless (since vicarious) reintroduction of adventure and drama into daily life. The romantic, bucolic setting of the old bandit stories becomes increasingly meaningless in this context." (8)

"Revolt against private property becomes individualized. With motivation no longer social, the rebel becomes a thief and murderer" (8-9).

"It is thus perfectly possible for socially critical and even socially revolutionary readers to enjoy detective stories without altering their views. But the mass of readers will not be led to seek to change the social status quo by reading crime stories, even though these stories portray conflicts between individuals and society. The criminalization of these conflicts makes them compatible with the defence of bourgeois 'law and order.'" (10)

"The criminal produces not only crimes but also criminal law, and with this also the professor who gives lectures on criminal law and in addition to this the inevitable compendium in which this same professor throws his lectures onto the general market as 'commodities.'" (Karl Marx, qtd. in Mandel 10)

"The criminal moreover produces the whole of the police and criminal justice, constables, judges, hangmen, juries, etc.; and all these different lines of business, which form equally many categories of the social division of labour, develop different capacities of the human spirit, create new needs and new ways of satisfying them. Torture alone has given rise to the most ingenious mechanical inventions, and employed many honourable craftsmen in the production of its instruments." (11)

"The criminal breaks the monotony and everyday security of bourgeois life. In this way he keeps it from stagnation, and gives rise to that uneasy tension and agility without which even the spur of competition would get blunted. Thus he gives a stimulus to the productive forces." (11)


From Chapter 2, "From villain to hero"

"The archetypal police figure of modern literature is modelled after history's first well-known policeman: Fouche's sidekick Vidocq. Himself a former convicted bandit who pressed many criminals into the service of Napoleon's Ministry of the Interior as informers, Vidocq forged his own legend, not only by his practical villainy, which was virtually unbounded, but also by his mendacious Memoires, published in 1828. Balzac's Bibi-Lupin and Victor Hugo's Inspector Javert were clearly patterned after this elusive and terrifying figure whose actions and mentality alike bore the seeds that would one day germinate in such varied but equally unsavoury characters as J. Edgar Hoover, Heinrich Himmler, and Beria." (12)

"State spending was considered a waste, an unproductive deduction from surplus-value that would do no more than reduce the amount of capital that could be accumulated. The police force was considered a necessary evil, intent on encroaching upon individual rights and freedoms. The weaker it was, the better.
"In any case, there was a far more practical reason for hostility to the police. The Bankruptcy Law, at least in Britain, still defined insolvency as a criminal offence." (12-3)

"All that began to change between 1830 and 1848. These were the years of initial working-class revolt against poverty and capitalist exploitation: the uprising of the La Croix-Rousse silk weavers in Lyons in France and of the Silesian cotton weavers in Prussia; the rise of the Chartist movement in Britain; the eruption of insurrection in Paris in June 1848. The violence and sweep of these rebellions struck fear into the bourgeoisie for the first time: perhaps their power would not reproduce itself eternally through the operation of market laws alone. A stronger state and a correspondingly more powerful police force were needed to keep a watchful eye on the lower orders, on the classes that were ever restive, periodically rebellious, and therefore criminal in bourgeois eyes." (13)

"The real hero of the criminal detective story therefore had to be not the plodding copy, but a brilliant sleuth of upper-class origins. And that is what Dupin and Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Thorndike and Arsene Lupin really are" (15).

"The very idea of 'outwitting' a criminal, if it is to hold any fascination, implies the existence of both a criminal with superior wits and a detective of even finer craftiness than the outstanding malefactor." (15)

"The original detective stories, then, were highly formalized and far removed from realism and literary naturalism. But more than that, they were not really concerned with crimes as such. The crime was a framework for a problem to be solved, a puzzle to be put together. In many cases, the murder occurs even before the story starts." (15)

"The real subject of the early detective stories is thus not crime or murder but enigma. The problem is analytical, not social or juridical" (15).

"The 'battle of wits,' in other words, unfolds simultaneously at two levels: between the great detective and the criminal, and between the author and the reader" (16).

"But while the story's hero always succeeds, the reader ought not to succeed in outwitting the author. Otherwise the psychological need to which the detective story is supposed to respond is not assuaged: there is no tension, suspense, surprising solution or catharsis.

"The art of the detective story is to achieve this goal without cheap tricks. The clues must all be up front. No secret substitution of one identical twin for another is allowed, no secret passages out of rooms supposedly locked from inside. The reader must be surprised when the murderer's identity is revealed, and with no violation of 'fair play.' To surprise without cheating is to manifest genuine mastery of the genre. Agatha Christie is thus aptly called the 'queen of deception.' And indeed, to practise the art of deception while 'playing fair' is the very quintessence of the ideology of the British upper class." (16)

"The reduction of crime, if not of human problems themselves, to 'mysteries' that can be solved is symbolic of a behavioural and ideological trend typical of capitalism" (16).

"And the detective story is to 'great' literature what photography is to 'great' painting. The detective story is closely realted to machinery as well as to perfected analytical intelligence, for the classical detective story is a formalized puzzle, a mechanism that can be composed and decomposed, unwound and wound up again like the works of a clock, itself the classical prototype of the modern machine." (18)

"Poe's Murders in the Rue Morgue is considered the first detective story properly so called. This is no doubt true, in the sense that Auguste Dupin, the prototype of the amateur detective, solves the mystery through pure analytical expertise." (19)

"The French can well argue that the detective story is of French rather than English origin, since Gaboriau, once the secretary of the feuilletoniste Paul Feval, is the first to have created a real series of detective novels." (19)

"Let it be known in passing that the expression 'detective story' was first used in 1878 by the American novelist Anna Katharina Greene in her book The Leavenworth Case. But the real progenitor of the detective story, or at least the person most responsible for its enormous popularity, was of course Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes (A Study in Scarlet, 1887; The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, 1892; The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, 1894)." (20)

"It is all summed up by the Goncourts in their Journal (16 July 1856): 'he [Edgar Allen Poe] ushers in the scientific and analytical literature in which things play a more important part than people" (20).


Mandel, Ernest. Delightful Murder: A Social History of the Crime Story.

Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984


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