‘How Did You Know He Licked His Lips?’: Second Person Knowledge and First Person Power in The Maltese Falcon

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Editor: Lawrence J. Trudeau
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 7,559 words

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[(essay date 1994) In the following essay, Rabinowitz discusses the ways in which works of detective fiction “conceptualize the nature of truth.”]

“What Do You Want Us to Think the Facts Are?”: Epistemology and Detective Fiction

Classification is an occupational hazard for any theorist of detective stories—in part because there are so many convenient but competing axes for sorting them out. You can, for instance, differentiate novels according to the location of the guilt they uncover—say, between Hercule Poirot stories (where detective and criminal are kept rigorously separate) and Oedipal stories (where, as in William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust or Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, a key discovery is a discovery of the detective’s own guilt). Alternatively, you can organize them according to their treatment of time—between backward-facing stories (for instance, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet) where the key events precede the detective’s intervention, and stories where the primary events are those provoked by the investigation itself—say, Sara Paretsky’s Bitter Medicine. It is also popular to distinguish stories stylistically, as between classical British and hard-boiled American.

In this essay I want to work along another axis, looking at detective stories in terms of the way they conceptualize the nature of truth. Mikhail Bakhtin argues that “when the novel becomes the dominant genre, epistemology becomes the dominant discipline” (15), and from this perspective the detective story would seem one of the most novelistic of subgenres. Granted, this is complex terrain that engages a number of intersecting questions, both epistemological and metaphysical. Nonetheless, I think we can draw a crucial, if rough, dividing line between two sorts of texts. The first relies on what we might call the Fort Knox notion of truth, a phrase with a double resonance for connoisseurs of early detective fiction, since one of the first attempts to chart out the “rules” for classical detective novels was Ronald Knox’s “A Detective Story Decalogue.” Fort Knox novels, often embodying positions associated with empiricism, realism, and especially positivism (as Knox puts it, “all supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course” [194]), rest on the twin assumptions that the truth exists and that it can be found through rational procedures. That is, their plots are constructed on the belief that the truth value of a particular claim can be determined according to some external and transcendent standard independent of the perspective or context of the individual making the claim, a standard that is available to the skilled detective. Most traditional detectives, from Oedipus and Sherlock Holmes through Mike Hammer and Travis McGee, take the Fort Knox position, assuming, as Michael Holquist puts it, that “the mind, given enough time, can understand everything” (141). Indeed, Ellery Queen built the notion of an independent standard and a single solution into the very format of some of his best novels, offering an explicit challenge to the reader at the point where all the necessary information to reach the one right answer had been provided....

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420123537