Genre and Justice: Interrogating Detective Fiction

by Violet Pask

Violet Pask is a delivery driver living in K’jipuktuk, Mi’kma’ki (Halifax, Nova Scotia).

How can detective fiction be abolitionist? To love genre is to interrogate it, to obsess over its tropes and tricks and histories and futures, to engage with a book or a story or a movie as part of a system of repetition. This kind of insular world, built upon its own self-interrogation, is perhaps already presenting us with the tools necessary to rework, rebuild, and reconsider the basic premises that have allowed genres to flourish, function, or flounder.

In her most recent novel, The Searcher (2020), Tana French offers us a story that can both be and be critical of detective fiction. Importantly, French doesn’t only present a critique of the policing system, but also of the place and function of detective fiction within that system. She has become just as critical of the role of the fictitious detective as of the real one. French understands how detective fiction creates and upholds the fantasy of the threat from without, the figure of an ominous other, despite the relative irregularity of psychopathic murders compared to the more mundane, and much more sinister, day-to-day violence that comes from within our own society. She also understands how genre fiction is capable of interrogating its own premises. The urge amongst critics to “legitimize” her novels by removing them from the realm of genre fiction fundamentally misunderstands where the power of French’s work lies, and therefore what it is able to do.  

Despite the success of French’s much-loved Dublin Murder Squad series, her more recent standalone books, The Wych Elm (2018) and The Searcher (2020), move away from the detective-narrator that defined her previous work. While the seeds of French’s suspicion of the detective figure are present from the very first, and grow into her later attempts to distance herself from the policing system she represents, her most poignant critiques of the justice system come from within the conventions of the genre itself.

To skew conventions is not to leave genre behind, but to thoughtfully and critically engage with its history and function. English detective fiction has a rich history of such internal criticism: much like French is not offering a ground-breaking critique of the justice system as such (she is profoundly indebted to Black abolitionist writers and thinkers such as Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore), she is also not the first to offer a criticism of how her genre works. Despite, or perhaps because of, its representation of policing, detective fiction has proved fruitful ground for criticism of the justice system.

The revelation of the truth is no resolution.

In her first novel, In the Woods, French flouts one of the apparently impervious “laws” of detective fiction: that the crime be solved. She breaks the implicit contract made with the reader of detective fiction, who expects a resolution via revelation. Later in the series (which itself differs from the classic single protagonist detective series by offering a new detective narrator with each publication), French’s novel Broken Harbour poses further questions of the genre—is justice actually served by the system in which her detectives work? When the narrator’s co-detective withholds evidence that would lead to the resolution of the murder they are investigating, he claims that he does not believe the judicial system would solve the “problem” he has unveiled, or that this is a problem that can be solved at all. The revelation of the truth is no resolution. In fact, the endings of most of the novels in French’s series leave the detective narrator broken, whether or not the case is “solved.” Fundamentally, French writes character studies, and most of her narrators, in undoing a mystery, also undo themselves—and retire for good.

Over the course of her series, French becomes more and more explicitly suspicious of the function of the detective within a policing system she represents as based in an untenable understanding of justice. However, her literalized undertaking to kill her darlings doesn’t happen until the end of The Wych Elm, where her first non-detective narrator murders the detective investigating the case entangling the narrator and his family. In The Searcher, French writes a more metaphorical death of the detective: her protagonist, a retired American detective who moves to the west of Ireland, is forced to reckon with the real consequences of the job he has become disillusioned with and the ways it has warped his understanding of justice. However, leaving his job does not mean he has left behind the cop in his head and heart, and so our protagonist’s fantasy of escape reveals itself to be just that: a fantasy.

While French’s earlier novels lay the grounds for the criticism of policing The Searcher presumes, it is only here that she can finally offer an alternative. Cal Hooper, the protagonist, arrives in western Ireland in the wake of a retirement that he imagines frees him from the moral confusion that has led him there in the first place. He settles into fixing up the house he bought online and living what he hopes will be a peaceful life. However, he is soon approached by a young kid, Trey Reddy, who, upon finding out that Cal was once a detective, asks him to find his missing brother. Cal’s growing attachment to the young boy, and his promise of answers, leads him to put his nose where it doesn’t belong, and he finds out just how much of an intruder upon the local community he actually is. The beautiful setting, French’s first rural one, unravels to reveal a town whose young men are stuck on their inherited farms and whose young women, inheriting nothing, move away for lack of opportunities—and the old houses left rotting in their wake are bought and fixed up by Americans like Cal.

While this novel may skirt a deeper engagement with systematic police brutality, French is more interested in problematizing the systematization of truth, justice, and right and wrong that enables this kind of violence. In The Searcher, she offers a protagonist who must undo his own understanding of justice as necessarily punitive. Cal believes that problems are only dealt with if someone is blamed and punished for them, an internalized carceral logic that seeks to make problems disappear by finding those who are deemed “responsible” and putting them in their place: that is, away. He must learn to see how care and presence, the antithesis to punishment and absence, offer a different kind of justice even though they don’t make problems disappear. But neither does policing, which only places them out of sight. Cal fails to understand how the community he has infiltrated has its own way of dealing out justice and care, and that it is not his place to deem whether their way is “wrong” or “right.” He is confronted with the possibility that there might not be such clear answers to questions that ask for things to be put in their place.

How, then, to think of justice? Perhaps there is no justice at all.

Perhaps more difficult to untangle than justice from punishment is the understanding of justice as truth, often the fundamental assumption of detective fiction. The real fragmentation of the detective novel in French’s hands is the undoing of the notion, implicit in both the genre and the reader, that the truth can and must be made visible, and that the world is inherently knowable. She writes, “[Cal’s] throat is full up with the words to say in the phone to set that powerful familiar machine in motion, cameras clicking and evidence bags opening and questions firing, until every truth has been spoken out loud and everyone has been placed where they belong” (French, 337). Our understanding of truth is as much a part of the “familiar machine” of the justice system as policing and prison. How, then, to think of justice? Perhaps there is no justice at all. There is only Cal’s newfound need to honour his responsibility to Trey, a responsibility that doesn’t necessarily involve solving a crime and arresting the perp, but instead showing up and being there for someone who needs him.

It is possible to trace the moral ambiguity that pervades French’s novel back to its source material, the Western for which her book is named: John Ford’s 1956 film, The Searchers. The movie follows Ethan, a Confederate soldier who, with the help of his pseudo-adopted nephew, tracks down the Comanche chief who killed his family and kidnapped his niece. However, Ethan’s desire for violent revenge and his blatant racism come to overshadow his desire to protect his niece, who, upon being found, claims she wishes to stay with the tribe that has been her home for the intervening five years. Ethan reacts violently and, rather than have blood relatives who have “gone native,” threatens to kill his niece in order to uphold his own self-image as white.

The vengeance sought here parallels French’s depiction of punitive justice, where punishment takes priority over the wellbeing of those we apparently seek to protect, and the causes for violence are often more complicated than divisions into “right” and “wrong” allow for. With The Searcher, French writes an Irish Western, set at the westernmost point from Ireland’s colonizing force, England. The natives of the town Cal inhabits parallel the Indigenous people represented in the original film: they defend their land and their traditions in ways that reflect the colonization to which they have been subject. The Irish townsmen’s violent attempts to protect their own wind up mirroring the “legitimized” police violence Cal represents. However, in the context of detective fiction, the violence that shapes French’s story is importantly not an outside force: it comes from within the community, seemingly born from its own customs and the desire to protect them. The mirroring of the Western in French’s novel is fragmented. Both Cal and the local townspeople resemble Ethan in The Searchers, reacting violently to any disruption of their own sense of justice, and of self.

As genre is wont to do, this tale of vengeance recreates itself over and over, always changing and offering new interpretations and possibilities. Zacharius Kunuk’s 2016 Inuit film Searchers, also a remake of The Searchers, opens our eyes to the possibility of the Arctic Western. The “Wild West” and the hot red earth we associate with it are replaced by the ice-cold and glaring white Arctic tundra. Despite this jarring change of location, the film remains undoubtedly a Western. The reality of the West as setting is revealed to be subordinate to the fantasy of the Western itself, wherein the specific landscape isn’t as important as the focus on landscape as such, a harsh wilderness that seems to offer its own kind of justice. The west of Ireland described in The Searcher is a similarly beautiful, albeit not always hospitable landscape. In particular, French focuses on the peat bogs of western Ireland: to not know one’s way around them is to risk getting lost, drowned, and pseudo-mummified in bog acid. Mart, Cal’s neighbour and self-appointed guide, tells him:

Stay on this path, now,” he advises Cal. “Every year there’s a sheep or two that steps into one of them bogs and can’t get out again. And twenty-five or thirty year back there was a fella that usedta come down from Galway city—mad as a bag of cats, so he was. He’d walk up and down the mountain barefoot every Good Friday, saying the rosary all the way. He said the Blessed Virgin had told him that some year or other, if he kept at it, she’d appear to him along the way. Maybe she did and she picked a bad spot for it, I couldn’t tell you, but one year he didn’t come back. The men went looking and found him dead in a bitta bog. Only eight foot from the path, with his arm still stretched out towards the dry ground. (333)

Cal is dependant upon the help of locals whose relationship to their land is fundamentally different from his own, but from which he is learning. After returning from the bog, he thinks about “how things will grow where his own blood soaked into the soil outside, and about his hands in the earth today, what he harvested and what he sowed” (343). French channels the biblical –– “for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” –– using this allusion to emphasize a relationship with the landscape as imbued with its own kind of logic or knowledge (Galatians, 6:7). The peat bog’s preservation offers its own form of justice for the bodies that inhabit it, and, in French’s hands, becomes a metaphor for the inability to ever truly make problems, or people, disappear.

This metaphor extends into the literal: the landscape and the communities that inhabit it are intertwined in a shared history and culture, only navigable by those familiar with the territory. The “laws” of the bog extend not only beyond the legal system, but into a past before Christianity. Through the peat bogs, French harkens back to Ireland’s deep history: Irish peatlands are known for their bog bodies. Some are thousands of years old, and many of them are thought to be ritual sacrifices to the gods, or to the land itself. Cal’s dependence on the guidance of locals, and his willingness to accept his own limitations alongside this help, puts him in a fundamentally different relationship to the land and its community than the character on which he is modelled. Where in The Searchers Ethan understands himself as an outsider from beginning to end, refusing to let go of the past or relinquish a Confederate vision of the future (a position made evident in his retention of his Confederate uniform, and in the movie’s iconic final shot of him standing in a doorway he cannot, or will not, pass through), Cal comes to understand that he no longer desires to maintain his outsider status. He learns that feeling himself to be an outsider is based in a fantasy of escape—from the past, from his job, and from others altogether. These fantasies, including the investigator who is somehow just as outside of society and community as the “criminals” he seeks, are created and maintained by the generic conventions of detective fiction and of the Western, even as their use exposes the ideologies that uphold them.  

While the Western provides a framework for French’s incorporation of landscape, she is just as indebted to the gothic, to fantasy, and to folklore. In the background of all her stories, to varying degrees, is a kind of mythical force bordering on the fantastical; in The Searcher, that force takes the form of the peat bog, which sits at the intersection of myth and history, of Western and noir. Her varied influences show how genre can work as a frame for cross-cultural and cross-genre reference. However, while French takes inspiration from many places, her novels remain steadfastly within the realm of detective fiction: always centred around a mystery and what it means to solve it.

The reader is complicit in the tropes of the novel: conventions are created and subverted via our own expectations. Therefore, the genre’s self-interrogation of its conventions is also an interrogation of the reader.

Detective fiction, like any genre, is built upon tropes and conventions, repetition and self-interrogation, but where do these conventions manifest themselves? A convention is only a convention insofar as it is expected, and it is only subverted or skewed in the eyes of the reader who projects this expectation. The reader is complicit in the tropes of the novel: conventions are created and subverted via our own expectations. Therefore, the genre’s self-interrogation of its conventions is also an interrogation of the reader. We are obliged to confront our own desire for justice, order, and truth, for resolution and restoration, the driving forces of the mystery.

Both the Western and detective fiction must reckon with their own participation in the creation of a pseudo-fantastical Other who must be defended against, thereby legitimizing the kind of policing and anti-Indigenous violence our “heroes,” both real and fictitious, partake in. However, both these genres have their own history of how to tackle this foundational question. Just as the reality of the American West is secondary to the appearance and invocation of that landscape in the Western, the realities that the detectives in French’s novels move through are subordinate to their fantasies of justice. French’s characters, despite attempts to retain their senses of self, are bound up in the systems they perpetuate and grate against. When their notions of justice are prodded and begin to come undone, her characters begin to unravel. But this subordination, and the kind of black hole it leaves in the wake of revelation, makes room for new ways of conceptualizing justice. Interrogating these systems of understanding and compartmentalizing the world is always also a self-interrogation, present in the very function of genre, and a necessary undertaking of its readers.

 


Violet Pask is a delivery driver living in K’jipuktuk, Mi’kma’ki (Halifax, Nova Scotia).

☝ BACK TO TOP