Things Fall Apart: Examining Definitions of Justice and Genre

 Alia McKellar, Kingston University

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere Anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity[…]
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
(Yeats "Second Coming," lines 3-8, 22-23)

christie_etc.The detective novel ‘brings light into dark places, and, in doing so, for a brief period at any rate, it washes the world clean’ (Swales 2000: p. xii): by this definition detective fiction is no more (and no less) than a means of enacting justice and restoring balance. That the genre remains one of the most popular is not surprising: Catherine Nickerson says in ‘Murder as Social Criticism’ that ‘the enduring popularity of the detective novel…[is] connected to the acceleration, of real and perceived crime, violence and surveillance over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries’ (Nickerson 1997: p. 744). The ‘acceleration’ of crime that leads to the popularity of detective fiction has also facilitated the constant evolution of the genre. Over the course of the last century detective fiction evolved from the genteel clue-puzzles of Christie, to the mean-streets of Chandler. In the early twenty-first century, the genre is undergoing another evolution at the hands of writers like Richard Morgan, who create worlds that combine noir sensibilities with the post-modern aesthetic of Cyberpunk. While the evolution of style is to be expected, the changes in ethics and ideas of justice contained within the novels, combined with the increase in violence depicted is less so. Detective fiction, by Swales definition, is about the enactment of justice to preserve and restore balance and harmony within society. To what extent can balance truly be restored when there has been a fundamental shift in the definition of justice and can violence ever result in the return of balance? Or has the evolution of the form resulted in a lessening of the detective’s power to restore order and changed the purpose of the genre? It is my belief that the changes in depictions of justice and the resulting fragmentation of style make Swales definition too narrow and that attempts to use it to delimit such a varied genre ultimately fail.

Typically English, Golden Age detective fiction operated within a closed ecosystem of country houses, boats and first-class train-cars. Suspects and clues were enclosed within the limited settings, each mystery as self-contained as the scene in a snow-globe. Andrew Pepper describes Golden Age fiction as ‘a hermetically sealed world, untouched by the debased forces of a capitalist modernity’(Pepper 2000: p.61) and it is true that while the middle and upper-class characters of Christie’s novels certainly enjoyed the benefits of capitalism, it cannot be said that anyone but the guilty are ever truly debased.  The purpose of these novels was to ‘exorcis[e] the threats that…society nervously anticipates within its own membership’ (Knight 2003: p.82). Each novel presents the reader with a microcosm of society in which the status quo is to be protected at all costs and violations are to be excised as quickly as possible. There is never any absorption, adaptation or acceptance in Golden Age fiction, only the expulsion of a hidden flaw from the enclosed world. Here, it is not actions that matter, but judgements. The role of the detective in this era is largely mental: at all times he remains separated from the violence of the case on anything but an observational level. Compared to Marlowe, who chases after criminals and moves from one location to another searching for clues, Poirot is a very inactive detective.  In Murder on the Orient Express M. Bouc exclaims ‘but have I not heard you say often that to solve a case a man has only to lie back in his chair and think?’(Knight 2003: p. 67) To enforce this point Christie has Poirot, M Bouc and Dr. Constantine sit in the carriage of the train thinking about the case for half an hour. Poirot examines no physical clues, he chases no one, interrogates no one, in fact he does not even speak, but in that time he constructs a theory which allows him to solve the case without leaving his chair. While he undoubtedly solves the case, it cannot be said that Poirot acts to do so; in some sense he simply allows the facts to act upon him and his role is merely to present the solution that reveals itself. Poirot’s true role is not to solve the crime, but to witness the return to balance. The twelve members of the self-appointed jury are enacting retributive justice with the murder of Arthur Ratchett and, with the facts of the case revealed, Poirot’s only task is to clear them of any wrongdoing and validate their actions by giving society’s stamp of approval to their purge. Christie keeps her detectives safely out of harm’s way and endows her work with the notion that justice exists as more than just an idea: her detectives live their lives in such a way that they perfectly embody the set of universal standards that they utilise in their investigations. They are incapable of violent action because Christie’s approach is intellectual rather than physical. [1] Within her novels, Intellectual Justice is a viable social model that everyone agrees to live by.

Golden Age Detective fiction was popular, in part, because the idea that violent death could be explained in a rational way (X was killed by Y because of Z) was soothing. As Charles Rzepka writes:
With its reliable evocation of order out of disorder, its respect for the rule of law in defence of life and property, and its faith that a rational intention informs even the most baffling acts of violence…[detective fiction] seemed tailor-made to allay the anxieties that lingered below the superficial complacency of British middle-class life. (Rzepka 2005: p.153)

By denying her characters the use of force, Christie creates a world in which adherence to universal ideas of right and wrong can create a harmonious and productive society without the need for violence. The only people who act violently are the guilty and they are quickly discovered and removed from society. The strictly structured form of the clue-puzzle story is an analogue for Christie’s type of Intellectual Justice. Clue-puzzles exist ‘in terms of a more or less agreed set of rules which, whether honoured or not, set up an expectation that readers will have a real possibility of solving the mystery’ (Glover 2000: p. 37). The message in these novels is clear: by following the agreed rules of society, peace and justice for all can prevail. Christie’s work upholds Swales’ definition of detective fiction in a self-renewing circle: enacting justice always leads to the restoration of balance, and restoring balance invokes universal ideals of justice.

American Hard-boiled detection, developing as it did from the recognition that the desire to return to an idealised pre-war life was futile, offered a bleaker and more organic experience than its ‘Golden’ predecessors. However, though it deliberately set out to denigrate (Rzepka 2003: p. 179) the classic form, hard-boiled detection still offered the same social purge and return to balance. By the publication of The Big Sleep in 1939 (after a disastrous Great War, an influenza pandemic, economic depression and, in America, a decade of increasingly organised crime and gang violence) the role of the new breed of tough private eye was no longer to remove threats from an enclosed society but to ‘[right] wrongs in a fallen urban world in which the traditional institutions and guardians of the law…are no longer up to the task’ (Porter 2003: p.97). The resolution of the crime remains the detective’s primary objective but his approach to the goal has changed: the hard-boiled, noir detective rarely gets through the story without a few bruises.

Raymond Chandler gives Marlowe a familiarity with violence that is in keeping with Porter’s ‘fallen urban’ perspective, but also gives him a philosophical bent in keeping with the author’s own life experience.(Rzepka 2003: p.202-203 and Porter 2003: p. 102-104) Marlowe accepts that violence is a part of his job: ‘the best he can hope for, even on the least taxing of assignments, is to get messed up’ (Trotter 2000: p22). He is not afraid of violence, but instead accepts threats as a matter of course. Even when aware enough of the danger in The Big Sleep to have brought a gun with him, Marlowe doesn’t tread lightly: ‘”You didn’t ever get socked in the kisser, did you?” the gaunt man asked me briefly. “Not by anybody your weight”’(Chandler 2000: p. 132). More than this, he allows himself to be drawn into potentially deadly situations if doing so will help close the case. Near the end of Big Sleep Marlowe returns Carmen Sternwood’s gun to her, and has five shots fired at him for his trouble. ‘I had a hunch about what she would do – if she got the chance’(Chandler 2000: p. 160) he explains casually. Suspecting what Carmen might do, he takes steps to neutralise her ability to do harm[2] (while still allowing her to behave in a violent way) showing her guilt beyond a doubt and allowing him to close his case. When faced with a situation where he has no choice, Marlowe is also the dispenser of violence: ‘[Canino’s] gun was still up and I couldn’t wait any longer. Not long enough to be a gentleman of the old school…I shot him four times’(Chandler 2000: p. 144). Aware of the difference between himself and the ‘old school’ detectives of the Golden Age but unperturbed by it, Marlowe’s ethical approach to life is that of duty-bound Subjective Deontology;[3] Marlowe weighs his actions against his own sense of duty, a sense of the greater good, and of right and wrong. Since Marlowe’s main concern is living long enough to finish the case, and solving the case will lead to his client’s happiness, violence is acceptable: any action that results in the increased happiness of his client is the right one.

Marlowe’s beliefs reduce the role of detective from that of Judge to that of Bailiff. No longer does the detective prescribe right and wrong from a protected position; rather, he acts to restore balance from inside the disordered world, often upsetting it further in the process. While, ultimately, Marlowe’s sense of right and wrong is subjective and does not originate in any universally accepted code, he lives his life as though it does:

I do my thinking myself, what there is of it: I risk my whole future, the hatred of the cops and of Eddie Mars and his pals, I dodge bullets and eat saps, and say thank you very much, if you have any more trouble, I hope you’ll think of me, I’ll just leave one of my cards in case anything comes up. I do all this for twenty-five bucks a day’(Chandler 2000: p. 162)

Chandler’s Deontology fills Marlowe with an immense sense of duty to his job; his loyalty to General Sternwood extends so far that even for the thousand dollars promised to him if he finds Rusty Regan, Marlowe refuses to break the old man’s heart. If Chandler had written Marlowe in the clue-puzzle form, Carmen’s crimes would have been revealed to the world. Though the General would learn what happened to Rusty, the revelation that Carmen was responsible would, perhaps, cause him more pain than not knowing. Marlowe makes a judgement and decides how much to reveal based on his personal feelings for the old man, not on a wider conception of Truth. Balance is never truly restored in The Big Sleep: the best Marlowe is able to manage is an assurance that no further damage will be done. His subjective moral code is in violation of the notion that there is a universal set of rules that everyone should adhere to, yet readers are able to identify with his beliefs and admire his actions.  If the detective genre is defined by the restoration of justice and a return to balance, what are we to make of The Big Sleep or, for that matter, of Marlowe?

Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon is hard-boiled noir fused with the aesthetic of Cyberpunk, as seen through the lens of post-modern sensibility. Set six-hundred years in the future, in Carbon all human beings are fitted at birth with a ‘stack’, a computer chip that saves every thought and experience which, in the event that their current body (called a sleeve) is damaged beyond repair, allows them to be downloaded into a new body.[4] Fear of illness and death is all but absent in this world: unless your stack is destroyed, you can effectively live forever, and the body is nothing more than a temporary container. Those who cannot afford to buy a new sleeve can have themselves downloaded into a virtual world indistinguishable from the real one. Criminals are stored in the mainframe, with no conscious time lapse between their incarceration and eventual parole. Named for the scene of much of Marlowe’s trouble, Morgan’s Bay City is violent and corrupt: without the concept of punishment by incarceration or death, victims derive no satisfaction from traditional modes of justice and resort to crude methods to achieve their own return to balance. Deprived of justice from the ineffectual police department, citizens flock to ‘humiliation bouts’ where the Master of Ceremonies promises ‘if I cannot erase the memories of your bodies being beaten and your bones being broken, I can at least replace them with the sounds of your tormentor being broken instead’ (Morgan 2007: p. 384). The pain of their lives is displaced by the pain of another – a crude form of balance, but this is all that is available to them.

The anti-hero of Morgan’s world is Takeshi Kovacs, former member of a special-forces squad, criminal and reluctant private eye. Kovacs doesn’t work for twenty-five dollars a day, but for his own freedom. Consigned to digital storage for his crimes, Kovacs finds himself re-sleeved by the wealthy (300 year old) Laurens Bancroft and tasked to discover who shot Bancroft’s previous body in the head. Kovacs has a choice: work for Bancroft (and succeed) or go back into storage for an indefinite period of time. Unlike Poirot or Marlowe, Kovacs’ ideas of justice are not based around the greater good for society or the greater good for the client, but centre on the greater good for him alone, usually involving painful retribution for perceived wrong actions: in Carbon ideas of justice have been reduced to the biblical lex talion – an eye for an eye. Kovacs’ private moral code is Ethical Egoism, driving him to achieve only what is best for him. The only reason Kovacs agrees to work for Bancroft is the promise of freedom; as a result, Kovacs has none of the chivalric traits that Marlowe possesses and just as importantly, none of his loyalty. Marlowe’s sense of duty enables him to defend himself from Canino without a great deal of guilt, but it does not allow him to become involved with Vivian Regan: ‘Kissing is nice but your father didn’t hire me to sleep with you’ (Chandler 2000: p. 108). Though no one around him seems to live by the same standards, Marlowe never lets himself stray from the path, even when it won’t be discovered. Kovacs, on the other hand, sleeps with his employers’ wife without guilt, firmly believing that ‘whatever it costs, there are some things you don’t turn away from’ (Morgan 2007: p.119).

As a result of his intensive military training Kovacs has an even greater familiarity with violence than Marlowe and has no compunctions about inflicting pain or even death on the sleeves of those who oppose him. True death in Morgan’s world is difficult to achieve and when no injury is life threatening, or even permanently disabling, nothing is considered too extreme: the demotion of the body to the level of organic clothing makes violence much more prevalent. Kovacs lives in a world where it is ‘possible to torture a human being to death, and then start again’ (Morgan 2007: p.153). Halfway through the novel, Kovacs is downloaded into a virtual body and tortured until his heart stops.  The fact that the author chooses to have his protagonist placed in a female body for the torture scene is something that feminist critics like Sarah Dunant and Margaret Kinsman will make much of. The role of the helpless female as victim and corpse is upheld here, but Morgan’s intention is not to maintain the genre’s conventions, but rather to show the vulnerability of any person when faced with torture. Kovacs is defined from the start of the novel as male and heterosexual; his sex-change at the hands of his captors shows that no part of him is beyond their reach. Beaten or knocked unconscious, Marlowe remains the tough masculine ideal; his feet burned off by a blowtorch, Kovacs can be nothing but weak and human, as he says, ‘there is no kind of conditioning in the known universe that can prepare you for having your feet burnt off. Or your nails torn out…The pain. The humiliation. The damage’ (Morgan 2007: p. 153). Male or female, in this scenario, anyone would break and Morgan has made a point of acknowledging the truth of this.

In response to his torture, Kovacs inflicts the heaviest punishment he can: the real-deaths of everyone involved:

There were five men and women in the theatre, and I killed them all while they stared at me. Then I shot the autosurgeon to pieces with the blaster, and raked the beam over the rest of the equipment in the room. Alarms sirened into life from every wall. In the storm of their combined shrieking, I went round and inflicted Real Death on everyone there. (Morgan 2007: p. 179)

While our revulsion at the graphic descriptions of Kovacs’ torture makes us more inclined to defend the level of violence in his response, can we define what he does as justice? As a digital human, Kovacs is detached from traditional definitions of humanity and his behaviour is equally detached from the traditional role of the detective. None of what Kovacs achieves within the novel results in a restoration of balance; in fact, his investigation has the opposite effect since the shooting of Bancroft was intended to maintain what fragile balance existed: uncovering the truth results in collapse. Working within his egoist moral code, Kovacs ability to restore balance to society is inversely proportional to his use of violence to achieve his ends. Kovacs’ actions have gone beyond Justice as we understand it, but in a world where not even death is permanent can there be a single, universal moral code?           

Which brings me back to my initial question: if detective fiction is no more than a means for enacting justice and restoring balance to society, should novels which fail to achieve this be included in the genre? Christie’s novels certainly meet the requirement, but Chandler’s work, with Marlowe’s subjective ethical model, fails to achieve the same level of balance, and Morgan’s work fails to achieve justice or balance of any kind with its quest for retribution at all costs. No longer do we encounter the overriding, universal set of moral imperatives which drove early examples of the genre: the detective’s quest for justice and balance often degenerates into a quest for personal satisfaction. The lessening of the detective’s ability to restore order has resulted in a fragmenting of the genre; and while this provides a varied catalogue, as it has evolved detective fiction has so changed in its depiction of justice that it no longer meets Swales definition. If this evolution has resulted in works which fail to meet his definition, is that definition still valid? Was it ever? The constant evolution of human society portrayed in these novels echoes Yeats' poem; the genre seems to be falling apart, but it is impossible to restore order where there was never any to begin with.

Right and wrong are not static ideas. Definitions of the genre which rely on a single set of moral imperatives that apply for all time are naïve. Detective fiction in any era, be it a golden-age cosy, a mid-century noir classic or a modern ultra-violent hybrid has never been only about universal ideas of justice. Every generation defines these for themselves and the moral certainties of today will look antiquated to our grandchildren. While it would be nice to assign some greater, universal moral code to underpin the genre, attempts to do so are ultimately doomed to failure. The true appeal of detective fiction is the idea that the unknown can be known. Readers of detective fiction want answers and a truly satisfying story will provide them[5]. If a single definition needs to be given for what is, arguably, one of the broadest genres in existence, perhaps Amanda Craig comes closest: ‘[a]ll detective novels are novels of escape if not from evil, then from ignorance’ (Craig 2009).

Copyright © 2010 Alia McKellar


1 This may also, in part result from her gender. As a woman in the early part of the twentieth century, the use of physical force to achieve her goals would have been alien to her; however, the violence of The Great War had resulted in so much death and destruction that avoidance of it by those left behind, both in fiction and in the real world, is not at all surprising and accusations of gender bias in her writing should be made with caution.
2 By replacing her bullets with blanks.
3 For the purposes of this article I define Deontology as equal with Francis Kamm’s 'Principle of Permissible Harm' and not by Kant’s categorical imperatives which are more in keeping with Christie’s brand of Intellectual Justice. 
4 Or at least the simulation of one.
5 Witness the continuing frustration of readers at Chandler’s remark that even he was unsure of who killed Owen Taylor.


Works Cited

Chandler, Raymond, The Big Sleep and Other Novels, (London: Penguin, 2000) pp. 1-164.

Craig, Amanda ‘Talking about Detective Fiction, By PD James’ (The Independent, 6 November, 2009. ) last visited June 1, 2010

Glover, David, ‘The Writers Who Knew Too Much: Populism and Paradox in Detective Fiction’s Golden Age’, in The Art of Detective Fiction ed. by, Warren Chernaik, Martin Swales and Robert Vilain (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000). pp. 36-49.

Knight, Stephen ‘The Golden Age’, in The Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

Morgan, Richard, Altered Carbon (London: Gollancz, 2006)

Nickerson, Catherine, ‘Murder as Social Criticism’, American Literary History, Vol. 9, No. 4. (Winter, 1997), pp. 744-757.

Pepper, Andrew, The Contemporary American Crime Novel: Race, Ethnicity, Gender, Class (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000)

Porter, Denis, ‘The Private Eye’, in The Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction, ed. by Martin Priestman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 95 - 114.

Rzepka, Charles J. Detective Fiction (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005)

Swales, Martin, Introduction, The Art of Detective Fiction, ed. by, Warren Chernaik, Martin Swales and Robert Vilain (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000).

Trotter, David, ‘Fascination and Nausea: Finding Out the Hard-Boiled Way,’ in The Art of Detective Fiction, ed. by, Warren Chernaik, Martin Swales and Robert Vilain (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000), pp. 21 – 35.

Yeats, William Butler, ‘The Second Coming’ (Poem of the Week:  founded 1996) last visited 23 June, 2010