You and Your Bow and the Gods

Colin Burrow

  • A Cultural History of Causality: Science, Murder Novels and Systems of Thought by Stephen Kern
    Princeton, 437 pp, £18.95, August 2004, ISBN 0 691 11523 0

Why do we want to read about murder? Most of us do not want to kill people, and most of us would feel a little squeamish if we discovered that one of our friends had done somebody in. Part of the reason must be simple ghoulishness, if it can ever be entirely simple to take pleasure in imagining how people kill each other. In most murder fictions these dark pleasures are overlaid by other, superficially more respectable, kinds of interest. Murder fictions let us test our hypotheses about how and why people act. They may also suggest that the things we do when we read most narratives – forming inferences, seeking intelligibility, constructing hypotheses that fit the plot – might be serious kinds of human activity: they might finally uncover why someone made someone else become a corpse.

The humblest form of murder fiction could be called the howdunnit. This sort of tale is mainly concerned with the causal mechanics of murder, and is more or less straightforwardly an exercise in ingenuity. A man is found stabbed in a Turkish bath. There is no murder weapon, but a tea leaf is found in the wound. Eventually our patient detective works out that the victim can only have been stabbed by an icicle which was smuggled into the baths in a thermos-flask. Howdunnits are the crossword puzzles of fiction. They are elaborately rule-bound, and both author and reader know just how far they can wander towards the arbitrary and the improbable: a discovery that a body was wrapped in clingfilm and moved to a new crime scene in order to establish a body of false forensic evidence is within those rules; a last minute revelation that the murderer used an invisible powder which causes instant death by telekinesis is some way outside them.

Howdunnits are closely related to the much more common and potentially much more sophisticated whodunnit. A good whodunnit works by making its readers think about several possible ways in which things might have happened. The grammatical mood of a whodunnit combines the indicative (this person is dead) with the subjunctive (things might have happened this way), and most of the best of them play elaborate games to ensure that the contingent stories we invent to explain a death take a long time to converge with the bare reality of the indicative mood. A vulgar whodunnit will assemble all the suspects in the billiard room twenty pages before the end of the novel; the detective will present a chain of inferential reasoning; the murderer will turn purple, gasp a confession, swallow a vial of poison, and leave us with a simple indicative truth: (s)hedunnit. A non-vulgar whodunnit might leave a whiff of the subjunctive in the air along with the scent of arsenic: can we be sure (s)hedunnit? Whodunnits might also raise questions about the mechanisms by which we make such inferences, and about the notions of probability we use to enable ourselves to trust those mechanisms; but they deal for the most part in something like truth.

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