Far be it from me to criticize an article with the intellectual and scholastic chops to use the term “savage” unironically. However, if I was to venture a slight critique of Michael Holquist’s “Whodunit and Other Questions” I would start by noting that it is quite bad and Michael Holquist should feel bad for having ever written it.
It is nonetheless a fascinating article, as Holquist’s fundamental argument is predicated on a monolithic understanding of various literary and cultural forms. Modernist novels, for him, are defined by a kind of psychological refraction of Western mythology; they “essentially take place in the country of the mind, inside,” (145). It always amazes me that critics turn to Ulysses as an example of a psychological, non-political drama. The book is basically a ransom note of jaggedly cut newspaper articles, tavern ditties, advertising slogans and political fantasies.
Anyways, this received tidbit of New Critical wisdom would be less egregious if it did not also structure the putative binary between “kitsch” and, in particular, detective fiction. The detective, dating back to Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue”, is a “metaphor for order” (141), he is resolutely non-psychological, or even anti-psychological to the extent that his spurious rationalizing operates as a narcotic that dulls the mind against “a world that all too often seems impervious to reason,” (143). It is very telling that he has no clue at all what to do with ‘hard-boiled’ detective fiction, other than to place it somewhere higher on the field of literariness than ‘real’ detective fiction.
In fact, it is his “small digression”, in which he both introduces and dismisses the ‘hard-boiled’ genre, that his project is most nakedly apparent. This project, in essence, is an attempt at literary gatekeeping; post-modernism is the legitimate heir to modernism, and the latter’s perplexing turn towards the genre of detective fiction is largely ironic. The ‘hard-boiled’ genre, which draws its appeal from “mainstream fiction; literature, if you will” (146) cannot act as a bridge between the classic detective story and the post-modern detective story (a thesis that would be problematic in its own right) but is instead “impure- and I mention it only as an exception” (147). Instead, the relation between the detective genre and post-modernism is that of the modernist novel and the pre-Christian mythological; lumps of discursive coal used to fire the engine of white European treatments of the “modern mind”.
Following up on the thesis of “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (which at least had the decency to be written in the 1930’s) Holquist’s article is a fascinating example of scholastic acrobatics, an anxious attempt to reinscribe literary binaries that are clearly undermined by the actual texts he is referencing.