… continuous and sharp attention should be paid to this vehicle, in which every rejected and denied human impulse can be accommodated …
… The obscure religious undercurrent in these dramas of sin and retribution cannot be overlooked. “One of the strange phenomena of the nineteenth century” — I quote a modern clergyman — “is the spectacle of religion dropping the appeal to fear while other human interests have picked it up.” The Gothic novel that began in the late eighteenth century bore the marks of a broken-down, secularized, floating religion. It is the supernatural that intervenes. The trappings are Catholicism’s ruined abbeys; the fumes are those of a Protestant personal hell.
[line break added] Ritual has dissolved. The detective story, on the other hand, has all the marks of a live cult, developing from primitivism toward complexity. The victim is always there, whether the sign of a brutal sacrifice or a more human oblation. And the priestlike character of the detective was once very clear: Sherlock Holmes, in whose human reality many people believed, is the supreme example of this type.
“The present-day individual,” writes a psychiatrist, “is more and more called upon to give up his aggressions. The repressed and therefore unconscious criminality of the normal man finds few socially harmless outlets: dream and fantasy life, the neurotic symptom, and some transitional forms of behavior.” The breakthrough of the submerged Unconscious, the symbolic struggle between good and evil — in the detective story we find a re-enactment of these struggles. And the flight motif has returned, along with the tracking-down-of-the-fugitive role of the official or unofficial police.
… it is [Graham] Greene who has stated that the history of contemporary society is being written “in hundreds of volumes, most of them sold in cheap editions — the detective novels.” The great and perceptive writers of the nineteenth century from George Eliot through Henry James accepted the material and announced the themes, in a period devoted to ideals of “progress” and bourgeois complacency.
[line break added] At the moment, continuous and sharp attention should be paid to this vehicle, in which every rejected and denied human impulse can be accommodated, from the petty but terrible Schadenfreude (joy in another’s misfortune), bred from the poorer native qualities of the human heart as well as from the pressures of a competitive society, to larger evil schemes of power and ambition.
[line break added] The detective novel, now snobbishly cut off from the main stream of literature, reviewed flippantly if at all, may at this moment have within it secrets of what we are and shall be. And the future may look back to it, as it now exists, through great works engendered by it, as we look back through Baudelaire’s poems to Sue’s Paris, and back through Shakespeare to the crude horrors of the Tragedy of Blood.