Date of Award
Studying literature is like walking through a labyrinth of interpretative possibilities. So, it is no mystery why an English major would be fascinated with detectives; they seem to show the way out of the literary labyrinth. Like detectives, literary critics look for clues in the texts they study and interpret them to find meaning. However, many critics argue that detectives make bad models, and that reading like a detective leads to interpretations that are at best boring and at worst dangerous. It is not clear whether detectives are the best literary critics or the worst. To make sense of this problem, I argue that it is necessary to pay attention to specific fictional detectives rather than talking about the figure of the detective in general. This thesis is a study in sleuths that examines how individual detectives fail and succeed as models for literary critics. I will begin in the nineteenth century with Wilkie Collins’s novel The Moonstone (1863) and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and then move onto the twentieth century with the hard-boiled detective novels The Big Sleep (1939) by Raymond Chandler and The Maltese Falcon (1929) by Dashiell Hammett and Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple short stories. Later in the twentieth century, detective fiction turns metaphysical, as in Jorge Luis Borges’s “Death and the Compass” (1942). None of these detectives offer satisfactory ways out of the labyrinth. However, I argue that Charles Dickens’s novel Bleak House (1853) anticipates the problems of interpretation that arise throughout the history of detective fiction and shows through Mr. Bucket, the detective, how to live in a literary labyrinth.
Hallock, Emma A., "Literary Labyrinths: Reading Like a Detective" (2020). Undergraduate Honors Capstone Projects. 482.
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