Day: October 25, 2021

The ‘‘metaphysical shudder’’ of the detective novel (CFP)

This call for papers is destined for a book-length publication in the bilingual collection Book Practices & Textual Itineraries (published at Université de Lorraine, France) which traces evolutions in the production, transmission and reception of books and texts over time and across cultural and disciplinary boundaries (more information about the collection here).

Experimented by many novelists from both sides of the Atlantic since the 1950s, the contemporary trend of the ‘‘metaphysical’’ detective novel calls the intrinsic metaphysical value of the genre into question. Shall we consider ‘‘metaphysical detective fiction’’ as a distinct sub-genre? We may legitimately wonder whether existential concerns would not permeate just about any sort of crime-based narrative. Would not the practical questions raised by the detective-character — who, where, when, how, and why? — be essentially linked with more profound interrogations? What exactly is this ‘‘metaphysical shudder’’ of the detective novel that Umberto Eco used to speak about? How would it manifest itself in American and European crime fiction over time? How could its conditions of writing possibly be described? These few questions sketch several philosophical, thematic, and narrative avenues for the enquiry of the metaphysics of crime fiction that this call for papers proposes to discuss.

Please read the complete CFP available below and send your proposals — title and abstract in English or French (400-600 words) — to Estelle Jardon (estelle.jardon@univ-lorraine.fr) by 15th December 2021. Final papers in English or French (7,000-9,000 words / 30,000-40,000 characters – space included) will be due by 1st May 2022 with publication anticipated in the fall 2022.

Read complete CFP (English version) below .


Contrary to the ‘‘metaphysical’’ detective novel which has attracted a growing scholarly attention, notably since the publication of Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy in the late 1980s, the broader subject of the metaphysics of crime fiction has rarely been discussed yet. This can be partly explained by the fact that the two approaches seem to contradict each other: on the one hand, the use of the adjective ‘‘metaphysical’’ suggests that other forms of crime fiction are devoid of any metaphysical dimension; on the other hand, the belief in an intrinsic metaphysical value of crime fiction calls the relevance of the label into question. Yet, the American specialists Patricia Merivale and Susan E. Sweeney define the metaphysical detective story as ‘‘a text that parodies or subverts traditional detective-story conventions […] with the intention, or at least the effect, of asking questions about mysteries of being and knowing which transcend the mere machinations of the mystery plot […] by becoming self-reflexive (that is representing allegorically the text’s own processes of composition)’’. From its early beginnings then, with Edgar Allan Poe’s tales of ratiocination, the detective story would have followed another path, overtly philosophical and speculative, notably hinged upon the relative tragic irony which is to befall the detective-character. This particular sort of drama became a favorite of many prominent novelists of the post-war period (J. L. Borges, ‘‘Death and the Compass’’ [1954]; Alain Robbe-Grillet, The
Erasers [1953]; Friedrich Dürrenmatt, The Pledge [1958]) and continued to be experimented with by the succeeding generations of postmodernist writers (like the Americans Robert Coover, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon ; the Englishmen Peter Ackroyd, Martin Amis or Graham Swift ; the Italians Italo Calvino, Leonardo Sciascia or the Frenchman Patrick Modiano). These few examples help demonstrate that the label ‘‘metaphysical detective fiction’’ signals, if not a sub-genre of prestigious unclassifiable novels, at least a genre-breaking class of literary fiction under the guise of detective fiction.

Without neglecting these intellectual appropriations of crime fiction and their influence on the evolution of the genre, there seems to be a good opportunity to question the metaphysical potential of more authentic forms of popular crime fiction, too. One may legitimately wonder if existential pursuits would not be the inner workings of just about any sort of crime-based narrative. Would not the practical questions raised by the investigator — who, where, when, how, and why? — be essentially linked with more profound interrogations? Let us remember some of Umberto Eco’s motivations for writing The Name of the Rose like a detective novel: ‘‘and since I wanted you to feel as pleasurable the one thing that frightens us—namely, the metaphysical shudder—I had only to
choose (from among the model plots) the most metaphysical and philosophical: the detective novel’’. These few lines will hopefully provide a good starting point for discussing the metaphysics of crime fiction, not only as an inherent characteristic, but also as a driving force in the evolution of the genre.
The proposals to be submitted shall, therefore, focus on examining how exactly this‘‘metaphysical shudder’’ could manifest itself in crime fiction, from Edgar Allan Poe to this day, and from both sides of the Atlantic. The interdisciplinary collection of essays that is envisaged would particularly encourage the points of view of specialists of modern and contemporary philosophy to intersect with
the ones of European and American crime fiction specialists in the hope to better question the complex philosophical notion of ‘‘metaphysics’’ from the perspective of crime fiction. In the philosophical domain for example, proposals could concentrate on the metaphysical significance of crime fiction writing, or on the various interpretations and commentaries that the genre’s popularity and its avid
readers drew from many twentieth-century philosophers and intellectuals (Bloch, Brecht, Champigny, Deleuze, Jameson, Kracauer, Todorov, etc.).
If crime fiction is considered to be inherently metaphysical, how does this metaphysics differ or vary according to the different sub-genres of crime fiction that exist (the puzzle mystery story, the noir novel, the thriller)? Howard Haycraft, who was the first person to qualify crime fiction as ‘‘metaphysical’’, used the term to describe the religious and moral bends of Father Brown’s mystery stories written by the English Roman Catholic writer G. K. Chesterton. In the same way, Ross Macdonald used to say that Graham Greene’s novels This Gun for Hire and Brighton Rock ‘‘were ruthless in the portraiture of their villain-heroes, yet at the same time concerned with the salvation of their souls”. Some Christian writers in the first part of the twentieth century clearly found in crime fiction the best way to explore the nature of evil, crime and guilt. However, other writers often led readers to ponder on the same themes by following different routes, or rather by highlighting the importance that different superior forces play in life, such as strange twists of fate, chance and accident or contingency. These recurring themes of postmodern crime fiction in particularstill remain relevant to this day, like in The Suicide (2014) by Mark SaFranko, who imagines a detective-inspector from New-York, in the recent context of the 9/11 attacks, that the vagaries of his job expose to a suicide which ultimately leads him on the trail of his own culpability. Lastly, one cannot neglect the narrative form of the detective novel — this ‘‘reading-machine’’ (Thomas Narcejac) — prompting readers to be attentive to any trace of the hidden identity to be riddled out and uncovered along the pages.

In the same spirit, proposals should attentively look for this ‘‘metaphysical shudder’’ as fleeting impressions, feelings or less subtle strategies infused within the narrative and which can consequently impact the reading process.
Based on these philosophical, thematic, narrative or structural levels of analysis (this list of examples is non exhaustive), proposals could either concentrate on the study of a single novel or a single writer, or privilege a comparative approach of several ones. The different points of view and approaches adopted will hopefully lead to the better comprehension of the divergence between the
juxtaposition (‘‘metaphysical detective fiction’’) and the coordination (metaphysics and crime fiction) of the terms in order to challenge the relevance of the former umbrella term and the seemingly arbitrary categorisation of some novels under it. This study will also ultimately aim at highlighting the essential literary value of crime fiction — the quality which makes it the memento mori of our time — as one of the last popular imaginary spaces which directly confronts man to the violence and the anguish of death without any real harm.

This call for papers is destined for a book-length publication in the bilingual collection Book Practices & Textual Itineraries, which is devoted to the study of book history and textual scholarship.

This collection traces evolutions in the production, transmission and reception of books and texts over time and across cultural and disciplinary boundaries. Published at Université de Lorraine, France, under the supervision of an international editorial advisory board, the collection aims at facilitating dialogue between book, text and image scholars and practitioners from France, Europe and the English-speaking world (more information about the collection here).
Please send your proposals — title and abstract in English or French (400-600 words) — to Estelle Jardon (estelle.jardon@univ-lorraine.fr) by 15th December 2021. Final papers in English or French (7,000-9,000 words / 30,000-40,000 characters – space included) will be due by 1st May 2022 with publication anticipated in the fall 2022.