from "Clues"

a chapter in The Soul and the Harpy (1983)

by Franco Moretti

[ . . . ]

Baker Street and surroundings

The criminal

A good rule in detective fiction is to have only one criminal. This is not because guilt isolates, but, on the contrary, because isolation breeds guilt. The criminal adheres to others only instrumentally: for him association is merely the expedient that allows him to attain his own interests. The metaphysics of the 'social pact' becomes his own and he takes it for what it is: pure form, a continuous pretence, which is not difficult to enact, because the world of detective fiction is crowded with stereotypes. The difference between innocence and guilt returns as the opposition between stereotype and individual. Innocence is conformity; individuality, guilt. It is, in fact, something irreducibly personal that betrays the individual: traces, signs that only he could have left behind. The perfect crime - the nightmare of detective fiction - is the featureless, deindividualized crime that anyone could have committed because at this point everyone is the same. (1)  Such is the case of Robbe-Grillet's Erasers, where everyone has the same pistol, the same clothes, the same words: at the end, it is the detective who commits the crime. Detective fiction, however, exists expressly to dispel the doubt that guilt might be impersonal, and therefore collective and social. 'A typewriter', says Holmes, 'has really quite as much individuality as a man's handwriting' ('A Case of Identity'). As if to say: a guilty party can always be found. (2)  A guilty party: crime is always presented as an exception, which by now the individual must be. His defeat is the victory and the purge of a society no longer conceived of as a 'contract' between independent entities, but rather
as an organism or social body. The best known detective's assistant - Watson - is a doctor. And, as we shall see, so is Sherlock Holmes.

Holmes: 'Man, or at least criminal man, has lost all enterprise  and  originality'  ('The  Adventures  of the Copper Beeches'). Spirit of initiative (enterprise, in particular, economic enterprise) and individuality: this is what Holmes wants to eliminate. He is not moved by pity for the victim, by moral or material horror at the crime, but by its cultural quality: by its uniqueness and its
mystery. In detective fiction everything that is repeatable and obvious ceases to be criminal and is, therefore, unworthy of 'investigation': Agatha Christie's first book is set at the same time as the massacres of the Great War, yet the only murder of interest occurs on the second floor of Styles Court. Uniqueness and mystery: detective fiction treats every element of individual behaviour that desires secrecy as an offence, even if there is no trace of crime (for example, 'The Man with the Twisted Lip',
'The Yellow Face','A Scandal in Bohemia'). (3)  The idea that anything the individual desires to protect from the interference of society - the liberal 'freedom from' - favours  or  even  coincides  with  crime  is  gradually insinuated, and is the source of the fascination with 'locked room mysteries'. The murderer and the victim are inside, society - innocent and weak - outside. The victim seeks refuge in a private sphere, and precisely there, he encounters death, which would not have struck him down in the crowd. The door was invented by the bourgeoisie to protect the individual; now it becomes a threat; one is advised never to turn the key. ... This is the totalitarian aspiration towards a transparent society: 'My dear fellow', says Holmes to Watson, 'if we could fly out that great window hand in hand, hover over this great city, gently remove the roofs, and peep in at the queer
things which are going on ...' ('A Case of Identity').  Holmes exists because Peter Pan does not: it is not yet possible to fly through keyholes.

Murderer and victim meet in the locked room because fundamentally they are similar. In at least a third of Conan Doyle's stories, the criminal has been the victim of a preceding offence and vice versa. The victim, that is, has asked for it: because of his shady past and because he wanted to keep secrets, thus fending off society's 'assistance'; and finally because, exactly like  the criminal, he is still devoted to the idea of individual property. Detective fiction originates at the same time as the trusts, the big banks, and monopolies: mechanisms that make wealth impersonal and separate capital and capitalist. The victim, on the other hand, is still attached to his small capital, like the criminal who covets it. They are betrayed by economic independence. Detective fiction enacts the antithesis between life and property and between life and individuality: to have one, it is necessary
to give up the other. Kafka's inexorable law is already at work, but detective fiction cannot see the Castle that promulgates it.

The percentage of homicides in Conan Doyle's stories increases over the years. After him, they become the norm. Detective fiction needs death, on which it confers archaic features. (4)  It is never a natural and universal event. On the contrary: it is always voluntary, always individualized.   It is always a struggle (agony, antagonism). It is always the punishment of one who, wilfully or not, trespassed the boundaries of normality.  He who distinguishes himself has his destiny marked out.  To avoid death (and who wouldn't want to?) it is suggested that one conform to a stereotype: in this way, one will never be a victim or a criminal. . . .  And detective fiction's characters are inert indeed: they do not grow. In this way, detective fiction is radically anti-novelistic: the aim of the narration is no longer the character's development into autonomy, or a change from the initial situation, or the presentation of plot as a conflict and an evolutionary spiral, image of a developing world that it is difficult to draw to a close. On the contrary: detective fiction's object is to return to the beginning. The individual initiates the narration not because he lives - but because he dies. Detective fiction is rooted in a sacrificial rite. For the stereotypes to live, the individual must die, and then die a second time in the guise of the criminal. For the story to begin and the stereotypes to come alive, a victim is necessary: otherwise there would be nothing to say. 'Innocent' characters must, in fact, demonstrate only that they really are, were, and will be the stereotypes they seem to be: that is, that they know no history. . . .  Reinstate a preceding situation, return to the beginnmg, prove an alibi; declare oneself elsewhere, extraneous to the place where the disturbing forces broke loose; demonstrate, again, that one has always been the same: detective fiction's syntactic  regression  (from sjuzet to fabula, from crime to prelude) duplicates the 'good-guys' compulsion to repeat.  So it is too with the reader who, attracted precisely by the obsessively repetitive scheme, is 'unable' to stop until the cycle has closed and he has returned to the starting point. Bildung, expelled from within the narrative, is then evaporated by its relationship with the reader. One reads only with the purpose of remaining as one already is: innocent. Detective fiction owes its success to the fact that it teaches nothing.

Detective fiction turns this image on its head. It is the innocent, not the criminal, who is defenceless and yielding. The criminal is the opposite of Raskolnikov, who must confess to his action, bare himself to the world, and demolish his individual shield by himself: whence the irrelevance of detection in Crime and Punishment. On the contrary, detective fiction always presents the criminal as a self-sufficient watertight consciousness wholly bent on an aim. For the sacrifice of the individual to be effective and 'educational', he must be endowed with all attributes. This reflects a new relationship with legal  punishment: in the middle of the nineteenth century, the focus of attention shifts from execution to the trial. While the former underlines the individual's weakness  by destroying his body, trials exalt individuality: they condemn it precisely because they have demonstrated its deadly greatness. The criminal is the person who always acts consciously. On this premiss, detective fiction detaches prose narration from historiography and relates it to the world of Law: In detective fiction, as in law, history assumes importance only as violation and as such, must be ultimately repressed. Again, the ideal is for nothing to happen. But it is a negative ideal, based on a lack (as with the stereotypes and innocence), and in order to seem real, it has an obsessive need of its opposite.
I have insisted upon the individualistic ethic that detective fiction ascribes to the criminal.  Reading Conan Doyle, however, one discovers that the criminals are never members of the bourgeoisie. Detective fiction separates individuality and bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie is no longer the champion of risk, novelty and imbalance, but of prudence, conservation and stasis. The economic ideology of detective fiction rests entirely upon the idea that supply and demand tend quite naturally towards a perfect balance.  Suspicion often originates from a violation of the law of exchange between equivalent values: anyone who pays more than a market price or accepts a low salary can only be spurred by criminal motives. (7)  These 'excessive' expenses - which distinctly recall risky investments -  underline and disconcert a world which maintains that the distribution of incomes has occurred once and for all, and the possibilities of social climbing have vanished (England at the end of the nineteenth century, which begins its
parasitical decline on the dividends of the Empire).  What, indeed, is theft if not a violent redistribution of social wealth? And is it truly an accident that it becomes a great cultural symbol in the first country to experience a strong trade Union movement? But theft is crucial for yet another reason. Money is always the motive of crime in detective fiction, yet the genre is wholly silent about production: that unequal exchange between labour-power and wages which is the true source of social wealth. Like
popular economics, detective fiction incites people to seek the secret of profit in the sphere of circulation, where it cannot be found - but in compensation, one finds thefts, con-jobs, frauds, false pretences and so on. The indignation against what is rotten and immoral in the economy must concentrate on these phenomena. As for the factory - it is innocent, and thus free to carry on.

Let us return to the criminal who generally belongs to one of two major sociological types: the noble and the upstart. In the first case, he attempts to react to the thinning out of his wealth, to oppose the natural course of history. The detective's intervention aims precisely at assuring that the economy will follow its own logic, and will not be violated by what appears to be a revival of feudal arbitrary will. The upstart, on the other hand, aspires to a sudden social jump. The spectre of primitive accumulation materializes through him: capital as theft, and even as murder. By catching him, the detective annihilates a memory painful to his philistine audience: the original sin of nineteenth-century 'legality'. Just as this world will have no future, so its infected roots in the past must be eradicated.

There is also a third tenured criminal: the stepfather, the adoptive father who steps in to seize the inheritance. This is perhaps the greatest obsession of detective fiction, as is to be expected in an economic imagination interested only in perpetuating the existing order, which is also a legitimate state of affairs, founded on the authority of the real father and sanctioned by the family tie, which moderates and spiritualizes individual egoism.  The stepfather barges into this Victorian idyll, to break and degrade all ties for his exclusive gain. The stepfather is there to illustrate the difference between a 'father' (motivated by his children's well-being) and a 'private citizen'  (who wants to rob them).  Observing  his wickedness, one is led to say: 'a father would never have done that'. Instead, this poor man does precisely what the real father did in more elegant forms. He wants to suppress those children - of whom there are too many - that the real fathers of the English middle bourgeoisie of the time (according to demographic studies) tried at all costs not to bring into the world. This particular economy was won through sexual abstention and coitus interruptus  -  at the price, presumably, of profound erotic frustration and lacerating emotional tensions, which were then projected on to the relationships with the children and, in particular, the daughters. Conan Doyle's adoptive fathers hide their stepdaughters from the eyes of the world, imprison them, or even seduce them under false pretences: all transparent manifestations of sexual jealousy. That is, the poor stepfather is a bit like the well-known 'uncle' evoked by early psychoanalysis: a mask for the father. Needless to say, Conan Doyle, unlike Freud, was not trying to make a sticky subject 'acceptable': had he suspected this, his pen would have frozen in his hand. . . .

The detective

Holmes: 'If I claim full justice for my art, it is because it is an impersonal thing - a thing beyond myself' ('The Adventure of the Copper Beeches'). Holmes lives to serve this impersonal thing, detection. He does not use it for personal gain: 'As to reward, my profession is its own reward' ('The Adventure of the Speckled Band'). He sacrifices his individuality to his work: his endless series of disguises, sleepless nights, and inability to eat during an investigation are all metaphors for this. Thus Holmes prefigures and legitimates the sacrifices of the other individuality - the criminal's. The detective abandons the individualistic ethic voluntarily, but still retains the memory of it. For this reason he can 'understand' the criminal (and, when necessary, enact criminal deeds):
potentially, he too was a criminal. In the figures of detective and criminal, a single renunciation, a sole sacrifice, is enacted, in different ways. This is seen in 'The Final Problem' when Holmes and Moriarty, 'locked in each other's arms', plunge into Reichenbach Falls.

This voluntary repression of the self is at one with Holmes's (and every other classic detective's) dilettantism. Dilettantism is not superficiality, but work done for the pleasure of work: 'To the man who loves art for its own sake ... it is frequently in its least important and lowliest manifestations that the keenest pleasure is to be derived' ('The Adventure of the Copper Beeches'). Thus, Holmes is not a policeman, but a decadent intellectual (as is blatantly obvious from his escapes into music and cocaine). He is the intellectual who is no longer a person but a product: '[This case] saved me from ennui. ... "L'homme c'est rien - l'oeuvre c'est tout", as Gustave Flaubert wrote to George Sands' ('The Red-Headed League'). He is the intellectual Max Weber and T.S. Eliot discuss:

To return to Holmes. He is not a policeman but a private detective: in him, detection is disengaged from the purposes of the law. His is a purely cultural aim. It is preferable for a criminal to escape (as, in fact, happens) and the detection to be complete - rather than for him to be captured and the logical reconstruction be pre-empted. But the corollary of this is that the cultural universe is the most effective means of policing. Detective fiction is a hymn to culture's coercive abilities: which prove more effective than pure and simple institutional repression. Holmes's culture - just like mass culture, which detective fiction helped found - will reach you anywhere. This culture knows, orders and defines all the significant data of individual existence as part of social existence. Every story reiterates Bentham's Panopticon ideal: the model prison that signals the metamorphosis of
liberalism into total scrutability. (9)  Moreover, Holmes's culture resolves the deep anxiety of an expanding society: the fear that development might liberate centrifugal energies and thus make effective social control impossible. This problem emerges fully in the metropolis, where anonymity - that is, impunity - potentially reigns and which is rapidly becoming a tangled and inaccessible hiding place. We have seen detective fiction's answer to the first problem: the guilty party can never hide in the crowd. His tracks betray him as an individual, and therefore a vulnerable, being. But detective fiction also offers reassurance on the second point. All Holmes's investigations are accompanied and supported by the new and perfect mechanisms of transportation and communication. Carriages, trains, letters, telegrams, in Conan Doyle's world, are all crucial and always live up to expectations. They are the tacit and indispensable support of the arrest. Society expands and becomes more complicated: but it creates a framework of control, a network of relationships, that holds it more firmly together than ever before.

Let us, however, look more closely into the image of culture that detective fiction transmits. Since Poe, the detective has incarnated a scientific ideal: the detective discovers the causal links between events: to unravel the mystery is to trace them back to a law. The point is that - at the turn of the century - high bourgeois culture wavers in its conviction that it is possible to set the functioning of society into the framework of scientific - that is, objective - laws. Max Weber:

According to Weber, then, social science can no longer produce general agreement. Just as there is no 'general interest' in economic and political life, so a common value system cannot exist. There are only values in the plural, each perennially in struggle with other ideals which are 'just as sacred to others as ours are to us'. (11)  This picture is not completely convincing: there is a complex and surprising relationship between the conflictual partiality of the modern value system and its levelling and integrative potential. But we must return to detective fiction, which aims to keep the relationship between science and society unproblematic. What, indeed, does detective fiction do? It creates a problem, a 'concrete effect' - the crime - and declares a sole cause relevant: the criminal. It slights other causes (why is the criminal such?) and dispels the doubt that every choice is partial and subjective. But, then, discovering that unique cause means reunifying causality and objectivity and reinstating
the idea of a general interest in society, which consists in solving that mystery and arresting that individual - and no one else. In finding one solution that is valid for all - detective fiction does not permit alternative readings - society posits its unity, and, again, declares itself innocent. . . .  Because the crime is presented in the form of a mystery, society is absolved from the start: the solution of the mystery proves its innocence.

As we have seen with stereotypes, innocence, in the world of detective fiction, is lack of experience: stasis. Holmes's'science' is also static. Its most striking features - the gratuitous 'revelations' for clients and friends ('You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive' ('A Study in Scarlet') are his first words to poor Watson) - owes its existence to the fact that Holmes knows all the possible causes of every single event. Thus the relevant causes are always a finite set. They are also fixed: they always
produce the same effect. (12)  Holmes cannot go wrong, because he possesses the stable code, at the root of every mysterious message - mysterious, that is, for the reader, who is kept in the dark with regard to the code, while Holmes takes in the only possible meaning of the various clues in a glance. Perhaps 'symptoms' is better than 'clues', for they are effects which are systematically and absolutely correlated to univocal and stable causes, whereas Eco writes, 'As a matter of fact clues are seldom coded, and their interpretation is frequently a matter of complex inference rather than of sign-function recognition, which makes criminal novels more interesting than the detection of pneumonia'. (13)  This is not true of the archetypal detective. Yet it detracts nothing from his fascination: for someone who feels ill, the doctor's diagnosis will always be spectacular, especially if reassuring. And Holmes is just that: the great doctor of the late Victorians, who convinces them that society is still a great organism:  a unitary and knowable body.  His 'science' is none other than the ideology of this organism: it celebrates its triumph by instantaneously connecting work and exterior appearances (body, clothing): in reinstating an idea of status society that is
externalized, traditionalist, and easily controllable. In effect, Holmes embodies science as ideological common sense, 'common  sense systematized'.  He degrades science: just as it had been humiliated by both the English productive structure and the education system at the turn of the century. But, at the same time, he exalts it. The need for a myth of science was felt precisely by the world that produced less of it. England did not attain the second industrial revolution: but it invented science fiction.

Clues, whether defined as such or as 'symptoms' or 'traces', are not facts, but verbal procedures - more exactly, rhetorical figures. Thus, the famous 'band' in a Holmes story, an excellent metaphor, is gradually deciphered as 'band', 'scarf' and finally 'snake'.  As is to be expected, clues are more often metonymies: associations by contiguity (related to the past), for which the
detective must furnish the missing term. The clue is, therefore, that particular element of the story in which the link between signifier and signified is altered. It is a signifier that always has several signifieds and thus produces numerous suspicions.  'This is significant', Poirot never tires of repeating: meaning that he finds himself before something that transcends the usual, literal meaning. This is also part of the criminal's guilt: he has created a situation of semantic ambiguity, thus questioning the usual forms of human communication and human interaction. In this way, he has composed an audacious poetic work. The detective, on the other hand, must dispel the entropy, the cultural equiprobability that is produced by and is a relevant aspect of the crime: he will have to reinstate the univocal links between signifiers and signifieds.


1.  'It seems, from what I gather, to be one of those simple cases which are so extremely difficult.'
     'That sounds a little paradoxical.
     'But it is profoundly true. Singularity is almost invariably a clew. The more featureless and commonplace a crime is, the more difficult it is to bring it home....           ('The Boscombe Valley Mystery')

2.  The mass success of detective fiction became irreversible in 1891 with Conan Doyle's first short stories in Strand Magazine. 'A Study in Scarlet', which came out four years earlier and was absolutely identical tothe later stories, was almost a fiasco. Between these two dates there fell the year of Jack the Ripper, 1889, and a series of unsolved crimes, that is, crimes without a subject. Detective fiction must quell the fear that the criminal may remain unknown and therefore continue to circulate in society.
3.  'You have heard me remark that the strangest and most unique things are very often connected not with the larger but with the smaller crimes, and occasionally, indeed, where there is room for doubt whether any positive crime has been committed.'                    ('The Red-Headed League')

4.  Fuchs, Werner (1969) Todesbilder in der modernen Gesellschaft, Frankfurt am Main.

5.  Horkheimer, Max and Adorno, Theodor W. (1973) Dialectic of Enlightenment, London: Allen Lane, pp. 226-8.

6. Weber, Max (1949) The Methodology of the Social Sciences, New York, p. 169.

7.  In the same way, every superfluous object - an ornamental bell-pull, a kite - proves to be an instrument of death. For this reason there is no room for love in detective fiction. Love - the overrating of the object ('she/he is not like the others') and the refusal to exchange it ('him/her or no one') - could indeed be indicted for gross contempt of the principle of equivalence. It is no wonder that true passion always ends by playing into the hands of the criminal.

8.  Weber, Max, 'Science as a vocation' in H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (eds) (1970) From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, p. 137.

9.  On this, see Polanyi, Karl (1945) Origins of Our Time: The Great Transformation, London: Gollancz; and Foucault, Michel (1977) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, London, Allen Lane.

10.  Weber, The Methodology of the Social Sciences, p. 169.

11.  ibid., p. 57.

12.  The only problem can consist in an unusual combination of causes, which Poe very early saw as the only possible form of
novelty. The same idea will crop up in numerous twentieth-century handbooks addressed to would-be mystery writers, where detective fiction is often compared to chess ('The Purloined Letter' opens with a discussion of games), which allows an infinite number of situations with a finite set of rules and pieces.

13.  Eco, Umberto (1977) A Theory of Semiotics, London: Macmillan, p. 224. To touch on a parallel currently in vogue: the true investigator, who has to build a previously non-existent code to explain the clues, is not Holmes but Freud.