Metaphysical Detective Fiction

There are many subgenres to crime fiction. Police procedural, cozy crime, domestic noir, etc. I enjoy some more than others. But the subgenre I really love is metaphysical detective fiction.

It’s not a term you’ll encounter often, though it goes back to the 1940s. It’s probably not the best from a marketing perspective. It sounds a bit academic, perhaps.

So what is it? I have on my shelf a book of essays called Detecting Texts: The Metaphysical Detective Story from Poe to Postmodernism. It’s a tough read, but I make an attempt at it occasionally. The editors define metaphysical crime fiction 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.”

I’d offer a more pedestrian definition: it’s crime fiction where the mystery or investigation extend to more abstract things than the crime itself.

I love this type of crime fiction because what I want from a mystery is maximum intrigue, where everything is subject to doubt, even reality and the nature of knowledge itself. I like a mystery that you can go away and think about, long after the “solution” has been presented.

One of the stories-within-the-story in my book Eight Detectives is called The Shadow on the Staircase. It plays on the themes and common aesthetic tropes of metaphysical detective fiction. A detective (it’s never made clear whether he works for the police or in a private capacity) is sent a photograph of a photograph of himself. The next day, someone leaves a dead body in his apartment.

The investigation of the photograph (of a photograph) soon evolves from asking who sent it, to asking what it means: “is it in some way a comment upon the original… intended to be inherently satirical or critical? Is its intention to draw focus toward the fact of the photograph as an actual physical object… Or had it been taken by someone who didn’t know of any other way to make a copy?”

As the detective considers this predicament, the dead body in his apartment also takes on multiple possible meanings. Was it left there as a warning? Or as a cry for help?

You’ll have to read the book to find out.

The term ‘metaphysical detective fiction’ was first used by Howard Haycraft, in reference to G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories. It was meant to highlight the fact that Father Brown approaches his investigations from a more philosophical point of view than any of his peers.

But in other respects the Father Brown stories work as conventional detective fiction. The subgenre really came into its own when authors started to write mystery novels that outright refused to conform to the conventions of the genre. Paul Auster is probably the best known proponent of metaphysical detective fiction in the English language. The three stories that make up his New York Trilogy feature detectives (in the American hardboiled mode) investigating mysteries that have no clear purpose, following leads that go nowhere. Nothing makes much sense. And nothing really gets resolved.

One consequence of this unconventionality is that metaphysical crime books are as likely to be categorised as literary fiction as crime fiction. Ottessa Moshfegh, one of my favourite contemporary authors, published a book last year called Death in her Hands. I haven’t read it yet, but the blurb gives a perfect example of metaphysical crime:

“While on her daily walk with her dog in a secluded woods, a woman comes across a note, handwritten and carefully pinned to the ground by stones. ‘Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.’ But there is no dead body. Our narrator is deeply shaken; she has no idea what to make of this. She is new to this area, alone after the death of her husband, and she knows no one.”

So in some ways, the subgenre is alive and well. But it’s also not really recognised as a subgenre. I’ve never seen the term used outside of an academic / critical context, which makes examples hard to track down. And I don’t think that’s likely to change any time soon. For now it’ll have to stay as a niche thing, propagated through word of mouth. On that note, here are five metaphysical crime novels I recommend:

Death and the Seaside by Alison Moore

The Colorado Kid by Stephen King

The Pledge by Friedrich Durrenmatt

The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster

The Enigma by John Fowles (a short story, in the collection The Ebony Tower)