By Ted Gioia

What do postmodern writers have against the mystery
novel?  For reasons that perhaps only a Lacan or Derrida
could deconstruct, they have turned to it again and again,
wreaking havoc with its rules and formulas, and trans-
forming the conventional whodunit into a playground for
the most experimental tendencies and avant-garde
techniques.  The culprits: Thomas Pynchon, Vladimir
Nabokov, Paul Auster, Jorge Luis Borges, Alain Robbe-
Grillet and a host of other literary hit men and hit women.

Related Articles:
The Postmodern Mystery:  50 Essential Works
Selected Quotes on Detective Fiction

In the process, they have created an entirely new genre: the
postmodern mystery.  These books possess a paradoxical
beauty, both celebrating and undermining the precepts of
crime fiction.   To some degree, these are the emblematic
books of our time.  They recognize our desire for the
certainty and affirmation of order epitomized by the
traditional mystery story, yet they also play on our desire
to reject formulas and move beyond the constraints of the
past.  We want to savor this reassuring heritage, with its
neat and tidy to solutions to all problems, even while
enjoying the fun of toppling it over and watching the
pieces fall where they may.  

Even so, fans of conventional whodunits may do well to
steer clear of these books, which will thwart their
expectations, mess with their minds, and possibly
undermine their faith in the triumph of law and order.  
Put simply, these books are not for the faint of heart.  

But how do you know which works of fiction fall under
the rubric of postmodern mystery?  Like any detective, the
reader needs to gather evidence and look for clues.  Here is
a checklist: my handy guide to the eight memes of the
postmodern mystery.   Be on the lookout for these tell-tale
signs, and if you encounter any of them in a book or story,
take all necessary precautions.

1.  The Author Appears as a Character...or Even a
 The worst most writers have to fear is a bad
review or poor sales. But these authors might get a
conviction and the death penalty.  That’s the price they
pay for showing up as characters in their own novels
without a good alibi.  

Cameron McCabe: The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor
Norman Holland:  Death in a Delphi Seminar
Miguel Syjuco: Ilustrado

2.  An Obsession with Texts:  Forget about solving the
crime, postmodern detectives want to interpret a text. Or
write a text. Or sometimes they are hiding inside a text.  
Why bother with fingerprints and autopsy reports, when
you could be consulting Baudrillard and Barthes? The
producers of
C.S.I. are reportedly so entranced by these
books, that they are planning a follow-up show called

Vladimir Nabokov: Pale Fire
Paul Auster: The New York Trilogy
Gilbert Sorrentino: Mulligan Stew

3.  The Failed Detective: When Professor Moriarity
grappled with Sherlock Holmes, sending both plunging to
their death at Reichenbach Falls, reader outrage was so
intense, Arthur Conan Doyle was forced to resurrect his
famous detective in a follow-up story. Postmodern readers,
in contrast, are sympathetic to the failed and foiled
detective—ready to forgive incompetence with an easy
excuse such as "Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown."

Friedrich Dürrenmatt:  The Pledge
Leonardo Sciascia:  Equal Danger
Alain Robbe-Grillet:  The Erasers

4.  The Scales of Justice are Sagging: Remember that
old adage about "crime doesn't pay"? It doesn't apply in
the postmodern mystery. In these works, the detectives
are the patsies, while the criminals seem to have an
inexhaustible supply of Monopoly
"Get Out of Jail Free"

Patricia Highsmith:  The Talented Mr. Ripley
Jean-Patrick Manchette:  The Prone Gunman
Gabriel García Márquez:  Chronicle of a Death Foretold

5.  Not Much Crime, But Plenty of Clues: Why worry
about solving a particular crime, when the whole world is a
web of clues and complicity? In the postmodern novel,
almost everything can be seen as evidence, and even the
most banal, everyday event can be infused with a sense of
paranoia and foreboding.

Witold Gombrowicz: Cosmos
Thomas Pynchon: The Crying of Lot 49
Umberto Eco: Foucault’s Pendulum

6.  The Wounded Investigator: The heroic qualities of
the detective are undermined in the postmodern mystery.  
Instead of the shrewd and courageous private investigator,
we encounter Christopher Boone, a 15-year-old autistic
boy, or Lionel Essrog, afflicted with Tourette’s syndrome,
or Doc Sportello, burned out on too many drugs with
barely enough brain cells functioning to find where he
parked his car, let alone solve a murder mystery.  

Jonathan Lethem: Motherless Brooklyn
Mark Haddon: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the   
Thomas Pynchon: Inherent Vice

7.  The Genre Mashup:  The postmodern mind delights
in the juxtaposition of contrary genres and styles. So why
shouldn’t a postmodern mystery also take on elements of
a sci-fi story? Or a gothic romance? Or a historical

Joyce Carol Oates: Mysteries of Winterthurn
Douglas Adams: Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency
Umberto Eco: The Name of the Rose

8.  There’s No Mystery Here!:  Why would the author
of a crime story tell you the identity of the killer on page
one?  Doesn’t that spoil all the fun? But postmodern
authors have a different kind of fun in mind, and part of
it is playing games with your genre expectations.

Martin Amis: London Fields
Paul Auster: Leviathan
Thomas Bernhard: The Lime Works
The Eight Memes of the
Postmodern Mystery
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Great Books Guide
A look at contemporary
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Exploring modernist
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The Reading List
(with links to essays)

Peter Ackroyd

Douglas Adams
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective

Martin Amis
London Fields

Paul Auster
The New York Trilogy

Thomas Bernhard
The Lime Works

Jedediah Berry
The Manual of Detection

Alfred Bester
The Demolished Man

Robert Bloch

Roberto Bolaño

Jorge Luis Borges

Truman Capote
In Cold Blood

Michael Chabon
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Agatha Christie
The A.B.C. Murders

Robert Coover

Friedrich Dürrenmatt
The Pledge

Umberto Eco
Foucault's Pendulum
The Name of the Rose

David Gordon
The Serialist

Witold Gombrowicz

Mark Haddon
The Curious Incident of
the Dog in the Night-Time

Elizabeth Hand
Generation Loss

Thomas Harris
The Silence of the Lambs

Patricia Highsmith
The Talented Mr. Ripley

Norman N. Holland
Death in a Delphi Seminar

Franz Kafka
The Trial

Jonathan Lethem
Gun, with Occasional Music
Motherless Brooklyn

Jean-Patrick Manchette
The Prone Gunman

Gabriel García Márquez
Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Cameron McCabe
The Face on the Cutting-Room

Philip MacDonald
The Rynox Murder

China Miéville
The City and the City

Mo Yan
The Republic of Wine

Patrick Modiano
Missing Person

Haruki Murakami
Kafka on the Shore
A Wild Sheep Chase

Vladimir Nabokov
Pale Fire

Joyce Carol Oates
Mysteries of Winterthurn

Flann O'Brien
The Third Policeman

Orhan Pamuk
The Black Book

Georges Perec
A Void

Marisha Pessl
Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Thomas Pynchon
The Crying of Lot 49
Inherent Vice

Alain Robbe-Grillet
The Erasers
The Voyeur

Leonardo Sciascia
The Day of the Owl
Equal Danger

Gilbert Sorrentino
Mulligan Stew

Theodore Sturgeon
Some of Your Blood

Miguel Syjuco

Other articles and feature:
50 Essential Postmodern Mysteries
The 8 Memes of the Postmodern Mystery
Selected Quotes on Detective Fiction

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