States of Crime: The State in Crime Fiction
17th-18th of June 2011
School of Languages, Literatures and Performing Arts and School of English
Queen’s University Belfast
This conference examines crime fiction through the various manifestations of its relations to the State. State institutions are unlike other protagonists in criminal affairs, due to their monopoly of legitimate violence and have hitherto received comparatively little attention in literary criticism. Yet, shadows of the state apparatus loom large over crime fiction, both within the narration and as a referential background. The emergence of the detective novel mirrors historically the advent of the modern police state. It reflects the creation of an organised network of surveillance and control. Poe’s ‘The Purloined Letter’ conceals a State affair. The genre has often been shown to display securitarian tendencies. The detective, either himself an agent of the State or a “private eye” objectively fulfilling the role of an auxiliary of justice, classically pursues not only the punishment of deviant individuals, but the restoration of order. At the same time, distinctions between exponents of State order and criminals have been blurred since the origins and the figure of Vidocq. In a similar fashion to Hugo’s couple Valjean/Javert and Dostoievsky’s Raskolnikov/ Porfiri Petrovitch, crime readers’ sympathies have often veered towards the criminal rather than the State. Evolutions within the genre, in the wake of WWI, the Russian revolution and the American Great Depression, have introduced a more explicit critique of State corruption, and of the surrender of public bodies to private interests, lobbies, and organised crime. Post WWII, the “Noir” has accrued its counter cultural credentials with a critique of State oppression, cultural domination, silencing of minorities, and racial and sexist discrimination.
Much contemporary crime fiction continues to buttress the authority of the State but at the same time an increased political radicalisation of the genre has developed worldwide in the context of decolonisation and the Vietnam War. Marxist, Anarchist and Post-Situationist crime fiction authors have explored the genre’s subversive potential, while experiencing its constraints and contradictions. As crime fiction’s geo-politics reach has expanded, the generic boundaries separating crime, thriller and espionage fiction have been called into question, along with the State’s ability to control its territorial borders and the distinction between domestic and international securitization.
One of the aims of this conference is to compare different international approaches to the State in Crime Fiction within their various historical, national and political contexts. To what extent do different state traditions (i.e. Scandinavia, Italy, the US, the German Democratic Republic) find an echo in crime literature and films produced in their respective area? To what extent do these different state traditions produce distinctive crime fictions? What are the various purposes served in representing the State, and how much do they differ in a federal State, a decentralised State, or a popular democracy? In a one-party state, a Republic and a constitutional monarchy ? Do cultural transfers in the genre reflect such differences? How far is crime fiction – a genre that has developed in consort with the consolidation of the modern State – able to challenge political domination, debunk the ideologies of public discourses, uncover State secrets and revisit official history?