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The Figure of the Detective

A Literary History and Analysis


Charles Brownson


Jefferson (North Carolina): McFarland & Company, 2014

Paperback. v+210 p. ISBN 978-0786477692. $ 40.00


Reviewed by Malcah Effron

Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland (Ohio)



There is a particularly cozy type of undergraduate seminar experience led by a senior faculty member on his or her favorite topic. Rather than heated debates such as might be experienced in other seminars, the classroom experience turns into a discursive lecture, with the professor waxing poetic about the subject. While perhaps less emphasis is placed on critical rigor, the thematic musings of the professor are supported by the breadth of primary materials available at his or her fingertips for support of the claims made. Reading Charles Brownson’s The Figure of the Detective : A Literary History and Analysis feels like sitting in one of these classes.  

In The Figure of the Detective, Brownson argues that the evolution of the detective protagonist since the nineteenth century demonstrates the evolution of culture’s approach to law, policing, and knowledge in general. To make this claim, Brownson follows the classical narrative of detective fiction history, first codified by Harold Haycraft in Murder for Pleasure (1946). He traces the evolution of the detective figure from the British Golden Age, through the American hard-boiled, the police procedural, the thriller, and into what Patricia Merivale and Susan Sweeney (1998) called metaphysical detective fiction. To assess the evolution of the detective figure, Brownson relies on classic definitions and discussions of detective fiction, such as Ronald Knox’s and S.S. Van Dine’s rules of detective fiction (1928) and John G. Cawelti’s initial academic exploration Adventure, Mystery, Romance (1976). Brownson frames his intervention into this classic history as an exploration of the detective protagonist’s position, which he refers to as “the Detective” with a capitalized D [1], as cultural icon and artifact whose form serves as a litmus test for the society that produced it. His most interesting contributions, are not, however, his assessment of cultures based on the detective—after all, this approach was detective fiction’s first non-narratological foothold in the academy (cf. Cawelti’s Adventure, Mystery, Romance [1976] and Stephen Knight’s Form and Ideology in Crime Fiction [1980]).

Rather, Brownson’s most unique argument reframes the defining characteristics of the detective in terms of concepts he calls “warm knowledge” and “cool knowledge” [6], concepts he identifies as contributing to all forms of the Detective and all modes of detection. Brownson defines “warm knowledge” as “ the sort of knowledge about the world that arises from the non-verbal, non- or pre-rational consciousness, the most ancient, limbic core of the brain” [6]. It is the kind of knowledge typically referred to as “emotional, warm, or instinctual” [6]. As such, he notes, warm knowledge is the type of knowledge typically gendered feminine, and thus, in classic narratives of the detective form, excluded from discussions of subgenres typically assumed to prioritize logic and rationality, particularly in relation to masculine traits, such as the hard-boiled or the police procedural. “Cool knowledge,” on the other hand, “ is “rational, acquired by thinking and observation, subject to logical analysis” [6]. Cool knowledge, as Brownson defines it, is the form of knowledge most privileged by the codified rules of the genre to which his analysis constantly returns. Returning to this notion through his account of the culturally-inflected evolution of the detective figure, Brownson problematizes this generic association of the detective protagonist as the font of cool knowledge.

Brownson begins this problematization in Chapter Two, “Sherlock Holmes—Rationality and the Detective Artist,” in which he reassesses classical forms of understanding Sherlock Holmes’s investigative and deductive brilliance. Even more so than the introduction, this chapter is the touchstone of the argument, as Sherlock Holmes functions as Brownson’s ur-Detective, the form against which all other categories of Detective and detective fiction are measured. Brownson begins his re-assessment of Holmes from the first page in the chapter when he asks “as a cold and rational man it is usually said that Holmes is a master of deduction, but is deduction actually what he practices, or is it some warmer logical method?” [35]. To answer this question, Brownson chooses to look beyond academic assessments of the detective model, and it is here that he initially posits film as the vehicle par excellence for understanding popular conceptions of the Detective figure, especially Sherlock Holmes. Through the analysis of filmic interpretations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, Brownson builds a litmus test for the cultures producing the films, leading him to argue that Sherlock Holmes films reveal “an evolving Holmes, responsive to changing attitudes about rational knowledge rather different from the views of 1887” [48]. Brownson uses Holmes’s literary and filmic evolution as a model for how he assesses how different subgenres arise in the history of detective fiction, particularly as he often tracks how far these figures of the Detective have evolved from (and with) Sherlock Holmes.

Subsequent chapters follow the methods established in Chapter Two, first assessing warm and cool knowledge in novels of the subgenre under consideration and then comparing their relative proportions in the primary literature to their distributions in film adaptations of the form. Following the classic detective fiction historiography, Chapter Three addresses with early twentieth-century British detective fiction, and then Chapter Four moves to early twentieth-century American. In a different twist, Brownson tries to distinguish between how he defines noir and hard-boiled in Chapter Five, positioning Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler against the unusual pairing of Ross MacDonald and Mickey Spillane. Brownson groups his notion of the hard-boiled with the thriller and the spy novel. Deviating slightly from the standard historiography which moves from the hard-boiled to the police procedural, Brownson moves to what he calls the “neoclassical revival” in Chapter Six, which he views as novels in the form of early twentieth-century British detective fiction that professionalizes the role of the amateur detective, such as in the roles of police officer, lawyer, or investigative journalist.

All these he diagnoses as having differing scales of warm and cool knowledge. Sometimes Brownson uses the knowledge categories to comment about the society that produces it, such as when he notes that the percentage of warm knowledge in the hard-boiled reveals “the withdrawal of belief in the efficacy of rational thought” [102]. And sometimes he uses cultural changes to find the difference in the warm-cool knowledge distribution, as when he claims, “[the Neoclassical] must be different in ways that reflect the anxieties of our time, not those of a century ago when the Classic formula was born” [131]. This chronology of exploration culminates in Chapter Seven with the postmodern novels of the late twentieth-century detective fiction and film, particularly those that situate the reader as the real detective figure in the piece. This leads him to a conclusion about the current culture, namely that “[t]he present view of what knowledge is, is that it is performative, unstable, local, inscrutable or only partially verifiable, and polluted by agendas of ideology and power” [176]. Brownson concludes that these anxieties over knowledge and its determinability, especially how to determine what should or should not be considered knowledge in a world post-relativity, serve as one of the primary challenges for the future of detective fiction.

Brownson’s discussion of the figure of the Detective usefully points out the blend of cool knowledge, or logic, and warm knowledge, or instinct. He interestingly uses film to diagnose the shift in attitudes by comparing versions of the same detective, particularly in the case of Sherlock Holmes, who he posits as the Detective par excellence. While Brownson presents his arguments in a manner well-tailored for the lay detective-book reader he addresses, rather than the academic audience one might expect from a McFarland publication, his conclusions suggest avenues for rethinking the re-figuring of the Detective as a tool for cultural inquiry.


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