Since there appears to be a lot of interest on this blog, both from posters and from commenters, in detective fiction (see here, here, and here for starters); and since Im just about to start reading Faithful Place, Tana Frenchs third novel about the Dublin Murder Squad; and since I continue in my quest to get more people to read the poems of W. H. Auden, I figured I would share Audens 1936 Detective Story, in which the poet imagines a hunt for the murderer of our happiness.Auden loved detective fiction. Besides Detective Story, several other poems, including his long, baroque work The Age of Anxiety, engage with the genre and its conventions. You can find Audens most developed thoughts on the topic in his wonderfully titled essay The Guilty Vicarage: Notes on the Detective Story, by an Addict. In it, Auden admits to a lack of self-control when faced with a good potboilerif I have any work to do, I must be careful not to get hold of a detective story for, once I begin one, I cannot work or sleep till I have finished itand speculates that the interest in the detective story is the dialectic of innocence and guilt. This dialectic, he thinks, appeals to a specifically religious kind of imagination: I suspect that the typical reader of detective stories is, like myself, a person who suffered from a sense of sin. (Maybe this explains why G. K. Chesteron and Dorothy Sayers were such great writers of detective stories.)Here is Detective Story in full:
For who is ever quite without his landscape,The straggling village street, the house in trees,All near the church, or else the gloomy town house,The one with the Corinthian pillars, orThe tiny workmanlike flat: in any caseA home, the centre where the three or four thingsThat happen to a man do happen? Yes,Who cannot draw the map of his life, shade inThe little station where he meets his lovesAnd says good-bye continually, and mark the spotWhere the body of his happiness was first discovered?
An unknown tramp? A rich man? An enigma alwaysAnd with a buried past but when the truth,The truth about our happiness comes outHow much it owed to blackmail and philandering.
The rest's traditional. All goes to plan:The feud between the local common senseAnd that exasperating brilliant intuitionThat's always on the spot by chance before us;All goes to plan, both lying and confession,Down to the thrilling final chase, the kill.
Yet on the last page just a lingering doubt:That verdict, was it just? The judge's nerves,That clue, that protestation from the gallows,And our own smile . . . why yes . . .But time is always killed. Someone must pay forOur loss of happiness, our happiness itself.
A few things to note. First, Audens definition of home (a centre where the three or four things / That happen to a man do happen) takes its place alongside Robert Frosts more well-known definitions from The Death of the Hired Man (first, home as the place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in; second, home as something you somehow havent to deserve) as a powerful distillation of what home is and what it means in our individual lives.Second, is there a better description of the animating force behind detective fiction than the feud between local common sense / And that exasperating brilliant intuition / Thats always on the spot by chance before us? Particularly brilliant is the word exasperating: isnt exasperation one of the dominant feelings we experience when reading detective stories, both at the dolts on the police force who, with supreme confidence, bungle things up to a fare-thee-well and at ourselves for not figuring things out sooner?Finally, though, the most haunting bit of the poem comes in the last stanza, beginning with "Yet on the last page," where Auden shifts towards a metaphysical sense of sin and guilt. If the detective story follows a familiar trajectorysomething disturbs the world, this something is discovered, and the world is once again set to rightsthen Auden offers us a more disturbing vision. For Auden, the detective story doesnt just expose the guilt of the criminal; it also exposes the guilt of all of us, as our own smile is implicated in the crime. Most disturbing is the final line, where Auden asserts that happiness itself demands a price to be paid. In A Summer Night, Auden worries over what doubtful act allows / Our freedom in this English house, / Our picnics in the sun, anxiously wondering what violence is done to the poor and marginalized so that we might have our nice estates and private gardens.For the Auden writing Detective Story in 1936, we are guilty, and this is why we love detective fiction. Several years later, after he returned to the Anglican communion, Auden would refine this statement: we are all in need of forgiveness, and this is why we love Shakespearean romance, yearning for the mercy displayed at the end of The Tempest or The Winters Tale. Its a sign of Audens brilliance that he is able to show us both the real pleasures of the detective genre and why these pleasures ultimately pale in comparison to the joys of romance.