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18 November 2009

MCT: Tzvetan Todorov

A short piece, "The typology of detective fiction", is included in MCT as an example of structuralist analysis. As the editors' introduction says, it is a "cool, lucid and economical expository style - qualities not frequently encountered in structuralist criticism".

It analyses the different types of detective novels, from the whodunnits, at their peak between the wars, to suspense novels and thrillers. It traces the different ways in which the story of the crime, and the story of the solution are mixed up, or not. In classic Christie, for example, the crime is discovered, not narrated; the narration of the event is implied in the narration of the detective's solution. Also the role of the detective changes: Poirot has an immunity from threat, while Philip Marlowe "gets beaten up, badly hurt, constantly risks his life". Finally, a third type is of the suspect as detective: the central character is wrongly suspected of the crime and must solve it to save himself.

It gets interesting when novels break these structures. Todorov comments on The Talented Mr Ripley that although other books have a similar structure, they are "too few to be considered a separate genre". That may have changed since 1966, the date of the essay. And the initial comments on genre fiction as a concept suggests that you might consider defining genre fiction as novels that fit within a genre. It's circular, yes, but it means that all non-genre novels are individually sui generis.

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