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Essay: Who Dunnit?

Essayist Roger Rosenblatt suggests that Americans like to loose themselves in detective novels because it romanticizes these characters' quest for justice.

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  • ROGER ROSENBLATT:

    With summer comes the reading of detective stories because there's more free time to give to what is probably our favorite kind of fiction. Yet the oddity of heroic, honorable detectives is that one never sees the real-life models for them.

    This is not true of noble fictional doctors for whom life offers prototypes or noble soldiers or miraculous to say noble lawyers and journalists. But the real-life detectives are keyhole peepers in divorce messes, not heroic, not honorable and certainly not the protagonists of beloved books. Why then have we created a hero without models solely out of our wishful imaginations?

    Because, my guess is, the detective is a person assigned to pursue justice. Justice is that damned elusive pimpernel. We glom on to it in fiction because we get so little of it in life.

  • SPOKESPERSON:

    We the jury in the above entitled action….

  • ROGER ROSENBLATT:

    In life one more often sees justice avoided or justice delayed or compromised so drastically that injustice takes its place. The O.J. Simpson trial left most observers feeling that justice had been cheated. The feeling returned recently when O.J. gave TV interviews on the 10th anniversary of his trial. The Kobe Bryant case. The Scott Peterson case. The case of the domestic diva.

    How close does one come to satisfactory answers to the question basic to all detective stories: Who done it? Who done what? In the wider view, what sort of justice awaits Saddam Hussein? Was Iraq a just war? Will there be justice for those lost in the Sept. 11 attack? Whatever else it does, the 9/11 Commission eventually is about justice. Helpless as we are in the presence of justice denied in real life, a satisfying power is granted whenever we bury our noses in a good detective story. Moral satisfaction accounts for the success of the genre.

    Sherlock Holmes, Filo Vance, Lord Peter Whimsey and Nero Wolfe labor at the high end of elegance. Miss Marple, Poirot, Mr. Moto in the middle and at street level or below, Philip Marlowe, Lou Archer and Sam Spade. However different their locales or their accents, all have in common this wonderful and fanciful idea that the bad guy gets caught and the good guy triumphs. What's more, this idea is treated touchingly as rational.

    Equally satisfying is the chase itself, the hunt for the criminal through a maze constructed to confuse and discourage. How much fun there is in the pursuit at every level of sophistication. On TV no policeman sleuth is more lovable than the disheveled Columbo who asks in our behalf.

  • COLUMBO:

    I just have one more question here.

  • ACTOR:

    I said no u-turn here.

  • ACTOR:

    That's what you said no u- turn here.

  • ROGER ROSENBLATT:

    In movies Charlie Chan was ripe for parity but he was immensely popular in spite of the caricatured black chauffeur and his various numbered children assistants because he represented a decent and orderly conclusion to a crummy and untidy problem.

    This summer detective stories may be more in demand than usual. If one is looking for a time when one feels out of control of one's world or of one's fate, there's no time like our present. Prospects for rational and equitable solutions seem kind of dim but not in these stories, these scary tales we can hold in our hand when the wind kicks up and the moon slips behind clouds and the windows rattle.

    Then Sam or Sherlock or Miss Marple will look a culprit straight in his guilty eyes and say, "got you." And we will sigh with rare relief. I'm Roger Rosenblatt.

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