Caroline Reitz. Detecting the Nation: Fictions of Detection and the Imperial Venture. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2004. xxv + 123 pp. $62.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8142-0982-0; $20.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8142-5135-5.
Reviewed by Lindy Stiebel (English Studies, University of KwaZulu-Natal)
Published on H-SAfrica (June, 2005)
Keeping a Watchful Eye over Empire
In this meticulously researched text, Reitz looks at a variety of imperial genres usually seen as discrete--the adventure story, the detective story, the spy tale--and argues instead for their connectedness. The seams, interstices, and "imbrications" that join rather than separate these overlapping genres are the focus of her attention. In a survey that ranges from William Godwin's Caleb Williams (1784) through to John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), covering imperial territory from London to Simla, and which draws on theorists from Foucault to Said, Reitz's overriding emphasis is the seepage of empire to metropole and vice versa. The results of such "seepage" and infusion on the development of the detective figure in literature have significance not merely for a literary genre, but also for our reading of national authority in the Victorian era, Reitz maintains.
Reitz's project is formulated in a series of questions she poses in the introduction:
How did the police, specifically called "not English" at the moment of their creation in 1829, become English?
How did English acceptance of the police provide a vehicle for the acceptance of the then equally suspect imperial project?
How does identification on the part of the English public with both the police and the Empire demonstrate how that which is marginal becomes the key to specifying the identity of the center? (p. xix).
These questions, focused on the deconstruction of the supposed "oppositional" categories such as empire and metropole, and imperial adventure tale and detective fiction, are answered by Reitz in this work, which highlights, instead, their interdependence.
The argument proceeds chronologically through five chapters in just under ninety pages, followed by copious notes as befits a doctoral dissertation, the genesis of this book. Chapter 1, entitled "Good Cop/Bad Cop," argues that the detective, far from undermining "English" values, could embody "benevolent modern knowledge" (p. 2) in the imperial nation's service. The chapter's title comes from the thesis that, though Caleb Williams and James Mills's The History of British India (1817) may seem "strange bedfellows" (p. 2), nevertheless, in their debates over the character of British justice abroad, both Godwin and Mills argued that the legitimacy of British justice both home and abroad could only be realized if the "bad cop" image garnered by government spies could be superseded by a "good cop" one. Springing from his writings in the 1780s on crises in the British Empire, Godwin argued for a "new type of local hero" (p. 4), able to use a "modern system of inquiry and observation consistent with English values" (p. 8). Reitz argues that this style of "good cop" had its origins not domestically but in a critique of imperial management--both Godwin and Mills posited an English agent "at home" in both imperial local culture and English culture as the ideal to tackle criminal activities, both abroad and, by extension, at home, as empire seeped home to Britain. Detection, understood as knowledge of what was happening on the ground, if it could control criminal activities generally, could then be seen as both necessary and good, thus diverting previous suspicion towards policing as "unEnglish." Detective work involving familiarizing oneself with local knowledge could be seen as a protection against criminal threat, rather than a threat in itself. Using this first early version of the detective--a figure which would come to be seen as quintessentially "English"--Reitz shows in Caleb Williams a "local agent," shaped by the imperial context and domesticated by an English readership.
Moving from this early detective prototype, chapter 2, entitled "Thuggee and the 'discovery' of the English detective," locates the first fully imagined English detective in William Sleeman, superintendent of the Thug Police operational in India in the 1820s and 1830s. The Thugs, gangs that engaged in violent acts of robbery against Indian travellers, gave rise to a number of British narratives concerning the crime of "Thuggee," its dark rituals, and suppression. Sleeman and his colleagues in the Thuggee and Dacoity Department evolved intelligence-based police work whereby the detective as sleuth steeped in local knowledge overcame Thuggee violence, routinely conflated with Indian culture in contemporaneous narratives.
The rapid consumption of these narratives by an eager audience in Britain enabled a sympathetic identification of the British public with the detective figure, crucial to establish a "good cop" image. Reitz carefully shows how a detective such as Sleeman, seen to embody the intrinsically "British" attributes of curiosity and sympathy, does so, however, in an imperial context, not a domestic one. The Thuggee narratives of this period are key, she holds, in domesticating the detective figure as "local" in values rather than as "foreign" in influence: "The detective story aims to make the formerly foreign police into the embodiment of English values: in so doing, it must 'discover' the detective and his story as a domestic product, a gradual and natural extension of an imperial culture" (p. 42). The point Reitz labors is that the construct of the "British" detective owes as much to imperial experience as to domestic influence.
Continuing this thread, Reitz argues in chapter 3 that although she does not hold, as do some others, that Dickens (in The Mystery of Edwin Drood and in Bleak House) and Wilkie Collins (in The Moonstone) discovered the modern detective, she agrees that these works were central to the domestic establishment of the genre. Dickens and Collins both show an imperial world which in its complexity and "messiness" (p. 46) makes detective work necessary. Both writers, Reitz holds, "make a virtue of this necessity by reconciling the detective with English virtues" (p. 46)--but again such "Englishness" is constructed in relation to the further flung imperial world: "In short, the Dickensian detective is an agent of imperialism. The demands of being an imperial capital, Dickens suggests, make the potentially dangerous power necessary. The detective returns the favour by making imperial power ... safe for England" (p. 49). In this chapter, as with the others, Reitz is at pains to show how, with every step of the evolution of the detective-as-character, the imperial world impacted upon the center, not as an end process but organically and integrally.
Chapter 5, "Separated at Birth: Doyle, Kipling and the Partition of English Detective Fiction," looks at Kipling's fictional detective Strickland and the far better known Sherlock Holmes, created by Arthur Conan Doyle. Both characters first appeared in 1887, both work with "local knowledge" and have a gift for disguise, both call into question authority by chafing against it as much as they serve it. However, Kipling's Strickland is taken to inaugurate the spy genre while Holmes is seen as the epitome of the detective. In the same way as it is difficult to maintain clear-cut boundaries between the center and the periphery, so Reitz argues that it is not feasible to separate spy and detective narratives: "Any reader knows that from the Great Game at the heart of Kim to the Mutiny story at the heart of The Sign of Four, investigation is as central to Kipling as imperial intrigue is to Doyle" (p. 65).
Reitz stresses how knowledge is demonstrated as being more important than violence by both Strickland and Holmes, and that this, by extension, became a premise of Victorian policing. Such knowledge Reitz assumes is always benign--what this book doesn't discuss in any great depth is the link between knowledge, power, and assumption of cultural superiority, a feature of imperial texts of all kinds. Whether it is Sir Henry Curtis in King Solomon's Mines lecturing the reader on military customs of the "Kukuana" in southern Africa, or Sleeman on the dark habits of the Thugs in India, such characters inevitably demonstrate their superiority to imperial subjects precisely because they possess local knowledge with no evident corresponding equivalent. The presumptuous and frequently patronizing subtext to the acquisition and public demonstration of such knowledge in fictional texts of empire goes largely unchallenged. This is a gap for this reader in an otherwise very thorough and illuminating text.
The book concludes by reprising the main argument which understands the detective as part of both "home" and "away," a figure in which these two spheres are incontrovertibly linked and through which an ongoing critique of national authority can be discerned. John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915) is used as a final illustration of the history of the detective in microcosm: Hannay, who has his beginnings in outsider criminal activities moves through the text to become an embodiment of British law and order. Reitz argues against this text being pigeonholed as a spy story--instead, to return to the beginning of her argument, all these fictional strands (detective, spy, and adventure stories) should rather be understood as "seams" in the broader cloth of nineteenth-century imperial narratives.
. The text is also available on CD-ROM ($9.95, ISBN 0-8142-9056-6).
. I am reminded in this of Isabel Hofmeyr's recent book The Portable Bunyan: a Transnational History of the Pilgrim's Progress (Johannesburg: Wits University Press; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004) which similarly argues how--in this case--a book, seen in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as quintessentially "British," was nevertheless shaped and reshaped in its travels as a missionary text in British imperial Africa.
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Lindy Stiebel. Review of Reitz, Caroline, Detecting the Nation: Fictions of Detection and the Imperial Venture.
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