How Gothic Goes Detective: 5 Details to Keep in Mind

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It’s no accident Auguste Dupin, the very first literary detective, was the brainchild of a Gothic writer. From the beginning, the Gothic form has as one of its elements the air of mystery. Specifically, the point of any work of Gothic fiction is to reveal things which are long hidden or at least to hint at them. While looking at some of Poe’s work, we have seen that from the Amontillado which doesn’t actually exist to the mind of a murderer and then again to the mind of the manic depressive, we have seen hidden intentions, hidden agendas, and hidden emotions.

Detective fiction takes this one step further and takes the reader on a scavenger hunt to discover all of these in the course of solving a crime. The question is what specifically makes something Gothic and what makes something a mystery? The answers may surprise you. 

“You want beauty,’ said Hercules Poirot. ‘Beauty at any price. For me, it is truth. I want always truth.”

Agatha Christie
  1. Fact Vs Fiction

Gothic fiction is about taking fact and making it fiction. For instance, Castle of Otranto uses actual historical events (such as the Crusades) and spins a charming fiction around a knight who left for the holy land and was murdered for his title and principality. While this may have occurred in places (look at the Robin Hood legends, for instance), the storyline in Otranto is most definitely a fiction. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a more famous twist of the history book. Vlad the Impaler was an actual historical figure who did impale prisoners of war as a warning to others. Of course, as movie versions, particularly within the last 30 years or so have done, historical fact is used and abused much more freely as in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and, my personal favorite, Dracula Untold.

The mystery genre, or detective fiction as I shall refer to it more commonly, is far more fact-based than its mother genre. Sherlock Holmes, for instance, uses the art of deduction and logical thinking to draw conclusions based upon facts—a practice we do almost unknowingly daily—or should be doing at least. The detective is not as focused on the “supernatural” surrounding a mystery, but on the small, very human, and very ordinary details which give away valuable information as to motive, action, and the human mind.  For those of you reading who binge watch detective and mystery series, you know the mantra: “means, motive, and opportunity.” Those three categories are the basic facts upon which any case against a criminal is build. 

Colonel Ross still wore an expression which showed the poor opinion which he had formed of my companion’s ability, but I saw by the inspector’s face that his attention had been keenly aroused.

“You consider that to be important?” he asked.

“Exceedingly so.”

“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

2. The Devil is in the Details

While the Devil is a real live force in Gothic fiction—sometimes taking bodily form while the forces of good are relegated to mere mortality, the same cannot be said in the detective novel. 

In the detective novel, the Devil lives in things that are as mundane as a splatter of candle wax or the composition of a pen’s ink. While the trop in Gothic fiction is of the frail female who seeks and finds love and lost family, the trop in detective fiction (especially early detective fiction) is that good solid police work misses the important details of a case that say every bit as much about the murder and murderer as the fingerprints, bloodstains, and stab wounds on the victim. 

For all the Agatha Christie fans in the audience, you know this all too well. Poirot, for instance, is well known for seizing upon the tiniest details which don’t fit the pattern and coming up with an explanation which no one ever suspected. Small details such as what is missing from a murder scene say just as much about what has happened as the knife in the chest.

Sherlock Holmes too sees the details no one else does and draws conclusions from them. Look at any one of his monologues when he meets a client for the first time, and it’s the small things—the tiny spatter of mud on the skirt, the tail end of a ticket stub, the worn appearance of the shoes, the way the silk of a cravat has creased—which tell Holmes everything he needs to know. 

I am not one to rely upon the expert procedure. It is the psychology I seek, not the fingerprint or the cigarette ash.

Hercule Poirot

3. Human Nature vs Supernatural

While the Gothic form focuses on the supernatural or at least the appearance of the supernatural, detective fiction focuses on human nature and behavior. The supernatural is a function of the psyche and not always a reality. 

Take, for instance, one of the classic murder situations: someone is murdered in a locked room. How was the murder committed? The door was locked from the inside and there was no key which could open the door from the outside. Moreover, all the windows were locked too. How was the murder committed?

If this were a classically Gothic novel, the answer would be a ghost committed the murder, or the hand of God, or a demon who committed the murder. Some sort of supernatural occurrence would explain what happened. In detective fiction, there is always some ingenious method of committing the murder—the chimney is used to enter the leave the room, there’s a secret passage leading into the room, there’s a trick door, the door wasn’t actual locked, etc. If I had to put it in plainer terms, detective fiction is what would result if Gothic fiction and psychology got together and had a baby.

“Ah, but life is like that! It does not permit you to arrange and order it as you will. It will not permit you to escape emotion, to live by the intellect and by reason! You cannot say, ‘I will feel so much and no more.’ Life, Mr. Welman, whatever else it is, is not reasonable.”

Hercule Poirot

4. The Desperate Need for a Reasonable Explanation

Perhaps what is most at the heart of detective fiction is the desperate need to explain what happened. Whether that’s to give the victim’s family closure from what happened, to prove the innocence of a wrongly convicted person, or to execute justice upon the terribly wicked, there is a need to have every single circumstance explained. In any one of the Poirot mysteries, the Belgian detective must ensure every single item of interest in explained, catalogued, and fits into a pattern.

In the year 2021, this need is greater than ever before. As the world has become more and more chaotic and the traditional sources of information are shown to have their own motives and agendas, there is a slight run on the demand for truth and reason. We must have reasons for everything. The extremely hot summer that never seems to end must have a reason other than “it’s just a hot year.” No, it has to be because of climate change and here is what we can do to slow it or stop it altogether. 

This has its origins early gothic writers such as Ann Radcliffe and even, to an extent, Washington Irving but it takes full form in the detective genre and while Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot deal with seeming supernatural elements, each one finds the only “supernatural” element is in the power of superstition.

Life, as Hercule Poirot observed, is anything but reasonable but there is a deep, never-ending desire for order, method, predictability. We may not be able to get any of that in real life, but we can certainly get it in our fictional stories!

I was thinking, that when my time comes, I should be sorry if the only plea I had to offer was that of justice. Because it might mean that only justice would be meted out to me.

Agatha Christie

5. The Importance of Intention

Intentions can be a murky business when they are being judged by other people. In Gothic fiction, the intentions of the villains of the piece are always obviously evil: Manfred in Otranto, for instance, intends to solidify his power base and hold on to control of the principality for as long as he possibly can. Even in lighter-hearted Gothic tales such as “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” the intentions of characters such as Katrina Van Tassel and Brom Bones are not outrightly stated. Ichabod Crane’s intentions are very obvious—he sees a life of wealth and prosperity for himself in Katrina Van Tassel. But Katrina’s own intentions (apart from being a “coquette”) are not. 

In detective fiction, however, intentions can mean the difference between a man hanging and a detective looking the other way, so to speak. To return to Hercule Poirot, the most famous of all the Poirot mysteries: Murder on the Orient Express, hinges on the intentions behind the murder of the gangster, kidnapper, and murderer Ratchett. What was the intention behind all the passengers in the first-class coach cooperatively murdering Ratchett? That is what makes the ultimate difference between a coach full of characters going to prison and perhaps getting hanged for merely executing the justice which had not been carried out on Ratchet when he kidnapped and murdered an innocent child. 

For Agatha Christie, particularly the later Poirot mysteries, there is a correlation between a perpetrator’s intention and the meaning of justice. In modern crime series, there is a similar thread. Was the intent to murder or was death accidental? Was it in self-defense? Was the violence caused by illness, madness, or by extenuating circumstances? These are all questions lie within the purview of the detective or mystery novel. 

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