Sian MacArthur, Crime and the Gothic
Reviewed by Honora Wilson
The term “Gothic” is so colloquialized in our culture and is so often haphazardly applied to any work that makes mention of haunted castles or supernatural villains that it can seem to have lost its utility and become an amorphous, and thus meaningless, category to make fiction sound more enticing. And while such slapdash labeling is successful, it does sap the genre’s particular, and peculiar, character from our cultural lexicon. This is unfortunate for, as Sian MacArthur’s book Crime and the Gothic aptly demonstrates, the Gothic genre with all its traditional rigid conventions is alive and well in modern fiction and still has relevance in revealing and examining individual and national fears and anxieties. A true Gothic novel is concerned with much more than ghosts in the attic and skeletons in the closet; MacArthur’s book shines a light into the dark world of crime fiction to reveal the subversive Gothic element in many of the best known and most loved works of the 20th century.
The subheading of MacArthur’s book reads: “Identifying the Gothic Footprint in Modern Crime Fiction”; to say the book succeeds in this aim would be an understatement. MacArthur presents an engaging and wide-ranging survey of Gothic-influenced crime fiction that harkens back to Shelley’s Frankenstein before embarking on a journey through Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, Robert Bloch’s Psycho and Mo Hayder’s Ritual, to mention only a few. MacArthur’s work tackles both past greats (Nathaniel Hawthorne, Arthur Conan-Doyle) as well as modern titans (Ian Rankin, Patricia Cornwell) and manages to accomplish the feats of identifying a new distributary of the Gothic genre and revitalizing the discussion of works that are so familiar a part of our popular culture as to have become clichés (fava beans and Chianti are not mentioned once!).
MacArthur’s central argument is that much of the great modern crime fiction, such as Robert Bloch’s Psycho and Harris’ Silence of the Lambs trilogy, has its roots firmly in the Gothic tradition and that crime fiction and the Gothic make natural and mutually beneficial bedfellows. Crime fiction employs Gothic conventions to increase senses of paranoia and fear while subversively exposing the darker side of human nature and culture and the Gothic finds a new avenue of expression and adaptation in crime and detective fiction. More even than this, however, MacArthur argues that these gothic crime novels are a natural evolution of the Gothic genre, and thus owe their existence to it, thereby proving the Gothic to be one of the most enduring and adaptable genres despite its rigid conventions.
While utilizing some traditional identifiers of the Gothic, such as supernatural forces and ominously isolated castles, to traverse her survey, MacArthur’s primary tools of exploration are thematic. She defines the Gothic as the linkage between desire and suffering which induces suspense and fear in the reader. Throughout her work, this definition serves as the springboard for discussions on the relationship between place and identity, the psychology of isolation, the nature of human evil and the ever-evolving spectre of the Other that is so personally and culturally threatening.
MacArthur’s book reads as a survey of contemporary crime novels that have obvious Gothic features. As a survey, the book is both highly successful and wonderfully complex in its discussion of the debt owed by her chosen works to the Gothic. Her work covers Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, C. Auguste Dupin, Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle, and that only in the first two chapters! From there she dissects Robert Bloch, Thomas Harris, Ian Rankin and Patricia Cornwell before concluding with Mo Hayder. The scope of her project is immense and the amount it achieves is admirable. Her chapters on Bloch’s Psycho, Harris’ Silence of the Lambs and Cornwell’s Black Notice, The Last Precinct and Blow Fly are particularly strong. Her discussion of the relationship between place and identity in Psycho is fascinating and achieves the near impossible in making Norman Bates even more sinister and terrifying a monster than any viewer of Hitchcock’s “Psycho” could imagine. Furthermore, her examination of Harris and Cornwell offer intriguing explorations of how gender roles and gothic villains have evolved from Walpole’s virgin victim and Frankenstein’s monstrous creation.
MacArthur’s book is limited, however, due to its form. Because it takes a survey of modern crime fiction, none of its chapters is able to plumb the full depth that any of the authors’ works offers. Because of this, some chapters leave the dissection of the Gothic footprint incomplete. This is evident in her discussion of Mo Hayder’s novels Tokyo, Ritual and Pig Island. How the Gothic is adapted and utilized outside of its traditional locales of the UK and the US is a complex discussion that needs much more than a chapter to do it justice. It is in defense of her central thesis, however, that this shortcoming is most especially obvious. MacArthur, understandably, spends most of her time demonstrating the Gothic presence in crime fiction. But half her main argument, that modern crime and detective fiction evolved necessarily and naturally from the Gothic, is not satisfactorily established. The connection is made briefly and presented as mostly self-evident.
These shortcomings, however, far from being detrimental to MacArthur’s project as a whole, instead serve to illuminate the paths of explorations not yet taken. How place and identity are related outside traditional Gothic locales, how the victim and villain archetypes evolve, what cultural fears are exposed and, most especially, why modern crime fiction owes such a great debt to the Gothic, are all areas ripe for discussion. MacArthur’s book is the first step in beginning these discussions. And in accomplishing this move she also succeeds in winning a more important cultural battle: that of saving the Gothic from its dissolution and reclaiming it as a specific and valuable tool indispensible to our cultural introspection.
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