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Robin Truth Goodman. Policing Narratives and the State of Terror.

Robin Truth Goodman. Policing Narratives and the State of Terror. Albany: SUNY P, 2009. viii + 211 pp.

Though often difficult to discern what is being argued as its jargon and organization are almost impenetrable, this book seems to be about the work of fiction--especially genre fiction, more pointedly detective fiction--in the creation national and postnational narratives, or as Robin Truth Goodman sees it: "literary production as formative to the national" (167). Briefly, since the advent of women's detective writing--the great ladies of British policies: Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayres, P.D. James--the feminization of detection has worked hand-in-glove with imperialism, or recently, neoimperialist projects reshaping sovereignty. As women have moved into the public sphere, including as authors of hard- or soft-boiled detective fiction, the public sphere itself has been shrinking, and what were once the marginalized zones of privacy and the private sphere--confining women to locations outside the marketplace of commerce, politics, and ideas--have, with sublime irony, expanded and militarized in the wake of the privatization of many formerly social and public procedures and institutions: policing being a prime example when outside contractors conduct much of the U.S." current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Following the privatization of prisons and schools, the realm of public policy has collapsed into the market and the movement of women out of the seclusion of the home paradoxically coincided with this transformation.

All this is obvious if one reads a series of unlikely recent "policing narratives" together; through the pairings offered here, one can see how "neoliberalism" spreads itself across many fields. In chapters addressing the Columbia drug wars, Walter Mosley's novels, so-called terrorists and their hunters, Bernard Kerik's autobiography, one learns how the "detective novel is a genre that discovers, identifies, and expresses relations between the state and its publics during moments when those relations are no longer obviously steady, seamless, or essential, that is, when an inner necessity or a historical demand insists that such relations and contradictions be made visible" (10). Such a time is now--or is the ever-present now of modernity as Walter Benjamin, Jacques Lacan, and others concluded: Once Poe had Dupin find that purloined letter, the (black) cat was out of the bag; independent contractors, agents working as professionals outside the confines of organizations pledged to keep the peace--police, army, motherhood even--were the only ones capable of solving the crimes hiding in the uncanny realm behind any door. They were among the flaneurie parading the city streets in search of evidence that society itself was a continuing criminal enterprise.

As many have surmised (e.g., D. A. Miller's 1988 The Novel and the Police), literary criticism itself (not to mention psychoanalysis and every theoretical practice that thinks of, through, and within modernity) owes its methodology and assumptions to the police and their peculiar procedures of collecting evidence through objects and witnesses. "In the new world order where private interests are overshadowing the traditional workings of the modern state, detective novels and policing narratives make transparent the transitions, conflicts, and movements between public and private spheres of political power" (10). Thus, alterations in the gender and racial dynamics of contemporary detection narratives trace the erosion of the state and its replacement by the market. For example, juxtaposing Sara Paretsky's V. I. Warshawsky novels and former New York City (and jailed) police commissioner Bernard Kerik's autobiography, The Lost Son: A Life in Pursuit of Justice (2001), in which Kerik explains his career in part as a search for his mother's killer, Goodman argues that domesticity provides a key to understanding neoliberal reformations of the state's break with liberal traditions (public investment in the private world of its citizens through social welfare: school lunches, safe streets, hospitals, etc.); it's all about mother.

Policing narratives pick up on this gendered reversal to reveal an impending paranoia channeled through popular genres and show how resilient the police procedural/detective novel is for charting the fluctuating dialectic of public/private and the shifts in gender, labor, and war this augurs. In the chapter on the arrest and execution of Columbia's Medellin cartel drug kingpin Pablo Escobar as reported by two very different authors--Gabriel Garcia Marquez (News of a Kidnapping [1996/1997]) and Mark Bowden (Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World's Greatest Outlaw [2001])-Goodman explains,
   I view policing as an obsessive focus of political storytelling and
   cultural production now predominantly because of a crisis in
   democracy, a weakening of the public sphere of democratic practice
   and agency caused by a reconfiguration of the nation-state and its
   institutions on a global scale, that is a turn from a welfare state
   to a state of war. (103)

Assuming one agrees that there ever was a democratic investment in a welfare state (which, if true, held a limited sway upon most people for most of the world's history), this point suggests what both detective writers and their critics have long intuited: this supple genre is suited to reveal the traces of violence lurking within the social fabric. As any bookseller knows, whether that violence is racial (Orangutans in Rue Morgue), gendered (pick any card), class-based (Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest [1929] and most romans noirs), or fascist (Roberto Bolano's 2666 [2004]), the story of pursuit, investigation, and retribution by those only marginally associated with official civil authority is the gift that keeps on giving.

Just why is part of what this book is about. Only through delving into a genre's logic can one make sense of Rita Katz's need to create herself as the "Anonymous" author of Terrorist Hunter [2003] and describe her ability as an Iraqi-born Jew growing up in Israel to veil herself and run "terrorism analysis" for S.I.T.E., or see why an Algerian army officer must disguise himself as a woman, "Yasmina Khadra," to pen detective fiction and memoirs. What links all these international sensations about terrorism is the global reach of privatized policing and the abdication of a police force attentive to its public. I doubt this kind of policing ever existed anywhere; but it's a fantasy that sustains the rule of law. Now only the rule of genre is in force.

Paula Rabinowitz, University of Minnesota
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Author:Rabinowitz, Paula
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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