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Supernatural intuitions and classic detective fiction: a cognitivist appraisal.

1. Introduction

The last decade has seen the cognitive paradigm in literary studies come into its own as an important--and publicly audible--voice in the humanities (Chace et al). Largely, this is because cognitive literary studies have expanded beyond their initial focus on literary form, and into studies of historical periods, specific genres and individual authors (Jaen and Simon 13-32). These latter expedients, by showcasing the usefulness of cognitivist methodologies to a wider scholarly audience, have been instrumental in securing their acceptance as a legitimate tool for literary analysis. Certainly, this process has also attracted controversy: for many critics, the cognitive approach amounts to a surrender, where the interpretive imperative of the humanities is subordinated to the empirical agenda and cultural prestige of the (pseudo)-sciences. (1) However, for all that one may appreciate the scepticism underwriting such claims, it is difficult to square it with the lack of dogmatism in the work done by cognitivist scholars. Cognitive literary studies is an eclectic undertaking, and just as its practitioners draw on the cognitive sciences for insight, so, too, do they draw on other schools of literary interpretation and scholarship. The result is a mosaic of approaches that refuses any common description beyond that of wishing to understand how the human mind negotiates its place in the world through culture. Given the plurality of responses that this inquiry has already generated in the humanities, it is hard to disagree with Alan Richardson's claim that "the somewhat dazzling variety of approaches that continue to proliferate within the new field [is] a sign of its early strength rather than amateurishness or disarray" (xii).

In the present article, I further complement the range of approaches available to cognitive literary studies by looking at detective fiction through the lens of research on religious cognition. To this extent, I reflect innovations like Lisa Zunshine's (121-141) ground-breaking account of the genre using Theory of Mind; however, where Zunshine takes the mentalising capacities of ordinary human agents as her point of departure, I suggest that detective fiction is in fact indebted to our conception of how supernatural agents construct mental representations. Specifically, I show that developments in the psychology of religion on the concept of "privileged epistemic access" (Bering and Johnson 120) have an unexpected bearing on representations of the literary detective. That is to say, I maintain that the detective's "seeming clairvoyance in investigation" secularises the unmediated access to the self's mental states often assigned to certain classes of punitive supernatural being (Walton 458).

The background to this claim comes from empirical work in ethnography, which focuses on cognitive regularities in the representation of supernatural agents like gods, spirits, and ghosts. A crucial element of this research deals with the cross-cultural recurrence of supernatural beings that 'police' moral and social norms. As Scott Atran puts it, these "supernatural agents ... function as moral big brothers who keep a constant vigil to dissuade would-be cheaters and free riders" (112). Notably, these punitive supernatural witnesses are not just privy to actions, but to thoughts as well; in Bering and Johnson's words, they are "envisioned as knowing, rather than merely inferring from observable behaviors, the self's true intentions" (120). It is precisely this supernatural ability to penetrate into the thoughts and motives of others that is meant by the term 'privileged epistemic access.'

On the face of it, these results may seem to have little relevance for an appreciation of the detective story--especially given the frequent identification of the detective as the representative of rationalist progressivism by critics like E.J. Wagner and J. Kenneth Van Dover. Nevertheless, as I explore below, there is a remarkable coincidence between the rhetorical characterisation of the literary detective and the traits assigned to punitive supernatural agents: the detective, in D.A. Miller's words, offers the prospect of an "absolute surveillance under which everything would be known, incriminated, policed" (10)--a characteristic that is entirely consonant with an all-seeing supernatural witness. For all that the detective advertises his stunning deductions as the product of minute observation and cerebral prowess, the fact remains that his achievements in reading the thoughts of others are functionally indistinguishable from magic. As Sradjan Smaji notes, "Clairvoyance, telepathy and intuition ... are not just uncannily reminiscent of the detective's mind-reading powers and miraculous feats of deductive reasoning, but are versions of these practices, and vice versa" (181). Thus, there are strong prima facie grounds for further investigating the connection between the literary detective and cross-cultural intuitions about the supernatural. I pursue this in the pages below by looking at the different ways in which detective fiction rhetorically endows the detective with the privileged epistemic access associated with punitive supernatural enforcers.

Then there are the texts themselves. As no study short of monograph length can do justice to the full volume of materials available, I focus on material from the classic period of detective fiction--namely, that produced between the 1840s and the 1930s. Within this, I deal with three bodies of work: Edgar Allan Poe's Dupin stories, the Sherlock Holmes narratives of Arthur Conan Doyle, and G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown series. The reason for this particular selection is that the identified narratives established and consolidated the genre of detective fiction--and in doing so, determined the form of much of the detective fiction that was to follow. Thus, if these texts can be shown to equivocate between rational and supernatural modes of thinking in the manner that I propose, then there are reasonable grounds for thinking that this trait can be found in other texts of the same genre. Certainly, I could go even further and cite examples of detective fiction where the supernatural is explicitly included (Agatha Christie's tales of Mr. Harley Quin being one obvious example) as evidence in support of my claims. However, to do so would offer relatively little critical reward, as the supernatural 'logic' of such narratives is already visible on the surface. Instead, a far more rewarding enterprise involves using this 'logic' to resolve critical problems with detective fiction that have thus far resisted solution in the secondary literature. As we shall see, this strategy delivers a number of unanticipated results that invite us to rethink our understanding of the literary detective.

2. Theoretical Background

Viewing detective fiction through the lens of religious cognition may seem like a counterintuitive move, given the ostensibly realist commitments of the genre. This dissonance becomes even more pronounced when one notes that, at roughly the same time as the detective genre was emerging, police work was being revolutionised by the introduction of forensic techniques and the emergence of the police detective as a professional role (Shpayer-Makov 62-146). Nevertheless, while the rhetoric of science impacted strongly on the literary representation of the detective, he also shares his substance with a markedly different tradition--that of nineteenth-century spiritualism. Chris Willis establishes this much when he notes that both phenomena "began in the mid-nineteenth century and were widely popular in Britain from the turn of the century to the 1930s. Both attempted to explain mysteries. The medium's role can be seen as similar to that of a detective in a murder case. Both are trying to make the dead speak in order to reveal a truth" (60). The question this poses is whether the analogy between the detective and the medium is accidental, or if points to more fundamental link between the two phenomena. My claim is that this link does exist, and that it can be found in a core concept in the cognitive psychology of religious belief: the fear of supernatural punishment hypothesis (FSPH).

The idea behind the FSPH is that the cognitively costly practice of maintaining a belief in supernatural entities can be explained if these beliefs play a causal role in disincentivising individuals from breaking social norms (Atran 114-47). That is, a conviction that punitive supernatural witnesses always observe infractions is good insurance against actual witnesses who sometimes observe them, as the fear of the former obviates punishment from the latter. Ultimately, proponents of the FSPH maintain, this would have provided a selective advantage that fostered a widespread disposition to believe in supernatural agents. Thus, it seems that the FSPH offers a potential source for the link between the detective and the supernatural enforcers discussed above. The question is, does the evidence support the FSPH?

In this regard, a large body of ethnographic work identifies the presence of the FSPH as a constant in cross-cultural cognition. Recent surveys by Bering and Johnson (2005), Atkinson and Bourrat (2011), Dominic Johnson (2004), Bourrat, Atkinson, and Dunbar (2011), and Johnson and Kruger (2004) have all affirmed the view that "individual differences in beliefs about God, the afterlife and morality across cultures support the predictions of the supernatural monitoring and supernatural punishment hypotheses" (Atkinson and Bourrat 48). Certainly, this does not mean that every culture holds all supernatural agents to be punitive, or that punitive action by such agents is everywhere conceived of in the same way or assigned the same cultural weight. It does, however, ratify the view that belief in punitive supernatural witnesses is not a function of local cultural norms, but instead reflects something more fundamental about how human beings conceive of the moral universe.

It can be objected that such surveys say little about how supernatural intuitions function in secular contexts. However, a large number of experimental studies on western populations have confirmed the view that, even among non-believers, notions of justice, punishment and quasi-supernatural agency consistent with FSPH recur with surprising frequency. Bering, McLeod, and Shackelford's 'haunted laboratory' scenario provides the most dramatic illustration of this. Here, the experimenters presented a sample of undergraduates with a contrived opportunity to cheat for a prize in a computerised spatial intelligence test. Unknown to themselves, the students were split into three groups: a control group that performed the test without any intervention; an 'In Memoriam' (IM) group who read on their screens that the experiment was dedicated to a deceased graduate student; and a 'Ghost Story' (GS) group that were casually informed by the experimenter that the ghost of the same student was sometimes seen in the lab. The results were unequivocal: the students who were primed by the ghost story were far less likely to consider cheating than those in the other two conditions. (2) Thus, in the absence of any explicit religious framework to guide their intuitions, students "adopted a policy of social compliance, despite the temptation to cheat, when faced with the prospect of a supernatural agent in the immediate environment" (376). Clearly, then, experimental results confirm ethnographic conclusions by showing that secular populations are no less subject to the FSPH than those populations for whom it takes a culturally elaborated form.

3. Quasi-Omniscience, Supernatural Rhetoric and the Literary Detective

In Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue," one of the narrator's first actions is to record Dupin's boast "that most men, in respect to himself, wore windows in their bosoms" (533). Watson, similarly, is introduced to Holmes's 'Science of Deduction' by way of an article in which Holmes claims to be able, "by a momentary expression, a twitch of a muscle or the glance of an eye, to fathom a man's inmost thoughts" (A Study in Scarlet 23). Chesterton's Father Brown, for his part, persists until he penetrates completely into the mental processes of his target: "I wait till I know I am inside a murderer, thinking his thoughts, wrestling with his passions ... Till I am really a murderer" ("The Secret of Father Brown" 817). Clearly, by showcasing the detective's access to the thoughts of third parties, these examples evince a form of privileged epistemic access. Just as punitive supernatural agents cannot be deceived by fabulation because they are privy to the contents of one's mind, neither does the detective's appreciation of motive and behaviour allow for deception. One could go a great deal further and amass more examples of how both of these traits--quasi-omniscience and punitive judgment--recur in representations of the detective; but in a certain sense, this would be pointless. Every student of the detective genre is already aware of these conventions, so to exhaustively rehearse where they occur in the above three examples is only to labour the point. Instead, I suggest that it is more productive to assume the presence of the FSPH, and see if it can be used to resolve critical problems in the relevant texts.

Starting with Poe's Dupin stories, the problem for which the FSPH pays the most obvious dividends is why narratives that fetishize deductive rationality should be so singularly unsuccessful in representing it. For all of his rhetorical excess in identifying Dupin as an adept in the art of logical analysis, the narrator's account of the latter's achievements leaves the reader little choice but to infer the presence of supernatural abilities. As R. Austin Freeman notes, "The reader is astonished and marvels how such an apparently impossible feat could be performed. Then Dupin explains; but his explanation is totally unconvincing, and the impossibility remains" (16). In fact, throughout the three narratives this same pattern is visible: the narrator exhorts the reader to dispense with supernatural explanation, only to present her with situations and conclusions that are simply not rationally credible. Thus, the question concerns why, at the very point that detective fiction emerged as a genre, it should so visibly fail to live up to its own prescriptions.

One uncharitable solution is to cite this mismatch as a deficiency on the part of Poe's literary talent. Certainly, detractors like T.S. Eliot, for whom Poe's intellect was no more than that of "a highly gifted young person before puberty" (35), would be quick to ratify this. However, such criticisms run counter to Poe's extraordinary impact on popular and literary culture. A more likely solution is offered by the FSPH, which suggests that Poe, though nominally committed to rationalism, was nevertheless centrally concerned with intuitions derived from supernatural cognition. Support for this conjecture comes from Dupin's rhetorical marking as belonging to the realm of the all-knowing dead. He is, for instance, "enamoured of the Night for her own sake," and when the "sable divinity would not herself dwell with us," he and the narrator "closed all the massy shutters" and lit "a couple of tapers which, strongly perfumed, threw out only the ghastliest and feeblest of rays" ("Murders" 532-3). Later, in "The Purloined Letter," the same point is emphasised further when Dupin asserts to the Prefect of the Parisian police that "If [the matter at issue] is any point requiring reflection ... we shall examine it to better purpose in the dark" (975). It is impossible to miss the iconography at work here, which, in its references to darkness, tapers and the night, is simultaneously funereal and necromantic.

In fact, one can go a step further and trace this iconography to its likely origin, which is in classical accounts of supernatural. In particular, as Lars Albinus notes (27), the Greeks and the Romans held that the dead could be magically recalled to prophesy the future and reveal secrets from the past. Considered from this perspective, Dupin becomes both the source of arcane knowledge and the priest who elicits it--he is, in effect, analogous to the sibyls of the ancient world who channelled the gods while overseeing their cults. Remarkably, this sibylline association is directly evoked in the description of Dupin's demeanour when he exercises his analytic abilities. As the narrator records, "His manner at these moments was frigid and abstract; his eyes were vacant in expression; while his voice, usually a rich tenor, rose into a treble which would have sounded petulantly but for deliberateness and entire distinction of the enunciation" ("Murders" 533). Note here the parallels with Virgil's Cumaean Sibyl whose "bosom heaves, and she is taller to behold ... nor has her voice a mortal ring since she now feels the nearer breath of the divinity" (46-8). Clearly, Poe is using his knowledge of the classics (attested to by Darlene Unrue, among others) to identify Dupin as the quasi-omniscient bearer of truths that cannot be secured by ordinary mortals.

Thus, the FSPH explains the slippage of the rational into the supernatural that forms such a problem in the appreciation of Poe's detective fiction. In creating a moral monitor who is aligned with the rule of law, Poe would have found himself delineating a concept for which a pre-reflective idea already existed--that of an omniscient supernatural witness. Moreover, given that this idea already existed in several cultural forms, Poe's use of it would have been both intuitively satisfying and culturally sanctioned. Thus, there should be no surprise that Poe's representation of Dupin incorporates the content of the FSPH. Indeed, it may well be because of the intuitive plausibility of the FSPH that Dupin occupies his canonical position as the prototype of the literary detective.

Moving on to Conan Doyle's work, the principal issue that emerges here is the uneven nature of Sherlock Holmes's knowledge. On the face of it, Holmes--much as the FSPH would lead one to expect--exhibits near-infallibility; in Robert Paul's words, "his universal surveillance and unfailing rightness ensure that all will be well in this best of all possible worlds" (58). Nevertheless, Watson notes that Holmes's acquaintance with literature, philosophy, and astronomy is nil--with even the fact of the earth orbiting the sun, famously, falling outside his knowledge (Study 21). For a man whose "marvellous faculty" (The Sign of Four 93) for deduction allows him to infer from scratches on a pocket watch that Watson's brother had "good prospects but ... threw away his chances, lived for some time in poverty with occasional short intervals of prosperity, and finally, taking to drink ... died," (Sign 92) these are quite remarkable lapses in basic observation. Indeed, even conceding their expository value as an index of character, they pose rather practical problems. As Rory Kraft notes, "surely there would be some aspect of these disciplines which could lead a consulting detective to solve a case more quickly" (185)--a perfectly reasonable supposition, given that, over the course of the stories, we find Holmes "quoting Goethe in German, discoursing learnedly on Buddhism in Ceylon, quoting the medieval Persian poet Hafiz, rhapsodizing over concert music, discussing the novelist George Meredith writing a scholarly treatise on sixteenth century choral music, and reading his pocket Plutarch" (Costello and Bassham 129).

What are we to make of this intellectual inconsistency? Holmes himself proposes that the human brain has limited storage capacity, so it "is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones" (Study 21). However, given the intellectual proclivities just cited, the one person this is not true of is Holmes, so it is difficult so see why he should offer it as a self-justification. The answer, clearly, must lie elsewhere. My suggestion is that the FSPH offers a more satisfying solution to the problem. In particular, the notion of domain relevance has a direct bearing on Holmes's deficient inventory of facts. To clarify, this concept picks out the way in which supernatural agents are often represented as operating in well-defined spheres of action, outside of which they rarely stray. When it comes to the class of supernatural agents who deal with moral monitoring, this produces an interesting effect--specifically, our theological belief that such agents are omniscient conflicts with the limits we implicitly assign to anthropomorphic beings. The result, according to Barrett and Keil, is "that subjects possess and use at least two different parallel God concepts depending on the context" (243). In day-to-day moral reasoning, Pascal Boyer suggests that the context favours the 'anthropomorphic' over the 'theological' representation, and that this results in God being assigned a form of strategic omniscience that is restricted to the moral sphere (Religion Explained 180-3). That is to say, despite believing that God is omniscient, I will intuitively assign him the limits of an anthropomorphic observer, and correspondingly assume that he husbands his cognitive resources by focusing solely on moral infractions. Thus, while God's attitude to my extra-marital affair may be of major concern to me, I am unlikely to be particularly exercised by his intentional state vis-a-vis the contents of my garden shed.

Returning to Holmes, this offers a useful explanation of why his ignorance in matters of common (if impractical) knowledge should be so foregrounded. If Holmes functions as a secular implementation of a supernatural punisher, then it follows that non-moral concerns should fall outside his range of interests--and this, indeed, is precisely what we see. However, as soon as these ostensibly non-moral concerns take on a strategic value in the detection of moral wrongdoing, they immediately come within the range of Holmes's knowledge. To this extent, Holmes's inconsistent encyclopaedia reproduces the domain specificity intuitively assigned to supernatural moral monitors--and thus the FSPH elegantly resolves a puzzling textual inconsistency in the Holmes narratives.

When it comes to Chesterton's Father Brown stories, the situation is analogous to Poe's work, in that the main problem concerns the tension between rational and supernatural conceptions of the world. However, unlike Poe, Chesterton's must adjudicate between three rather than two metaphysical positions--namely, whether the world is supernatural, whether the world is rational or whether the world is some mixture of the rational and the supernatural. As a Catholic apologist, Chesterton naturally adopted the third position; what is interesting is how the Father Brown stories allow him to do this--and here, again, the FSPH proves its usefulness. In particular, it clarifies the structural problem of how Chesterton uses the detective genre as "a symbol of higher mysteries," ("How to Write a Detective Story" 127), even when the genre's realist orientation would seem to preclude him from doing so.

Chesterton's first move in endowing the detective story with a spiritual allegory comes, as indicated, with dismissing both the supernaturalist and the rationalist positions. Father Brown, for instance, identifies the villain, Flambeau, as a fake priest because he attacks reason--an expedient that Brown claims is "bad theology" ("The Blue Cross" 27). Equally, new-age beliefs are challenged in stories like the "Eye of Apollo" and "The Wrong Shape"--just as an over credulous subscription to supernatural explanations is chided in such stories as "The Miracle of Moon Crescent" and "The Dagger With Wings." When critiquing rationalist materialism, by contrast, Father Brown argues that reason alone is insufficient for reaching higher truths; for this, spiritual grace is also needed. Thus, his faith allows him to claim that it "really is more natural to believe a preternatural story, that deals with things we don't understand, than a natural story that contradicts things we do understand" ("The Curse of the Golden Cross" 50). The upshot of all this, as W. W. Robson notes, is that Father Brown "remains true both to traditional theology, and to the genre of the detective story, in never decrying reason" (67). Instead, what we see is a type of dialectic, where supernaturalism and rationalism are counterpoised with a view to establishing a synthesis that overcomes the limitations of either. The question concerns how (and if) Chesterton succeeds in bringing about this synthesis.

Here, once more, the FSPH leads us to the answer. If Father Brown is to function as a punitive moral witness, then the FSPH predicts that he should exhibit actual or quasi-omniscience. Moreover, for the reasons just discussed, this omniscience can be neither wholly rational nor wholly supernatural in origin. Chesterton's response to this must be one of the neatest solutions to the problem of quasi-omniscience in all of detective fiction: Father Brown's encyclopaedic knowledge of criminality comes through confession. In his words to Flambeau, "Has it never struck you that a man who does next to nothing but hear men's real sins is not likely to be wholly unaware of human evil?" ("The Blue Cross" 27). It takes little analysis to see how this innovation reproduces the FSPH in a manner that satisfies both secular and religious protocols. On the secular side, the fact of Father Brown hearing confession is entirely independent of its sacramental truth, as he still gains quasi-omniscient knowledge of human evil in a rationally plausible way. On the religious side, Chesterton would have been keenly aware of the meaning of confession in Catholic theology, which holds that "no ... priest, simply as an individual man, however pious or learned, has the power to forgive sins. This power belongs to God alone; but He can and does exercise it through the ministration of men" (Herbermann et al 619). In this sense, when Father Brown announces confession as the source of his knowledge of human failings, he is at the same time insinuating God--the ultimate supernatural witness--into his source of information. Naturally, this articulates a core feature of the FSPH by indirectly linking an invisible supernatural witness to transgressions in thought and action.

Clearly, then, Chesterton's choice of a priest as his protagonist allows him to volunteer the secular detective narrative as a "symbol of higher mysteries." Throughout the stories, the only supernatural reality admitted is that sanctioned by the Christian sacraments; outside of these, the rational order prevails. The result is that reason is presented as the lumen naturale of the philosophers, which, though capable of establishing profane truths and ruling out gross superstition, nevertheless falls short of the truths of faith. For the latter, divine grace is required--and this grace can (for Chesterton) only be found in the Catholic Church. Correspondingly, when it is recorded that Father Brown "had averted a crime and, perhaps, saved a soul, merely by listening to a few footsteps in a passage" ("The Queer Feet" 57), what is really being recounted is how the utilizing of reason in pursuit of secular ends leads to the exercise of grace--in this case, the repentance of Flambeau. Thus, the FSPH plays a crucial role in establishing the Father Brown stories as spiritual allegories in which "the great human adventure of fall and redemption, sin and salvation, [are] mirrored ... in crime and restoration" (Spencer 13).

What emerges from all of these considerations is that refracting classic detective fiction through the FSPH illuminates a number of problems and inconsistencies in the critical appreciation of the genre. What remains unresolved is why this oscillation between the rational and the supernatural should emerge, via detective fiction, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries--especially when the evidence suggests that the intuitions underwriting it are the common inheritance of human beings everywhere. By way of conclusion to the present essay, I shall now address this issue.

4. Conclusion

In his famous assessment of Tennyson's In Memoriam, T. S. Eliot cites it as a religious poem not "because of the quality of its faith but because of the quality of its doubt" ("Tennyson, In Memoriam" 172). Though pithy critical judgments cannot replace historical scholarship in identifying the spirit of an era, Eliot is doubtless correct in interpreting Tennyson's equivocal faith as the symptom of a time that "had, for the most part, no hold on permanent things, on permanent truths about man and God and life and death" ("In Memoriam" 173). Certainly, this is not to say that the nineteenth century can be reduced to a simple transition from credulous faith to rational scepticism--as Sydney Eisen suggests, the historical situation is far more complicated than this. Nevertheless, when one traces a line from the qualified deism of the eighteenth century to the militant atheism of the twentieth and twenty-first, it becomes difficult to disagree with those historians who argue that the long-term trend saw "a shift to ever-more liberal and tolerant forms of religion and eventually to benign indifference" (Bruce 38).

On the face of it, this tendency may seem to offer a ready-made solution to the problem of why detective fiction should have emerged when it did. By secularising supernatural intuitions, detective fiction would, on this view, have compensated for the absence (or decline) in socially sanctioned religiosity. This much, at least, is suggested by critics like Michael Saler and Robert Paul, who argue, in Paul's words, that "detective fiction ... appeals directly to those moral and spiritual roots of society unconsciously affirmed and endorsed by the readers" (7). However, while this supposition undoubtedly contains a portion of the truth, it fails to explain the uncomfortable shoehoming of supernatural elements into a realist genre that characterises early detective fiction. After all, if it is simply a matter of compensation, then any number of fantastical punishers would do the job more effectively than the (relatively) understated detective. Here, I suggest an alternative hypothesis--namely, that the decline in religious literalism was countered by demographic trends that activated a preoccupation with supernatural punishers, and that detective fiction emerged as a cultural formation that compromised between these opposing pressures.

To see why this might be so, it is probably best to start with the demographics. As is well known, the late-eighteenth century saw a rise in anxiety about population growth--an anxiety that was, to a certain extent, justified. As Victor bailey notes, the huge growth in the population of the western world between 1840 and 1940 brought with a range of problems, not least among which was a corresponding growth in crime and criminality (94--125). However, empirical studies suggest that population growth has another unusual side effect: it promotes belief in punitive supernatural enforcers. On the one hand, this is shown by analyses that correlate larger community size with moralizing gods (or moralizing institutions associated with gods) (3); on the other, Lauren et al offer evidence that a cognitively salient belief in moralizing gods lessens the desire to punish norm-breakers (that is, punishment is assigned to supernatural agents rather than the self). The idea is that the human ability to track the alliances and enmities that make up social relationships has a limit (Dunbar 186-9), and that when actual social demands exceed this limit, cultural prosthetics like religion come into play that seek to neutralise the gap between cognitive architecture and the demands that are placed on it. Thus, I argue that two counter-tendencies emerged over the nineteenth-century: a movement towards greater levels of secularism engendered by the growth of scientific rationalism; and an increased propensity to believe in supernatural punishers activated by the growth in population and the rise of major cities.

Though various solutions to this problem are possible, one of the least cognitively costly involves resolving it in the counterfactual reality of cultural representations (Sperber 113). And this, precisely, is what we see in detective fiction. As explored above, detective fiction explores the different ways in which the FSPH can be integrated with a secular or rationalist worldview. Sometimes, the result is reasonably successful, such as when Chesterton draws upon the pre-existing solutions that Catholicism has offered to this problem; in others, such as Poe's Dupin stories, the result is a metaphysical failure, even if the narratives themselves were a popular success. In all cases, one sees the same thing, which is the symbolic amplification and elaboration of a contradiction thrown up by historical experience. Thus, far from being a compensation for absent social forms, detective fiction is an attempt by competing cognitive, demographic and ideological pressures to arrive at a compromise in the symbolic sphere.

Given that this solution can only be ratified by way of a sustained historical survey, I can only offer it here as a provisional response. What is certain, however, is that any answer as to why detective fiction emerged when it did cannot be arrived at without knowledge of the historical forces that operate upon culture. As I have shown, detective fiction is shaped by human beings are innately disposed to think about the world. At the same time, different cultural and historical imperatives will use pre-reflective ideas to different ends. For this reason, I submit that the study of detective fiction can only proceed by being sensitive to the two realities--mental and historical--that not alone determine what is culturally important, but also how this importance is represented and communicated to its audience.

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James Carney

University of Oxford


(1) See Adler and Gross, Raymond Tallis and George Butte.

(2) With latency of response time as dependent variable, the experimenters performed an analysis of variance (ANOVA) on the three conditions. GS differed significantly from control (p < 0.05); there was no significant difference between IM and GS, though the mean for IM was still intermediate between control and GS.

(3) See Roes and Raymond; Peter Peregrine; Bourrat, Atkinson, and Dunbar; and Shariff, Norenzayan, and Henrich.
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