A Genre Studies Examination of Jan Jacob Mekes’
Chief Inspector Jewel Friedman
by Lynn Perretta
On Bay Side Stories we are discussing genre. It’s fitting, then, to examine a work in light of its genre. How does it fit into the genre? What characteristics does it fulfill? Is it truly accurate to say that the work belongs to the genre which it is advertised to belong to?
I’m going to examine those questions by looking at Chief Inspector Jewel Friedman by Jan Jacob Mekes. This work is a collection of short stories about a police detective named Jewel Friedman. Mekes describes these stories in his introduction as “light-hearted detective stories”. I’m going to consider the expectations of the Detective Story Genre and how Mekes’ work meets those expectations.
Derrida, Deconstruction, and Genre
Before I begin, however, I think it’s important to examine a basic idea of genre as a whole. In the early to mid 20th Century, an intellectual movement started that proposed human development and society could be understood by the structures present. These structures were modelled on language, making the philosophy naturally vital to literary study and criticism. I’m speaking, of course, of Structuralism.
In response to this, other theorists and writers proposed methodologies for breaking down these structures, to demonstrate that one could not rely on linguistic structure to understand human culture because that linguistic structure was not permanent and not reliable. (1) There were several notable writers in this movement, Post-Structuralism, but most notable, and applicable to our discussion today, was Jacques Derrida.
Derrida examined the idea and demands of genre in his work “The Law of Genre”. This is Derrida, so the writing is dense and sometimes hard to follow as, true to his philosophy, he switches his words, meanings, and emphasis around to make his point. The work is very much worth reading, however, for anyone who is interested in writing for writing’s sake.
To sum up his ideas, in part at least, Derrida challenged the idea of a work “belonging” to a genre. He breaks down the idea of a story “belonging to a genre” into its basic idea of being an attitude of inclusion that is outside of any existing genre. He determines that works do not actually “belong” to a genre but instead participate in a genre, sometimes multiple genres at the same time, depending on the events and ideas present in a story. (2)
Essentially, genres are pools to other worlds, existing in an enchanted Lewisian forest. The story simply skips from pool to pool as it sees fit, dipping into it for a while to explore.
So a genre, then, does not define a work. A genre is a place, perhaps a state, that a work plays in for a little while. This does not negate, however, the importance of understanding what defines a genre or the expectations of a genre. Just like we are expected to behave certain ways when we visit libraries, hospitals, or go to work, a written work is expected to behave a certain way when it is participating in a genre. If it does not, then that invites examination and criticism. Why does it not participate and what does that say of the work or the expectations of the genre?
The Detective Story Genre
The Detective Story is actually a very old story, present in several different cultures throughout history. The Detective Story Genre as we know it today, however, has much more recent beginnings. While the epitome of detectives in most of our minds is Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle did not create the genre. This honor belongs to Edgar Allen Poe, who created it with his character C. Auguste Dupin in The Murders in the Rue Morgue. (3)
From Poe and from other early authors of the form, we get some basic conventions that Detective Stories follow in order to participate in their genre. These conventions form the expectations of the genre. First, from Poe, we get the basic plot of the Detective Story. The plot is simply to ascertain the truth through the use of intuitive logic, astute observation, and shrewd inference. From later writers, we get numerous trappings that are part, either singularly or mixed, of a Detective Story. (3) Some of these trappings are:
- An English Country House as the scene of the crime
- A Red Herring to lead our detective astray
- A celebrated, skilled, and professional investigator
- A cast of bungling local constabularies
- The art of the detective inquiry
- A cast of false suspects
- A “least likely suspect”
- A “locked room” murder/crime
- A clever, sometimes energetic, reconstruction of the crime
- A plot twist at the end of the plot
There are a few other conventions of note in the Detective Story. If the detective is an amateur, the plot usually stretches the limits of plausibility, while professional detectives tend to follow more plausible plots. They also tend to feature grand coincidences as the main characters almost stumble onto cases. They also tend to feature regional or ethnic sub-cultures. Consider the small New England town of Cabbot Cove, Rabbi Small’s conservative Jewish community in Massachusetts, or the Chicago sub-cultures that V.I. Warshawski must navigate. (3)
So these are some of the basic expectations of the Detective Story Genre. How does Chief Inspector Jewel Friedman participate in this Genre?
Jewel Friedman and the Magic Bullet
Each story of Chief Inspector Jewel Friedman is told with quick pacing, demanding that the reader keep up, but keeping the promised light-hearted tone that makes them easy to read. There are several ways that this work participates in the Detective Story Genre as we know it today.
First, we have the celebrated, skilled, and professional detective. Friedman is an inspector of Scotland Yard. She is talent and a little humble: Her colleagues had often encouraged her…to use her actual title, but she had always stubbornly refused to do so. Her peers see her as a little odd at times, but her judgment is respected, as demonstrated when the Superintendent grants her request to have a rather unusual arrest made.
The Magic Bullet centers around a classic of the Detective Story Genre: the locked room mystery. A man is found shot in a room where he is alone, locked in by his own design, with no way to gain entrance from the outside. As can be expected in a story of a professional detective, plausibility is not stretched very far. There is a logical explanation for the impossible murder. A final plot twist is even given to the reader when it is discovered how it came to pass that the murder was unexplainable.
There is one notable convention of the Detective Story that is broken right away. The reader is not treated to the pleasant English country house, even though the story takes place in London. The reader expects to be treated to one. The detective does as well. After all, the person placing a call to the police, which Friedman, by coincidence characteristic of the genre, happens to answer, is an English butler.
Alas, there is no country house on a country estate. There is instead an in-town apartment. While the reader must accept this break in tradition, they are still treated to a very English experience. You feel the small, close feel of European apartment living (small by our standards across the Pond anyway). You feel the carefully measured politeness of a butler taught and trained in the tradition of butlers before him. You also feel the closeness and excitement that surrounds a simple event in a London suburb: the joy of watching a balloon race. Even when one convention is broken, another, the presentation of a regional sub-culture, is still kept alive.
Mekes’ light-hearted language and quick pace do not work against him in creating a story that participates in the Detective Story Genre. He stays true to several of the elements of genre, meeting reader expectation and creating a story that can take its place among other Detective Stories, enjoying their stroll in the metaphorical Forest of Genres.