The Corpse in the Library

For over 100 years the cadaver, that unsung hero of murder mysteries, has been accommodating, gracious and generally on time. There is no other figure in crime who has proved more reliable. Since the murder mystery first gained popularity, there have been two world wars, multiple economic crises, dance crazes and moonshots, the advent of radio, cinema, television and the internet. Ideas of right and wrong have evolved, tastes have changed. But through it all, the cadaver has shown up without complaint to do its job. A clock-puncher of the highest order, if you will.

Meanwhile, many of our most revered detectives have proved rather difficult to work with. They have been variously arrogant, antisocial or persnickety. Witnesses have often been skittish or defensive. Many have intentionally sowed confusion through lies of omission or commission springing from their own sins and prejudices.

But decade in and decade out, the cadaver has remembered its lines and hit its mark. This despite the fact that it has borne the brunt of a thousand humiliations. Having been subjected to that most definitive form of violence, it has had to lie undiscovered, often in a cellar or back alley, overnight. Once the police arrive, our cadaver has been poked and prodded, its pockets emptied. After being shuttled to the morgue and laid out on a slab, it has been cut open, unceremoniously. Almost from the moment the corpse is discovered, it has been an object of slander. Family, friends and acquaintances who tended to be complimentary and discreet when our victim was alive are suddenly enumerating personal failings and sharing rumors of infidelity or financial malfeasance. And all of this — the loss of life, the autopsies, the recriminations — the cadaver has suffered in silence, on our behalf.

The cadaver’s unwavering professionalism is all the more admirable given the diminishment of its standing over time. If we look back to the so-called golden age of detective fiction, in the 1920s and ’30s, when the form was reaching its apotheosis in the works of Agatha Christie, the cadaver maintained an almost enviable status. After all, it was the cadaver who set the wheels of a mystery in motion.

The stories of the era tend to begin in a relatively benign and inviting manner. A small assembly of family members or friends might gather for the weekend in a rambling country manor. The setting and circumstances are not that different from what one might expect to find in a play by Chekhov or a novel by Henry James. That is, until, with the scream of a housemaid, the cadaver is discovered. Its sudden appearance sprawled on the study floor with a knife in its back is what transforms the book in our hand, taking us from the realm of domestic drama into that of the whodunit.

But in the golden age, the cadaver didn’t simply get things going. It maintained its position at the center of the story from the moment of its discovery until the denouement. As Hercule Poirot often pointed out, it was the psychology of the victim that was paramount. In life, was the cadaver lascivious? Unscrupulous? Greedy? To understand who had most likely monkeyed with the brakes of her car or poisoned her cup of tea, one first had to understand whom she had loved and whom she had spurned; whom she had enriched and whom she had cheated.

In the golden age, while the cadaver gave its life fairly early in the story, it could take comfort that it would remain of primary concern to the writer and reader until the book’s very last pages. This was no small consolation. As Lord Henry observed in Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray, “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

BUT TIME MOVES on. In the years before World War II, a new kind of mystery, spearheaded by Dashiell Hammett and refined by Raymond Chandler, rose to prominence: the hard-boiled detective story.

Unlike the detectives of the golden age, who were often aristocratic in bearing and schooled in etiquette, the hard-boiled detectives were men who disdained artifice and favored plain speaking. They hung their hats in shabby offices, gathered information in flophouses and bars, and went home to one-bedroom apartments. Leading rugged lives, earning meager livings, prepared to expect the worst of everyone, the hard-boiled detectives were consummate professionals in the most world-weary of industries.

But when Hammett and Chandler opted to foreground the gritty, quotidian life of the detective-for-hire, one consequence was that the role of the cadaver shrank in importance. For these detectives were not hired to solve murders (that task was the purview of the police). Instead, they were hired to solve messy domestic problems. In Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon,” Sam Spade is employed by Miss Wonderly to follow a man who has run off with her sister, while in Chandler’s “The Big Sleep,” Philip Marlowe is hired by General Sternwood to help resolve a blackmailing attempt stemming from his daughter’s gambling debts. Infidelities, stolen objects, missing people: These are the nettlesome problems that the hard-boiled detective tackled for $50 a day plus expenses.

Once the hard-boiled detective accepted a case, what tended to follow were the drab necessities of investigation as he pounded the pavement, flipped through phone books, gathered information from government agencies and interviewed low-rent professionals in low-rent offices. In other words, he completed the sort of menial tasks that fill the days of cub reporters, insurance adjusters and door-to-door salesmen. An unglamorous man in an unglamorous trade pursuing an unglamorous process step by step.

But somewhere along the way, as our detective follows the loose threads of the case in his plodding fashion, he happens upon a body. It’s our old friend the cadaver, of course, but he has undergone a change. For he is no longer one of the principals of the story. He is now a minor character: a hotel clerk, shady attorney or two-bit criminal whom the detective has already spoken to once. It is when the detective returns to ask a follow-up question that he discovers the body on the floor behind a desk, in the bathroom drowned in the tub or stuffed in the trunk of a car with a bullet hole in the head.

The body in the hard-boiled stories is decidedly not at the center of the action. We will not spend time investigating her past or personality. Nor are we likely to feel much moral outrage or shed sentimental tears over her demise. This is not to say that the victim’s death is irrelevant. The cadaver in the hard-boiled story fulfills two very important purposes. First, its appearance alerts both the detective and the reader that what had seemed a simple, domestic matter is, in fact, part of a larger, messier reality — one that will ultimately reveal a cast of sinners, a web of desires and a raft of ugly truths.

The second purpose the cadaver fulfills is that of a timely confirmation. Up to this point, the detective has followed multiple false leads only to arrive at multiple dead ends, such that he has begun to wonder if he’s wasting his time. The sudden appearance of the body signals that he is on the right track. Some visit he has paid, some question he has asked, has clearly unnerved someone. Thus, when the detective comes upon this corpse, we may paradoxically feel a sense of elation. For however in the dark we remain, we can leave the scene of this crime confident the game is afoot.

Does our friend the cadaver bemoan his diminished role in the hard-boiled mystery? Does he object to his incidental relationship to events, and the near inconsequentiality of his passing? He does not. He fulfills his role with all the humility and discipline of the devoted actor who, once a leading man, is now relegated to playing bit parts.

IN THE LAST decades of the 20th century, the murder mystery entered a new era — one defined by darker and more violent crimes. These stories have taken myriad forms, but no subset of the genre has better expressed the new modality than that featuring the hunt for the serial killer.

The success of the serial killer hunt narrative is owing to a variety of reasons, the most important being that it is particularly effective at raising our heart rate. The detective, and thus the reader, are in a race against time: The longer it takes for the detective to identify the murderer, the more innocent people will be killed.

But the serial killer narrative also raises our heart rate by hinting at our own vulnerability. In the golden age or in the hard-boiled era, there was no reason for us to imagine ourselves as potential targets. The golden-age victims tended to be killed because of the lives they’d led and the hard-boiled victims because they’d made a habit of swimming in murky waters. In each case, these were circumstances we could eye safely from a distance. But in the serial killer hunt, the victims are generally chosen by the killer at random, or as part of an obscure obsession. In reading these books, we cannot help imagining that we too could be attacked one night while getting into our car in an empty garage or while asleep alone in our beds.

The serial killer hunt amplifies the battle between detective and villain. By definition, a serial killer has repeatedly gotten away with murder. Within the boundaries of the genre, this is generally because the killer is unusually intelligent, methodical and ruthless. Advances in technology and the science of criminology have given modern detectives all manner of new tools to trap their quarry. They have access to DNA analysis, sophisticated forensics, security cameras and facial recognition software.

For a killer to succeed in the modern era, he has to gain as much mastery over modern criminology as the detective has, so that he can anticipate all the various means by which he might get caught. This makes the serial killer narrative less an investigation than a game of cat and mouse that tests the proficiency, patience and nerve of two antagonists. The sense that we could be next, along with the unusual abilities of the killer, results in our being a little more gripped by events on the page and a little more satisfied once the killer is brought to justice.

Being a little more gripped and a little more satisfied is all well and good for the reader. But what of the cadaver? What if we take a moment to look at these developments from its point of view? In so doing, most of what we discover is dispiriting.

For in the era of the serial killer narrative, the cadaver must experience whole new levels of tribulation. In these stories, the victim has often been tortured or sexually assaulted before being killed. Once dead, its corpse may have been skinned, dismembered, even eaten.

The sad truth is that in the serial killer narrative, the identity of the victim barely matters. Where once understanding the victim’s background and psychology was paramount, now the physical attributes of the various victims are studied along with the settings of the crimes and the specifics of the brutality in search of a pattern that will give the detective insight into the background and psychology of the killer.

The cadaver, having played such a central part in the mysteries of the golden age, having then been relegated to an incidental role in the hard-boiled era, must bear the ultimate indignity in the serial killer stories of becoming a prop.

And yet, despite all this, our cadaver perseveres. For more than a century, we have taken great pleasure in reading the mystery story, discovering profound satisfactions in each of its incarnations. During that time, more than a few fictional detectives have gained international fame along with the authors who invented them and the actors who portrayed them. So it seems only fair that we take a moment to pour ourselves an ounce or two of our favorite spirit, make ourselves comfortable in our favorite chair and raise our glass to that humble and reliable individual without whom the whole genre would not exist.

Amor Towles is the author of “Rules of Civility,” “A Gentleman in Moscow” and “The Lincoln Highway.” This essay is adapted from his introduction to “The Mysterious Bookshop Presents the Best Mystery Stories of the Year 2023,” which will be published in September.

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