I haven’t read many detective novels since my total absorption with Nancy Drew mysteries when I was quite young. I have, however, remained curious about the mysterious as unknown and unseen dimensions of our lives.
So I was immediately drawn in when Jungian scholar Susan Rowland, PhD begins her intriguing new book, The Sleuth and the Goddess, by explaining that mystery fiction provides more than a good story. A good part of its complexity lies with its range of dualities, she explains, which make it a “peculiarly modern, and yet distinctively ancient” kind of literature. It can be “hardboiled,” which I take to mean tough and unsentimental, or “cozy,” with more familiar settings or even a folksy tone to the story. The seriousness of murder in a detective novel can be offset with humor. These contrasting aspects invite mystery readers to engage beyond the linear story.
Rowland compares modern day detectives to the ancient protagonists of the hero myth. Villains, although only sometimes portrayed as grotesque in their crimes, can nonetheless be equated with monsters of ancient tales. Now as well as then, heroes and villains are not necessarily separate characters. A tricky protagonist, one who is based in the Trickster archetype, Rowland explains, can be both rational and yet guided by intuitions or implicated by emotions.
This kind of juxtaposition in a single character calls us to relate to such contrasts within ourselves. We, too, may have heroic as well as villainous thoughts, whether or not we take correlating actions.
Offering examples of detective fiction as “case histories,” Rowland focuses primarily on print novels by authors who are women. This approach gives attention to work that has been relatively unappreciated and helps us to explore gender as it is expressed in “the margins of popular culture.” Her insights about the pagan Greek goddesses Hestia, Artemis, Athena, and Aphrodite emphasize their psychological qualities. She explains how they relate to stories by contemporary authors that include Dorothy Sayers and Sara Paretsky.
Rowland’s perspective is fresh and absorbing and I am inspired to return to the genre that I have neglected in my adulthood for deeper reading. Inspired by Rowland’s Jungian depth perspective, I might again stay up all night with a riveting detective story, steered by her understanding that “mysteries offer something ancient to be renewed and reborn in the modern psyche.”