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Detective Fiction, Angela Lansbury, and Oedipus

I just watched the 5/16 episode of Theater Talk with Angela Lansbury. During the interview she was asked about her role as the mother, Queen of Diamonds, in the 1962 classic version of The Manchurian Candidate; in a follow up question she was asked if she had seen the remake and her opinion–she replied “yes” and “no.” Lansbury said the acting, etc., was great, but how can you have any interest when you already know what the “secret is?”theatertalk

I had to laugh to myself because, being as ‘stuck’ as I am with Oedipus on the brain right now, that is sort of the crux of Oedipus: that everyone knows what the secret is (except the characters in the play) and the dramatic irony makes it all the more powerful.

In an article I just finished reading by John Belton, he remarks that the attitude, if you want to call it that, expressed by Ms. Lansbury, is precisely the modern problem, here Belton quotes Frederic Jameson, (“Reification” 132):

“Thus the detective novel, unlike Greek tragedy, is ‘read for the ending’–the bulk of the pages becoming sheer devalued means to an end–in this case, the solution–which is itself utterly insignificant.” In other words, withing the contemporary culture of mass consumption, narrative undergoes a process of materialization and reification which abstracts it from the Real, gives it an “unnaturality” (Jameson, “Reification” 132), and reduces it to the status of an instrument, rendering it dramatically different from earlier forms of popular culture, such as Greek tragedy, which were “organic expressions…of distinct social communities” (Jameson, “Reification” 134).


This made me think of cigarettes, which some cigarette companies characterized as nicotine delivery systems.

Thus, Belton writes:

Detective fiction…emerges as a much more mechanistic restructuring of the reading process whereby phenomena are reorganized into formulaic categories which reduce the complexity of experience to a series of delays, snares, equivocations, partial answers, suspended answers, and jamming actions.


Oedipus, by contrast, was meant to be “read” for its irony, for the “interplay of various levels of knowledge (that of the audience, that of Oedipus)” 934 etc. Not for the end in-and-of-itself.

There is much more that Belton has to say about the differences of epistemology between Sophocles’ way of knowing and the modern detective writer’s way of knowing. But delving into this would go to far astray (which I may have done already) from the main point that struck me as I watched Theater Talk this morning.


John Belton. Language, Oedipus, and Chinatown, MLN, 106(5), Comparative Literature (Dec, 1991), pp933-950

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