Review of “The Sleuth and the Goddess” by Susan Rowland

Who doesn’t like to curl up with a good mystery story on a cold winter night? Well, lots of people perhaps, but mysteries remain among the most popular types of fiction. The best-selling novelist of all time is Agatha Christie, who is known for her puzzle-type mysteries set in villages or large houses and often called “cozies.” In fact, many of the top mystery writers are women. Women have made greater inroads into this realm of fiction than into any other except romance.

Susan Rowland’s book “The Sleuth and the Goddess” concentrates on this “haunting and haunted literary genre, in which there is always another, a ghostly, perhaps even divine, presence”(p.4) and in particular on the works of British and American women who write this sort of book in the 20th and 21st centuries. “What links depth psychology to detective fiction is a similar sense of knowledge as a ‘problem’ with tricky overtones, rather than something wholly subject to rational analysis. Both the detective and the psychoanalyst have to search for a truth that is hidden from view….the detective and the psychoanalyst are trying to save their world from within the complex trickiness of modern culture and psyche…by aiming to find out the truth about a murder or to uncover psychic trauma, mysteries and depth psychology both emphasize the importance of what is hidden or repressed to the modern self. Consequently, they both operate mythically…” (p.4)

Rowland begins her consideration of the modern mystery story with a male writer, Arthur Conan Doyle. She considers that Sherlock Holmes is primarily a trickster and a Dionysian parent figure despite his emphasis on rationality in detection. She claims that by focusing on murder, mysteries evoke Oedipal conflicts from a reader’s archaic past in childhood, and offer a way in which death is to some extent solvable. Many of these books are structured as a heroic quest, similar to the Grail legend. The kingdom, which may be a village, a family or other community, is sickened by a murder in its midst. The hero detective goes on a quest to find out who committed the murder, and thereby restore the community to health. Along the way, the detective encounters many challenges and uncovers secrets.

Rowland notes that the cozy genre of mysteries, usually written by women, evolved in the aftermath of World War I in Britain, a time when the community was greatly disturbed by the tremendous loss of young male life on the battlefield. In addition to some of Agatha Christie’s work, she examines books by Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ruth Rendell, all British writers. Laurie King, Amanda Cross, Laura Lippman, Cleo Coyle, V.I. Warshawski and Jacqueline Winspear are among the American writers whose work she cites. (Sadly, she does not include any Canadian writers in her pantheon.)

The ways in which various goddesses (Hestia, Artemis, Aphrodite, and Athena) interact in the fiction of these and other writers forms the backbone of this very scholarly book. Mysteries demonstrate that Athena’s vision of justice may be dedicated to collective values, but it cannot disguise tensions and conflicts within those norms, just as Athena in The Eumenides struggles to placate the Furies, according to Rowland. She claims that the principal division in the mystery genre between cozies and hard-boiled (Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, etc.) falls in Athena’s territory. And naturally, most mysteries concentrate on working out some sense of justice in solving the crime and restoring the community to health or at least, in the case of hard-boiled books, to normality.

Artemis the huntress is perhaps the goddess most closely associated with mystery novels. The sleuth’s determination to hunt down the perpetrator of the crime despite obstacles echoes the goddess’s relentless pursuit of her prey. And like Artemis, most fictional female detectives are autonomous and undomesticated. In fact, most male detectives in fiction also tend to be single or divorced, usually because they devote so much time to their work. (Many are also alcoholics, but that is another subject.)

Hestia, goddess of the hearth, is not easily associated with fictional detectives. However, according to Rowland, she “is found in the sacred commitment between sleuth and those for whom the investigation is undertaken….Hestia’s role in detecting (is) to re-make home.”(pp.59-60.) She is found specifically in a sub-genre of the cozy mystery, the food mystery, stories such as those featuring cookie merchant and amateur detective Hannah Swensen in Minnesota.

Aphrodite’s connection with mysteries is mainly through, not to be too graphic about it, the body. Rowland believes “Aphrodite inhabits mysteries because her dazzling erotic energy is fundamental to desires that both destroy and restore.”(p.165) While not every murder is motivated by sex, desire of some kind is always part of the equation in a murder.

Rowland does not choose to examine the role of Hera, the goddess of marriage, in detective fiction. While the sleuth is usually unmarried, surely marriage or more often the desire to end a marriage is frequently a motive for murder—think Henry VIII and many another murderous spouse. In fact, the spouse is normally the prime suspect of police when a married person meets an untimely end.

There is a great deal of thought-provoking information in Rowland’s book, including references to works by James Hillman, Ginette Paris and others who like Rowland have been associated with the Pacifica Graduate Institute in California. It is not an easy read, a lot less fun than many of the books it examines. But for anyone with an interest in the detective fiction genre in a Jungian context, it is well worth the effort. Among other benefits, it may introduce fans of the genre to unfamiliar writers.

Margaret Piton, a former travel and business journalist, is a lover of detective fiction who is working on a crime novel set in Russia.


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