From 'The Purest Literature We Have' to 'A Spirit Grown Corrupt'

Embracing Contamination in Twentieth-Century Crime Fiction

in Critical Survey
Author: Gill Plain 1
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  • 1 University of St Andrews gp3@st-andrews.ac.uk
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In Powers of Horror (1982), Julia Kristeva suggests that the corpse is ‘the utmost in abjection. It is death infecting life’. This categorical statement, while not intended for the genre of crime fiction, nonetheless does much to explain the power and appeal of the twentieth century’s most successful fictional formula. For Kristeva, the abject is ‘the in-between, the ambiguous, the composite’ (4); it is experienced as an encounter with ‘an other who precedes and possesses me’ (10) and it is ‘a border that has encroached upon everything’ (3). Borders both defend and confine. They are the necessary limits that protect the subject from psychosis, and they are that which deny us our desired return to a lost imaginary plenitude. Kristeva’s abject evokes seepage, it speaks to the instability of borders, and the impossibility of the pristine, the firm, the uncontaminated. And it is just this sense of unavoidable defilement, this tension between the maintenance and collapse of cultural and social boundaries, that underpins both the crime genre and our fascination with the form.

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