The Simple Art of Murder

The powerful appeal of certain forms of “genre” stems from an apparent simplicity that, in the hands of inspired practitioners, rises to a kind of classic purity. There is an element of the parable, the fairy tale, even the ritual, which fuels such brilliant variants of genre as Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw—a ghost story in the English tradition of which its author spoke with unusual disdain, virtually dismissing it as an inferior work. The abiding appeal of Edgar Allan Poe’s hallucinatory tales of the arabesque and grotesque springs from their fevered, defiant unreality, the boldness with which, in appropriating the well-trodden Gothic tale, in particular the fables of E.T.A. Hoffmann, for his own commercial purposes, Poe jettisoned all semblance of individual psychology and sociological “realism” in the service of another kind of vision. Only in his notebooks, in particular the remarkable prose pieces edited and published as The American Notebooks, is Nathaniel Hawthorne a realist; his novels and short stories are purposefully of the genre of “romance,” ingeniously contrived moral allegories that yield numerous interpretations. In the preface to The House of the Seven Gables, Hawthorne helpfully defines not just the art of the romance but by implication all genre fiction:

When a writer calls his work a Romance, it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material, which he would not have felt himself entitled to assume had he professed to be writing a Novel. The latter form of composition is presumed to aim at a very minute fidelity, not merely to the possible, but to the probable and ordinary course of man’s experience. The former—while, as a work of art, it must rigidly subject itself to laws, and while it sins unpardonably so far as it may swerve aside from the truth of the human heart—has fairly a right to present that truth under circumstances, to a great extent, of the writer’s own choosing or creation.

All of Herman Melville’s fiction is a variant of romance in these Hawthornian terms. More subtle and ambiguous is the appropriation of the journal genre by Henry DavidThoreau in Walden, an artfully composed and semi-fictionalized portrait of “Henry David Thoreau” as a hero free of all personal history and identity. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is imagined as a companion to Tom Sawyer, a picaresque boy’s book in which distinctly adult truths are discovered. Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is a morality play of which William Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress is a visual analogue. Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, George Orwell’s Animal Farm—all are appropriations of highly entertaining genres in the service of moral or political polemics. George Du …

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