Guilty but insane: psychology, law and selfhood in golden age crime fiction
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Writers of golden age crime fiction (1920 to 1945), and in particular female writers, have been seen by many critics as socially and politically detached. Their texts have been read as morality tales, theoretically rich mise en scenès, or psychic fantasies, by necessity emerging from an historical epoch with unique cultural and social concerns, but only obliquely engaging with these concerns by toying with unstable identities, or through playful, but doomed, private transgressions. The thesis overturns assumptions about the crime novel as a negation of the present moment, detached and escapist, by demonstrating how crime narratives responded to public debates which highlighted some of the most pressing legal and philosophical concerns of their time. Grounded in meticulous historical research, the thesis draws attention to contemporary debates between antagonistic psychological schools – giving equal space to debates within psychoanalysis and adaptive neuroscience – and charts how these debates were reflected in crime writing. Chapter two explores the contestation of the M’Naghten laws on criminal responsibility in light of Ronald True’s case (1922), followed by readings of crime narratives in which perpetrators have ambiguous and controversial legal status in regard to criminal responsibility. At the intersection of psychiatric discourse and the popular literary imagination, a critical and ethical perspective developed which not only conveyed a version of psychological discourse to a wider public, but profoundly reworked the foundations of the genre as the ritual unveiling of deviancy and the restoration of the rational institutions of society. In similar vein, chapter three explores the status of the ‘Born Criminal’ in law and medicine, and looks at crime writer Gladys Mitchell’s efforts to expose both the pitfalls of categorisation, and competing discourses’ limitations in adequately accounting for crime. Chapter four, whilst maintaining close medical-legal focus, opens up the study to consider how understandings of deviant selfhood in modernist writing inflected crime writers’ representations of unconscious and epileptic killers. Finally, chapter five continues this intertextual approach by asserting that certain crime novels express an exhaustion with the genre’s classic rational and scientific heroes, and turn instead to the affective epistemologies and notions of subconscious synthesis concomitantly being celebrated in modernist writing. Altering the position of the authoritative detective in ways that profoundly alter the politics of the form, the chapter and the thesis in total propose a reading of golden age crime fiction more responsive to cultural, psychological and legal debates of the era, leading to a reassessment of the form as neither escapist nor purely affirmative of the status quo.