Tzvetan Todorov, “The Typology of Detective Fiction”

Tzvetan Todorov examines the classification and formation of genre through the magnified example of the detective mystery genre, in his essay “The Typology of Detective Ficiton.”

Todorov’s essay is an attempt to define genre by examining the particular distinguishing characteristics of the detective fiction genre.  Todorov briefly points out the two reasons behind the historical difficulty in grasping genre: the inability, for a long time, to objectively judge individual works of genre using structure, and the “dialectical contradiction” found in major works, which simultaneously create a new genre, and break through the previous genre.  From this, Todorov finds exception and solution in popular literature.  In examining the different “kinds” of detective fiction, Todorov discovers that the distinguishing factor which sets them apart (their unique “two story” relationships), depends upon “the thematic part, and not the structure of the discourse itself.”  Therefore, Todorov concludes firstly, that divergence in structure, or transgression in genre’s confines (which were the previous norms in defining and categorizing genre) is simply residual and secondly, that genre is defined by its departure in theme.

Todorov’s essay was refreshing in its clarity and logic.  The detective fiction always came off as such a distinct and isolated genre for me, that Todorov’s choice in subject made a lot of sense.  The depth of knowledge Todorov employed to discuss detective fiction had me wondering throughout his entire discourse if he studied or taught detective fiction or if he just really liked it.  However, “The Typology of Detective Fiction,” a clear enough title and initial focus, became hazy upon a second reading.   I couldn’t quite grasp the essence of what Todorov was trying to explain to his reader about the essence of genre.  It was his distinction of genre as a thematic matter, rather than a structural one that stumped me.  I understand the difference between theme and structure, and how these distinguish genre, but I felt like Todorov kept trying to imply that this difference had to do with an intention or purpose of the author.  Did Todorov try to negate that conventional idea that major works break through old genre and create new genre on purpose.  When Todorov chose to examine Van Dine’s twenty rules “to which any self-respecting author of detective fiction must conform,” it felt he was trying to expose a different intention of authors writing to conform to or break from a genre, namely, from structure to theme.  Or, is new genre formed by accident, as a new theme emergences organically?

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