The Unlocked Room Problem: Evidence and Interpretation in Twentieth-Century Investigation Narratives Public Deposited

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  • March 22, 2019
  • Buller, Erin Bartels
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of English and Comparative Literature
  • This project examines how a range of 20th-century fictions and memoirs use tropes borrowed from detective fiction to understand the past. It considers the way the historiographical endeavor and the idea of evidence and interpretation are presented in William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, Go Down Moses, Intruder in the Dust, and the stories in Knight's Gambit; Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men; Louis Owens's The Sharpest Sight and Bone Game; and Lillian Hellman's memoirs (An Unfinished Woman, Pentimento, Scoundrel Time, and Maybe). The historical novel and sometimes even memoir, in the 20th century, often closely resembled the detective novel, and this project attempts to account for why. Long before Hayden White and other late 20th-century theorists of historical practice demonstrated how much historical writing owes to narrative conventions, writers such as Faulkner and Warren had anticipated those scholars' claims. By foregrounding the interpretation necessary to any historical narrative, these works suggest that the way investigators identify evidence and decide what it means is controlled by the rhetorical demands of the stories they are planning to tell about what has happened and by the prior loyalties and training of the investigators. The narratives investigators ultimately tell about what has happened in the past are already taking shape as the investigation proceeds, and it is the need to develop a persuasive account that determines what investigators are able to see and therefore what counts as evidence. In its final chapter, this study moves beyond the historical novel to explore, in memoir, the tension between the interpretation of documentary evidence and the narrative form of what James Olney calls the voice of memory. The project concludes by considering the versions of justice that persist once these 20th-century novels and memoirs have severed the direct link between the reconstruction of the past (specifically the crime) and justice that predominates in genre detective fiction.
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  • In Copyright
  • Gwin, Minrose
  • Doctor of Philosophy
Graduation year
  • 2013

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