Metaphysical detective stories and other literary mysteries

In metaphysical detective fiction, the work of a sleuth serves as a metaphor for the human experience. The process of gathering evidence and following the trail of clues is meant to represent our attempts to make sense of the world or find meaning in our lives. The ostensible mystery plot is secondary to raising the question of the possibility of acquiring reliable knowledge or grasping the nature of reality; in fact, in the paradigmatic works of this current, the central mystery is very often revealed to be essentially unsolvable.

As a literary genre, the metaphysical detective story is closely associated with postmodernism (despite having some much earlier antecedents). One characteristically postmodern feature of works in this category is skepticism toward grand claims about the power of human reason. As a result, they frequently replace the traditional figure of a detective as an intellectual genius with a perfect grasp on facts (exemplified by Sherlock Holmes) with an ineffectual and progressively lost “anti-detective” who misperceives the events, misinterprets the crucial clues, and ultimately fails to solve the crime.

Another postmodern feature of the genre is the intertextual play with prior artistic conventions – in this case, the conventions of traditional detective stories. Many metaphysical detective works reference narrative staples of classic crime fiction, but only to parody or subvert them in unexpected ways. Of course, the most striking example of this is the withholding of narrative closure or explanation (and the consolation or catharsis that comes with it), since the enjoyment of a traditional detective story is all about the reader’s anticipation of a neat resolution to the mystery. Some postmodern detective narratives also include metafictional elements, with their sleuth characters becoming self-aware of their role as interpreters struggling to decipher the “text” of their reality.

While the bulk of this list can be said to represent the “metaphysical detective canon” as recognized by academics and critics studying the genre, not every book included fully fits the definition sketched above. Some of the titles would be better described as highly unconventional or “weird” mysteries; they do play with and subvert genre rules, but not always for recognizably “metaphysical” reasons. Others are simply “highly literary” detective novels, with refined prose and a philosophical edge but no skeptical postmodern slant.

The list