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The Perfect Murder

A Study in Detection


David Lehman (View Bio)
Hardcover: The Free Press, 1989; Paperback: University of Michigan Press, 2001.

The Perfect Murder

In this lively, enjoyable look at the best American and British detective fiction, David Lehman investigates the mystery of mysteries: the profound satisfactions we get from evil, disorder, mayhem, and deception—that we know will be put right by the last page.

As Lehman shows, the detective story draws deeply from ancient storytelling traditions. The mystery's conventions—the locked room, the clue "hidden" in plain sight, the diabolical double, the villainous least likely subject—work on us as childhood fairy tales do; they prey upon our darkest fears, taking us to the brink of the unbearable before restoring a comforting sense of order. The myth of Oedipus, for example, contains the essential elements of a whodunit, with the twist that the murderer the detective pursues is himself.

With their wisecracking gumshoe heroes, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler fashioned an existential romance out of the detective novel. More recent writers such as Ross MacDonald, P. D. James, and Ruth Rendell have raised the genre to a new level of psychological sophistication. Yet the form evolves still, and Lehman guides us to the epistemological riddles of Jorge Luis Borges and Umberto Eco, who challenge the notion of a knowable truth. Originally published in 1989, this new edition features an additional chapter on the mystery novels of the 1990s.

"His aim, or one of his aims, is to single out the most effective mysteries: what is it that puts certain titles into the top category?... It isn't necessary to go along with all of Lehman's judgments to applaud the dash and incisiveness of his approach.... He compels assent by his knowledge, ease of manner and analytical expertise. He understands, and conveys, the savour of sinister possibilities, whether these come into the area of black comedy—the extra overcoat in the hall closet, the missing tin of rat bane, the bag of bones carried up a gravel path—or produce a genuine frisson of disquiet. He displays continuously a knack for the epigrammatic comment, which is very invigorating…. The Perfect Murder adds up to an exceptionally doughty and witty investigation." — Patricia Craig, Times Literary Supplement

"Those interested in why they are fans, or what makes the genre tick, will find a good deal to think about in Lehman." — Washington Post

"A lively study of the development and varieties of the detective story since Poe, its relations with other forms high and low, and the latter-day appropriation of its techniques by such writers as Borges and Eco. . . . A thoroughly intelligent and readable book." — Richard Wilbur

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