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A Girardian Genre: The Scapegoat Mechanism in Detective Fiction

Audrey Rose G. Mirasol

Résumé

In this essay I offer an alternative to the rationalist-scientific distillation of detective fiction by using René Girard’s ideas on the scapegoat mechanism. I explain how the genre is teleologically oriented towards the identification and expulsion of the scapegoat, whom the community believes to be truly guilty and whose removal is regarded as necessary to the restoration of communal peace. The detective here functions as a modern high priest who uses reason and science not as an end in itself but as a means to select a fitting scapegoat, one whose guilt is empirically demonstrable. Next, I use Girard’s remarks on society’s growing sensitivity to various forms of victimization to explain detective fiction’s movement towards more liberal views on crime. The genre has often been criticized for its conservative assumption that crime is rooted in personal moral agency; now, there is a preponderance of detective stories that portray crime as a necessary reaction to unjust social systems, or as mitigated by a psychological condition. In illustrating this section, I present a close reading of F. H. Batacan’s Smaller and Smaller Circles, a Philippine detective novel that features a serial killer who was also a victim of social injustice. In conclusion, I look at how the readers of the genre vicariously enact the scapegoat mechanism. I argue that while it is commendable for society to move towards a more nuanced and compassionate view of criminality, given the ever-present urge to engage in scapegoating in the real world, it is crucial to retain a means by which we could sublimate this urge: through ritual that is the reading of detective fiction. 

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An Alternative to the Rationalist-Scientific Framework

1Much of the established scholarship on detective fiction sees the genre as fundamentally informed by a rational and scientific epistemology. The German critic Siegfried Kracauer, for example, argues that the detective novel is neither ultimately about crime nor the law but about reason. Kracauer explains that while there are other major characters who are personifications of abstract concepts the police and the criminal with their antithetical positions relative to the lawthe detective novel is ultimately about the detective whose

  • 1 Siegfried Kracauer, quoted in Todd Herzog, Crime Stories: Criminalistic Fantasy and the Culture of (...)

sympathies lie neither with the police, who seek to preserve the law, nor with the criminal, who seeks to negate the law. In fact, the detective has no real interest in or regard for the law; he is interested solely in the process of solving the puzzle that the crime presents1.

  • 2 Stephen Soitos, The Blues Detective: A Study of African American Detective Fiction, Amherst, Univer (...)
  • 3 J.K. Van Dover, We Must Have Certainty: Four Essays on the Detective Story, Selinsgrove, Susquehann (...)

2Other scholars echo this rationalist distillation of the genre. Stephen Soitos describes the detective as « essentially an overriding rationality » with « no personal past, only the personal present », a « structural tool » that provides « direction through the maze of red herrings and false clues »2. J. K. Van Dover pithily describes the detective as someone « who knows how to know », as someone who gives the assurance « on every occasion that objective truth can be established »3.

  • 4 In the short story « The Adventure of Mazarin Stone », Holmes famously said « I am a brain, Watson. (...)
  • 5 Arthur Conan Doyle, quoted in Stephen Knight, Crime Fiction 1800-2000: Detection, Death, Diversity, (...)
  • 6 Ibid.

3The iconic stature of fictional detectives like Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes4 and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot further lend credence to this rationalist-scientific view of the genre. After all, Doyle did remark that in the Holmes stories, he had aimed to show how detection, in its empiricism, is « something nearer to an exact science »5. And, as the crime fiction scholar Stephen Knight points out, there is this « strong scientific aura » that surrounds the Holmes stories, « with test tubes and other equipment, monographs on ash and newsprint »6. Poirot, on the other hand, is well-known for his trademark insistence on the importance of using the little gray cells.

4Besides these cerebral detectives, one can also point to the rapid growth of forensic science in the 21st century and its attendant valorization in television shows like the erstwhile popular Crime Scene Investigation and long-running documentary program Forensic Files. These shows almost often explicitly proclaim that recent advances in science can solve even the coldest cases and the most baffling mysteries.

5Admittedly, there is much that a rationalist-scientific framework can offer for understanding detective fiction. The detective genre, after all, also goes by the names whodunit, both a question and a challenge directed at the audience, and mystery, a word that must inevitably rouse the desire for a disentangling, a solution. I propose, however, that there is a need to explore alternative framework/s by which we can understand the genre, and this need ensues from the following arguments, issues, and questions outlined below.

  • 7 W. H. Auden, « The Guilty Vicarage », 1 May 1948, consulted on 28 October 2022. URL: https://harper (...)

6First, while detective fiction certainly features the triumph of rationalist-scientific epistemology over, for example, knowledge through divine revelation, to argue that the genre is about reason and science is to miss the end that these two epistemological methods serve. This end, which W. H. Auden identifies in the essay « The Guilty Vicarage », consists in the revelation of the guilty individual/s and their expulsion from a henceforward absolved community7. There is therefore a need for a framework that can adequately answer the following question: Why is the detective story teleologically oriented towards the identification and expulsion of the guilty individual/s?

7Furthermore, the rationalist-scientific framework is inadequate for understanding why a genre that has so often been accused of espousing socially conservative views on crime is now moving towards more liberal narratives. In these narratives, the guilty individual/s are identified and explicitly or implicitly removed from their community, but they are also shown as victims of social injustice or as suffering from a psychiatric condition or extreme mental distress. In such stories there is a discernible effort to provide for the guilty individual/s circumstances that would mitigate their guilt, or even transfer guilt away from the individual and onto the more abstract notion of unjust social structures. There is therefore a need for a framework that can answer the following question: How does one make sense of a detective story’s sympathy towards the very individual/s it is meant to expose and expel?

  • 8 A. A. Milne, The Red House Mystery, New York, E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc, 1922, p. v.
  • 9 While The Atlantic recently published the piece « How Women Are Writing the Best Crime Fiction », n (...)
  • 10 When it comes to crime fiction and its close relative true crime, women readers outnumber their mal (...)
  • 11 W. H. Auden, op. cit.

8Finally, there is a need for a framework that is capable of illuminating not just the teleological orientation of the genre but its readers’ psychology as well. One common observation and a source of bemusement to some is that men and women of otherwise gentle dispositions could be so drawn to a far-from-gentle genre. The English author A. A. Milne, in the dedication page of the sole detective novel he has written, states that the novel is for his father, who « like all really nice people... have a weakness for detective stories, and feel that there are not enough of them »8. Another common observation is that it is the women who gravitate towards crime fiction, in both its production9 and consumption10. One further example that would illustrate this seeming incongruity between the real and reading self is Auden’s curious remark in « The Guilty Vicarage » wherein he writes that whereas he disapproves of capital punishment in real life, in detective fiction execution is the type of justice and ending he prefers11. Therefore, in order to make sense of all these incongruities, we must answer the questions: What do readers really do when they read detective fiction? What instincts or needs, if any, does the reading of the genre fulfill?

9It was while I was pondering these issues and questions that I came across the work of French philosopher René Girard (1923-2015), specifically his ideas on the scapegoat mechanism. In this essay I aim to show how the scapegoat mechanism can serve as a framework for explaining detective fiction’s teleological orientation towards the identification and expulsion of, as well as its sympathy for, the guilty individual/s.

10In my discussion of detective stories that attempt to mitigate the criminal’s guilt, even to recast them as victims of unjust social structures, I will be focusing on Smaller and Smaller Circles by F. H. Batacan. This detective novel was published by the University of the Philippines Press in 2002; an expanded international edition was released in 2015 under the New York publishing house Soho Press. It is the recipient of prestigious literary awards in the Philippines such as the 1999 Carlos Palanca Grand Prize for the Novel, the 2002 National Book Award, and the 2003 Madrigal Gonzalez First Book Award. The novel features the Jesuit professors Gus Saenz and Jerome Lucero, whose forensic work leads to the apprehension of a serial killer whose victims are the children who live and work in the landfills of Payatas. It is this serial killer of whom the novel notably attempts to provide a sympathetic portrayal.

11In addition to the ability to explain the genre’s seemingly contradictory need to identify and drive out the guilty individual/s and, in certain stories, to also provide a context that would undermine their culpability, Girard’s ideas on the scapegoat mechanism can also provide insight into what a crime and violence-soaked genre continues to offer to its otherwise gentle and law-abiding readers. I will argue, in the conclusion, that detective fiction offers a vicarious means by which the readers can satisfy the ever-present urge to scapegoat. And while in the real world it is imperative to not only move towards a more compassionate and more nuanced view of crime and its causes but to also be aware of all the ways in which we indulge in the scapegoat mechanism, I would also argue for the importance of retaining a means by which we could sublimate this urge to scapegoat: through the ritual reading of detective fiction.

The Scapegoat Mechanism in Detective Fiction

12It is in the Book of Leviticus that the concept of the scapegoat first appears. Leviticus chapter 16 describes how every year, on the Day of Atonement, the Jewish high priest selects a goat on whose head the iniquities of the ancient Israelites are symbolically laid; the goat is afterwards sent away into the wilderness. It is this ancient Jewish ritual that Girard alludes to when he refers to the scapegoat mechanism, which he defines as

  • 12 René Girard, « Mimesis and Violence », in James Williams (ed), The Girard Reader, New York, The Cro (...)

a process through which two or more people are reconciled at the expense of a third party who appears guilty or responsible for whatever ails, disturbs, or frightens the scapegoaters. They feel relieved of their tensions and they coalesce into a more harmonious group. They now have a single purpose, which is to prevent the scapegoat from harming them, by expelling and destroying him12.

13But unlike the scapegoat from the Jewish ritual which is clearly a stand-in for the people’s sins, and unlike the modern usage of the term scapegoat, which refers to one who unfairly becomes the object of blame, the Girardian scapegoat is regarded by its community as truly guilty and not as a mere substitute for others’ sins. Girard remarks that the scapegoat

  • 13 Ibid., p. 13.

must be perceived as truly responsible for the troubles that come to an end when it is collectively put to death. [Otherwise] the community could not be at peace with itself once more if it doubted the victim’s enormous capacity for evil13.

14Of course, an understanding of the overall work of Girard, particularly his ideas on mimetic desire and mimetic rivalry as the true source of conflict and disorder within a community, would tell us that the modern or as Girard would say, Christian understanding of the scapegoat as someone ultimately innocent is correct. The community chooses a scapegoat as a vent for its violence; whether the chosen scapegoat is completely innocent, or as is often the case, technically guilty of some offense is beside the point. The scapegoat functions as a focal point, a human lightning-rod so to speak, upon which the violence that threatens to overrun a community is projected.

15One finds various echoes of the scapegoat mechanism even in works that do not belong to the detective genre. Shirley Jackson’s literary classic « The Lottery », for example, is about a small town that holds a yearly lottery as a way to select the one person whom the whole community will execute by stoning. And while in the story the arbitrary nature of the scapegoat selection process is evident to the scapegoating community unlike the Girardian scapegoat whom its community believes to be fully deserving of punishment the story nonetheless calls attention to the repetitive, and in Jackston’s story yearly, way a community gathers together and reinforces social bonds through scapegoating.

16And it is not just in literary fiction that one finds hints of the scapegoat mechanism but in pop culture offerings as well. For example, the fifth season of the Netflix television series Cobra Kai shows the power of a scapegoat to reconcile a community at war with itself. The previous four seasons feature a small karate community locked in a mimetic rivalry that always threatens to erupt into full scale violence; the arrival of the character Terry Silver in the fourth season and his transformation into the big bad in the fifth, however, proves to have a socially restorative effect. The threat of Silver unites former rivals, and the erstwhile villains of previous seasons are allowed a redemption arc, which is now possible because, in light of Silver’s grand villainy, their own are but mere trifles. In the season finale Silver is driven out of the karate community, and the characters act as if their newly found peace can never now be broken. Those aware of the nature of the scapegoat mechanism, and the studio executives who will want a sixth season, of course know better.

17I offer Girard’s ideas on the scapegoat mechanism as a framework for understanding the narrative and teleological end of a detective story. I argue that detection is not about pure knowledge but rather knowledge that is instrumental to the purposes of scapegoating; the genre shows how reason/science can be used in the search for truth not an abstract truth but rather a particular truth one that would allow the community to identify and expel the guilty, an act deemed necessary to the restoration of communal peace. The detective character, then, can be understood as a modern high priest who, instead of casting lots, uses reason and science as a means to select a fitting scapegoat, one whose guilt is empirically demonstrable. For, as Girard points out, the scapegoat mechanism will only work so long as the community believes in the scapegoat’s guilt.

  • 14 Jason Webster, « Unholy modernity and the shamanic powers of the detective | Aeon Essays », 20 Sept (...)

18That detection and the clerical vocation should prove to be connected is, of course, neither a recent nor a surprising idea. In the history of detective fiction there is a long list of clerical detectives, the most notable of which is G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown. The detective figure in F. H. Batacan’s Smaller and Smaller Circles also features a forensic anthropologist who belongs to the Jesuit order. However, it is not just in the literally “clerical” detectives of fiction where the connection is to be made. In his essay « Unholy mystery », for example, the Anglo-American crime novelist Jason Webster argues that « the detective is a kind of priest », having acquired certain clerical functions in the midst of secularizing trends that undermined the traditional authority of the clergy in late 19th century England. For Webster, the detective took on the priestly functions of explainer of mysteries and bringer of order to a rapidly changing society14.

  • 15 Arthur Conan Doyle, « The Speckled Band », in Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Illustrated Short Stori (...)

19It is only in light of this priest-detective connection that one is able to make sense of what could very well be excesses in the detective function if, as according to his rationalist distillation, the detective is merely reason personified. For in several Sherlock Holmes stories, the quintessentially cerebral detective does an odd thing he lets the technically guilty go, he expresses moral distaste at the behavior of his own client, and several times in both his speech and behavior he distinguishes between merely legal justice and what he deems to be a higher form of justice. In « The Speckled Band », for example, a despairing client describes Holmes as someone who « can see deeply into the manifold wickedness of the human heart »15 and it is precisely for this attribute that she turns to Holmes, much as a supplicant turns to a priest. This symbolic association between the detective and the clerical vocation becomes more evident in Hercule Poirot, and there is perhaps no moment more memorable in the Poirot novels and in subsequent film adaptations than that moment in Murder On the Orient Express where Poirot had to choose between the conflicting demands of legal justice and what could very well be its higher form. Poirot ends up choosing the latter, and in the David Suchet adaptation he is shown as walking away from the crime scene with a rosary firmly clutched in his trembling hands.

20Using Girard’s ideas on the scapegoat mechanism as framework, therefore, further elucidates this connection between detectives and priests. If the detective story is fundamentally a scapegoating story, then the detective fulfills the priestly role of selecting a fitting scapegoat, one whose guilt is rationally and empirically demonstrable, and one whose expulsion from the community can provide, at least fleetingly, the sense that evil has been completely banished at last.

Sympathy for the Scapegoat

21If detective fiction is oriented towards the perpetrator’s identification and expulsion from the community, and if the detective is a high priest who uses science and rationality to select a fitting scapegoat, how does one explain detective stories that seemingly refuse to engage in scapegoating? How does one make sense of detective fiction that refuses to assign full guilt to the guilty, and opts instead for a sympathetic portrayal? In such stories the guilty individual/s are shown to be victims of social injustice and/or their criminal culpability is undermined by an appeal to a psychiatric condition from which they suffer. How would a Girardian framework explain detective stories that proclaim the scapegoat’s innocence?

  • 16 Agatha Christie, The Pale Horse, Great Britain, William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd, 1961, p. 40.

22Like clerical detectives, sympathetic portrayals of criminals are not recent to the genre. With the novels of Agatha Christie, for example, and despite accusations that Christie’s characterizations are often ancillary to the plot, one finds in them an attempt to complicate the circumstances of crime, to ask the gray-area questions about culpability. In the aforementioned Murder on the Orient Express, Poirot discovers that the murderers were driven by a sense of justice; failed by the legal system, the murderers had taken upon themselves the task of executing a powerful man who had gotten away with the kidnapping and murder of a child. In The Pale Horse, on the other hand, one character speculates on the causal connection between bodily chemicals and crime: « a deficiency in these secretions might I only say might make you a criminal »16, he says. And, of course, in the long history of crime and detective fiction one can point to likeable murderers like Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, or to a whole subgenre of crime fiction that valorizes the lives of criminals. I will argue here, however, that what separates the more recent detective stories from the sympathy of its precursors is that the more recent stories are written within a zeitgeist of sympathy for the criminal, and that there is now a readily available schema for articulating this sympathy.

23One such example of a detective novel that proffers a sympathetic criminal by showing him to be a victim of injustice and as suffering from undiagnosed trauma, is Smaller and Smaller Circles by F. H. Batacan. It is a novel that initially harnesses the familiar elements of the detective genre, but ultimately transfers guilt from the serial killer Alex Carlos onto the unjust social, political, and economic structures of Philippine life. Even as the novel ends with Carlos’s death, one gets the sense that the scapegoat mechanism has failed and that his death does not bring to the community the restoration that typically comes with the scapegoat’s removal. The scapegoat mechanism fails because the novel, through its sympathetic portrayal of the serial killer, has undermined belief in the scapegoat’s guilt. Through interior monologues and a victimhood narrative legitimated by the very detective who should have been instrumental to his scapegoating, the novel effectively reframes Carlos as a victim of a greater, albeit amorphously defined, evil.

  • 17 F. H. Batacan, Smaller and Smaller Circles, 2nd ed, New York, Soho Press, 2015, p. 121.
  • 18 Ibid., p. 271.
  • 19 Ibid., p. 255.

24In fact, it is Carlos’s voice that the reader first encounters in the novel, even preceding the prologue in which the mutilated body of one of his victims is discovered in a landfill. In all of Carlos’s monologues, he speaks as an everyman whose physical and mental struggles are only too common and relatable; he speaks as one deprived of agency, more prey than predator, and it is this recurrent theme of helplessness that undermines any sense of menace that one expects to define the thoughts of a serial killer. In subsequent monologues, even with the concurrent revelation of more victims, there is no explicit mention of those that he has killed. His thoughts admit neither guilt nor glee but only vulnerability in the face of what he perceives as unrelenting, everyday evil. In one monologue he talks about how « every day something bad happens a bank gets robbed, a war breaks out, a child gets raped and nobody can do anything about it. Not the police, not the press. Not the mothers and fathers, not the lawyers or the priests »17. Here he expresses not only his belief in the ubiquity of evil not seeming to consider himself as one of its agents but more importantly his disappointment with every authority figure: state, civil, and ecclesiastical institutions who fail to protect the vulnerable. In the latter part of the novel, as the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) agents and local law enforcement close in, he is presented not as a compulsive killer whose elimination can only serve the common good, but as a prey desperately trying to escape the maw of its predator: « They’re coming to get me. Coming on their big quiet feet they’re coming »18. At one point, he describes his mounting terror from being slowly hemmed in, his words giving the novel its title: « I can feel them. Scurrying in circles around me, smaller and smaller circles like rats around a crust of bread or a piece of cheese »19. He then reverts into the helplessness of a child who calls out to its mother and father.

25It is not only through Carlos’s pathos-infused monologues that the novel attempts to transform him into a sympathetic figure; the novel also frames his present crimes as the inevitable consequence of his traumatic past. Providing legitimacy to this narrative is the figure of the detective who, as per the rationalist-scientific framework, is the expert arbiter of truth. For much of what the text reveals about Carlos’s past are facts that have emerged from Saenz’s investigations, thus investing these revelations with a patina of scientific solidity. In addition, with Saenz being a literal priest, his expressions of sympathy for the killer can be read, if not as outright absolution for Carlos’s crimes, then as a Christian call to not judge, lest we be judged.

  • 20 Ibid., p. 328.
  • 21 Ibid., p. 277-8.

26In fact, Saenz tells one NBI agent that he is not interested in « making an arrest » but that he is more interested in « [understanding] what really happened. Why he killed those boys. What intervention might have prevented him from killing, and at what point »20. And it is with this desire to understand Carlos that he even sends his fellow priest and protege Fr. Jerome Lucero outside Metro Manila in order to speak with Carlos’s parents. That Lucero is not only a priest but a clinical psychologist as well dovetails with one of the novel’s main concerns, that of psychological trauma. Echoing Saenz’s words, Lucero tells Carlos’s parents that he has sought them out because he wants « to understand » and « to help »21.

  • 22 Ibid, p. 285.

27Through Lucero’s interview, Carlos emerges as the familiar figure of many an inspirational melodrama, the one born without privilege but whose academic aptitude holds the promise of social mobility. Like his victims, he lived in and off the landfills of Payatas, but the awards and certificates that line his parents’ living room walls serve as a tangible assurance of a better future. It was this future that was taken away in the years that he was repeatedly subjected to sexual abuse by a high school teacher who had specifically selected Carlos as his victim, knowing that « the family’s poverty and need to keep [Carlos] in school » guaranteed his « ready access »22. Through Lucero’s interview, we are presented with a motive for the killings. There is here a significant difference, however, from the typical detective story where the why of a crime complements the who and the how, with the motive serving as further proof of an individual’s guilt. In Batacan’s novel, motive functions as apologia; it does not confirm but rather mitigates guilt. By pointing to the existence of a terrible crime, his sexual abuse, for which the perpetrator was never punished, the novel undermines the notion that social evils can be exorcised and the community proclaimed innocent upon the removal of the scapegoat.

28It is not just the interior monologues of Carlos nor the sympathy of Saenz that serve to transform the killer into victim. Several details and subplots in the novel offer an unflattering portrait of Philippine society, holding up for the readers to see the vulnerability of those living in the margins and the lack of accountability of those in power. One particular chapter is told from the perspective of the parents of Carlos’s victims, presenting the narratives of the poor whose routine sufferings are often ignored. Yet, ultimately, these narratives serve to reinforce further our sympathy for Carlos, for his personal history too closely resembles theirs.

29All of these details, then, constitute a preponderance of evidence that shows the readers where real evil is to be found. The initial narrative about an individual who murders and mutilates children is superseded by another narrative about the arbitrary abuse of power, and the general lack of recourse for those who, like Carlos, are its victims. To place the putative scapegoat in the context of such a society is to divest the scapegoat mechanism of its power.

  • 23 René Girard, op. cit, p. 18.
  • 24 Ibid., p. 149.

30How then, does one make sense of detective stories that obstruct the scapegoat mechanism and instead make every attempt to proclaim the putative scapegoat’s innocence? Girard, even before his passing in 2015, already wrote of what he describes as modern society’s « constantly increased awareness of victimage »23. As a Roman Catholic convert, Girard attributes modern society’s aversion towards various forms of victimization to the cultural legacy of the Judeao-Christian texts which brought about « a change in perspective that consists in taking the side of the victim, proclaiming the victim’s innocence and the culpability of his murderers »24. Girardian scholar Cynthia Haven explains this shift in perspective in the following lines:

  • 25 Cynthia L. Haven, « René Girard and the Present Moment », 5 December 2019, consulted on 14 Septembe (...)

In archaic societies, victims were not pitied, let alone envied; they were considered the unlucky children of fate or circumstance. No poems commemorated the thousands that the Aztecs slaughtered annually for human sacrifice. No plays were written about them nor Amnesty International petitions circulated for their relief. Today, instead, victimhood is enshrined and privileged. Individuals and groups even compete for the cachet of being a victim25

31Our society’s increased awareness of the scapegoat mechanism and the way we now come to the defense of putative scapegoats is without a doubt commendable. We have, at least in sentiment, become unwilling to buy communal prosperity at the expense of the individual. If in Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story there were only a few individuals who walked away from the paradisiacal Omelas, our own victim-sensitive society would undoubtedly walk away en masse. And our detective stories bear witness to this sea change criminals, one of the easiest groups to scapegoat because of their empirically demonstrable guilt/guiltiness, are now exculpated, and the social structures that have arguably turned them to a life of crime are now readily blamed.

  • 26 René Girard, op. cit., p. 15.

32Our increased awareness of victimage, however, does not stop all forms of victimage, which according to Girard « is still present among us, of course, but in degenerate forms »26. The urge to scapegoat, Girard would argue, is ever-present, and we are just looking for/at new faces.

Conclusion

  • 27 For example, the character Benjamin Arcinas often stands for government incompetence, while Cardina (...)

33While Smaller and Smaller Circles has successfully resisted the kind of scapegoating that one finds in the traditional detective story, the novel does not, and as Girard would argue, cannot get rid of the urge to scapegoat. As the novel tries to absolve Carlos by means of his victimhood, it concurrently declares those around him guilty. Even as it tries to transfer guilt onto more amorphous evils like economic inequality and the abuse of power, it oftentimes finds itself identifying certain individuals as embodiments of these social evils27. Not unlike the traditional detective story, the novel still harnesses the idea that social restoration is contingent on the identification and expulsion of guilty individuals. In other words, while the novel rejects the scapegoating of Carlos, it does not reject the scapegoat mechanism itself; it merely tries to trade in one scapegoat for another. But even as it attempts to select another scapegoat, this alternative scapegoating fails because the novel identifies but cannot expel, for the evil it identifies is too widespread to allow a complete excision.

34Smaller and Smaller Circles, and detective fiction at present, are thus caught between two opposing instincts: the ever-present urge to engage in scapegoating, and the more recent sensitivity to the various ways by which a society creates victims. The genre still offers the promise that evil can be identified and expelled, but it now finds that doing so has become much more difficult than simply figuring out “who done it.”

35One question remains, and it concerns the relationship readers have with the detective genre. I return to Auden, who strongly opposed the death penalty in real life but demanded for his reading pleasure nothing less than the execution of fictional murderers. I return to Milne’s father, a « really nice » person addicted to a genre filled with not-so-very-nice people. And it is in their company that I place myself, along with all the women who are strangely drawn to the kind of violence which in the real world we make every effort to avoid.

36If the scapegoat mechanism is the narrative at the heart of the detective genre, then I would argue that we the readers turn to detective fiction to vicariously engage in scapegoating. Furthermore, if Girard is right about scapegoating being a repetitive urge, then our continuing consumption of an otherwise formulaic genre— a fact that never fails to frustrate the genre’s critics — should be seen in the light of ritual. And it is in view of this idea that detective fiction is a means by which we can repeatedly satisfy the urge to scapegoat and yet refrain from victimage that I make this plea: our fiction need not reflect our real-life convictions. Even as we reject scapegoating in the real world, and even as we move towards more liberal views on the causes of crime, when it comes to scapegoating in and through fiction, leave us be.

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Bibliographie

Auden, W. H., « The Guilty Vicarage », 1 mai 1948, consulted on 28 October 2022. URL: https://0-harpers-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/archive/1948/05/the-guilty-vicarage/.

Batacan, F. H., Smaller and Smaller Circles, 2nd ed., New York, Soho Press, 2015.

Christie, Agatha, The Pale Horse, Great Britain, William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd, 1961.

Doyle, Arthur Conan, « The Speckled Band », Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Illustrated Short Stories, London, Bounty Books, 2004.

Girard, René, « Mimesis and Violence », in Williams, James (ed), The Girard Reader, New York, The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1996.

Haven, Cynthia L., « René Girard and the Present Moment », consulted on 14 September 2022. URL: https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/rene-girard-and-the-present-moment/

Herzog, Todd, Crime Stories: Criminalistic Fantasy and the Culture of Crisis in Weimar Germany, New York, Berghahn Books, 2009.

Knight, Stephen, Crime Fiction 1800-2000: Detection, Death, Diversity, Hampshire, Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Milne, A. A., The Red House Mystery, New York, E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc, 1922.

Soitos, Stephen, The Blues Detective: A Study of African American Detective Fiction, Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 1996.

Van Dover, J. K., We Must Have Certainty: Four Essays on the Detective Story, Selinsgrove, Susquehanna University Press, 2005.

Webster, Jason, « Unholy modernity and the shamanic powers of the detective | Aeon Essays », consulted on 14 September 2022. URL: https://aeon.co/essays/unholy-modernity-and-the-shamanic-powers-of-the-detective

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Notes

1 Siegfried Kracauer, quoted in Todd Herzog, Crime Stories: Criminalistic Fantasy and the Culture of Crisis in Weimar Germany, New York, Berghahn Books, 2009, p. 24.

2 Stephen Soitos, The Blues Detective: A Study of African American Detective Fiction, Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 1996, p. 30.

3 J.K. Van Dover, We Must Have Certainty: Four Essays on the Detective Story, Selinsgrove, Susquehanna University Press, 2005, p. 153 and 162.

4 In the short story « The Adventure of Mazarin Stone », Holmes famously said « I am a brain, Watson. The rest of me is a mere appendix. »

5 Arthur Conan Doyle, quoted in Stephen Knight, Crime Fiction 1800-2000: Detection, Death, Diversity, Hampshire, Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, p. 56.

6 Ibid.

7 W. H. Auden, « The Guilty Vicarage », 1 May 1948, consulted on 28 October 2022. URL: https://0-harpers-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/archive/1948/05/the-guilty-vicarage/

8 A. A. Milne, The Red House Mystery, New York, E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc, 1922, p. v.

9 While The Atlantic recently published the piece « How Women Are Writing the Best Crime Fiction », neither this fact nor the writer’s observation is new. After all, it was Agatha Christie, along with Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, and Margery Allingham who prolifically wrote during the Golden Age of Detective Fiction and were dubbed The Queens of Crime.

10 When it comes to crime fiction and its close relative true crime, women readers outnumber their male counterparts. Several studies have focused on this phenomenon, including Amanda M. Vicary and R. Chris Fraley’s « Captured by True Crime: Why Are Women Drawn to Tales of Rape, Murder, and Serial Killers? », Social Psychological and Personality Science, vol. 1, 1, 2010, p. 81-86.

11 W. H. Auden, op. cit.

12 René Girard, « Mimesis and Violence », in James Williams (ed), The Girard Reader, New York, The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1996, p. 11 (italics mine).

13 Ibid., p. 13.

14 Jason Webster, « Unholy modernity and the shamanic powers of the detective | Aeon Essays », 20 September 2013, consulted on 14 September 2022. URL: https://aeon.co/essays/unholy-modernity-and-the-shamanic-powers-of-the-detective

15 Arthur Conan Doyle, « The Speckled Band », in Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Illustrated Short Stories, London, Bounty Books, 2004, p. 139.

16 Agatha Christie, The Pale Horse, Great Britain, William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd, 1961, p. 40.

17 F. H. Batacan, Smaller and Smaller Circles, 2nd ed, New York, Soho Press, 2015, p. 121.

18 Ibid., p. 271.

19 Ibid., p. 255.

20 Ibid., p. 328.

21 Ibid., p. 277-8.

22 Ibid, p. 285.

23 René Girard, op. cit, p. 18.

24 Ibid., p. 149.

25 Cynthia L. Haven, « René Girard and the Present Moment », 5 December 2019, consulted on 14 September 2022. URL: https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/rene-girard-and-the-present-moment/

26 René Girard, op. cit., p. 15.

27 For example, the character Benjamin Arcinas often stands for government incompetence, while Cardinal Meneses personifies the social apathy of the Roman Catholic Church.

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Audrey Rose G. Mirasol, « A Girardian Genre: The Scapegoat Mechanism in Detective Fiction  »TRANS- [En ligne], 29 | 2024, mis en ligne le , consulté le 20 juin 2024. URL : http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/trans/9278 ; DOI : https://0-doi-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/10.4000/trans.9278

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