Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Genius of Detective Fiction

The diametric model of cognition explains the fascination of sleuths.

C. Badcock
Source: C. Badcock

Not long before her death in 1982, I commented to Anna Freud on the large collection of detective fiction in the house she shared with her father in his final years of exile in London. She informed me that he had been an avid reader of thrillers, and Freud’s last, unfinished work was what he himself described as a “historical novel” based on the belief that Moses was in fact an Egyptian who was murdered by the Jews, who then edited the biblical texts to hide the crime—at least until Freud detected it.

But however that may be, there is no doubt that detective fiction—both in its vast quantity and intrinsic quality—is the distinctive literary genre of modern, industrial societies. Just go to a bookshop, or examine the TV guide, and you will find detective fiction of all kinds in astonishing profusion. Writers like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who devoted most of his efforts to trying to emulate authors of medieval romances like Sir Walter Scott, are only remembered today thanks to their detective fiction—in Conan Doyle’s case, the immortal Sherlock Holmes, who remains a best-seller however you define the term.

Holmes’s notable autistic tendencies have frequently been pointed out: in particular, his lack of social interests but remarkable concentration and eye for detail where a crime or mystery is concerned. Indeed, Holmes seems very much the epitome of an Asperger’s savant: a relentlessly single-minded loner possessed of a “photographical” memory and described in A Scandal in Bohemia as “the most perfect reasoning and observing machine the world has seen.” However, writers on autism have also pointed out that Miss Marple, another of the immortals of detective fiction, seems in every way the opposite: solving crimes by intuition rather than analytic deduction. By contrast to Holmes or Agatha Christie’s other principal detective, Hercule Poirot, you could describe Miss Marple as something of a psychotic savant. As I argued in a previous post, such people excel in mentalistic, “people skills” rather than in the mechanistic, “things-thinking” of autistic savants.

Indeed, the remarkable success and continuing fascination of detective fiction might find an explanation in the way in which it combines extremes of the two parallel modes of cognition. Paranoid suspicion and credulity for conspiracies is wholly appropriate—particularly in murder mysteries—and naming, blaming and shaming—a crucial if cruel mentalistic tool where influencing others is concerned—is epitomized in the revelation of the culprit on the climactic final page of the detective novel. Nevertheless, successful detection also demands a mechanistic eye for discrepant detail and autistic single-mindedness in pursuing the clues—not to mention a penchant for thinking the unthinkable and seeing connections outside the range of normal, balanced cognition. To this extent, detection resembles the model of genius I proposed in the previous post, and as such combines extremes of both autistic and psychotic styles of thinking. Where normal cognition remains centered in the safe, central ground of conventional wisdom in relation to both mentalistic and mechanistic cognition, detective fiction extends the limits in both directions to produce insights of fictional genius.

This might certainly explain “the atmosphere of mysterious greatness” which Kate Summerscale attributes to Charles Dickens’s Inspector Bucket in Bleak House, whom she also describes as “the supreme fictional detective of his era.” Summerscale also draws a parallel between detection and psychoanalysis, commenting that, “Like a sensation novelist or super-detective, Freud fancied that people’s secrets would flood up to the surface.” Indeed, reading her account, you are left wondering whether the then-new genre of detective fiction might not have been the real inspiration of Freud, overlaid by more plausible pseudo-scientific rationalizations later on, but returning from the repressed in Moses and Monotheism like a deathbed confession of a murder.

For more on this see the final chapter of The Imprinted Brain.

More from Christopher Badcock Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today