Detecting Objects abstract
Observing, But Not Seeing – Objectifying the Murdered Body in Nineteenth Century Detective Fiction
Writing in the late Nineteenth Century, a time when most Victorians were still catching their breath after a number of social panics induced by, amongst others, the increase in garrotting (the strangling or choking of a victim during a robbery) and poisoning, the authors of the by now blossoming genre of detective fiction were forced to rethink the way in which murder victims had hitherto been represented in fiction, so that their stories could entertain without frightening their readers. By examining Fergus Humes’ The Mystery of Hansom Cab alongside Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four, I argue that they tried to accomplish this by reducing the body of the murder victim to the status of an object.
By combining empathy and sympathy theory with Butler’s theory on dehumanization, I argue that both Hume and Doyle tried to achieve this objectification of the murder victim by rendering it impossible for the reader to develop sympathy for the victim. This is initially achieved by having several personages describe the deceased as an unfavourable character and by introducing an opposing character or group of characters to hold the readers sympathy instead. The objectification is subsequently furthered by forcing the reader to adopt a distantiated perspective of the body, as detailed descriptions of the corpse are always mediated by a doctor or a detective. By ensuring the emotional detachment of his reader, the author is able to dehumanize the body and to reduce it to the status of a mere clue, an object necessary for the solving of the crime. However, in order to do so, the author has to eradicate the spectral presence of the murder victim present throughout the story, by textually repeating the violence to which the victim has been subjected.