Storytellers in fallen worlds
: The Metaphysical longings of crime fiction detectives

  • Anthony Quinn

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


The thesis examines how I might deploy the postmodern approaches of the metaphysical detective novel to represent a divided society’s quest to understand itself in the context of the Northern Ireland Troubles. Wary of the pitfalls of applying the certainties of traditional detective fiction to these complex historical circumstances, my aim was to uncover a form of storytelling that would depict truth and justice as problematic and elusive entities, eschewing the type of conventional ending in which order is restored and the truth conclusively understood. As such, I employed the template of the metaphysical detective to create an alienated and fragmented hero, one whose sense of guilt and self-doubt leaves him better equipped to penetrate the layers of culpability and detect the dark forces that plagued civilian life during the Troubles, while relentlessly interrogating his own allegiances and motives. Using as its starting point Merivale’s identification of the characteristic themes of the metaphysical novel, the critical component considers the extent to which writers such as Samuel Beckett, Edgar Allen Poe, Raymond Chandler, Arthur Conan-Doyle and Agatha Christie imitate, subvert or transform the familiar conventions of the detective novel. In doing so, I offer a slightly subversive reading of Beckett’s Molloy, in which the more intellectual and literary form is used as a means to interpret the thematic possibilities of the generic form. I argue that the apparently cliched conventions of the crime fiction genre are important sources of meaning in their own right and their deployment often enhances literary creativity rather than limits it. One of my principal conclusions is that the conventions of the genre are not a repetitive framework or a bland supporting structure for end-orientated stories. Instead, they are conventions capable of high art, to paraphrase E M Forster, and profound philosophical enquiry. I go on to emphasise the importance of radical innovation in crime fiction, placing subversion within the core genealogy of the genre rather than at its margins.

In the spirit of these findings, my aim in the creative component - the novel Turncoat - was not to try to transcend the crime fiction genre but to play purposefully with the possibilities inherent within its conventions and create a framework by which I might tell a meaningful story of the society in which I grew up. Turncoat is a novel about the Troubles that incorporates metaphysical elements and self-reflexively comments upon the nature of justice and truth as experienced in a particular society, but it is also written to provide the reading pleasure of a traditional crime novel. In other words, I have tried to hunt with the hounds of metaphysical detective fiction, while running with the foxes of traditional crime fiction, balancing conventionality with subversion, order with disorder, and fixed structures and familiar elements with the type of daunting voids inhabited by Beckett’s metaphysical narrators.

The thesis contains a critical component and a creative component.
Date of AwardJul 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SupervisorDominique Jeannerod (Supervisor) & Andrew Pepper (Supervisor)


  • Metaphysical detective fiction
  • The Troubles
  • Northern Ireland
  • crime fiction
  • Station Island
  • Samuel Beckett

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