William Faulkner Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis
William Faulkner’s eminence is such that his work is not considered in generic terms. He is not considered a regional writer, but he was once so labeled. He is not regarded as a writer of mystery and detective fiction, but a number of his novels and short stories employ the conventions and devices of the genre. Faulkner belonged to the world when in 1950 he accepted the 1949 Nobel Prize in Literature (which had been withheld for a year). One should remember, however, that only a few years earlier he had been regarded as a rather quaint writer with a provincial perspective. As late as 1942, a popular reference work had characterized Faulkner as “a minor Balzac of a subhuman world.” The commentator who chose that phrase certainly regarded the southern gothic ambience of some of the books as the paramount quality in the author’s work.
During much of the 1930’s and again late in the 1940’s, Faulkner repeatedly used crime, mystery, and suspense as key elements in developing his themes. For example, the theme of Faulkner’s best-known (certainly his most anthologized) short story, “A Rose for Emily,” is the seductive appeal of the South’s dead past. He uses a horrific surprise ending as the final, palpable proof of the force of that past. The story begins at the funeral of Miss Emily Grierson, the last member of an old Jefferson, Mississippi, family. At her death, Miss Emily lived in the once-fine, now dilapidated, family home in a once-fashionable, now seedy, neighborhood. The narrator tells her story through a series of nonchronological flashbacks. Miss Emily’s father (the past) protected her with a horsewhip from the attentions of the young men (the present and the future) of Jefferson. When he died, she refused to release the body for three days, denying that he was dead. Jefferson was both scandalized and vindicated when Miss Emily, too good for any of the local men, took up with a brash Yankee named Homer Barron, who had come to town as foreman of a construction crew. After a courtship that had the locals expecting a wedding, Homer Barron suddenly moved on—apparently. As the years passed, Miss Emily became more and more of a recluse. Following her funeral, the narrator and other townsmen force their way into a locked room upstairs. There they find, on the bed, Homer Barron’s desiccated corpse. On the pillow beside him is an indention in the shape of a head and a long strand of iron-gray hair.
Miss Emily’s necrophilia is only the most graphic evidence of her rejection of the present, her embrace of the past. “A Rose for Emily,” however, can be read chiefly as a tale of madness and horror. There is also a strong element of the detective story: Miss Emily buys arsenic from the druggist (for “rats”); just before Barron’s disappearance, he is seen entering the Grierson house at dusk by the kitchen door; and for a time a dreadful stench surrounds Miss Emily’s house. Faulkner furnishes the perceptive reader with all the clues required to anticipate the shocking climax.
Sanctuary plays on the deep-seated fear of southern males that their women will be stolen from them and defiled. Temple Drake (whose first name suggests the idealized purity of southern womanhood) is a college girl who accompanies Gowan Stevens, a product of the University of Virginia, to a bootlegger’s lair near Jefferson. Stevens, who represents the vanity and ineffectuality of the old southern aristocracy, gets drunk and beaten up, and abandons Temple to Popeye, a psychopathic little gangster from Memphis. Lee Goodwin, the white-trash bootlegger, and Tommy, his feebleminded and good-hearted flunky, attempt to protect Temple from Popeye, who, despite his impotence, lusts after her. Temple hides, cowering, in a corncrib in the barn. At this point, the narrative becomes very lurid indeed.
Popeye shoots and kills Tommy, rapes Temple with a corncob, and flees to Memphis with her as his prisoner. In Memphis, Popeye ensconces Temple in Miss Reba’s brothel, showering her with clothes, jewelry, and cosmetics. He enlists Alabama Red, another local gangster, as his surrogate and sits panting and drooling at the foot of the bed while Red has intercourse with Temple. Meanwhile, Goodwin has been arrested for Tommy’s murder. Ruby, his common-law wife and a former prostitute, portrayed throughout the novel with a limp, comatose baby in her arms, seeks help from the lawyer Horace Benbow. Horace is a good but deluded man who has been dominated for years by his cold wife and even colder sister, Narcissa.
Back in Memphis, Temple’s corruption is complete; she develops a wild passion for Red. Popeye’s response is to shoot Red between the eyes. Red’s funeral at a Memphis roadhouse is a masterpiece of black comedy. Red’s lugubrious former employer unwisely gives free liquor to the mourners. They begin to carouse, eventually to fight. When the casket is knocked over, Red loses his cap, and the piece of wax plugging the bullet hole in his forehead pops out. Temple is...
(The entire section is 2063 words.)
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