What do the conventions of the detective story allow Whitehead to do or say in The Intuitionist?

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durbanville eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Colson Whitehead enjoys exploring different genres in his novels. In The Intuitionist, Whitehead incorporates some of the elements that would be expected of a traditional detective story. This gives the reader certain expectations, allowing Whitehead to use a detective thread without becoming too involved in detective drama.

Intrigue, dark nights and spying allow the reader to speculate, interpret and draw conclusions. Meanwhile, the conflict that the characters experience indicates a much larger problem. For them it is "verticality" and the futuristic elements of the book that place it in the speculative fiction genre, allowing Whitehead to create his own fantasy but with some basic truths. Detective work is often contradictory and as Lila Mae must prove her theory that sabotage is to blame, readers can concentrate on the development of the story, thus giving Whitehead a larger readership than he would have had had he restricted himself to the futuristic story line.

The predictable "set-up" (as Lila Mae is sure to take all the blame for the failure of elevator number 11) allows Whitehead to introduce characters indisputably suited to a detective novel—double agents, spies and hit-men—and weave them into the plot. This adds an additional political motivation, hinting at the greater intention of the novel—to bring all the elements together and to make the reader consider ever-present social and racial issues.

Thus, the conventions of the detective story that Whitehead employs allow him to draw attention to more serious themes, like racial prejudice, and deliver them to a wider audience than he would have had he followed purely science-fiction elements.

To support the detective story elements that appear in The Intuitionist, Lila Mae uses her intuition and as an "intuitionist," this, as the title of Whitehead's book infers, is already an element of a true detective who, like Lila Mae is always able to "just feel it." In "our city," she searches for James Fulton's notebooks and, as he is the founder of this method of elevator inspection still frowned upon by skeptical people who prefer the mechanical methods, Lila Mae comes under suspicion by many who doubt its accuracy:

"You aren't one of those voodoo inspectors, are you? Don't need to see anything, you just feel it, right?"  (Superintendent of 125 Walker)

The detective-like search for Fulton's "black box" which will reveal all, reinforces the investigative nature of the story and the intrigue and suspense is maintained by the use of foreshadowing:"She is never wrong ... ...She doesn't know yet." She does not rely on "nuts and bolts Empiricism." 

Lila Mae is a typical detective-type person who is methodical, precise and determined but not showy or attention-seeking. She spends much time contemplating. Her efforts to uncover the truth at all costs, even to her own detriment, reveal her ability to look beyond the facts - intuitively, of course. The revelation about Fulton's intuitionism is surprising, even shocking but Lila Mae's extraordinary decision to maintain the secrecy ensures that the detective in her can keep looking for more answers. All is not as it seems! Whitehead ensures that his readers are still asking questions at the end.

Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Some detective genre conventions, as outlined by P.D. James and as recognized as standard conventions stemming from the golden age of detective fiction, said by James to be "the two decades between the first and second World Wars," affect the experience of the detective, the experience of the reader and, at times, the experienced setting.

The detective must not solve the crime through intuition, good luck, or by supernatural intervention, Fate or Providence. The detective must solve the crime through reasoning, deduction, intelligence. The detective must never be the guilty party, the criminal. The detective must never withhold information from the reader. There must be clues to all special pieces of the detective mystery like twins, secret rooms, of which there may be only one, adopted children, and quirks of the setting, like faulty telephone lines, locked rooms or enclosed spaces, or restricted areas in an urban building setting. The detective must meet the actual criminal, though as yet unknown to be so, early on in the story.

The reader must feel the characters, especially the detective--whether a professional or amateur detective--are realistic. The reader must have a fair chance of reasoning the mystery through along with the detective and, thus, of solving the mystery along with the detective. The reader must have access to all the clues right along with the detective. If there is a "Watson" character--a supporter of and assistant to the detective--the "Watson" thoughts must be made fully known as well. These are some of the detective genre conventions, along with the need for a real crime (not a feigned one), that you can examine The Intuitionist or any detective text for to see how the author keeps, revises, or breaks the conventions and to analyze the effects of this upon the narrative.

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The Intuitionist

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