“Detective Story” was first published in Letters from Iceland, a 1937 account by W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice of their 1936 trip to Iceland. The book is presented in the form of prose and verse letters to their friends and relatives and to Lord Byron, who was famous for his travels as well as for his poetry. Far from a conventional travel book, Letters from Iceland offers Auden the opportunity to comment on important and trivial matters concerning the world at large.
“Detective Story” appears in a letter to his wife, Erika Mann Auden, as an explanation of “why people read detective stories.” The twenty-seven-line free-verse poem, presented in five verse paragraphs, follows the pattern of the traditional English detective story. The opening paragraph describes a typical setting, either a quiet village or an urban flat, where the “three or four things/ that happen to a man do happen.” The setting or “landscape” in which a person finds himself also defines him, creates the “map of his life,” and marks the spot where he first discovers happiness.
In the second paragraph, the narrator begins wondering about this anonymous man trapped in a slowly unraveling mystery. Whether an “unknown tramp” or a “rich man,” he is an “enigmawith a buried past.” Then the happiness of the first paragraph becomes “our happiness,” suggesting that this apparently shared happiness owes something to “blackmail and philandering.”
The third paragraph hurries through the “traditional” elements of the story, explaining how “all goes to plan,” “down to the thrilling final chase, the kill.” These traditional elements include the murderer’s lies and inevitable confession.
The focus in the final two paragraphs shifts to the mind of the detective story reader. He wonders if the guilty verdict is just, until the execution is carried out, and he then feels relief that justice has been served. According to the narrating sensibility, the murderer has been executed to kill time for the reader. The poem ends with the ambiguous, ominous observation, “Someone must pay for/ our loss of happiness, our happiness itself.”