Detective Story

by W. H. Auden

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The structure of “Detective Story” is meant to trap the reader just as a fictional detective does a murderer. Auden eases his reader into a formulaic setting with which the reader can identify and fills it with signs of life, only to reveal suddenly that a murder has taken place. Auden’s reader, like the reader of a detective story, feels himself or herself above all this turmoil, only to be dragged down into confronting the morality of taking pleasure in crime and punishment.

Auden uses ambiguous pronoun references to draw the reader into his moral web. The poem opens, “for who is ever quite without his landscape.” The reader clearly is meant to identify with this “who,” with this typical man living an ordinary life in his ordinary dwelling. The deliberate vagueness of Auden’s description also invites identification with this man’s landscape: “The straggling village street, the house in trees,/ all near the church, or else the gloomy town house.” The reader identifies with the happiness of Auden’s anonymous man only to have it become “our happiness” as a result of being entertained by his fictional man’s misery. The focus of the poem becomes not “he” and “his” but “us” and “our.”

Auden’s imagery describes both an everyday world and a world of sin, crime, and death. In the context of the later paragraphs, the “straggling” and “gloomy” of the opening lines assume a more ominous suggestiveness than first appears. The lines “mark the spot/ where the body of his happiness was first discovered” become not a metaphor for an ordinary location but the site of a possible murder. The metaphorical “body” becomes a literal one. Similarly, the “buried past” of the second paragraph suggests both unrevealed truths and a literal burial.

Auden employs ironic juxtaposition with “the thrilling final chase, the kill” to suggest the reader’s duplicity in the death of the murderer. This idea is reinforced by “but time is always killed.” In both instances, “kill” and “killed” appear to be meant metaphorically, but the literal meanings are applicable as well.

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