illustrated portrait of American author William Faulkner

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William Faulkner Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on July 1, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2063

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,...

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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 rescued by those employed by her influential father. To keep the Memphis episode quiet, she gives perjured testimony against Goodwin, who is wrongfully convicted. A mob, inflamed by the introduction into evidence of the offending corncob, breaks Goodwin out of jail and burns him alive. Popeye, on his annual pilgrimage to his mother’s home in Pensacola, Florida, is arrested for the murder of an Alabama police officer (ironically, one of the few he did not commit). Like Goodwin, he is wrongfully convicted and subsequently hanged. Temple goes to Paris with her father to forget the sordid past.

Light in August

Light in August (1932) bears some superficial resemblance to Sanctuary. The setting is Faulkner’s pied-à-terre, Jefferson, seat of Yoknapatawpha County. The central character, Joe Christmas, is a bootlegger. As the final chapter of Sanctuary summarizes Popeye’s life story in flashback, seven of the central chapters of Light in August recount Christmas’s unhappy life. Christmas lives and conducts his illegal business on land owned by a reclusive single woman, Miss Burden. She is viewed with suspicion and hostility by the townspeople, owing to her New England abolitionist ancestry. As in Sanctuary, there is an abandoned young woman: Lena Grove has come all the way from Alabama seeking the father of her unborn child. Christmas murders Miss Burden with his razor. He is eventually shot to death and castrated by Percy Grimm, a National Guard officer, who represents the same mentality as did the mob in Sanctuary. The Reverend Hightower, who lives alone and in disgrace, plays the role that Horace Benbow did in the earlier novel: the sensitive and intellectual observer who attempts to draw some meaning from the tragic events he witnesses.

Yet the differences between the two novels are more striking than the similarities. The problem of race is at the heart of Light in August, whereas it is barely touched on in Sanctuary. The orphaned Christmas believes that his father may have been of mixed racial stock. Although no one questions his status as a white man, Christmas occasionally blurts out that he is black. When among blacks, he asserts just as vehemently that he is white. He is not at ease in either culture and compulsively estranges himself from both. At the end of their illicit affair, Miss Burden tries to send Christmas to a black college, where he will be groomed as a leader in the advancement of his people. When he refuses, she attempts to kill him with a Civil War pistol, but he kills her instead.

The prose of Sanctuary is lush, often purple. The prose of Light in August is more restrained, but it is in other ways a less conventional novel. The narrative is more or less chronological, but Faulkner experiments with time in another way—by switching between the past and present tense throughout. The characters’ names alone remind the reader that Light in August is a novel of ideas: Christmas, for the sacrificial victim of society’s rigid stereotypes; Burden, for the guilt-ridden puritan; Grimm, for the avenging zealot; Hightower, for the fallen minister.

Absalom, Absalom!

Sanctuary is basically a lurid crime story, emphasizing incident but suggesting certain southern themes. Light in August is a thematic novel that uses crime and violent death to develop those themes. Absalom, Absalom! (1936), however, considered by some critics to be Faulkner’s finest novel, is among other things a detective story. Absalom, Absalom! is the story of Thomas Sutpen, who came as a poor white to Jefferson in 1833 and by the time of the Civil War had built a great plantation and a reputation as a gentleman. His story—featuring miscegenation, incest, and two murders—is a mixture of fact, legend, and myth (like southern history itself). The structurally complex narrative employs three distinctly different points of view: that of Rosa Coldfield, Sutpen’s sister-in-law (chapters 1 and 4); that of Mr. Compson, son of General Compson, Sutpen’s only friend (chapters 2 through 4); and that of Quentin Compson, who narrates “That Evening Sun” and commits suicide in The Sound and the Fury (chapters 6 through 9). Quentin, like a brilliant detective of popular fiction, pieces together the varied and conflicting accounts so as to reconstruct the “truth” about Sutpen’s life. He is assisted by his Harvard roommate, Shreve, a matter-of-fact Dr. Watson type. In this case, however, the detective is a victim as well. Quentin regards Sutpen’s tragedy as representative. It is the South’s tragedy and also his personal tragedy. Quentin will soon take his own life.

During Faulkner’s last extended tenure in Hollywood, he worked on screenplays adapted from Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939), a mystery featuring the hard-boiled private eye Philip Marlowe, and Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not (1937), a tale of rumrunners and bank robbers in Cuba and the Florida Keys. While working on The Big Sleep in 1945, Faulkner began writing a murder mystery of his own. It was published in 1948 as Intruder in the Dust.

Intruder in the Dust

In Intruder in the Dust, Lucas Beauchamp, a black man, has been charged with murder and jailed. He is in danger of being lynched. Charles Mallison, Jr., the young narrator, and his bombastic uncle, Gavin Stevens, set out to prove Beauchamp’s innocence. Following instructions given them by the jailed Beauchamp, they solve the crime and free him. The melodramatic novel is also polemical; it was thought at the time of publication to contain the most direct (and controversial) observations Faulkner had ever made on race relations in the South.

Knight’s Gambit

Knight’s Gambit (1949) consists of a novella, the title of which gives the book its name, and five previously published detective stories, including “Smoke” and “An Error in Chemistry,” which had missed first place in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine contest by only one vote. Gavin Stevens is the protagonist, the detective, in each story and, as in Intruder in the Dust, Charles Mallison, Jr., is the narrator.

Faulkner’s Range

Faulkner is a writer of tremendous range. His work runs the gamut from the epic and elegiac to the farcial and burlesque. For example, Miss Reba’s brothel in Sanctuary is Temple Drake’s sordid prison, where Popeye corrupts and debases her, while Miss Reba, totally devoid of a moral perspective, muses over Temple’s luck in having Popeye spend so much money on her. The hugely fat and asthmatic madam, constantly swilling beer and gin, veers between episodes of excessive mourning for her deceased pimp and violent outbursts, directed especially against the two lapdogs who constantly leap and snap around her feet. In The Reivers: A Reminiscence (1962), a comic novel and a paean to Faulkner’s southern boyhood, the adolescent protagonist visits Miss Reba’s brothel in 1905. Even allowing for the fact that Miss Reba is twenty-five years younger in The Reivers, the alteration is remarkable. All the grotesque menace attaching to the madam and her house in Sanctuary is gone. The Miss Reba of The Reivers is more like one of John Steinbeck’s whores with a heart of gold. She has become a piece of nostalgia. When tones of horror, suspense, or mystery suit Faulkner’s purposes, however, his rank among twentieth century mystery and detective writers must be considered.


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