An Attack on the Classical Detective Story: ‘The Usual Suspects’ and ‘Sherlock Holmes’

The detective’s role in the detective story is to figure out the crime and reveal his or her insights to the viewer. William Holquist traces the role of the detective back to Edgar Allan Poe’s detective stories. He claims that Poe’s stories, such as “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” sought to capture the “chaos of the world.” Yet, with his rational mind, the detective reveals that we actually live in an “ordered, ultra rational world.” The new Sherlock Holmes films seek to do just that; they demonstrate Holmes’ ability to make sense of the seemingly mystifying world around him. Nonetheless, the newest Sherlock Holmes films are lackluster because they rigidly follow the classical detective story, a story that has been in use for more than 100 years. A more interesting reimagination of the detective story is apparent in The Usual Suspects.

In Guy Ritchie’s 2009 Sherlock Holmes, Holmes’ job is not simply to follow the clues and discover the criminal; instead, his job is to discover the motivation behind the criminal’s crimes and demystify him. The villain Blackwood seems to rely on magic and supernatural forces; among his many tricks, the most fantastic is his ability to come back from the dead (he was hanged). The threat of the supernatural is more fearsome than the crimes. However, Holmes makes clear that all of Blackwood’s magic is just a manipulation of reality. For example, there was a clip on the noose that shifted the pressure from Blackwood’s neck to his waist so he never actually died (and thus never came back to life). Holmes catches the villain, but more importantly, he is able bring a rational explanation to the supposed supernatural forces at work within the story.

In the second film, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Holmes meets an intellectual match in Professor Moriarty. Moriarty appears to be a criminal mastermind who is responsible for a rash of bombings, which appear to be the work of an anarchist group. Unlike the first film, there is no threat of the supernatural or fantastic. Instead, there’s the threat of anarchy, of pure chaos. However, Holmes still manages to understand the motivation behind Moriarty’s bombing and uncovers his plot to instigate a world war. Because Moriarty is the sole owner of a weapon company, a world war would make him a rich man. Moriarty may be a master criminal with an intellect that rivals Holmes, but his sole motivation for the bombings is profit. By uncovering the motivations of Moriarty, Holmes reveals the rational world that Holquist speaks about. There is no threat of anarchy or chaos; rather, there’s only the threat of a greedy, intelligent criminal. Holmes carries out his function in the films as a proponent of order and logic.

Unlike the Sherlock Holmes films, The Usual Suspects does not follow the classical typology of detective fiction, nor does it have use for a central detective character. Without the detective playing his usual role, the film doesn’t reveal a rational and ordered world, but instead reveals the chaos that the detective story typically works against. Interestingly, the criminal takes a leading role over the detective, even acting as narrator.

The criminal, Verbal Kint, appears to be a below average guy. He is a cripple whose injured leg would make it impossible to flee from a murder scene. The entire right side of his body, from his leg to his hand, seems to be mangled. Kint cannot even light a cigarette and Detective Kujan must do it for him. This is the film’s attempt to show Kujan’s dominance over Kint—the dominance of the detective over the criminal. Kujan himself claims that he is “smarter” than Kint and will solve the crime. The film begins with the image of the shrewd detective who can make sense of confusion surrounding the crimes, just as a classic detective story would.

While the film first establishes Kint as somewhat inept and socially incompetent, Kint’s story makes up the narrative for the entire film. Though agent Kujan’s questions appear to lead the narrative of the film, it is Kint who reveals the entire story about the master criminal Kaiser Soze’s involvement in a series of crimes, including the supposed drug ship in the harbor. At the end of the film, it is revealed that Kint merely uses made up names and places from the police bulletin board. For example, his banter about a barbershop quartet and Skokie came from the name of the bulletin board: Quartet made in Skokie. Kint’s story consists of meaningless signs. He was quick to manipulate the situation and the tools at hand into a convincing and maze-like narrative. However, Kint’s story is so convincing that Kujan believes him. Kujan’s job is essentially that of a semiotician, but he cannot make sense of the signs and clues he is given.

The police sketch of Soze (which is Kint’ face) comes in after Kujan sets Kint free. This discovery of the true and irrefutable identity of the criminal mastermind behind the string of crimes leading to the massacre on the drug ship completely undermines Kujan’s skills as a detective. Kint/Soze fabricated a story of clues and lies; Kujan failed to use his logic to unravel the clues and detect Kint’s lies. The film ends with Kint/Soze’s escape. Kujan destroys his own image as a protector. Rather than restoring order, Kujan has ensured chaos. At the film’s end, logic and truth prove “unconvincing in the face of the complexity of the world.”

Kint/Soze’s role in The Usual Suspects does not fit in with the typical “whodunit” detective stories. The film has the elements of a detective story (criminal (chaos), detective (order), string of clues, and crime), but it drastically reimagines the idea of the rational mind. Holquist says that in traditional detective logic, “there are no mysteries, only incorrect reasoning.” The Usual Suspects is a film that highlights the detective’s incorrect reasoning and incompetence in the face of chaos. By highlighting the detective’s inability to detect, The Usual Suspects questions the presence of order in the world.

The idea of disorder is what Holquist describes as a metaphysical detective story. Instead of repeating the classic detective story, The Usual Suspects is what Holquist calls an “attack” on the classic detective plot. This is what makes the film more interesting and engaging than Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films. Both Holmes movies initially seemed exciting and promising, because they offered the possibility of modernizing a detective that has been popular for over 100 years. However, the fact that the films repeat, rather than reimagine, the classic detective story ultimately makes them disappointing.

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