Front Page Titles (by Subject) 3: Remarks about the Detective Stories - The Anti-capitalistic Mentality
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
3: Remarks about the Detective Stories - Ludwig von Mises, The Anti-capitalistic Mentality 
The Anti-capitalist Mentality, edited and with a preface by Bettina Bien Greaves (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2006).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Remarks about the Detective Stories
The age in which the radical anti-capitalistic movement acquired seemingly irresistible power brought about a new literary genre, the detective story. The same generation of Englishmen whose votes swept the Labour Party into office were enraptured by such authors as Edgar Wallace. One of the outstanding British socialist authors, G. D. H. Cole, is no less remarkable as an author of detective stories. A consistent Marxian would have to call the detective story—perhaps together with the Hollywood pictures, the comics and the “art” of striptease—the artistic superstructure of the epoch of labor unionism and socialization.
Many historians, sociologists and psychologists have tried to explain the popularity of this strange genre. The most profound of these investigations is that of Professor W. O. Aydelotte. Professor Aydelotte is right in asserting that the historical value of the detective stories is that they describe daydreams and thus shed light on the people who read them. He is no less right in suggesting that the reader identifies himself with the detective and in very general terms makes the detective an extension of his ego.*
Now this reader is the frustrated man who did not attain the position which his ambition impelled him to aim at. As we said already, he is prepared to console himself by blaming the injustice of the capitalist system. He failed because he is honest and law abiding. His more lucky competitors succeeded on account of their improbity; they resorted to foul tricks which he, conscientious and stainless as he is, would never have thought of. If people only knew how crooked these arrogant upstarts are! Unfortunately their crimes remained hidden and they enjoy an undeserved reputation. But the day of judgment will come. He himself will unmask them and disclose their misdeeds.
The typical course of events in a detective story is this: A man whom all people consider as respectable and incapable of any shabby action has committed an abominable crime. Nobody suspects him. But the smart sleuth cannot be fooled. He knows everything about such sanctimonious hypocrites. He assembles all the evidence to convict the culprit. Thanks to him, the good cause finally triumphs.
The unmasking of the crook who passes himself off as a respectable citizen was, with a latent antibourgeois tendency, a topic often treated also at a higher literary level, e.g., by Ibsen in The Pillars of Society. The detective story debases the plot and introduces into it the cheap character of the self-righteous sleuth who takes delight in humiliating a man whom all people considered as an impeccable citizen. The detective’s motive is a subconscious hatred of successful “bourgeois.” His counterparts are the inspectors of the government’s police force. They are too dull and too prepossessed to solve the riddle. It is sometimes even implied that they are unwittingly biased in favor of the culprit because his social position strongly impresses them. The detective surmounts the obstacles which their sluggishness puts into his way. His triumph is a defeat of the authorities of the bourgeois state who have appointed such police officers.
This is why the detective story is popular with people who suffer from frustrated ambition. (There are, of course, also other readers of detective stories.) They dream day and night of how to wreak their vengeance upon successful competitors. They dream of the moment when their rival, “handcuffs around his wrist, is led away by the police.” This satisfaction is vicariously given to them by the climax of the story in which they identify themselves with the detective, and the trapped murderer with the rival who superseded them.*
[* ]Cf. William O. Aydelotte, “The Detective Story as a Historical Source,” The Yale Review 39 (1949): pp. 76–95.
[* ]A significant fact is the circulation success of the so-called exposé magazines, the most recent addition to the American press. These magazines are exclusively devoted to the unmasking of secret vices and misdeeds on the part of successful people, especially of millionaires and of celebrities of the screen. According to Newsweek of July 11, 1955, one of these magazines estimated its sales for the September 1955 issue at 3.8 million copies. It is obvious that the average common man rejoices in the exposure of the—real or alleged—sins of those who outshine him.