Deconstructing the Classical English Detective. Detective Work in Kazuo Ishiguro's "When We Were Orphans"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2018
19 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. History and Transculturality of Detective Fiction

3. A Comparison of When We Were Orphans with Arthur Conan Doyle’s Stories
3.1 Story Structure and Methodology of Investigation
3.2 Supporting Characters
3.3 Character Traits of the Protagonists

4. Conclusion

5. Works cited

1. Introduction

Crime fiction is one of the most successful, extensive and international genres of the late twentieth and the early twenty-first century. Detective fiction is very versatile, consisting of the whodunit, thriller, private eye and hard-boiled, just to name a few subgenres. In a detective story, the reader expects a crime as well as doubt about motive, means and perpetrator, provided with a fair trail of clues to investigate and solve the crime (Symons 7).

Nineteenth-century detective fiction shed a light on the British Empire in a destabilising whilst at the same time reassuring way for national readers (Reitz xiii). As Caroline Reitz stated,

[t]he detective narrative turned national concerns about abuses of authority into a popular story about British authority in the contact zone of Victorian culture; this in turn allowed the detective […] to become [extension] of rather than anathema to English national identity (ibid).

England’s aggressive authority and force were considered a frequent method of maintaining social control and were therefore often addressed by late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century writers (xiv). Detective stories were able to turn such obsolete aggression into a more contemporary, benign authority by offering detection as a possibility to avoid despotic representations of government authority (xv).

Modern British detective fiction tends to include transcultural perspectives. Today, writers use a variety of topics, sometimes even combined with ancient myths or tales in order to attract more readers at home and abroad. The British author Elly Griffiths, for example, set the plot of her novel Smoke and Mirrors in Brighton in 1951, where the bodies of two missing children, dubbed by the newspapers as ‘Hansel and Gretel’, were found, giving the story a fairy-tale touch.

The Nobel Prize winning writer Kazuo Ishiguro also went back in time for his novel When We Were Orphans. The author might not be the first coming to mind when thinking about detective fiction. In his novels, Ishiguro explores the topic of cultural identity. His unreliable narrators reflect on the reliability of their memories and their place in society. In When We Were Orphans, the Englishman, Christopher Banks, returns to his birthplace, the Shanghai International Settlement, to solve his parents’ kidnapping in his childhood. After their disappearance, the protagonist moved to England to live with his aunt. Years later, he achieved his childhood dream of becoming a celebrated detective in order to solve the most important case of his life and his career. In 1937, during the Sino-Japanese war, Banks enters Shanghai to finally find his parents. Banks and many people in Shanghai are sure that solving this mystery will help prevent a significant catastrophe in the war. The protagonist is convinced that his mother and father are still alive and held captive somewhere in Shanghai and that they will be free as soon as he solves the mystery of their disappearance. Banks feels confident that uncovering the mystery will not only give him rest but will also stop Japan from invading China and hence change the war’s outcome. Based on information provided by Inspector Kung who was in charge of Banks case, the protagonist leaves the Settlement and enters the dangerous war zone to find the house in which he thinks his parents were held captive all these years.

The novel is full of allusions to Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective. Small details and objects remind the reader of the iconic investigator and even characters in the book compare Holmes and Banks, who is impressed by Doyle’s mysteries (Ishiguro 62). As Barry Lewis claims, Ishiguro’s protagonist may be investigating his past life “with Holmes-like meticulousness” (Ratjak 133). Nevertheless, When We Were Orphans does not describe a detective as depicted in Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes Stories. In Ishiguro’s novel, the structure of the story, the detective’s associates and the detective’s character are presented differently and not in a Holmesian way.

2. History and Transculturality of Detective Fiction

The nineteenth century is labelled the beginning of crime fiction. Plenty of fiction dealing with crimes already existed before, but only then the focus was laid on the act of investigating and the person performing it was introduced (Knight 11). The word “detective” derives from the word ‘detegere’, meaning to reveal or to expose in Latin (Walton 13). Today’s detective genre can be traced back to the first Biblical stories, where actions against society’s morality are disclosed and penalised. A common punishment was the death penalty, imposed for crimes like abduction, adultery, blasphemy and murder. In the sixteenth century, another work of literature bearing traces of detective fiction was published. Although unconventional, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark by William Shakespeare can be classified as a detective story and not exclusively as a revenge story. “Hamlet accepts his final obligation, but, before killing Claudius, he takes the precaution of first proving his uncle’s guilt” (Scaggs 12). To unveil the truth behind his father’s death, Hamlet delays his revenge and begins his investigations (ibid). It is contestable whether Shakespeare’s tragedy can be listed as a predecessor of modern detective fiction but conceivable nonetheless.

Looking at the main development, Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins appear to be the forefathers of the flourishing detective fiction, while Edgar Allan Poe was the pioneer of the detective short story (Buchloh and Becker 34). Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morque (1841), arguably the first detective story, introduces the figure of the genius, male and eccentric detective (Frank 30), who functions as a template for future fictional detectives. The story was published at a time “in which both a resurgent evangelicalism and a conservative Natural Theology were confronted by a positivist science” (ibid). In the story, disagreement and conflict prevail. People with different nationalities and languages are gathered in Paris. Poe’s fictional detective, C. Auguste Dupin, is known as the first literary detective. The author wrote two more detective stories, The Purloined Letter and The Mystery Murders of Marie Rogêt, the latter inspired by the unsolved murder of Mary Rogers in 1841 in New York (Walton 154). With The Murders in the Rue Morque, Poe devised the typical elements of the detective fiction genre: the great detective figure, the omnipresent narrator-companion and a listing of gathered evidence and information followed by the final revelation of the criminal.

Referring to British detective fiction, critics state that the first fully imagined English detective is found in India rather than in works of fiction (Reitz 22). Major-general Sir William Henry Sleeman was the first superintendent of the Thug Police, an intelligence operation suppressing Thuggee activity, such as murder and robbery, by gaining and using knowledge of the social and cultural background in the 1820s and the 1830s (ibid). According to Reitz, accepting the Thug Police as English requires approving a new definition of English culture, registering the imbrication of liberal and authoritarian identities and of two worlds, the colonial periphery and Metropolitan England (24).

Modern scientific advances were incorporated into the English detective fiction. In the nineteenth century, a massive progress in various scientific fields, for instance biology and dactyloscopy, was achieved and revolutionised the process of investigation. Detective novels gave interested readers who had no access to real police investigations an insight into these new scientific practices. This development prepared the ground for the most prolific period of the British detective fiction, commencing in the later nineteenth century with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as the pioneering author.

The period between World War I and World War II, more precisely from 1914 to 1939, is often labelled the “Golden Age of Detective Fiction” (Buchloh and Becker 69). Between the beginning of crime fiction in the nineteenth century and the “Golden Age of Detective Fiction” lies a gap concerning the development of the genre. The 1870s and 1880s in particular are referred to as a time of ‘interregnum’ or ‘in-between years’ (Drexler 77). In 1886, the term ‘detective literature’ was first used in a Saturday Review’ s article (78). It was only during the 1880’s that ‘detective fiction’ established itself as a separate and recognisable genre (ibid). Reasons for this emergence might be a change of reading habits and developments in the book market, the literary context of the 1870s and 1880s, more precisely the debates on naturalism and realism and the emergence of new aesthetics of suspense writing and crime writing (79).

During the period of the “Golden Age of Detective Fiction”, the American subgenre ‘hard-boiled detective fiction’ was established, growing out of Western and gangster stories (Scaggs 29). In the time between the two World Wars, the term ‘whodunit’ was established. It is used for a “story or other work of fiction about the solving of a mystery, [especially] a murder; a detective or murder story” (OED Online). Whodunit novels present a narrative duality (Döring 61). The first part covers a mystery, whereas the second part is dedicated to the crime’s investigation. The cosy mysteries of the whodunit are often associated with English crime fiction, while the ‘hardboiled’ is seen as an ‘American’ variety, but regional boundaries of the classic crime novel are no longer adhered (Matzke and Mühleisen 3). Unlike the whodunit, the hard-boiled detective fiction survived the Second World War. A reason for this was “the uncertain post-war world in which writers, and readers, found themselves” (Scaggs 29). The calmness and safety of the whodunit were unsuited for this time and therefore of no use. Hard-boiled fiction, on the contrary, was suitable for gender, ethnic and cultural appropriation (30).

There are two significant differences between English and American crime fiction. Firstly, English and American crime fiction differ regarding the stories’ settings. English crime fiction is mostly set in rural or semi-rural areas, whereas American crime fiction is often set in a modern city (Scaggs 50). Secondly, the English and the American detective figure vary. In English crime fiction, the cases are frequently investigated by professional policemen, whereas in American crime fiction, the detective is often a private investigator (31), like Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer who is described as “a tough, insensitive, overly masculine, and sexist detective who solves crimes with a pistol and his fists, rather than through any deductive reasoning or application of logic” (29). According to Ralph Cohen, crime fiction has evolved into a genre, in which “[e]ach member alters the genre by adding, contradicting, or changing constituents” (Rajtak 134).

Since the 1970s, detective fiction was often regarded as a set of conventions and formulas that strongly affirm “a culture’s dominant ideology, confirming existing definitions of the world and attempting to resolve their tensions or contradictions” (Pearson and Singer 1). Long before its own genre was defined, detective fiction savoured a “mutually formative relationship with such narratives as histories of British India, English accounts of the Indian practice of Thuggee, and Kipling’s imperial fiction” (Reitz xvi). As Stephen Knight discovered, when the colonial situation generated new social and cultural encounters, crime fiction was often the first voice to respond (Pearson and Singer 3). Because crime fiction started transgressing boundaries in its beginning, as various Golden Age detective novels were drawn to colonial cultures (Matzke and Mühleisen 3), evidence of transculturality and colonialism can be found in the detective genre. It is possible that the correlation between literature, crime and colonial authority in various ways formed the European understanding of the Orient with its impressions of the impenetrable Asian, “the occasional ‘noble savage’ or journeys into the ‘heart of darkness’[,] [expressing] little hope for the future of the colonised territory” (4).

In the colonial era, narratives of order and disorder hence offered a special perspective on the ‘other’, functioning both as a mirror or a threat to the imperial power (ibid). Later, in the more developed detective genre, detective narratives started combining the mystery “with anxieties over contamination, irrationality, and the threat posed to imperial modernity by unassimilated racial and cultural difference”, creating a mixture that easily blends the lines of high and popular culture (Pearson and Singer 4).

Defining detective fiction is problematic. Critics call the genre multifarious, occurring in various cultures and involved in the development of knowledge and conversion of consciousness within and across societies. According to Christine Matzke and Susanne Mühleisen, [t]he boundaries of the genre have become fuzzier than ever, stretching over a wide range of registers, themes and styles, from pulp fiction to highly literary novels with elements of crime, from cosy mysteries with a sense of closure to fragmented narratives focusing on racial tensions, gender conflicts or the morals of violence (Matzke and Mühleisen 2).

The detective genre has been engaged with epistemic formations that result from encounters primarily between imperial powers and their colonial territories but between races and cultures and between nations, too (Pearson and Singer 3), influencing the genre transculturally.

3. A Comparison of When We Were Orphans with Arthur Conan Doyle’s Stories

Ishiguro opens his novel incorporating parallels between the protagonists, Christopher Banks and Sherlock Holmes. The allusions to Holmes’ residence in the first chapter trigger the reader to expect Holmesian features in When We Were Orphans. Banks’ London address “14b Bedford Gardens” (Ishiguro 3) is an homage to Sherlock Holmes. The shared “b” alliteration is a reminder of the famous detective’s suite in 221b Baker Street (Doyle, A Study in Scarlet 10). Moreover, Banks rents his flat from a landlady (Ishiguro 3), just as Holmes rents his suite from Mrs. Hudson (Doyle, The Adventure of the Dying Detective 974). Christopher Bank’s landlady “had furnished the place in a tasteful manner that evoked an unhurried Victorian past” (Ishiguro 3). The furniture consists of an ageing sofa, an antique sideboard, two snug armchairs and an oak bookcase full of crumbling encyclopaedias (ibid), again calling Sherlock Holmes, one of the best-known Victorian characters, to the reader’s mind.

3.1 Story Structure and Methodology of Investigation

The first difference between Ishiguro’s and Doyle’s narratives is the structure. Doyle’s stories all follow the Holmesian structure. They often start at 221B Baker Street, where a client, a letter or a police officer present introduces the crime. Then, Holmes investigates the crime scene and collects clues and presents his conclusions. Further investigations, including the interrogations of suspects and witnesses, lead to Holmes’ plan to catch the culprit and eventually to his or her exposure, resulting in the punishment.

Doyle’s The Man with the Twisted Li p and The Adventure of the Boscombe Valley Mystery are examples for a crime’s early introduction. In When We Were Orphans, although it becomes clear to the reader that a tragic incident happened in the Banks’ past, the story’s mystery is introduced with delay. Colonel Chamberlain, when meeting Banks, is the first character to indicate a devastating event in the past:

Considering the circumstances, I thought you were extremely brave, my boy […] My poor lad. First your father. Now your mother. Must feel like the whole world’s collapsed around your ears. But we’ll go to England tomorrow, the two of us. Your aunt’s waiting for you there. So be brave. You’ll soon pick up the pieces again. […] I’m sure the authorities are doing everything possible. […] Then once your parents are found, they can send for you (Ishiguro 28-31).

Based on Colonel Chamberlain’s calming words, the reader may conclude that the protagonist moved in with his aunt at a young age after his parents’ disappearance. Banks, stating that the very best detectives are looking for his parents (31), confirms the reader’s conclusion. Only chapters later, during a flashback, does the reader learn that the protagonist’s father was the first to disappear. One day, he did not arrive at the office (122) and the days following his disappearance, young Christopher and Akira, a childhood friend, started playing out detective scenarios where they rescued Christopher’s father (127). In the beginning of When We Were Orphans, the crime is hidden, not more than hinted at and its introduction is stretched nearly to the denouement chapter, whereas in the Sherlock Holmes Stories, it is revealed on the first pages.

Holmes’ first step when solving a crime is investigating the crime scene. There, the detective searches for any type of evidence or clue, enabling him to convict the culprit. The lacking investigation of the crime scene is another deviation from the Holmesian structure. In Banks’ case, the crime scene is decades old and situated in his childhood house in Shanghai. In Chapter fourteen, Morgan, a school friend, brings him there, but the protagonist does not actively strive to visit it and does not show a sign of investigative approach. Once again, the protagonist indulges in reminiscences of his childhood and mother. Independent of his parents’ case, another crime scene Banks investigated is mentioned, but again the reader is not offered an insight into the detectives’ work process or following conclusions. It can be argued that his parents disappeared decades ago, but, regarding the detective’s sparse clues, he should investigate any traceable evidence. However, Banks even states “there are some advantages in coming to a case after some time has elapsed” (39).


Excerpt out of 19 pages


Deconstructing the Classical English Detective. Detective Work in Kazuo Ishiguro's "When We Were Orphans"
University of Frankfurt (Main)  (Institut für Englisch- und Amerikastudien)
Transcultural Crime Writing
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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transcultural, crime, kazuo, ishiguro, sherlock, holmes, john, watson, christopher, banks, english, detective, fiction, investigation, transculturality
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Mona Baumann (Author), 2018, Deconstructing the Classical English Detective. Detective Work in Kazuo Ishiguro's "When We Were Orphans", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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