The Case of the Self-Conscious Detective Novel: Detection, Metafiction, and the Terms of Literary Value In and Around Transatlantic Modernism

Directors: Maria DiBattista, William Gleason, and Benjamin Widiss (Hamilton College)

My dissertation takes as its point of departure the formal continuity between British and American “high” modernist texts and the detective novel, the first mass-market novelistic craze, around modes of metafiction and textual self-consciousness—modes usually considered formal hallmarks of canonized art literature. Tracing this shared thread through both the intellectual history and the material culture of the modernist literary moment on both sides of the Atlantic, I argue that the detective novel is most fully understood neither as a modernist antithesis nor as a victim of avant-garde elitism, but as an overlooked participant in both the modernist episteme and its material contexts, a site of textual and material liminalities that participates in and makes visible the seismic modernist renegotiation of the terms of literary value and the cultural work of art. In chapters on Dorothy L. Sayers, Raymond Chandler, and Agatha Christie, I demonstrate the crucial role of metafiction in articulating the detective novel’s self-conscious negotiation of its own aesthetic status as it straddles the border between art literature and mass culture. The reshaped concept of art and its relationship to the world of lived experience that emerges from the modernist moment is urgent in the contemporary one: the project concludes by considering the enmeshment of professional literary studies with the terms of literary value as they emerge from the modernist moment and arguing that these terms threaten to substantively impair, even hamstring, academic literary criticism.

[ --> full-length dissertation abstract]

Articles in Development

“Books—and Crime”: Dorothy L. Sayers’s Metafictional Shadow Plot

In this article excerpted and adapted from my dissertation chapter on Sayers, I lay out the way that Sayers knits critical concerns and the logic of detective plot together over the course of the second half of her detective career, constructing a metafictional investigation into the literary value of the detective genre that ends with her departure from its ranks.

“Edith Wharton, Sociologist”

In this article, I argue that readings of The House of Mirth placing Wharton either among the defenders of civilization or among its progressive reformers miss the novel’s most modernist aspects. Contextualizing Wharton against the background of the emergence of academic sociology instead of trying to position her either with Henry James or with Theodore Dreiser shows us a Wharton dramatizing the conflict between individual liberty and social order without attempting to resolve it, reflecting a sense of the function of literature that is a step into modernism’s sea change.


I have recently presented work at the annual meetings of the British Academy of Modernist Studies, the Modernist Studies Association, the American Comparative Literature Association, and the Northeastern Modern Language Association. Those papers represent work in progress and are not for circulation, but I’m happy to share them upon request.

In March 2020, I’ll be chairing two panels for the Northeastern Modern Language Association. Full panel descriptions are available here: