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Rycroft, C. (1957). A Detective Story—Psychoanalytic Observations. Psychoanal Q., 26:229-245.

(1957). Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 26:229-245

A Detective Story—Psychoanalytic Observations

Charles Rycroft, B.A.


Among psychoanalysts who have discussed the psychology of the detective story only one, Geraldine Pederson-Krag, has a specific hypothesis to account for their popularity. In Detective Stories and the Primal Scene (7), she suggests that it derives from their reactivation of the interest and curiosity originally aroused by the primal scene. According to her the murder is a symbolic representation of parental intercourse and '… the victim is the parent for whom the reader (the child) had negative Oedipal feelings. The clues in the story, disconnected, inexplicable, and trifling, represent the child's growing awareness of details it had never understood, such as the family sleeping arrangements, nocturnal sounds, stains, incomprehensible adult jokes and remarks… The reader addicted to mystery stories tries actively to relive and master traumatic infantile experiences he once had to endure passively. Becoming the detective, he gratifies his infantile curiosity with impunity, redressing completely the helpless inadequacy and anxious guilt unconsciously remembered from childhood.'

It is possible to draw a deduction from this hypothesis which Pederson-Krag does not explicitly make. If the victim is the parent for whom the reader (the child) had negative Oedipal feelings, then the criminal must be a personification of the reader's own unavowed hostility toward that parent. The reader is not only the detective; he is also the criminal. One reason, I suspect, why the detective story so rarely achieves the status of a work of art is that this identification of the reader with the criminal remains denied.

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