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Pederson-Krag, G. (1949). Detective Stories and the Primal Scene. Psychoanal Q., 18:207-214.

(1949). Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 18:207-214

Detective Stories and the Primal Scene

Geraldine Pederson-Krag, M.D.

The popularity of detective stories in the English-speaking countries is a phenomenon psychoanalytically interesting because of its prevalence and because the reading of such fiction so frequently becomes habitual. About one quarter of all fiction published annually in the United States—some three hundred volumes—is of this type (1). On two of the major radio networks one third to one half of dramatic programs broadcast deal with death and detection, and a large percentage of moving pictures have plots about the detection of crime. There is little novelty in this vicarious pursuit of criminals. Each mystery drama or detective story is less interesting for specific details than because the gratification lies in certain basic elements which are always present.

The first element is some secret wrongdoing between two people, revealed when one of the participants is discovered to have been murdered. The other, the criminal, is kept hidden from the reader among a cast of characters who are respectable members of society. The next element is a detective whose perception is so acute, whose knowledge so unlimited, whose perseverance so undaunted, that he can expose the criminal and reveal the method by which evil was done. Usually there is also introduced a character, typified by Sherlock Holmes' Dr. Watson, a dullard, dazzled by the detective's brilliance, to whom everything is explained as it must be explained to the reader. The third element is a series of observations and occurrences, trivial, commonplace and apparently unconnected. The detective discovers the significance of these and forges them into a chain of clues that leads to the criminal and finally binds him. The discovery of the criminal and his crime is a logical outcome of the combination of these elements, yet on the surface these elements seem to offer nothing which explains the insatiable demand of so many readers for this formula.

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