THE MOMENT I HATE most in Arthur Conan Doyle's famous mysteries is when the haze over the tale is cleared by the strong wind of Holmes' impeccable reasoning, leaving me with nothing but the blaring sun and a desiccated story. This feeling, this displeasure, is not exceptional; it says more about the age I live in than my personal tastes. Doyle, of course, came from a time when science was still high from its dramatic overthrow of the church. In that world, everything could be solved by patiently collecting data and subjecting it to close scrutiny. But in our world, solutions and truths are unstable and easily discredited. This is why Doyle's denouements irritate me (or us) so; in a world that has no fixed meanings, Holmes' tremendous feats of reasoning are as hokey as the miracles Jesus performs in the Bible.

Another consequence of this late-age suspicion of scientific truths has been the rise of a genre called the metaphysical detective story. This type of detective fiction has the feel and look of a traditional detective story, but instead of moving toward a solution of a crime, it gets bogged down in the "riddle of being," or the "mystery of identity." A new book called Detecting Texts, edited by Patricia Merivale and Susan Elizabeth Sweeney, has collected 12 essays that attempt to explain the sources and motives of this genre, which carries out "hermeneutical to primarily ontological concerns," rather than "reading into a crime."

"A metaphysical detective story," the editors write in the excellent and informative introduction, "is a text that parodies or subverts traditional detective-story conventions -- such as narrative closure and the detective's role as surrogate reader -- with the intention, or at least the effect, of asking questions about mysteries of being and knowing which transcend the mere machinations of the mystery's plot." In metaphysical detective fiction, "life is a crime," and often the detective learns that he is "the murderer he has been seeking." "The metaphysical detective story suggests," writes Susan Elizabeth Sweeney -- in the best essay in the collection, which is called "'Subject-Cases' and 'Book-Cases'" -- "that all our investigations are doomed to remain only cases of supposition, mere stories... narratives that try, in vain, to substitute for the mysterious, irreducible, stubbornly unknowable world outside us."

Though metaphysical detective stories first appeared back in the mid-19th century with Edgar Allan Poe's Dupin series, it is in the late 20th century that this genre has flourished, with writers like Robbe-Grillet, Jorge Luis Borges, and Paul Auster as its big stars. Their work, and many others, are studied in this readable and worthwhile effort, which stands as the first anthology of its kind.

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