Essay: A Study on the Theme of Isolation in Detective Fiction

In detective fiction, authors create chaos, which they balance with a sense of structure and reason. They implement many elements to entice the reader to continue with the detective on his quest to solve the riddle and defeat the chaos, which can be divided into two sections: noticeable chaos and silent chaos. Noticeable chaos includes elements such as murder and thievery, obvious aspects of detective fiction that make the reader cringe. Silent chaos, on the other hand, includes locked rooms and settings; things that make the reader shiver because they have no idea why it is affecting them so much. Authors use these different elements to support common themes that are woven into many different works of detective fiction. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Speckled Band, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Jacques Futrelle’s The Problem of Cell 13 each support the theme of isolation in detective fiction.

Throughout detective fiction, isolation instills the silent chaos and fear of separation into society. One element of detective fiction that authors use to create isolation and implement silent chaos is the locked room element. In many detective stories characters are placed in locked rooms or locations where there seems to be no way in or out. One of society's biggest fears is being alone or in solitude; the locked room element plays up this fear in the readers and in the characters making them feel as though nothing good happens in the locked room. One locked room that readers are introduced to is Dr Jekyll’s laboratory in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. While Dr. Jekyll is in his laboratory, he is separated from everyone else, and during this separation he creates his potion, which turns him into Mr. Hyde, a man with no moral standards. It is also the location of the death of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which is extremely frightening because no one knows what happened in the laboratory, and everyone fears the unknown. The locked room also appears in The Problem of Cell 13 by Jacques Futrelle; however, the use of the locked room in this short story instills the fear of being imprisoned in the audience, rather than the fear of the unknown. The locked cell is filled with vile creatures and lacks any type of comfort, causing the reader to cringe at the idea of the character being in such a place. In The Adventure of the Speckled Band by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the locked room is the location of a murder as well as the house of the murder weapon. Doyle has the character of the stepfather, Dr Roylott, lock the snake in a metal safe, which depicts that dangerous things are kept in locked places. Locked rooms in detective fiction have a negative connotation, which the reader can relate to being locked out of communication with society. 

Authors also create silent chaos in the stories by depicting the regression, or reverse evolution, of mankind. Evolution, as an idea becoming popular in the incipient stages of the detective fiction genre, was a commonly used idea by writers as a way of evoking the fear of a more instinctual side of human beings in the society. Reverse evolution connects with silent chaos because it does not happen right away, it is a slow process which society would not notice immediately. In The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde the villain, Hyde, has many animalistic characteristics. Stevenson describes him as being “pale and dwarfish […] with a sort of murderous mixture of timidity and boldness, and he spoke with a husky, whispering and somewhat broken voice” (10). Hyde, like an animal, had no sense of right or wrong, but was in fact, according to Stevenson, “in the ranks of mankind, was pure evil.” (45). Hyde isolates himself from mankind having only his other half, Dr Jekyll, as his connection to the real world; because of this separation, he had no one to hold him accountable for his doings. This led to his unprovoked and unnecessary murder of Sir Carew. In The Adventure of the Speckled Band, Dr Roylott possessed a similar desensitized set of morals as Mr Hyde. Roylott had removed himself from London society after the death of his wife and had relocated to the countryside of England. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle states that Roylott, “indulge[ed] in ferocious quarrels with whoever might cross his path.” and possessed a “violence of temper approaching to mania […] immense strength, [which is] absolutely uncontrollable in his anger” (104). Roylott’s reclusive behaviour not only led to an outrageous and animalistic personality, but it also led to the murder of his stepdaughter. Roylott needed his stepdaughters to remain single so that he could keep his wealth, and like an animal, when he saw his habitat threatened, he attacked and killed the threat. Readers could view the reverse evolution in the situations of Mr Hyde and Dr Roylott as events that might happen if they removed themselves from society, which nurtured the fear of solitude in the society. 

The settings of works of fiction separate the readers from their own reality. In The Problem of Cell 13, the readers are transported from their living rooms to a solitary confinement prison cell, a very frightening and isolated place. The readers become enthralled with the story because they are in a new location, which is unlike any other they have been in. The readers feel as though they were placed in the solitary cell, cut off from the outside world, and it instills in them a fear of being removed from society permanently. Also, Futrelle describes the prison as being “surrounded by a wall of solid masonry eighteen feet high […] this fence in itself marked an absolute deadline between freedom and imprisonment” (126-127). The location symbolizes a lack of contact with the outside world for the prisoner, and the reader feels as though he is locked in the cell with the Thinking Machine.

Another type of separation is presented by the setting of The Adventure of the Speckled Band. The Sherlock Holmes story takes place out of the city, which society links with population and connection. The house where the murder takes place specifically, Stoke Moran, is set across the moor isolated from a nearby countryside town with no other houses near it. This is the perfect setting to allow the readers to feel as if they are being forcibly removed from society because it is so close to the town yet so far away from the actual people. The locations in which these stories take place remove the readers from their own location and place them in a setting that is alienated from society. The use of this element in detective fiction embodies the authors’ desires to create a silent chaos by removing the characters, as well as the readers, from the help and comfort of society. 

Many authors implement isolation through the use of detective elements to add chaos to their works of literature so that the detective fiction has an edge of darkness to it along with something that the readers can attempt to overcome with the detective. Whether it be silent and slow or noticeable and in one quick bang, chaos permeates detective fiction and creates an adventure unlike any other. This chaos is closely related to the human fear of being separated from society, which penetrates every person's heart. Whether it be a locked room, an animalistic personality, or a setting which removes the reader from reality, isolation is used to embody silent chaos. The theme of isolation is prevalent in many works of detective fiction, and it imprints upon the reader the silent fear that creeps up in the dead of night and does not go away. 


Works Cited

Doyle, Arthur Conan. “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”. Detective Fiction: Crime and Compromise. Eds. Dick Allen and David Chacko. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1974. 101-120. Print. 

Futrelle, Jacques. “The Problem of Cell 13”. Detective Fiction: Crime and Compromise. Eds. Dick Allen and David Chacko. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1974. 122-150. Print. 

Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Mineola: Dover Publications Inc., 1991. Print.