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War in the Time of Genre

“I’m afraid I have no large theory as such.”

                                   —Kazuo Ishiguro, When We Were Orphans[1]

Paul Saint-Amour’s concept of “weak modernism” shows us why theories of modernism need not be “strong” in order to be effective.[2] Drawing on affect theory, Saint-Amour understands weak modernism as not an “all-or-nothing unified [field] theory,” but as a theory of modernism that “functions in local and provisional ways, as an auxiliary term that supports other lines of argument not endogenous to its problem-space” (“Weak Theory,” 435). The stakes here for modernist criticism involve loosening a strong historical field traditionally organized around Eurocentric World Wars, but they are also significant in terms of weak modernism’s potential influence on neighboring fields, whose literary, aesthetic, and representational forms modernist texts might either borrow from or contribute to. The “pliant, flexible, readily bending” characteristics of weak modernism unsettle and extend the conventional geopolitics of modernist wartime, drawing in longer temporal frameworks and peripheral perspectives to conceptualize the otherwise totalizing force of world war.[3] As this cluster considers not only representations of modernist wartime, but also how wartime shapes historiography and periodization more broadly, my essay moves beyond modernism proper to examine how Kazuo Ishiguro’s contemporary novel When We Were Orphans (2000) is—if only weakly—about modernist war.

Weak Genre

In the context of traditional modernism, “weakness” and “modernist war” have frequently been associated with Virginia Woolf. While high modernist fiction broadly defined itself against the “weak” genres of the Victorian era—often drawing instead on the totalizing topology of the epic—Woolf’s focus on female domesticity prompted criticisms of her novels as quietist, passive, or even evasive.[4] More recent scholarship, however, reads Woolf’s modernist repurposing of Victorian domestic genres as, in fact, extending war’s totality—as a narrative form that links the exceptional and the everyday, the public and the private, the “large” and the “small.”[5] Rebecca Walkowitz argues that Woolf’s style is cosmopolitan because of its evasive and indirect potential, which can range across instances as incongruous as, in the case of Mrs Dalloway (1925), trench warfare and a dinner party.[6] Saint-Amour examines how Woolf adapts the gothic conventions of Victorian sensation fiction to narrate the civilian’s experience of twentieth-century world war as one of “perpetual suspense” (Tense, 91–132). While Woolf’s historical specificity might conscribe her as a writer of past wars, her mobilization of sensation fiction’s perpetual suspense sets up a structure of anticipatory dread that, Saint-Amour suggests, might also persist into the present.

Like Woolf’s, Ishiguro’s novel mediates a sense of “modernist war” by drawing on the Victorian genres of the past. In fact, it is Victorian genres’ relative belatedness to these authors’ present that enables them to approximate the disorienting coordinates of wartime—a disorientation that is only exacerbated in Ishiguro’s 2000 novel. For while genres are historical forms, their formal capacity to multiply and cross-pollinate tends to collapse the periodizing boundaries they might otherwise index.[7] I argue that it is precisely this formal and aesthetic flexibility that enables genre to work as—to borrow a term from Silvan Tomkins via Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick—a “weak theory.” That is to say, genre’s methodological effectiveness derives from its classificatory weakness. While a “strong theory,” such as paranoia, can explain a “wide spectrum of phenomena which appear to be very remote,” explains Tomkins, a weak theory “can account only for ‘near’ phenomena.”[8] In this sense, we might say that a strong theory of genre follows the deductive model of classical genre criticism that always first posits a generic ideal, whereas a weak theory of genre would proceed inductively, as it traces sub-generic evolutions through, as Sedgwick might have it, “local theories and nonce taxonomies” (Touching, 145).[9] Genre’s taxonomic elasticity and thus theoretical weakness allows it to move across traditional boundaries of literary periodization and literary scale so that we might rethink them.

As a weak theory of genre reconsiders genres as mixed and many, it further suggests a theory of the weak genre: genres that were never quite classically stable or “strong” to begin with. As such, my essay examines wartime and genre not in terms of the war epic that prioritizes battle scenes and heroic action, but in representations of war that are weakly mediated through the middlebrow Victorian genres that foreground domestic spaces and everyday affects. In particular, I focus on how Ishiguro’s contemporary repurposing of these Victorian genres draws out their anachronistic potential. As Kent Puckett’s essay on Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017) in this cluster shows, contemporary representations of historical wars allow viewers to “understand the historical event and its effects as an ostensibly finished thing.” In the case of Nolan’s film, however, such distance from historical violence is heightened through the use of “a highly-wrought style—a cinematic eccentricity” that emphasizes war’s unnaturalness through its hyper-aestheticization. Similarly, When We Were Orphans emphasizes the stylistic conventions of late-Victorian detective fiction—a genre that, while still experiencing a boom during Woolf’s time, now appears increasingly antiquated and ineffectual. The genre of detective fiction is thus not only weak in its inability to narrativize the geopolitics of global war (weak genres “can only account for ‘near’ phenomena,” we might say), but also weak in its relative distance to our contemporary moment. As a 2000 historical novel about the relationship between 1930s London and semi-colonial Shanghai, Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans draws on both the genres and events of a British past to generate what we might call a weak theory of our global present—one still haunted by World War Two, and perhaps not quite as “contemporary” as we might think. It is ultimately through the generic weakness of detective fiction, however, that Ishiguro navigates the imbrication of global and semi-colonial wartimes—between interwar London and wartime Shanghai—from which emerges a kind of muddled space-time that is somehow prewar, interwar, and wartime all at once.

Shanghai, summer 2018
Fig. 1. Shanghai, summer 2018, photo by author.

Large Theories

When We Were Orphans is a novel about war that begins with a party. Set largely during interwar Britain and narrated from the perspective of detective Christopher Banks, the narrative opens with Christopher moving rather lackadaisically between a series of London soirees. The social genre of parties, as theorized by Mikhail Bakhtin, builds “a second world and a second life outside officialdom” that relieves us from the rules of everyday life.[10] While writing during the Second World War and in the wake of the Russian Revolution, Bakhtin does not in fact draw on his own contemporary events, but turns instead to the Renaissance to explain carnival’s revolutionary capacity to disrupt the tyranny of officialdom.[11] Yet how exactly, in the age of global conflict, does one distinguish between the anarchy of carnival and that of authoritarianism? Recall the central party organizing Mrs Dalloway, during which news of a war veteran’s suicide punctuates civilian party time: “Oh! thought Clarissa, in the middle of my party here’s death, she thought.”[12] Written during the first half of the 1920s—a postwar moment still too early to be fully interwar—Mrs Dalloway relates to war primarily in terms of its traumatic pastness. War also hovers on the edges of Christopher’s partygoing, though its temporality appears less as an intrusion from the past, than an ongoing atmosphere of a shared present. As one partygoer casually notes to Christopher: “no doubt, my boy, you believe . . . that civilization’s on the brink and all that?” (Ishiguro, When, 17). Here, war is present—is perpetual—though none of the civilians seem to care. Bakhtin imagines how party’s immediate present might reorganize the future, while the present of Woolf’s party gets periodically overwhelmed by the past, but Ishiguro’s parties suggest something slightly different from both: that one person’s party time might already be another person’s war time.

A contemporary historical novel about war, When We Were Orphans redeploys the modernist return to Victorian domestic genres partly to complicate this move. Like Woolf, Ishiguro’s “modernism” moves inwards: both to architectural interiors as well as to the minor unfoldings of his protagonist’s internal thoughts. Yet, while Woolf’s domestication of total war occurs relatively close to the traumatic event—a subsuming of the domestic under war’s totality that might ultimately render it strong—Ishiguro’s “post”-modernist vantage point opens space for longer and more indeterminate temporal arcs. As local details come up against a broader historical expanse, Ishiguro’s twenty-first century novel about twentieth-century wars allows for the possibility of weaker narrative and characterological ties, new contingencies, and connections that might be difficult, if not impossible, to see in the immediate present. Even more than other contemporary British novelists who write historical fiction about modernist war, such as Ian McEwan and Kate Atkinson, Ishiguro’s protracted retrospection is further amplified by his decision to move geographically outside England in When We Were Orphans. McEwan’s and Atkinson’s war fiction are similarly Woolfian in their attention to the small-scale detail, and their indebtedness to modernism might be best exemplified by their willingness to get even smaller. By focusing almost obsessively on the single life of an everyday English protagonist, contemporary historical war novels such as McEwan’s Atonement (2001) and Atkinson’s Life After Life (2013) follow the late modernist tendency of representing what Jed Esty describes as England’s “shrinking island,” or what Claire Jarvis calls the post-45 English novel’s fixation with “little Britain.”[13] In contrast, When We Were Orphans begins in interwar London, only to travel in its second half back to Shanghai (where Ishiguro’s protagonist first became an orphan). As the novel moves tenuously between present and past, London and Shanghai, it is the relative weakness of a Victorian genre that finally holds the far-flung threads of Ishiguro’s contemporary narrative together.

Shanghai, summer 2018
Fig. 2. Shanghai, summer 2018, photo by author.

For more than a novel about party or war, as readers quickly learn, When We Were Orphans presents itself first and foremost as detective fiction. A famous detective in 1930s London, Christopher nevertheless suggests his own redundancy in a world where violence is increasingly committed at the scale of tank, chemical, and aerial warfare. “A magnifying glass may not be quite the crucial piece of equipment of popular myth,” acknowledges Christopher early on, “but it remains a useful tool for the gathering of certain sorts of evidence” (When, 9). For the first half of the novel, Christopher primarily alternates between solving crimes and attending parties in London, much like his fictional contemporary, Sherlock Holmes. In this way, Ishiguro follows an established tradition of the detective genre, whose modernist Golden Age (the period When We Were Orphans is set) already repurposed conventions from Victorian detective fiction—itself a domestication of the eighteenth-century religious gothic.[14] The adaptability of the detective genre is hardly news, and for this reason we might consider it an exemplary weak genre. Yet while others such as Franco Moretti argue its persistence as dependent on the device of the immanently decodable “clue” (a strong theory of genre if there ever was one), I want to suggest that the genre’s translatability hinges on its ongoing failure to account not only for all clues, but other details that might (especially in its contemporary rewritings) scan as redundant, frivolous, or even archaic.[15] The malleability of detective fiction lies thus in its capacity not to account for everything. So while the “classic” detective genre—and indeed the detective protagonist—creates a world in which “everything might count” (to quote D. A. Miller on the genre), Ishiguro’s contemporary rewriting mobilizes this capaciousness to accommodate not only so many seemingly frivolous details, but other generic temporalities such as war and party as well.[16]

When We Were Orphans, we might say, is detective genre in its weakest form. The classical organization of detective narratives already allows for temporal variation in its division between what Tzvetan Todorov has classified as the fabula of the crime and the sjužet of the investigation. But Ishiguro adopts this strategy, quite literally, for more personal ends, as Christopher’s narration oscillates between the present generic time and space—what Bakhtin might call the “chronotope”—of 1930s London and his private memories of growing up during the 1900s in Shanghai’s International Settlement. This sets up a kind of palimpsest of wartimes, as the uneasy “present” of interwar Europe becomes entangled with the heterogeneous “past” of Shanghai in the wake of the Second Opium War, the First Sino-Japanese War, and the Boxer Rebellion. As the strands of Christopher’s narrative grow increasingly convoluted, the novel generates an experience of various war temporalities in which it becomes difficult to know exactly when—and no less where—wartime exactly begins or ends. The emerging palimpsest of ever more wartimes is, of course, further complicated by the palimpsest of generic narrative time, as the traditionally expected arc of detective fiction (from initial clue to resolution) comes up against the increasingly entangled plots—and subplots—of Ishiguro’s novel. As the layers of Christopher’s embedded personal memories draw him further back into the past, however, they do not simply render his narrative more myopic. Instead, these recollections about growing up in semicolonial Shanghai ultimately return Christopher to the broader geopolitics of what we might call peripheral modernist wars, which he might not have been able to understand as an orphaned child, but will slowly begin to acknowledge as a grown-up detective. As the plot continues to unravel in the novel’s second half, Christopher’s method of detection also necessarily grows more global and attenuated—in which he begins to make connections that, as with Ishiguro’s contemporary historical novel, can only be imagined through a longer range of retrospection.

Shanghai, summer 2018
Fig. 3. Shanghai, summer 2018, photo by author.

At Christopher’s first London party in 1923 (the same year as Clarissa Dalloway’s), an older gentleman tells him: “One feels so idealistic at your age. Longs to be the great detective of the day. To root out single-handedly all the evil in the world” (When, 16). The order to “root out single-handedly all the evil in the world” seems a tall one, to be sure, even for a “great” detective, and Christopher largely dismisses this suggestion. Rather than approach evil as a coherent object to be rooted out, “My intention,” explains Christopher, “was to combat evil—in particular, evil of the insidious, furtive kind” (22). Later in 1936, Christopher attends a lecture on the rise of Nazism, only to be told by an acquaintance that the “eye of the storm is to be found not in Europe at all, but in the Far East. In Shanghai, to be exact” (146). Once again, Christopher’s response vacillates: “on the question of how the balance of power might be maintained, how we can contain the violent conflict of aspirations in Europe, on such things I’m afraid I have no large theory as such” (146). While others impress large theories about evil upon Christopher, Christopher absorbs these clues into the discourse of his own convoluted weak theory. When Christopher finally returns to Shanghai in the following year, it’s unclear how much his decision is motivated by a potential World War and how much it’s propelled by a conviction that his parents, kidnapped in the city over thirty years earlier (by, we later find out, an opium warlord), might still be alive—and, even more immediately, by his romantic interest in Sarah Hemmings, who is also leaving for Shanghai at that moment. Readers’ theories for understanding Christopher’s motivations multiply.

Once in China, it grows increasingly ambiguous—to both Christopher and readers—exactly what genre he’s in, as the novel’s geographical relocation forces both British detective and British genre to adapt to the chronotope of 1937 Shanghai. Upon arrival, Christopher immediately reflects on “a perennial source of irritation: namely, the way people here seem determined at every opportunity to block one’s view. No sooner has one entered a room or stepped out from a car than someone or other will have smilingly placed himself right within one’s line of vision, preventing the most basic perusal of one’s surrounding” (163). In this description of the dizzying social space of Shanghai’s International Settlement—where what blocks one’s view is not the space itself, but other bodies—Christopher gets uncannily close to describing the carnivalesque. Perhaps in an attempt to maintain continuity with the genre in which he’s most comfortable, Christopher’s attends a party at the Shanghai International Settlement with other British expats. This gathering on “the ballroom on the penthouse floor of the Palace Hotel” is, however, soon disrupted by the sounds of “distant gunfire” (164, 169). As the English crowd gathers on the balcony to observe the commotion, “rather as though a cricket match had resumed outside,” Christopher is handed a pair of opera glasses (169). These glasses momentarily suggest theatrical and social escape, but the view through them only brings Christopher closer to the battle outside. For while September 1937 is late interwar for Europe, it is already the middle of the Battle of Shanghai, and, thus, also the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War. Standing on the Palace Hotel balcony, Christopher occupies the literal edge of two chronotopes: inside, a British party; outside, inter-Asian conflict. Ishiguro narrates the simultaneity of party and war time in both London and Shanghai, but it is only in the latter’s geographical proximity to war that retrospectively clarifies why Christopher’s London partygoers might have had such an easy time discussing “civilization’s . . . brink and all that.” Even in Shanghai, the British community manages to keep war at a distance, to use Mary Favret’s phrase, as perhaps exemplified by Christopher’s opera glasses.[17]

View from balcony of Shanghai's Palace Hotel (now Peace Hotel), summer 2018
Fig. 4. View from balcony of Shanghai's Palace Hotel (now Peace Hotel), summer 2018, photo by author.

Yet instead of reading these glasses as a bourgeois technology of perspectival evasion, I want to think about them in terms of an ethics of attention. Christopher first puts on the glasses not to better observe the fighting, but, rather, to focus on a minor event: “I picked out one particular boat—a barge-like vessel with a lone oarsman—that was so piled up with crates and bundles it seemed impossible for it to pass under the low canal bridge just beneath me” (When, 171). Christopher’s concentration on one instance of arguably preindustrial Chinese labor even acknowledges its potential folly: “I noted with interest the boatman, who like me was utterly absorbed by the fate of his cargo and oblivious of the war not sixty yards to his right” (171). His absorption on the boatman’s dilemma, however, means that when Christopher looks back up, the party around him has already begun to shift to dancing: “It was as though for these people, one entertainment had finished and another had begun. I felt, not for the first time since arriving in Shanghai, a wave of revulsion towards them” (172). The uncertain and meandering temporality of the lone oarsman—working not only outside of the rhythms of war, but also industrial modernity—both draws Christopher out of party time and, moreover makes it difficult for him to rejoin it. Instead, Christopher’s focus on the relatively minor here enables him to gain critical distance from the party by cathecting, however tenuously, to the individual.

View from balcony of Shanghai's Palace Hotel (now Peace Hotel), summer 2018, photo by author.
Fig. 5. View from balcony of Shanghai's Palace Hotel (now Peace Hotel), summer 2018, photo by author.

Murderous Part-Objects

It is also Christopher’s sustained attention to his parents’ disappearance that draws him, finally, into a larger scene of international conflict. As Christopher’s sense of time and space become increasingly disoriented the longer he remains in Shanghai, the search for his parents leads him unintentionally beyond the limits of the International Settlement during the Battle of Shanghai. There, Christopher enters a dilapidated warren convinced that his parents are trapped inside—an irrational belief that is further exacerbated by his conviction that Victorian detection might be an appropriate genre for resolving this novel’s many proliferating crimes. Rather than find his parents, Christopher only finds himself lost in the middle of an ongoing war in which he plays no large part. Wading through fragmented rubble, he reflects how:

It was all too easy in such circumstances to forget we were passing through what only several weeks before had been the homes of hundreds of people. In fact, I often had the impression we were moving through not a slum district, but some vast, ruined mansion with endless rooms. Even so, every now and then it would occur to me that in among the wreckage beneath our feet lay cherished heirloom, children’s toys, simple but much-loved items of family life, and I would find myself suddenly overcome with renewed anger towards those who had allowed such a fate to befall so many innocent people. (258)

While the warren is now a battle zone, Christopher’s attention to the miniature heirlooms and toys of family life remind us that the warren is also someone else’s domestic space. Or, to borrow from Saint-Amour’s conceptualization of no-man’s-land as also an environmental commons in this cluster, what first appears to Christopher as a kind of no-man’s-land—a battle zone outside of British jurisdiction—reveals itself as already embedded in the social ecology of a prior collective life. Here, the warren formalizes the structure of weak theory, with individual rooms and improvised passageways that can only be traversed one after another. Moreover, we understand that this warren is synecdochally one of the many “endless rooms” of military blockade during the Battle of Shanghai. While Christopher reflects on “the homes of hundreds of people,” he is nonetheless surrounded by an even larger network of warfare—one that later links up to a system of global war—that is always expanding in representational reach.

Shanghai, summer 2018, photo by author.
Fig. 6. Shanghai, summer 2018, photo by author.

Where wartime is domestic time, the warren overwhelms Christopher with the various temporalities of the slow disintegration of its architecture, the decay of rotting bodies, the protraction of a dying man’s “extended scream,” and, at one point, the uncanny marker of a dead water buffalo (260). What keeps Christopher moving through it all is the implausible hope that his parents might be found, however belatedly, somewhere inside. Such hope, we might say, is its own mode of weak theory—a form of Sedgwickian reparative reading that “entertain[s] such profoundly painful, profoundly relieving, ethically crucial possibilities as that the past . . . could have happened differently from the way it actually did” (Touching, 146). Christopher never finds his family, though while looking for them, he finds someone else’s: “the small Chinese girl emerged . . . and said something in Mandarin, gesturing back to the house” (When, 287). Inside the shelled building, Christopher comes across three Chinese corpses and a dying dog. Turning to the girl, Christopher informs her—much as someone once told him when he was a young orphan—that, as a detective,

“I’m just the person you want.” . . . I now found my magnifying glass and showed it to her. “Look, you see?” . . . Then, perhaps out of habit as much as anything else, I bent down and began to examine her [mother] through the glass. Her stump looked peculiarly clean; the bone protruding out of the flesh was a shiny white, almost as though someone had been polishing it. (291)

This scene, which I once read as redundant, as futile, I’ve now come to understand as a moment of reparative reading. For both Christopher and for the Chinese girl. Two orphans attending to a corpse’s bone might appear a morbid ending, but Ishiguro’s imagery also recalls Sedgwick’s description of Melanie Klein’s reparative position, “from which it is possible in turn to use one’s own resources to assemble or ‘repair’ the murderous part-objects into something like a whole—though, [she] would emphasize, not necessarily like any pre-existing whole” (Touching, 128, emphasis in original). Though Christopher is soon escorted by Japanese soldiers out of the warren and back to the nationally sanctioned space of the British consulate in Shanghai, his final request before leaving is that they might take “This little girl . . . somewhere safe” (When, 294). From one orphan to another, this dangling request is nonetheless a small attempt at repair: something like a whole, though not necessarily like any preexisting whole. In the face of what Elaine Scarry argues is the primary activity of wartime—that of injuring and destroying bodies—Ishiguro’s novel suggests a practice of reparative detection that must involve violation and be doomed to inconclusiveness.[18]

Here, the magnifying glass—that iconic object of detective fiction—functions not just as a clue about what genre we’re reading, but also becomes a clue as to how we might read: locally, at a small scale, the part-objects of near phenomena. Taking Victorian detective fiction as a lens for reading When We Were Orphans, we learn to attend to minor, partial, or nearsighted narratives: the kinds of things you can only see through a magnifying glass. But even more importantly, When We Were Orphans allows us to think about the genre of detective fiction differently—not as a belated model for paranoid reading (as we might believe if we accept Moretti’s definition of the genre), but as a tentative mode of weak theory. In our contemporary moment of unprecedented globalization and perpetual war, it might be such tentative attention—one that theorizes the uncertain unfolding present by conceiving of its ongoing relationship to past crises—that enables us to approach the impossibly large.


[1] Kazuo Ishiguro, When We Were Orphans (New York: Vintage, 2000), 146.

[2] See Paul K. Saint-Amour, “Weak Theory, Weak Modernism,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 437–59.

[3] OED Online, April 2019, s.v., “weak, adj. and n.”

[4] See Paul Saint-Amour, Tense Future: Modernism, Total War, Encyclopedic Form (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015) and C. D. Blanton, Epic Negation: The Dialectical Poetics of Late Modernism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[5] See Rebecca L. Walkowitz, Cosmopolitan Style: Modernism Beyond the Nation (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006); Bryony Randall, Modernism, Daily Time, and Everyday Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); and Liesl Olson, Modernism and the Ordinary (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

[6] Rebecca L. Walkowitz, “Virginia Woolf’s Evasion: Critical Cosmopolitanism and British Modernism” in Bad Modernisms, ed. Douglas Mao and Rebecca L. Walkowitz (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006): 119–144.

[7] On genre’s capacity to historicize, see Theodore Martin Contemporary Drift: Genre, Historicism, and the Problem of the Present (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), which historicizes “the contemporary” by reading the present through the accumulation of past genres.

[8] Silvan Tomkins, Affect Imagery Consciousness (New York: Springer, 1963), 2:433–34, quoted in Eve Kosofksy Sedgwick, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 134.

[9] Many thanks to Kent Puckett for suggesting this particular framing of strong versus weak theories of genre.

[10] Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World (1965), trans. Hélène Iswolsky (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), 6.

[11] See Christopher Ames, The Life of the Party: Festive Vision in Modern Fiction (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991) and Kate McLoughlin, “Introduction: A Welcome from the Host,” in The Modernist Party, ed. Kate McLoughlin (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013), 1–24.

[12] Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway (1925), (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981), 183.

[13] See Jed Esty, A Shrinking Island: Modernism and National Culture in England (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004). I am grateful to conversations with Claire Jarvis, who is currently working on a book about post-45 British women’s genre fiction, titled A Little Britain: Women, Genre, and Form.

[14] According to Tzvetan Todorov, “the classic detective fiction . . . reached its peak between the two world wars” (Tzvetan Todorov, The Poetics of Prose, trans. Richard Howard [New York: Cornell University press, 1977], 44); or, as Franco Moretti puts it, “classic detective fiction is at its peak between 1890 and 1935” (Signs Taken for Wonders: On the Sociology of Literary Forms [New York: Verso, 1983], 155). The meta-fictionality of When We Are Orphans is part of its very premise, which takes a detective as its protagonist during an era not when detective work was all the rage, but when the detective novel was at the height of its popularity. In this, we find Christopher living in interwar London in the profession wholly plausible if this were the London as portrayed in so much interwar fiction.

[15] See “Clues” in Signs Taken for Wonders, 130–156; and “Slaughterhouse of Fiction” in Franco Moretti, Distant Reading (New York: Verso, 2013), 63–90.

[16] D. A. Miller, The Novel and the Police (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 33, emphasis in original.

[17] See Mary A. Favret, War at A Distance: Romanticism and the Making of Modern Wartime (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).

[18] See Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).