American Culture Studies Ph.D. Dissertations

From Holmes to Sherlock: Confession, Surveillance, and the Detective

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Culture Studies

First Advisor

Ellen Berry (Committee Chair)

Second Advisor

Donald Callen (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Piya Pal-Lipinski (Committee Member)


This dissertation examines detective fiction through the prism of confession. It argues that a certain kind of secular confession remains at the heart of the main project of detective fiction, and that detectives like Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot are literary embodiments of secular pastor figures who command and extract confessions from clients and criminals alike. Hard-boiled detectives like Philip Marlowe moreover, operate, at least ostensibly, as confessants of sorts, as characters who lay before us, in seeming detail, all manners of private information related to their professional and personal lives. Similarly post-modern detectives as well as contemporary television detectives challenge, revise, and reformat the way in which detectives engage with confession and its paradigms. Confession, in detective fiction, is something that both powers the detective and determines his powers. The dissertation chooses to study it, moreover, in detective fiction, in relation to a certain kind of intrusive surveillance that seeks to create the truth not only about those it purports to serve but also, by implication, about the confessor/confessant detectives themselves. The dissertation argues that the detective is one of the most useful literary figure through which to examine the dynamic relation between surveillance and confession, since the private detective has by turns operated both as the seemingly all-seeing eye which induces confession, as well as the seemingly all-divulging I of the narrator who is offering the confession. If, as Michel Foucault posits, man has become a confessing animal, then detective fiction provides an appropriate avenue to study the evolution of the subjectivity of this confessional animal through the ages, and the purpose of this dissertation is to trace the evolution of this confessional subjectivity through the changing figure of the literary detective and examine the socio-cultural implications of that evolving confessional subjectivity. Confession, in this dissertation, is seen as a disciplinary mechanism that creates rather than states an irrepressible truth about a subject. It is something intrinsically linked not only to the self, but also to expressions of power, authority, and surveillance. It studies the changing relationship between truth, self, and confession in detective fiction. Given the fetishistic relationship the genre has with the or at least a truth that reveals all, discloses all, dispels doubts, it becomes interesting to study its dependence and engagement with confession, which is at best, a deeply complex, complicated venue for truth creation and self revelation. This constant tension between, on the one hand, an obsessive and indeed generic need to ascertain a unique, authentic, undisputed, and singular truth, and yet, on the other hand, an inherently unreliable mode of self-expression is something that this dissertation purports to examine and explore.