When Sherlock Holmes and Freud Meet: Psychoanalysis and the Mystery Story

by Wenjia You

September 7, 1998


Many scholars mention the use of Freudian psychology in literary works, but very few scrutinize the interplay between the literary and the psychological texts involved. This paper explores how the mystery story can incorporate psychoanalysis into its essential components, such as the crime, the clues, and the detective. I set up a theoretical framework in which the key elements of the mystery story may appropriate psychoanalysis, and I generalize how psychoanalysis may influence the mystery story as a subgenre. Then I offer two case studies of Marnie and The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, which both use a large amount of psychoanalysis. I examine how these two works incorporate psychoanalysis and measure their formal qualities against my theoretical conjectures.


Ever since Freud's theory appeared in the early twentieth century, despite incessant objections, ridicule, and attacks,1 psychoanalysis has become very popular in some countries.2 Absorbed into fiction, plays, films, and TV programs,3 psychoanalysis has merged with popular culture in countries like England and the United States. While many renowned writers incorporate Freud's ideas into their works,4 many more authors produce fictions that are inseparable from psychoanalysis, notably novelized case histories and mystery stories.

The use of psychoanalysis in literature, and the study of such use, however, got off on the wrong foot during the 1920s and 1930s. In England, Virginia Woolf labeled one novel as "Freudian Fiction" and commented: "Judged as an essay in morbid psychology, An Imperfect Mother is an interesting document; judged as a novel, it is a failure" (153). Such "psychoanalytic novels" in the United States were also attacked severely. Raoul Reed objected that "popular authors . . . dragging psychoanalysis by the hair of its head into their writings" were "one of the things that are profoundly wrong with American literature" (490). Leo A. Spiegel, too, said denigratingly about popular novels that often involved a character endowed with psychoanalytic insights into other characters' unconscious, hidden motivations (476). In the academic arena, the first study of Freud's influence on literature, Dr. Hoops' Ph.D. dissertation in 1933, assumed that psychoanalysis had passed away and treated the subject as if dealing with "an outmoded literary fashion" (Kris 266).

Despite these early negative opinions, there were a few scholars dealing with the influence of psychoanalysis on literature as a whole, notably W. David Sievers' Freud on Broadway (1955) and Frederick J. Hoffman's Freudianism and the Literary Mind (1957).5 Nevertheless, the bulk of literary works influenced by psychoanalysis is too huge to handle, and the kinds of such influence may vary greatly from work to work. Both Sievers and Hoffman compile biographical data of some authors and make guesses as to their knowledge of psychoanalysis rather than analyze systematically how that knowledge operates in their creative works. Consider, for instance, the following remarks of Hoffman:

Not the least of [Waldo] Frank's borrowings from Freud is his use of the texture of dreams. Since the dream is perhaps the best means of understanding the unconscious, Frank considers it a legitimate means for revealing the unconscious motivations for the conduct of his fictional people. The dream acts throughout Frank's fiction as a structural device as well. In Summer Never Ends, the two dreams which occur to Dagny Petersen on the night after she has first met Crane, represent a summary of the previous action, and an anticipation of subsequent action. (262)
This passage first mentions "the texture of dreams" without specifying what that "texture" is. Then it paraphrases Frank's words in a letter (to Hoffman) about using dreams to reveal his fictional characters' unconscious motivations. For Hoffman, that is the influence; he does not even bother to cite a single case in support of Frank's statement. When Hoffman goes on to discuss the dream as a "structural device" in Frank's fiction, Freudian theory has no relevance to his discussion at all--except that Freud happens to write about dreams.

The problems with Hoffman's approach, in fact, confront anyone who attempts to deal with a similar subject. Can we equate an author's knowledge of psychoanalysis (or his words about it) with the influence of psychoanalysis on his creative works?6 The answer is an obvious "No," since an author may not tell the truth and, more importantly, the complex influence phenomenon often goes beyond the author's comprehension. Saul Bellow, for instance, mentions inexplicable elements in the creative process: "No one knows what the power of the imagination comes from or how much distraction it can cope with" (18). When an influence takes place, usually it far surpasses the author's knowledge of and assessment of the source of influence. Relying on the author's words about the influence is the dead end for students of influence study.

Then, how does one talk about an influence? I tend to agree with Henry H. H. Remak when, speaking of treating a source of influence, he stresses "what was retained and what was rejected, and why, and how was the material absorbed and integrated, and with what success" (4; Remak's emphasis). Empirically, Göran Hermerén's theory of influence is essential: "X [a work] influenced Y [another work] in respect to a [a certain trait of influence]" (11). Taken together, in terms of the influence of psychoanalysis on literary works, I think one should investigate the intricate interplay between the psychoanalytic and the literary texts.

With these methodological considerations in mind, I proceed to explore how psychoanalysis may influence the mystery story as a subgenre, and I hope that my approaches here can be applied to further studies of the influence of psychoanalysis on literature.

Although there are many mystery stories involving psychoanalysis, and their use of psychoanalysis (or the influence of psychoanalysis on these stories) varies greatly from one work to another, it is possible to examine how the mystery story can incorporate psychoanalysis into its essential components, such as the crime, the clues, and the detective (more about this later).7 Therefore, in this study, I set up a theoretical framework in which the key elements of the mystery story may appropriate psychoanalysis. Then I analyze two mystery novels, Marnie and The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, both of which use a lot of psychoanalysis.8 I examine how these two works incorporate psychoanalysis and measure their formal qualities against my theoretical conjectures.

Mystery stories, though of many different schools,9 invariably involve a crime, the clues to the crime, and the solution to the crime, which is often laid out at or near the end of the story by a detective or a detective-like character (hereafter I use "the detective" to represent both types). The crime usually involves certain illegal deeds, such as theft, abduction, embezzlement, and blackmail, but in most cases it concerns a murder because a murderer is "playing for his life and . . . furnishes the best subject for dramatic treatment" (Freeman 14).10 The "clues" consist of all the information the detective can obtain that surrounds the crime, such as news clippings, different witnesses' testimonies, and the tracks left by the criminal. These clues are generally disorganized and contain many false leads which may sidetrack the detective (and the reader) from the correct solution, such as a button which the criminal has stolen from someone and which he intentionally leaves at the scene of the crime. The detective's job is to sift from all the clues only the ones really relevant to the crime and then to deduce from the right clues what really happened and who committed the crime ("Whodunit?").

A psychoanalytic procedure always involves an analyst and an analysand, who is often a patient suffering from some psychological problems, especially neurotic symptoms. (In self-analysis, the analyst and the analysand are the same person.) If the analyst discovers the cause of the symptoms and makes the analysand realize it, then the latter recovers from his illness.11 In a psychoanalytic procedure, the analysand says whatever comes to mind without censoring or critizing it ("free associates"). In doing so, the analysand often relates his dreams and his thoughts about them. From these free associations, the analyst sifts the ones related to the analysand's symptoms. Meanwhile, the analyst organizes them in a way that best illustrates the cause of the analysand's symptoms. The success of a treatment usually depends on whether or not the analyst can help the analysand recall a buried memory or other material that account for his illness. Also, the analyst usually has to deal with the analysand's dreams, which often have a lot to do with the analysand's unconscious, where the buried memories lie. These dreams, however, are often disguised forms of the unconscious material, and the analyst has to interpret them and get at the latent content of the dreams.

The similarities between the mystery story and psychoanalysis12 imply that a mystery writer can tap many resources in psychoanalysis. Theoretically, everything in psychoanalysis can be appropriated in the mystery story. What I want to do here, however, is to explore how psychoanalysis may influence the mystery as a subgenre, i.e., how the mystery story can incorporate psychoanalysis into its essential elements--the crime, the clues, and the solution--and the main characters.

In the mystery story, the "crime" constitutes the mystery. The questions of "What really happened?" and "Whodunit?" are solved only at the end. Similarly, in a psychoanalytic procedure, the "neurotic symptoms" constitute the mystery, and why the analysand has developed those symptoms usually is not revealed until relatively near the end, if the treatment is successful. It is possible, therefore, for the mystery story to include a character's neurotic symptoms (like John's parallel-line phobia in the movie Spellbound) as part of the mystery related to the crime. The neurotic symptoms may have little to do with the crime, but they may create suspense and intrigue the reader's imagination. Or, the neurotic symptoms may be closely connected to the crime, and then solving the puzzle of the symptoms may go hand in hand with uncovering the mystery of the crime. (For instance, in Spellbound, John's various symptoms are inseparable from the mystery of Dr. Edwardes' death.) Mixing up neurotic symptoms and the crime complicates the plot and heightens the suspense. In the end, the reader not only understands the crime but also realizes how and why the character has developed his symptoms.

In the mystery story, the "clues" often include false leads ("red herrings") which may distract the detective from the correct solution to the crime. Similarly, in a psychoanalytic procedure, the "clues" to the analysand's symptoms primarily lie in free associations and dreams, which, however, involve things both relevant and irrelevant to the symptoms. Moreover, the analysand may tell lies intentionally; or, because of a "resistance" common in a psychoanalytic procedure, he may, rather than report exactly what comes to his mind, rationalize it and thus blur it. This parallels the "false clues" in the mystery story.

In psychoanalysis, the analysand's dreams often offer clues essential to the origin of the symptoms. Dreams, however, usually disguise the analysand's true experience and feelings through displacement, condensation, and symbolism.13 A person may dream of falling from a building, yet his real fear may concern a possible moral downfall. As clues, therefore, dreams conceal as much as they reveal. Similarly, in the mystery story, the detective must not take the clues at their face value. A necktie in the hand of the murdered victim, for instance, does not necessarily involve the owner of that necktie in the murder; but it may hint at part of what really happened when the victim was killed (as in Conan Doyle's "Silver Blaze").

Most dreams, therefore, like the "clues" in the mystery story, are coded and need deciphering. For this reason, it is possible for the mystery story to include dreams as clues not only to the dreamer's unconscious and buried memory but also to the solution of the crime. In Waldo Frank's novel Chalk Face, for instance, the murderer appears in the hero's dream as part of him, so that the hero realizes that he himself committed the crime. In the movie Spellbound, too, John suffers from amnesia, but his dream re-enacts the scene of the murder in disguised form: the murderer only shows up as a stranger, and the revolver, as a wheel. Later, Constance, a psychoanalyst, is able to decode the dream and identify the murderer.

The solution to a crime in the mystery story usually takes place at the end, when the detective pieces together all the clues, answers the question "Whodunit?" and reconstructs the history of "What really happened." Before this, invariably there is a "discovery" of some crucial evidence, whose significance only the detective recognizes. The solution to the crime, therefore, always involves the detective's demonstrating how that crucial evidence, along with other clues, reveals the truth of the crime. In so doing, the detective moves from the realm of the seen (all the "clues") to that of the unseen (the actual happenings of the crime). Similarly, at the end of a successful treatment, the psychoanalyst pieces together all the analysand's free associations and dreams and together analyst and analysand learn why the latter has developed neurotic symptoms. Before this, the analyst has invariably discovered in the analysand's free associations some significant buried material, often a forgotten trauma, which lies at the root of the symptoms. The analyst's solution, therefore, involves demonstrating how the trauma, along with some other free associations, accounts for the analysand's symptoms. In so doing, the analyst also moves from the realm of the seen (the verbalized dreams and free associations) to that of the unseen (the link between a past event and the symptoms). The similarity between these two kinds of solutions, to adapt Slavoj Zizek's words, lies in the fact that both the detective and the psychoanalyst "[locate] the traumatic act (murder) in the meaningful totality of a life- story" (28).

Therefore, based on logic-and-deduction, the mystery story can incorporate a psychoanalytic solution into the solution to the crime. The "discovery" of the crucial evidence can involve uncovering a character's buried memory or decoding a dream. Similarly, the solution to the crime can involve demonstrating how the buried memory or the dream sheds light on the crime. In this respect, the most convenient marriage between the mystery story and psychoanalysis is to endow the detective with psychoanalytic insight. The detective-psychanalyst, then, solves both the psychological and the criminal mystery in the one story.

However, where role-playing is concerned, the possible variations are too many to enumerate. For instance, the detective himself may suffer from certain neurotic symptoms. Or, there can be some other character that offers a psychoanalytic observation that helps the detective to solve the crime. The criminal, too, can be a psychoanalyst-like character and play mind-games with the detective (Dr. Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, for instance); or the criminal may suffer from certain neurotic symptoms, which leave "clues" to the crime he has committed (the serial killer in The Silence of the Lambs, for instance). The possible combinations are many.

Consider the two mystery novels mentioned above. In Winston Graham's Marnie, the narrator, Marnie, is the criminal. She keeps changing her name, working in one place after another, and stealing money from her work place when she sees a chance. Since Marnie tells the story, the key question of "Whodunit?" that is typical of mystery stories is solved at the very beginning. The reader is intrigued rather by two other questions: "How is she caught?" and "Why has she become a kleptomaniac?"

The first question is partly solved quite early in the novel when Mark Rutland, the co-partner of the printing company from which Marnie has stolen money and fled, remembers Marnie's love for horses and her mention of her favorite race horse (62, 114). Using that as a clue, Mark tracks down Marnie in a riding stable (78), where Marnie keeps her horse and where she always goes for a vacation after she steals money. Since Mark loves Marnie, he forces her to marry him in exchange for not turning her in to the police.

What remains of the question, then, is how Marnie is brought to justice after her marriage. At a party, a Mr. Strutt, the co-partner of a company where Marnie formerly worked and committed a theft, recognizes her. Although Mark claims that Marnie is a different person and plans to settle all accounts for Marnie out of court, before he does that, Terry, Mark's enemy, goes to check Marnie's records and brings her to Mr. Strutt.

Although there are two "detectives" in the story (Mark and Terry),14 how Mark finds Marnie and how Terry uncovers her true identity occupy very little space. Instead, the second question, "Why has she become a kleptomaniac?" dominates the story and constitutes the primary mystery, a psychological mystery. The "crime," therefore, and the "neurotic symptoms" are brought together: to uncover the cause of the crime means to find a psychological explanation for Marnie's kleptomania. The mystery reaches its climax when Marnie is caught by Mark and cannot give a plausible reason for her crime. According to her reasoning, she is afraid of falling in love with Mark and considers stealing "less dishonest" than marrying Mark (94). Yet, as Mark points out, marrying him would give her much more than she has stolen, and he presses for her true motivation for theft. Finally, "in a desolate voice" Marnie says, "How can I tell you what I don't know?" (95).

This last sentence announces more or less openly that the story will be dealing with the heroine's unconscious, with all three meanings of the term in Freudian psychoanalysis: "unconscious" as a place, as the material in that place, or as a process taking place out of awareness. Marnie, a highly intelligent and calculating thief, ought to know why she committed the crime, yet she does not, since, at this point, the real motivation for her theft lies in a place of her mind yet unknown to her, a region called the "unconscious." As an unconscious mental process, how and why Marnie chose to do what she did now turns out to be above her own head. Meanwhile, "what I don't know" also refers to the unconscious material that led to her crime. The material in question, moreover, involves things Marnie has repressed and has long forgotten, including, for instance, a murder she committed when she was a mere girl.

This last sentence of Marnie's, therefore, shifts the focus of her role from a whodunit "murderer" to a "patient" in psychoanalysis; and Mark, the detective, has to turn into a psychoanalyst to continue his investigation. As a whodunit, the case could be closed right here with Marnie being caught. As a novelized case history, however, the story has just begun, heading toward what the criminal does not know in herself, and thus toward her unconscious.

The whole novel, in fact, largely deals with Marnie's unconscious in three ways. First, it reinforces the heroine's psychological mystery by exposing Marnie's "symptoms" one by one. Second, since, according to psychoanalysis, the cause of the symptoms must lie in the subject's repressed past, the novel uncovers Marnie's history step by step. Third, since Marnie's recovery largely depends on psychoanalysis, there are some psychoanalyst-like characters around her. I will proceed to discuss these statements in greater detail.

In addition to kleptomania, Marnie's "symptoms" involve frigidity, a recurrent dream, and her fear of thunderstorms. In the opening chapter, Marnie has just stolen money from her workplace and is coming home for a celebration by drinking wine and taking a bath before running away. Then her boyfriend, Ronnie, calls her. With Marnie getting out of the tub, wrapped in a blanket, water dripping to the floor, and anxious to escape, the reader is unlikely to suspect anything unusual in her trying to get rid of Ronnie. The text, however, is actually distracting the reader with plenty of excitement and camouflaging Marnie's another symptom, frigidity, in casual references to her "habits": Marnie is taking her second bath that day (5); she thinks that bathing helps "to wash something out of your system" (5); she wants everything to be clean and tidy (6); and she dislikes human relationships (6-7). These symptom-signifiers are mentioned only briefly and scattered among her bath, her talk to Ronnie, her anxiety to escape, and her putting on new "brassiere, panties, shoes, nylons, frock" (6). The signified frigidity is not to show up until the ninth chapter.

Going back to the scene when Mark catches Marnie, she admits that she is afraid of falling in love with Mark. Soon afterwards, it is revealed that Marnie cannot allow herself to love any man at all and, after she marries Mark, Marnie cannot stand him touching her. She feels "sick" and denounces having sex as "degrading" and "animal" (115). When asked why she feels about sex that way, Marnie says, "I don't know" (115). Here again, the author treats Marnie's "symptom" (frigidity) as a mystery and the cause of the symptom lies in her unconscious ("I don't know").

Similarly, Marnie's repulsion toward the old clock in her mother's house ("I don't know why I hated the thing" [10]) is mentioned briefly in the first chapter as if it were an experience common to everyone. The "I don't know" part, again, hints casually at something in Marnie's unconscious that accounts for her repulsion. Later, in Mark's house, Marnie hears the hall clock striking and thinks, "Well, it wasn't like that clock in Mother's kitchen, but it seemed to strike into my spine just the same" (94). Again, since this happens at a time when Marnie is being caught, the fear associated with the clock and with her repulsion toward the clock in her mother's sounds quite spontaneous--it seems natural for anyone to bring two unpleasant feelings together through an object they share. The text, however, is actually utilizing an idea from the following passage in Freud's The Psychopathology of Everyday Life: "Certain seemingly unintentional performances prove, if psycho-analytic methods of investigation are applied to them, to have valid motives and to be determined by motives unknown to consciousness" (SE 6: 239; Freud's emphasis). The story presents Marnie's "unintentional performances" almost as an everyday experience, yet it invests that experience with a symptom-mystery and delays disclosing Marnie's valid, unconscious motive until much later, when the clock is found to be closely related to a trauma in Marnie's childhood (169).

Another "symptom" of Marnie's is her recurrent dream of a childhood scene in which a girl said something insulting about Marnie's mother and had a fight with Marnie, and Marnie ended up crying (67-69). This dream Marnie dismisses as "a sort of dream memory" (67), as if it could happen to anyone. As the plot reveals later, however, this dream is merely a residue of her childhood trauma, and Marnie has repressed the most formidable part in the unconscious--she cannot remember what the other girl said. The girl, in fact, said that Marnie's mother, Edith, "done a murder" (245), and her words referred to Edith's killing her newborn baby, an event that took place when Marnie was locked in a room and heard the uproar going on outside. Clinically, Marnie's recurrent dream is a "traumatic neurosis," because she has "spells" in which "parts of the traumatic event are repeated" (Rycroft 171). Without memory of the missing yet crucial parts of the traumatic event, and without proper treatment, Marnie has taken the event as a humiliating lesson for her untidiness, since, according to her recollection, it involved primarily three girls finding a louse in her hair and beating her. Marnie, therefore, has turned into a very tidy person largely because of what she remembers about the event, but she has also become a victim of her lost memory, which has made her a man-hating and frigid woman.

As to Marnie's fear of thunderstorms, she associates it with a childhood experience clearly (52-54). According to Freud, the moment the subject sees the connection between his symptom and his past experience, he must be cured of the symptom ("Fixation to Traumas-- The Unconscious," SE 16: 280). It does not happen with Marnie in this case. At one point, however, Marnie and Mark engage in the following dialogue; Mark says:

"The chances of being struck by lightning are awfully small."
"I know that. I know all the answers."
"And it doesn't help?"
"No." (54)
This dialogue illustrates how Marnie's unconscious works against her good sense. The whole episode dramatizes the most commonplace Freudian idea that mental activities are mostly unconscious ("Parapraxes," SE 15: 21). Unlike other symptoms, Marnie's fear of thunderstorms is merely depicted here and dropped for good. As this happens quite early in the novel and is elaborated more than other symptoms, it works, along with other I-don't-know's, to imply that the whole story will be dealing with the heroine's unconscious.

Since most of these "symptom-mysteries" are rooted in Marnie's buried memory, the text continually brings up one after another portions of Marnie's past. Spatially, Marnie visits her mother from time to time, and every visit reveals part of Marnie's past to the reader. Mentally, Marnie often thinks of or has dreams about her childhood. The visits, dreams, and reminiscences she has disclose different aspects of Marnie's past and serve as the "clues" to the mystery of her mind and character formation. For instance, Marnie's recurrent dream involves a girl saying "something insulting" about Marnie's mother. This is a hint that there might have been something wrong with Marnie's mother in the past, which Marnie either has forgotten or has never been aware of; and the fact that this unhappy memory recurs in Marnie's dream implies a close link between what went wrong with her mother and what has gone wrong with Marnie.

To intensify the mystery of Marnie's past, the text involves some other characters' curiosity about it. Dawn, an employee of Rutland's, says to Marnie, "I think you've got a past" (60) and "You're like somebody behind a glass wall" (61). Mark also suspects that Marnie must have had a very tough childhood (65). After Marnie sees a psychoanalyst, despite her antagonism toward him, the first thing she asks her mother is about her past, "Mam, when did Dad die?" (160). Such curiosity, along with the scattered exposition of Marnie's past, intimates that the enigma about Marnie must be solved in terms of her past.

Marnie's past, indeed, becomes clearer and clearer and its revelation solves most of her "symptom-mysteries" by the end of the novel. For instance, Marnie's mother, Edith Elmer, was a prostitute when Marnie was very young. A soldier-client would come to tap on the window at night, and Edith would move Marnie to the spare bedroom. This explains why, earlier in Marnie's free association in a psychotherapeutic session, Marnie recalled mysterious tappings on the window, followed by her being "lifted out of a warm bed and put in a cold one" (169). The discomfort Marnie experienced in that arrangement was always "mixed up with that clock striking away" (169), and that explains why Marnie, for reasons unknown to her, always hates the old clock and often asks her mother to throw it away (14).

When, in the end, Marnie's past is all laid out, she realizes what lies beneath her two primary symptoms, frigidity and kleptomania. While her mother was a "highly sexed woman" (247) and had a strong need for sex, Marnie has become repulsed by men and cannot stand them touching her (245). "Perhaps that was just the other side of the penny," concludes Marnie (245). Psychoanalytically, Edith has turned into a very religious person as a result of "reaction-formation." Reaction-formation refers to a defence mechanism by which the subject masters an unacceptable impulse through an "exaggeration of the opposing tendency" (Rycroft 136). The subject "has changed his personality structure as if [an instinctual] danger were continually present, so that he may be ready whenever the danger occurs" (Fenichel 151). Indeed, to avoid tragedies similar to the one she experienced because of her sexual needs, i.e., to have an illicit baby and to kill it, Edith moves from the extreme of promiscuity to the other extreme of asceticism. She further masters her libido by condemning man, sex, and marriage, which she considers as nothing but "what happens under the sheet, pawing and grunting" (106). Marnie's frigidity, therefore, is merely an extension of her mother's neurotic symptom. As for Marnie's kleptomania, it is also related to her mother. Edith, while practicing prostitution, always wanted to keep up appearances, and had piled lies upon lies to make herself feel good. Marnie, too, has invented false identities and built up "three or four beautiful lives all as phony and untrue as Mother's" (246).15

To help investigate Marnie's symptom-mysteries, the novel introduces a psychoanalyst, Dr. Roman, and two other characters with keen psychological insight: Mark and Marnie's uncle, Stephen. These three quasi-psychoanalysts all play detective to a certain extent and read Marnie's secret life correctly. Stephen, for instance, sees through Marnie's lies when she was a teen-ager (69-70), and he knows all along that Marnie was not honest about her lifestyle (248). Mark, too, suspects that Marnie is a "pathological liar" (93). Dr. Roman knows when Marnie is fabricating stories rather than free associating.

These three characters also help Marnie to explore her unconscious and to become normal in the end. Mark introduces Marnie to Dr. Roman for treatment. Dr. Roman gets Marnie to question some blank spots of her childhood. Near the end of the story, Stephen reveals and psychoanalyzes the life of Marnie's mother, and thus helps Marnie to understand herself. Mark and Stephen, like Dr. Roman, all express ideas from psychoanalysis, such as: "Aren't you fighting against something in yourself?" (115); and "People come to hate the things they suppress" (251). Through these three characters' help and suggestions, Marnie herself turns into a psychoanalyst-like character in the end and understands the ins-and-outs of her psychological problems. Stepping out of her mother's shadow, Marnie begins to feel genuine love for Mark and decides to start a new, normal life.

In the same way, Nicholas Meyer's The Seven-Per-Cent Solution uses a great deal of psychoanalysis, and the two primary mysteries are both related to neurotic symptoms. (Meyer is the son of the late Bernard C. Meyer, a well-known psychoanalyst and psychobiographer.) Like Marnie, Sherlock Holmes develops some symptoms that constitute a pattern of suspense for the story. Holmes becomes addicted to cocaine. Moreover, he imagines his childhood tutor, now Professor Moriarty, to be the leader of organized criminal groups. Holmes follows him, spies on him, and, of course, frightens him. Also, he becomes paranoid and suspects that Moriarty is trying to kill him in every possible way. When Watson goes to see Holmes, Holmes must check and double check before letting him in. This, however, is only half of Holmes. When he returns to his normal state, Holmes does not remember what he does when he is abnormal--he does not even recognize the name "Moriarty." Thus, Holmes moves back and forth between being a paranoid stalker and a first-rate detective.

This symptom-mystery opens the story. It is obviously a fictionalized schizophrenia and involves the use of the idea of the unconscious: Holmes' conscious self is unaware of what his unconscious self is capable of doing. As with Marnie, Holmes' neurotic symptom is also rooted in past memories and can be cured only through psychoanalytic methods. Holmes' schizophrenia, too, creates suspense at the very beginning and is not fully resolved until the end.

Another symptom-mystery is introduced after Holmes meets Freud in Vienna. (Watson and Holmes' brother have arranged this meeting for Freud to cure Holmes' addiction to cocaine.) This second symptom-mystery involves Freud's patient, a young woman who "cannot or will not speak a word" (150) . While Freud gets nowhere by hypnotizing her, Holmes notices "clues" around her wrists and ankles and, with Freud's permission, continues to ask her questions. Nancy, the woman, is or has the delusion that she is the wife of Baron Von Leinsdorf, who died recently. She was abducted, bound, and locked in a room; but she managed to escape, and then threw herself into a river, after which she was brought to the hospital.

Holmes soon collects data, goes to the Baron's house to test them, and concludes that the young Baron is the criminal. Since, in his will, the old Baron left everything to Nancy, the outrged son arranged for his father's death. Then he abducted Nancy and, knowing that she had escaped and is now in Freud's custody, he hires a woman to impersonate Nancy, so that he can take over everything. Before Holmes can do any further investigation, however, Nancy is abducted again. While Holmes believes that the young Baron will immediately kill Nancy, Freud points out that the young Baron could have killed Nancy in the first abduction. Then, based on the theory of the Oedipus complex, Freud deduces that the young Baron "is so loyal and devoted to the memory of his true mother" that he wants to keep torturing the false mother rather than give her an instant death (204).16 As can be expected, after that, Holmes, with the help of Freud and Watson, tracks down the young Baron and rescues Nancy.

The main mystery of the story, then, is solved through Freud's psychoanalytic insights. Similarly, although Holmes' drug addiction is cured early in the novel, the reason he has become an addict only appears at the end through "psychoanalysis." By means of hypnosis, Freud induces Holmes to talk about his taking cocaine since he was twenty to relieve his unhappiness (244). Then Freud probes into Holmes' repressed memory of a tragic event in his childhood:

"Why did you become a detective?"
"To punish the wicked and see justice done."

    *    *    *

"What was this wickedness?"
"My mother deceived my father."
"She had a lover?"
"What was the injustice?"
"My father killed her." (242-243)

Freud then concludes that these words of Holmes reveal not only "the origin of the addiction," but also "the reason he adopted his chosen profession" and "his aversion to women" (245). Meanwhile, since it was the tutor, Moriarty, who broke the news to the young Holmes, Freud deduces that Holmes, having no "genuine scapegoat for his pain," "pins the outrage itself on the man who has disclosed it" (245). This explains why, under the influence of cocaine, Holmes' unconscious takes over and regards Professor Moriarty as his worst enemy.

This novel, therefore, openly uses trauma theory to account for Sherlock Holmes' neurotic symptoms and his character formation. A trauma, says Freud, happens "within a short period of time" and "presents the mind with an increase of stimulus too powerful to be dealt with or worked off in the normal way" (SE 16: 275). The result can be mental disturbance and the development of neurotic symptoms. As the death of his mother was too shocking for the young Holmes to bear psychologically, he repressed the whole event and then developed neurotic symptoms, mainly depression and paranoia, hence his taking cocaine and stalking Moriarty.

According to Freud, there is usually a "sense" to the neurotic symptoms, and that sense usually concerns the trauma that has caused the symptoms. The Freud in the novel sees the "sense" of Holmes' stalking in his seeking an outlet for his outrage caused by the childhood trauma. The real Dr. Freud might go further and diagnose Holmes in two ways. First, the young Holmes thought about killing Moriarty when the latter broke the news to him because, as a boy, he might think that the whole tragedy would not have taken place had Moriarty kept his mouth shut. The young Holmes repressed his wish to kill Moriarty. Now, Holmes' stalking, as a neurotic symptom, has a "sense" in carrying out that wish--only under a defence mechanism called "projection": "I don't want to kill Moriarty. It is he who wants to kill me." Second, the root of Holmes' neurosis could be his unresolved Oedipus complex. The love for his mother and the hate toward his father were intensified when the young Holmes learned about the murder. Since he could not kill his father, he transferred his hatred to the tutor, Moriarty, another father figure, who, in Holmes' unconscious, was deeply involved in the murder and mixed up with his father. Holmes' stalking, therefore, has a sense in avenging his mother by killing his father, all through tort uring Moriarty.

The novel, however, misrepresents psychoanalysis by describing only the very earliest form of treatment. The Freud in the story uses hypnosis to treat both patients, but the historical Freud abandoned hypnosis and used free association during most of his career (Freud, "The Origin and Development of Psychoanalysis" 10). Also, in the story, to help Holmes get rid of his addiction, Freud hypnotizes him only to get him to sleep. His theory is to put Holmes into sleep every time Holmes craves cocaine, trusting that Holmes' addiction will gradually diminish till he recovers (115). Such treatment is unheard of in dealing with drug addicts and has nothing to do with Freud's major theories or later clinical practice. Whether or not Meyer misrepresents psychoanalysis, however, the novel provides a good example of the popular Freudianism that simplifies and dramatizes psychoanalytic therapy and diagnosis.

Both Marnie and The Seven-Per-Cent Solution integrate psychoanalysis into mystery stories. The crimes, clues, and solutions in both novels are inseparable from psychoanalytic ideas. In Marnie, the heroine's kleptomania is rooted in her early mother-daughter relationship. In The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, the young Baron's motivation for abducting Nancy also comes from his unresolved Oedipus complex. Therefore, both stories use neurotic symptoms to establish crimes and mysteries. Also, both novels involve detective-psychoanalysts. In Marnie, Mark plays the detective and has psychoanalytic insights which help his detection. In The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, "Freud" psychoanalyzes the criminal at a distance and correctly predicts his next move.

Where characterization is concerned, however, these two novels offer seemingly complicated main characters, Marnie and Holmes; yet, when their hidden past is revealed in the end, their characters turn out to be crystal-clear and rigidly formulaic. Marnie's aversion to men and Holmes' to women all have much to do with their mothers, for instance. Moreover, the endings of both stories lay out their character-formation so minutely and so effortlessly that most psychoanalysts would gape, since real psychotherapy usually goes on for months or even years with only slow progress or little success. For a literary critic, too, such characterization is a third-rate technique because it tells all, suggests little, and leaves the reader almost no room for further exploration into the character's mind.

As mystery stories, the mysteries in both Marnie and The Seven-Per-Cent Solution are solved more by psychoanalytic interpretation than by the logic-and-deduction typical of mystery stories. One of the golden rules for mystery-story writing is to practice "fair play" with the reader. The author should give the reader "equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery" (Van Dine 189). He should let the reader have as many "clues" as the detective and never "conceal a vital clue from the reader" ("The Detection Club Oath" 198). Consequently, a careful reader, before the detective explains the ins-and-outs of the mystery, may arrive at the "correct solution," just as the detective does. But both novels obviously fall short of fair play. The clues to Marnie's symptom-mysteries and Holmes' are insufficient and, taken together, they do not enable a careful reader to reach the solution near the end: when Marnie accidentally finds a news clipping concerning her mother; when Stephen analyzes Edith's life with hitherto undisclosed "clues" he has in hand; or when "Freud" uncovers Holmes' childhood tragedy through hypnosis. The vital clues are concealed from the reader until the end.

As case histories, however, both Marnie and The Seven-Per-Cent Solution contain traits of "popular psychological narratives" as defined by Kary and Gary Wolfe. Like these narratives, whose titles are often "simple metaphors of madness" (Wolfe 898), the title "Marnie" not only refers to the heroine's name but also connotes the various false identities accompanying the person, thus suggesting schizophrenia. Similarly, the title "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution" not only refers to the cocaine Holmes takes, but also connotes Holmes' neurotic symptoms that have made him an addict. The symbolic meaning of these titles is fairly easy for the reader to grasp.

Also, like most popular psychological narratives, both novels use journeys for the protagonists to reach self-discovery and mental health (Wolfe 902). Marnie's visits to her mother and her honeymoon, and Holmes' travel to Vienna, all make them mature psychologically. Such journeys invariably restore a neurotic back to the status of a normal person and convey positive messages to the reader. Accordingly, both novels offer fairly easy reading and give the reader an illusion of growing up like the protagonists. Such techniques may partly account for their popularity.

In short, the use of psychoanalysis in Marnie and The Seven-Per-Cent Solution is very formulaic. Marnie takes psychoanalysis seriously, but oversimplifies psychoanalysis, giving an easy solution to the heroine's mental disturbance. By contrast, although The Seven-Per-Cent Solution may be toying with psychoanalysis by misrepresenting it, only people versed in psychoanalysis will detect the playfulness and parody involved.17 Either way, both novels spell out a fixed, rigid psychoanalytic interpretation of their main characters for most readers.

Where the handshake between the mystery story and psychoanalysis is concerned, both whodunits employ psychoanalytic ideas, like childhood traumata, the Oedipus Complex, and neurotic symptoms to help enhance their suspense, complicate their characterization, and weave their resolution. Although this hybrid attracts great popularity, it fires back at both its parents. On the one side, it oversimplifies and even distorts psychoanalysis; on the other, it surrenders the primary logic-and-deduction process in the mystery story to a psychoanalytic interpretation. The resolution in both novels may seem too naive for a reader versed in psychoanalysis, and too cheap for a reader expecting a fair play with the "detective." To the form er, both novels as a whole are pseudo-psychoanalysis; to the latter, they are pseudo-logic-and-deductions. Most readers, however, do not seem to demand a pure lineage--rather, they enjoy looking at the hybrid dancing away from the two parents. Holmes and Freud may scowl, but most readers are having fun. This can be one of the ways in which certain scientific explorations18 and certain literary genres intersect and march on to later generations.


  1. For some attacks on Freud's theories, see F. S. Schwarzbach, "The Assault on Freud," Southern Review 21.1 (1985): 220-30; Paul Gray, "The Assault on Freud," Time 29 Nov. 1993: 31-41.

  2. For a general history of psychoanalysis all over the world, see Reuben Fine's A History of Psychoanalysis (New York: Columbia UP, 1979).

  3. Among the American TV programs that involve psychoanalysis are The Eleventh Hour, The Psychiatrist, Marcus Welby, M.D., and Lisa Bright and Dark (Wolfe 897).

  4. For instance, Virginia Woolf, Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, D.H. Lawrence, and James Joyce all use Freud's ideas in their works. For a general survey of Freud's influence on writers, see Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1975) 4: 121-22.

  5. Frederick J. Beharriell has two relevant articles: "Freud and Literature" (Queen's Quarterly 65 [1958]: 118-125) and "Psychoanalysis and Literature: The Freud-Denial Syndrome" (Sinn und Symbol: Festchrift für Joseph P. Strelka zum 60. Geburtstag. Ed. Karl Konrad Polheim. Bern: Peter Lang, 1988. 1: 593-610).

  6. Throughout this essay, whenever I make a hypothetical case, I use "he" (or "his") to include both sexes.

  7. Eight mystery films that use psychoanalysis to help create suspense are grouped as "psychotraumatic thrillers" and discussed in Chapter 8 of Charles Derry's The Suspense Thriller: Films in the Shadow of Alfred Hitchcock (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1988).

  8. I choose these two novels also because they were both made into films, Marnie in 1964 and The Seven-Per-Cent Solution in 1976; both were further made into home videos in 1990 and 1988, respectively. Therefore, these two works best represent how psychoanalysis influences the mystery story and popular culture. Another novel, Spellbound by Francis Beeding, originally published as The House of Dr. Edwardes in 1927, was also filmed in 1945 (by Alfred Hitchcock) and made into a home video in 1982. While the film version appropriates a lot of psychoanalysis, the novel only uses it sporadically. Moreover, the Gothic elements overlying the novel may disqualify it as a mystery novel in the sense in which I use the term.

  9. For an overall history of the various types of mystery stories, see Rex Burns and Mary Rose Sullivan, "Introduction," Crime Classics: The Mystery Story from Poe to the Present (New York: Penguin, 1991) ix-xxiv.

  10. In some cases, however, the "murderer" is not a person, but an animal, like the "Orang-Outang" in Edgar Allen Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and the horse in A. Conan Doyle's "Silver Blaze."

  11. For Freud, discovery equals recovery. Many other psychoanalysts hold a different opinion about the recovery of neurotic symptoms. Karen Horney, for instance, argues that, after making the connection between the childhood memories and their symptoms, patients still have to work hard to be really cured--for instance, they need to experience their symptoms emotionally all over again. For her, the intellectual knowledge Freud emphasizes is merely part of a psychotherapeutic procedure, not the end. See her Neurosis and Human Growth (New York: Norton, 1950) 341-346, particularly note 4 on page 343.

  12. For a study of the similarities between a detective and a psychoanalyst, see Zizek.

  13. See Chapter 6 of Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams.

  14. There is also a retired policeman who is Mark's good friend. Mark lays out Marnie's case and asks him for legal advice, but this character does not play the "detective."

  15. The story, however, does not explain why Marnie, of all crimes, developed kleptomania as early as ten years old (11).

  16. The film version does not portray Holmes as clumsy as he is here. Rather, Holmes is the one who predicts that the young Baron will not kill Nancy because he could have done that earlier. Freud reaches the same conclusion by applying his theory of the Oedipus complex, like what happens here. The film, therefore, does better in equating psychoanalysis with detection.

  17. The very fact of bringing Freud and Holmes together suggests a parody of both psychoanalysis and detection; however, in the story, Freud is serious as a psychoanalyst, so is Holmes as a detective. Although Watson praises Freud as the greatest detective of the human mind, one can never tell if the author holds similar admiration for Freud and psychoanalysis. Moreover, if the author deliberately misrepresents psychoanalysis, then he is being playful, parodic, and poking fun at a mode of interpretation that, by the late twentieth century, has become conventionalized.

  18. Many people also criticize psychoanalysis as a pseudo-science, but there are as many defending it as a true science. For further exploration of the issue, see Benjamin B. Wolman's Logic of Science in Psychoanalysis (New York: Columbia UP, 1984); and Marshall Edelson's Hypothesis and Evidence in Psychoanalysis (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985).
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To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Wenjia You "When Sherlock Holmes and Freud Meet: Psychoanalysis and the Mystery Story". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. December 15, 2009. Available http://www.psyartjournal.com/article/show/you-when_sherlock_holmes_and_freud_meet_psyc. September 7, 1998 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: July 15, 1998, Published: September 7, 1998. Copyright © 1998 Wenjia You