Functions of Conversation in Detective Fiction: An Analysis of Smiley’s Duplicate Keys From Grice’s Theory of Conversational Implicature

Limin WU, Xin ZHOU


Duplicate Keys, published in 1984, is a detective novel written by Pulitzer Laureate Jane Smiley. The novel develops around a murder discovered by Alice, the heroine, in Manhattan, in which two band members, Denny and his adopted brother Craig, were shot dead in Denny’s apartment. Since besides Alice, some of their other friends, and even their friends’ friends have duplicate keys, it’s extremely distracting and difficult for Police Detective Honey to solve the case. With suspense resolved and mystery unraveled, it turns out that the killer is Denny’s girlfriend and Alice’s best friend Susan, who pretends to be on a trip far away at the occurrence of the murder. The novel contains an abundance of conversations, which play a crucial part in plot advancement as well as characterization. Guided by Paul Grice’s theory of conversational implicature, the paper analyzes some conversations from Duplicate Keys, especially the disobedience of the cooperative principle in the conversations, deciphers the reasons behind the disobedience, while at the same time exposes characters’ inner world, and exhibits their personality traits. In so doing, functions of conversation in detective fiction are revealed. 


Conversational implicature; Cooperative principle; Conversation; Plot advancement; Characterization

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Chapman, S. (2003). Philosophy for linguistics: An introduction. London: Routledge. Taylor and Francis e-Library.

Grice, P. (1957). Meaning. The Philosophical Review, 66(3), 377-388.

Grice, P. (1991). Studies in the way of words. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Smiley, J. (1996). Duplicate keys. London: Flamingo An Imprint of Harper Collins Publishers.



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