Parallel Gallery
and Journal

Dead Certainties Richard Grayson

1. In the front garden of a large country house in winter. Although there has been heavy snow in the few months before, none has fallen for some time and right now it is the beginning of the thaw. Under the ragged earlier afternoon sky three children are playing around the snow-man that they had built some weeks ago when the snow was still fresh and new. The only sounds are the drip of water from the eaves, and in some cases a sigh as a branch lets slip its white burden, and the voices of the children sharp in the air. The pitch of these cries rises perceptibly as part of the smooth white face of the snow man slips away, a blind revealed eye staring out from the inside of the round and foolish head.

2. I read this when I was twelve or so, and making the shift from those books that are be classified as 'children's' fiction to explore the world of seemingly more 'adult' books in the form of old green back Penguins found in my parents bookcases: in this particular instance The Case of the Abominable Snowman by Nicholas Blake.

3. The setting and the characters were, so often of, considerable difference to those which I was used to: Nigel Strangeways, the detective in the novel, consumed more cigarettes that any hero that I had read of before, (although Biggles had managed to tuck a few away), and was strange with bizarre quirks - such as insisting that his bed was piled heavy with quilts, so that he could hardly move, a peccadillo that only made some sort of sense later when I found out that the author (who left clues of another life as C. Day Lewis, Poet Laureate) based Strangeways on Auden, who was said to have had the same habit. However, the world that the books so cleverly articulated - one made mysterious and grotesque through the actions of adults - was one I recognised: both through my previous reading, and my own individual experience. To explore this territory with some-one - the detective - who could explain how and why these particular events had happened and link this explication through quotation, epigram, and arcane law, with other areas of adult occlusion and mystery, was tremendously thrilling. The fact that sherries in the library and country house weekends were foreign to me as a twelve year old (and still now), like Latin, the finer points of ballistics and the poems of Alexander Pope, didn't matter at all. This world of the Abominable Snowman, on the surface, was so seamlessly adult and complete, but revealed as one that made no sense and to be full of strangeness was much the way that mine looked as well. For ages I too demanded that my bed should be heavy with bedding ... and this book in particular may be the start of a detective fiction (and smoking) habit that has lasted to this day.

4. Auden posited that the classic detective story was a metaphor for the search for (bourgeois) happiness and resolution. This seems somehow far too linear, to be taking the structure of the delineated world and of the narrative closure as the only significant parts, rather than relishing the grit and the grain of all that contributes to that close. The book is not only the end of the book. In the novel The Long Divorce by Edmund Crispin (aka.. Bruce Montgomery, a British film composer who listed amongst his recreations 'excessive smoking') it is not the identity of the author of the anonymous letters that are plaguing the village, nor the identity of the murderer (criminal) of the student teacher, that remains in the reader's mind. The identity of either (or even if they are the same person) is pretty foggy in my recollection. It is the inhabitants, there the publican, here a butcher, the doctors, the foreign language teacher, the girl, their eccentricities and convoluted hatreds and snobberies; and the grotesquery, charm and rudeness of Gervase Fen - detective and Oxford Don - that remain: promising that behind the most settled, the most normal and anodyne sleepy villages (or groups of people), deep cthonic forces move in hidden currents articulated by the anonymous correspondent. (Upon re-reading it turns out that there were in fact two letter writers and one murderer; the religious author of the letters, because the village was threatening to pull down his chapel on grounds that it was an eye-sore, and then killing the student teacher because he was too close to finding him out. However, the male doctor had the one letter written under cover of the others, to a woman who then committed suicide. He did this so that she would settle her money onto another woman doctor, who he could then marry and thus finally end his financial problems and simultaneously remove the competition. It is perhaps not surprising that this imbroglio might be a little low on the memorability front).

5. The hidden forces in the village parallel the role that magic played in books that were eagerly read as a child. If one can no longer bring oneself to accept the possibility of a land full of snow and fauns that lies at the back of the Wardrobe: the monstrous eye in the snow man, the village variously riven by deep hatreds and complex deaths, provides a defined form of the unknown behind the every day; without breaking the laws of physics.

6. The number of characters in the detective novel (as opposed to the crime novel) is often and non co-incidentally close to that of a family. Hence the regular use of the stately home, which not only contains a family but adds a castle to the equation, or otherwise the small community: echoing the number of people contained in the size of world that a child might know. This provides an isomorph of early perceptions and so allows us to feel the pleasure of a guilty return.

7. These fictions re-articulate the child's certainty that the world that puzzles them and they are part of, is full of dynamics and desires that they are unable to, (since the formation of the ego) have control over. A world that is seen individually and incomprehensibly. We are changelings with substituted parents: that (alien) family holds some hidden secret; something threatening and strange is behind the smiling face. This is both delightful and fearful: a Manichean universe where each 'innocent' event and structure is only part of some complex exegesis, that totally denied understanding, but contains a demand, that we cannot properly understand.

8. An important part of the attraction lies in the case not being closed. Because each story/novel demands resolution within itself, the necessary open-endedness is generated through the agent of resolution (the detective) re-appearing in other novels, indicating that the particular crime is but part of an open-ended web of mystery and flux. This requirement for non-resolution is recognised within the genre: for instance invertedly and mischievously by E. C. Bentley in what is considered his first self-reflexive detective novel, Trent's Last Case. This book, amongst other structural tricks with the form (which now we would probably consider to be 'post-modern'), broadcast in its title the finality of the larger total narrative structure. However, such was the success of the book and the outrage the readers felt at this premature ejaculation, that the author was forced into writing another (and inferior) prequal - Trent's Other Case. More famously the very same economy would occasion Holmes' resurrection after his watery death at the Reisenbach Falls. It is this required continuation outside each separate narrative that leads to the detective(s) becoming more important than the individual book. To recognise this is to explain why we speak of the 'Albert Campion Books', 'The Inspector Morse Mysteries', 'Kinsey Milhone Stories', 'Dalziel and Pascoe Novels', 'Kate Fansler's Novels' etc. to the point that, for some of the amateur detectives, their lives become rather overstuffed with incident. The economic requirements of the production of the detective novel have generated, we may diagnose, an analogue in the economy of our desires, and in our rejection of a single resolution: our conviction that the 'normal' cannot be absolute.

9. This curious repetition complicates the view that the detective's function is to integrate the traumatic shock (the murder) into a symbolic reality, that :

"The very presence of the detective guarantees in advance the transformation of the lawless sequence into a lawful sequence, in other words, the re-establishment of 'normality'." (Slavoj Zizek 'Looking Awry')
and re-configures the individual resolution into a desire that the symbolic order should be constantly redisrupted: that 'normality' is but a single moment of stasis in a flux of subterranean forces (back to the Manichees). Indeed as Zizek notes, the very scenario of classic detective fiction is one in which 'normality' is in itself a lie: the scene that first faces the detective (events such as the characters playing on the lawn, the collapsing snowman) is a... "false image put together by the murderer in order to efface the traces of his [her] act. The scenes organic natural quality is a lure, and the detective's task is to denature it by first discovering the inconspicuous details that stick out, that do not fit into the frame of the surface image." (ibid)

10. The essential 'wrongness' of normalcy in these scenarios is echoed in the failure or idiocy of the representatives of the 'law' in detective fiction. The custodians of society's regulations are, more often than not, bumbling idiots or simple but slow men, who are either resentful - Lestrade - or humbly grateful - Inspector Fox of Albert Campion novels - and who are inevitably discombobulated by the detective's proof that "there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio". This proof prevents them from committing yet another crime within the crime, or the imposition of a 'wrongful normality' over another 'wrong normality' - where the identity of the criminal would still remain hidden by the 'normal' - in this case (wrongful) conviction by the lawful forces as guilty. The rules and approaches by which the society, the everyday, legislates itself is proven as fragile, as friable, as that which it hopes to uphold, to contain, and to be enforced by idiots.

11. This attitude that laws may be essentially arbitrary is to be glimpsed in the rules for detective fiction given in 1928 - the peak of the 'Golden Age' - by Monsignor Ronald Knox, himself a writer of detective stories. These rules state that: the murderer should be introduced early in the story; the detective must not be the murderer; there must be no help from super-natural agencies; no poison unknown to science; no extraordinary accident or intuition to help the detective; no identical twins, unless already known of. And no Chinamen.

12. The ambivalence to 'the law', the irreality of 'the real' lies within the very structures and approaches of the classical detective novel. Self reference and the recognition of its own constructions occur in various different ways, thus foregrounding the constructions artificiality and perversity that - like the criminal - are to become invisible as we are swept along by the narrative flow; stating subtly that our - the reader's - temporary belief in this fiction is but another wrongful conviction in this case complicated fictive world.

13. The 'literariness' of the form permeates classic detective fiction at all levels, from the authors, to the texts, to the detectives, to the plots, in manners too multitudinous and complex to fully explore here. Plots talk of other texts - Hamlet Revenge! by Michael Innes (himself the alter ego of J. I. M. Stewart, Professor of English at Oxford University and incidentally a witness for the defence in the trial of Max Harris in South Australia for publishing obscene matter). Detectives can be Professors of English (Gervase Fen again, or Kate Fansler, by Amanda Cross who herself is Carolyn Heilbrun, Professor in Humanities at Columbia University). Clues arrive in the form of quotation from verse - not the least in books by Innes and Colin Dexter. Authors are other writers; Dan Kavanaugh is Julian Barnes, Nicholas Blake, Roy Fuller. Others are academics: Glynn Daniels (archaeologist), Umberto Eco (theorist). The authors interrupt the narrative with their own demands - anything by Ellery Queen. There are many instances of classical detective fiction being accused that through narrative, through resolution, it pursues the (discredited) function of the traditional 'realist novel'. That it is a conservative form. Detective fiction is also indited as failing, as it remains juvenile in treating death 'flippantly' ... This most recently seen in a recent review of a P. D. James novel in The Guardian where it stated that death was too serious a matter for the detective author to use, ...if only P. D. James had actually bludgeoned a person to death in order to write the novel. However the awareness of the book's fictionality, inscribed in their very construction, would seem to rescue the form from these criticisms, or the critic appear misguided. The artifice accepts the impossibility of the moral agendas of the 'pre-modern' novel - or even the 'pre-pre-modern' novel. It crucially denies the possibility of telling a story in a linear, consistent way (the physical act of flicking back through the pages of a detective book to re-read an event and to re-place that event in another hidden narrative is perhaps unique to the form), as I have described the form does not accept closure of the narrative, and its use of the 'real' and the 'accepted' as fictions themselves to be re-arranged denies the possibility, and charge, of moral absolutism, and fixity, no matter the intentions of some of the authors.

14. The world of reading detective fiction is therefore not implicitly about accepting absolutes, it can be about construction and flux, actions in the societies that they reflect, and in its own mechanics. It is this that has made detective and crime fiction the most visible arena, in the last couple of decades, for a radical and exploratory popular practice that explores, for instance, feminist concerns, queer issues, or radical social agendas. In approaching this body of work (in the library), previous specific convictions should be disregarded.

15. Amanda Cross says in 'A Trap for Fools':

"...I look for narratives. That's my profession, not being a detective. Lit crit teaches you to be on the lookout for subtexts. We deal in the hidden story."

Richard Grayson is an artist and writer, and Director of the Experimental Art Foundation, Adelaide, South Australia.