Monday, February 4, 2008

The Indomitable Cuff

Part II in my personal series entitled Literary Comfort Food* is Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone, a multi-narrator extravaganza said to have inaugurated the English detective novel genre, but which I associate more often with its strong, albeit vestigial, Gothic elements. Since genre is fundamentally about what readers accept as its conventions, perhaps it's best to start with the aforelinked Wikipedia article, which lists the following reasons to consider TM a detective novel:

  1. large number of suspects
  2. red herrings
  3. a crime being investigated by talented amateurs who happen to be present when it is committed
  4. two police officers who exemplify, respectively, the 'local bungler' and the skilled, professional Scotland Yard detective
I agree with this assessment, but think it misses a few points, of varying importance. The first is the odd epistolary form, which Wilkins also exploits--to even greater effect--in The Woman in White. Here it functions (and well) as a kind of unreliable narrator to multiply the red herrings. Only when one steps back and finishes the work, with all of its individual accounts, does a complete picture emerge. This of course makes the ending less predictable until, well, you reach the end. The detective novel and the epistolary novel begin to seem almost like a single organic creation in the hands of Collins. The second interesting thing about this is that it makes the resulting narrative its own artifact, or clue. Collins doesn't quite do everything he might have done with this: the ending, and much of the rest of the book, is unambiguous, and there's no indication that we're to regard the manuscript as suspiciously as we might regard any other clue. But this is a kind of self-referentiality that doesn't appear until at least a few decades later, so I think we can forgive him that.

Two problems emerge in considering this a straightforward example of the detective novel genre. (To paraphrase the novel) Problem the First: those Gothic elements I mentioned above (a particularly creepy batch of quicksand which hides bodies and secrets and which one character refers to as her "grave" shortly before making it so) which seem to ally it more closely with its epistolary elements and therefore a far earlier period in English literary history. Problem the Second: Sergeant Cuff, the competent Scotland Yarder, is actually a brother of those fantastic Conan Doyle creations to whom Holmes is always ascribing "a little talent." Like them, he seems to analyze the case primarily based not on the empirical evidence that seems to have won out (if the popularity of CSI and its permutations is any evidence) in the detective genre but on the grounds of such hazy entities as "personal experience of young ladies and their credit woes." As in the Sherlock Holmes stories, the narrative here is the doggedness of the amateur versus the staid complaisance of the professional, who seems to believe that he's seen the full set of the human condition and the crime it inspires. His detecting is mere recitation with a few empirical twists, which is always at alarming odds with the first narrator's depiction of him as the epitome of mystery-solving genius. It's quite the jar for those of us who are reading backwards, from the crime novels of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries to their supposed ur-text.

*Definition of the Literary Comfort Food genre:
1) must have read it before
2) must be heard in audiobook format by someone of the British persuasion
3) must have been published pre-Ulysses

Posted by Shannon Chamberlain @ 2:18 PM