- 1 See E. F. Bargainnier, The Gentle Art of Murder: The Detective Fiction of Agatha Christie, Green, (...)
1The crime novel has elicited many comparisons within the field of literary history, many of which resorted to fixed poetic forms. Four critics at last saw in the detective story an equivalent of the Elizabethan sonnet1: both rested on formal constraint, both used “a satisfyingly symmetrical” pattern, and the concetto summing up the moral of the poem in a brief and dazzling formula was reflected in the detective’s final speech of revelation. The very audacity of the metaphor led me to expand the issue of relationship between poetry and crime fiction and see what happened when a detective did meet with a poem within the established frame of the classic British crime fiction. Will the poetical elements be integrated to the narrative codes of the genre, or will they grip the set mechanics of the whodunnit? Three examples may help us to analyse the tension between the prosaic, clear-cut scope of the detective novel — the complete elucidation of an enigma, paralleled in the construction of a cogent discourse on the detective’s part — and the opening-out of poetry to ludic polysemy, multiplied reading and inconclusive interpretation.
- 2 All my quotations are taken from The Complete Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, London, Secker & Warb (...)
2The first pattern shows the sheer victory of reason over rhyme. I shall call it the Sesame pattern and illustrate it with Conan Doyle’s story “The Musgrave Ritual”2 which was published in 1893 in the Strand Magazine. It hinges on a puzzling little text, which is handed to Holmes by the last scion of the Musgrave family, in rather complicated circumstances. It is never called a poem in the narrative — in fact its literary status is highly undefined: it is dubbed a rigmarole, a ceremonial, a formula or again a catechism, which each Musgrave, on his coming of age, is supposed to recite to his father. A strange ritual, it takes the form of a puzzle or enigma dealing with departure and return, acquisition and loss.
Whose was it?
His who is gone.
Who shall have it?
He who will come
What was the month?
The sixth from the first.
Where was the sun?
Over the oak.
Where was the shadow?
Under the elm.
How was it stepped?
North by ten and ten, east by five and by five, south by two and by two, west by one and by one and by one, and so under.
3Since the narrative does not clearly state the literary status of the ritual, the latter depends on the reader’s attitude to the text: his may be the past gratuitous reading of the Musgraves, who did not try to understand the text, but submitted to it nevertheless, and admitted that, though “of no practical importance” it has “the saving grace of antiquity” (392) — or the present utilitarian reading of the detective, Holmes, who sees it as a cypher, a coded message describing a hidden good. In other terms, the reading must either be poetical or referential and the text, at first reading, strongly qualifies as a poem. Its saving grace does not merely lie with antiquity, and if generations of readers have testified to its fascination, along with the Musgraves, it is probably because its very simplicity links it to a nursery or counting rhyme, with its play on alliteration and anaphora, and the repetitive pattern which makes the longest line in the middle of it sound like a rhyme of its own. The very absence of a definite context in it emphasizes its link with poeticity, the sheer gratuitous obscurity which makes it possible to be repeated over the century, so that its meaning cannot be subjected to a given time or place.
4Such a reading, though, cannot be condoned by the detective. If Holmes were to recognize the ritual as a poem, it would mean his acceptance of a text whose main feature is anonymity, since it refuses to name either the people or object it is concerned with . It would be the end of his own logocentric credo which demands that a name be produced at the end of each novel or story. So Holmes must do what every honest teacher of poetry tries very hard to prevent his students from doing — he needs must fill the blanks, read a message in the text, select a referent for the words, deduce a signified from the enigmatic signifiers. He launches into what Jean-Jacques Lecercle calls a tin-opener interpretation — “There is meaning in the text and it is the task of the interpretation to discover, unveil and disclose that meaning.” (Lecercle, 3) The irrational formula must be made to yield a rational content and relinquish its poetical aura in the process.
5Consider for instance the lines “Where was the sun?” “Over the oak”. When elaborating on his theory of poeticity, the French critic Jean Cohen made use of a rather similar line in French, “Souvent sur la montagne, à l’ombre du vieux chêne”, to define what was to him the main effect of poetry, which he called the poetical effect of unboundedness or illimitation. The definite article, according to him, achieves that totalizing effect in the absence of all contextual reference that might reduce the definition of the oak to one tree among others, or to one kind of tree as opposed to others. Instead of a simple predicative statement, the sentence produces a figure that denies the negation or partition proper to prose which uses the definite article to frame down its referent in a restricted context. If we follow Cohen’s logic, the line should have read “Over an oak” in the absence of all contextual information that might help to distinguish one particular oak from all others. Since it doesn’t, the oak and elm become semantic totalities and achieve an absolute meaning and identity: they stand for oakness and elmness rather than for single representatives of a category.
6The rational detective, of course, is not prepared to bow before oakness and elmness. No sooner has he read the paper than Holmes rushes to Hurlstone, the Musgraves’ family house, and selects the oldest oak on the grounds. The anonymous scriptor might have written “the oak”, as Mallarmé exclaimed “la fleur” to call up that tree which never was in any wood — l’absent de tout bosquet, if I may be allowed that cheap paraphrase — but Holmes, contrary to the Musgraves, never takes that reading into consideration. In his comment of the text, the definite article never existed; the indefinite article sets back the line in prose:
There were two guides given us to start with, an oak and an elm. [...]. Right in front of the house, upon the left-hand side of the drive, there stood a patriarch among oaks, one of the most magnificent trees that I have ever seen. (393)
7The generic oak is contextualized with a vengeance — located on the Musgrave grounds, set apart from its fellow-trees, singularized within its category. Holmes is no Mallarmé. Having found an oak, he goes on and gets an elm — reconstitutes the shadow game of the seventh line, reproduces the steps without passing any comment upon the odd fact that they’re coupled in repetitive sequences, and finds what he was looking for: “a black hole [that] yawned beneath”, a small crypt with a corpse inside, holding a wooden box with nothing in it. The cryptic text, it seems, has yielded its referent in the form of a three-fold crypt — a gap in the ground, a dead body and an empty vessel. This reads very much like the revenge of rhyme on reason — see what happens when you will force a vivid little poem to deliver a referent. Instead of a treasure, you’ll get a void. Or at least, before you get to the gold, you’ll grapple with a gap, the gap of poetic loss, exchanged for the real thing.
8Of course Holmes gets the real thing. He does a bit more rational thinking and finishes off his textual commentary by fitting the missing names on the first four lines.
Consider what the Ritual says. How does it run? “Whose was it?” “His who is gone”. That was after the execution of Charles. Then, “Who shall have it?” “He who will come”. That was Charles the Second, whose advent was already foreseen. (397)
9He’s done it this time: he has recontextualized the whole text. Instead of a universal, everlasting poem rising again with each generation, the reader finds he’s dealing with a historical document dating back to the xviiith century. He’s substituted his own prosaic ritual of questions and answers — breaking up the line pattern and inverting the ceremonial since it is now Reginald, the last son and heir of the Musgrave family, who asks the questions, and Holmes, the voice of authority, who gives the answers. The Ritual used to ascertain filiation, since it might only take place when a son of the Musgraves had reached the age when he could be expected to have a son in his turn. Holmes’s rational explanation institutes paternity: not only does he fill the blanks with the name of a archetypal father — the King of England — and his historical son, but those names give him full authority over the text in the most immediate sense of the word, breaking it and building it again into a discourse he engenders.
- 3 Significantly enough, Jean Cohen uses the image of the treasure quest to reflect on the deflating (...)
10At last, a supreme referent comes up to guarantee Holmes’s interpretation. Though empty, the crypt had contained an object which Musgrave and Holmes eventually recover: the ancestral crown of the English dynasty. Here is a poetical figure materialized to the extreme: the crown, that arch-example of metonymy to be found in every rhetorical treatise. The poem has yielded its object and yet, its description in the story is anything but glorious — “the metal was almost black and the stones lustreless and dull [...] The metal work was in the form of a double ring but it had been bent and twisted out of its original shape” (397). I find the last sentence quite significant, as the “double ring” inevitably recalls to the reader the dual construction of the poem as a cycle of sonorous repetitions. The object, it seems to me, does not merely provide a happy ending to the detective’s quest — it also betrays what happens to a poetical structure that is twisted and bent out of its original shape by a prosaic interpretation3. Holmes, significantly enough, suggests that his counterpart in detection, the dead man who found the crown before him, had “torn off” the secret out of the ritual — an expression that might be applied to his own computations. This is why the story can be read in two ways — as a triumphant treasure-hunt, and as a sadder parable on what happens when you deprive a poem of its saving grace: instead of illumination, the tin-opener interpretation yields death in one case, and an ambiguous anticlimax in the other, when the expected gold materializes into dull metal.
11My second pattern shows how a poem may escape rational interpretation while delivering a message if submitted to an irrational reading. I’ll call it the Dream Pattern and illustrate it with a novel by Agatha Christie, Crooked House, published in 1949. A household murder classic, it deals with the death of a Greek patriarch settled in Britain — old Mr Aristides, whose enormous fortune appears to have been earned through dubious means. His family, gathered in a quaint, rather baroque imitation of an English country-house, consists in a newly-wedded wife, a sister, various sons and daughters, and two grandchildren — one of them a very intelligent little girl of eleven, Josephine, who appears to be the murderer’s next target, since she nearly escapes death when she is hit on the head by a boulder balanced on the top of a door. The main suspect, soon to be arrested, is the new wife, who had been having an affair with the children’s tutor at the time of the murder. And this is where the nursery rhyme, which gives the novel its title, is mentioned by one of the detectives.
There was a crooked man and he went a crooked mile
He found a crooked sixpence beside a crooked stile
He had a crooked cat which caught a crooked mouse
And they all lived together in a crooked little house.
- 4 “Agatha Christie grapille avec désinvolture la chanson pour produire du pittoresque. Elle s’amuse (...)
- 5 Moreover it is quickly belied by the narrative itself, which insists on the old man’s inner goodne (...)
12It is immediately explained away as a simple comment on the situation: old Aristides, a crook, had found a crooked way of making a fortune, met a wife who was catty and perverse, and the wife took as a lover a mousy character of a man. That reading, it appears, is syntactical as it concentrates on the relationship established between the main subject of the rhyme, the crooked old man, and its various predicates, then establishes a correspondence with the articulation of relationships in the Aristides household. This interpretation has never been questioned by Christie’s readers, though some of her critics, Annie Combes4 for instance, were unsatisfied with the rhyme and found it too slick and decorative to justify the title5. Let me suggest, therefore, another interpretation which does not respect the syntactical hierarchy, the predominance of the crooked old man as subject, but rather considers the words as Freud considered the elements in a dream — as shifting or floating symbols, which, though apparently nonsensical, hide a latent message. They conceal some important information either by displacing or condensing it, and as such, they have been compared by Lacan to the poetical processes of metonymy and metaphor. Such a process of superimposition is called figuration by Freud: the dream works up a pattern of resemblance and analogy between its symbolical elements which it gathers into a single frame — their true significance only appears when the dream-interpreter discovers a form of contact or continuous resemblance between them.
13Resemblance, harmony, contact, analogy all contribute to the nursery rhyme’s importance in the novel. It cannot be evacuated from the reading: rather, it goes on haunting the narrative as its signifiers are echoed in other words brought into the subsequent chapters of the narrative, and those semantic parallels all point to the one character deemed to be innocent — Josephine. That it should shift our suspicion to the child is, after all, consistent if we examine the very nature of the rhyme: a literary text explicitly designed for children, and which, in this case, deals with perversity in its etymological sense (something which has been twisted or bent out of the right way, like the crooked mile in the rhyme).
- 6 “Style: 1) a pointed tool for writing. M.E. stile — M. F. stile, style — L. stilus, an iron pin fo (...)
14I’ll leave aside the syntax of the rhyme, then, and take my clue from the way the rhyme uses a common denominator or epithet, crooked, to establish a semantic equivalence between various distinct signifiers. Those signifiers appear to me as the multiplied expressions of one signified — the perverse child. The “old man” looms up in the text when Josephine’s physical ugliness is mentioned: she is twice compared to a “malicious gnome” (12, 89), a word connoting wickedness and deformity. The “cat” is brought in when the child endures that supposed attempt on her life — she was standing on a “cat’s hole” or cat-flap, cut in the bottom of a door, in order to swing to and fro when the boulder fell on her head. If the reader does remember the crooked cat, he must entertain some doubts about the veracity of the accident. The mouse, that attribute which had been reserved for the male suspect, creeps up when the detective looks into the child’s face and twice in the book notices “her small beady black eyes” (62, 89), unaware that she has indeed been playing a game of cat and mouse with her own family. The crooked sixpence is not echoed within the narrative, but will surely remind any British reader of that set phrase describing a wicked child, that is “a bad penny” or “bad pennyworth”. Last but not least, the crooked stile is at once the most indirect and the most telling clue as to the child’s perversity. In the nursery rhyme, it refers to a fence but can also spell as the ancient word for a writing pen6. Now Josephine’s main attribute in the story is a little black book into which she keeps writing secret information, pretending to conduct an enquiry of her own. While she’s licking the end of her lead pencil, her old nurse comes in and, in the presence of the detective, warns her that lead may be poisonous. It is, indeed: Josephine is literally poisoning herself with her crooked stile, her own perverse writing, since the little black book merely contains remorseless expressions of joy and pride at the murder she has committed. Ironically enough, the nurse’s warning won’t do her any good since while she’s speaking, Josephine is actually noting down her intention to kill her nice but interfering nanny.
15Parallel to the detective’s rational interpretation of the case — which is a failure, since he holds Josephine to be innocent and only discovers the truth when someone else hands him her notebook — the reader’s play with and on the words of the nursery rhyme may institute a poetic resolution of the text. Such a resolution is not vouched for either by the narrative or by the author; as in the case of dreams, it merely rests on the free association of signifiers and Christie, were she still alive to hear me play the semantic detective, would perhaps disagree with my diagnosis — but then I might retort that the poem exerts an unconscious influence on the narrative. It resorts to the oniric devices of figuration to hide a truth which, like those concealed within dreams, is too scandalous a message to bear explicit statement: a child’s death wish, directed against the archetypal father and mother figures of the narrative — the patriarch and the nurse.
16Disturbing as this poem sounds, it may still appear to bear a message while in our third and most extreme case, the poem resists every narrative attempt at enclosing it within the secure frame of interpretation. Colin Dexter’s The Way Through The Woods, published in 1992 and featuring Inspector E. Morse, rests on an anonymous poem sent to the Thames Valley Police who pass it on to The Times, a poem whose “sinister verses” (29) are supposed to indicate the hiding-place where a murderer left the corpse of a young female Swedish hitch-hiker. A passionate appeal written from the girl’s point of view, it is taken to express the killer’s remorse and wish to atone by having the corpse found.
Find me, find the Swedish daughter —
Thaw my frosted tegument!
Dry the azured skylit water
Sky my everlasting tent.
Who spied, who spied that awful spot
O find me! Find the woodman’s daughter!
Ask the stream: “Why tellst thou not
The truth thou knowst — the tragic slaughter?”
Ask the tiger, ask the sun
Whither riding, what my plight?
Till the given day be run
Till the burning of the night.
Thyme, I saw Thyme flow’ring here
A creature white trapped in a gin
Panting like a hunted deer
Licking still the bloodied skin.
With clues surveyed so wondrous laden
Hunt the ground beneath thy feet
Find me, find me now, thy maiden,
I will kiss thee when we meet.
- 7 I’ll leave those aside as they have already been analysed and built into a theory of literary inte (...)
17Thus taken as a clue-laden text, the poem seems to fit into the Sesame pattern, all the more as Morse’s comment, in a postcard to one of his colleagues, is “I reckon I know what the poem means!” (70). Yet the poem proves to eschew official diagnosis: while Morse is investigating the case, it keeps eliciting potential interpretations from the Times public who pile on contextual, intertextual, semantic, symbolical, psychological and linguistic comments on the lines7. Attempts at finding a hidden cypher through permutation and computation of the words are a failure. So are the psychoanalytical suggestions that the text might have been written by the hitch-hiker herself in a fit of neurotic depression, or by a minister of the Catholic Church who, appalled by the murderer’s confession, would have let on the truth in a Bible-inspired idiom. The truth is much more perverse: the poem was actually written by the detective himself, Morse, as a clever way of imposing his own suspicion that the crime has been committed in Wytham Wood, near Oxford. Once he has aroused the public interest, Morse sends an anonymous letter stressing the presence, in every stanza, of the word Wytham in form of an anagram. The pattern, it seems, would be a super-Sesame in which the detective provides the riddle in order to break it all the better. He constructs his object — the girl’s body — into a poem, then provides the referential reading that will lead him to it. Tautology, it seems, is meant to ensure readability.
- 8 J.J. Lecercle, though he notes Morse’s “high intuition” (a term borrowed from Carlo Ginzburg) sugge (...)
18The police search Wytham Wood and they do get a referent, though it is not that which Morse expected. The body they find is that of a man. Morse comes to understand that his own referent never existed. In other terms, the girl was never murdered though she did go to Wytham; there in the woods, she killed a man who had attempted to rape her and later married the local forest-keeper. Here is a new paradox: Morse’s interpretation of his own poem is mistaken but the poem itself sounds true enough as it takes over the girl’s confession which was interrupted at the beginning of the novel when she anonymously came to see a Catholic priest. If compared to the girl’s second confession, once she has been identified by Morse, the echoes are striking: what the poem depicts is what happened just after the murder was committed — a living and speaking girl, the woodman’s girl if not daughter, terrified at the “slaughter” she’s responsible for, covered with the blood of her own victim, panting like a wounded deer after the rape attempt and wondering indeed what her plight will be (instead of has been: hence the ambiguous value of the elliptic formula “what my plight”) now she has become a murderess. The poetical riddle escapes its author’s control: it now lies in the fact that the poem does tell a truth, yet a truth which was unknown to the poet at the time of composition. An oracular production, it places the detective in the situation of the Delphic Pythia, who, possessed by an alien spirit, uttered a dark saying while unconscious of the truth she was prophesising, and whose utterance had then to be deciphered and commented upon by the priest of Apollo standing near her though the interpretation might be warped by the oracle’s ambivalent play on words. Morse, it seems, has played both Pythia and priest by interpreting his own production the wrong way — the signs meant to refer to a victim’s helpless state actually denoted the murderess’s anxious remorse8. Once the detective gets on the other side of the poetic mirror, he loses his masterful hold on the poem. Instead of an exhaustive explanatory discourse, he generates an oblique, obscure, uncontrolled speech.
19The reader’s own interpretation, therefore, can be pursued endlessly, even after the plot itself has been resolved and the final letter sent to The Times. Why did a sensible policeman write that hallucinatory piece of verse? Why did he resort to that biblical tone, since he, unlike the priest who heard the girl’s confession and might very well have written it down, is no member of the Catholic church? What on earth are we to make of that fourth line, “Sky my everlasting tent” which appears to violate every syntactical and logical rule? Are we to interpret the second line of the last stanza, “Hunt the ground beneath thy feet” as a predictive evocation of the Orpheus myth — in which the female heroine may be recovered from the dead? What unspeakable desires lurk behind the sadistic evocation of a bloodied victim ready to kiss her saviour? Are we treated to a private peep of a public investigator’s unconscious mind? Is our male Pythia being possessed by the voices of those who know — the girl and the priest — while unaware of their existence?
20I can’t provide any answers to those questions since the wondrous clues are all contained within the poem: Dexter eludes all external indications that might allow me to guess Morse’s intentions and processes when writing this peculiar piece of verse. Once deprived of its referential frame, the poem remains unexplained, either in its motivation or its construction. All I can do, therefore, is stress its subversive effects as it comes to replace the detective’s prosaic discourse of explanation.
21— It takes the detective from the oral to the written sphere of language. The traditional structure of the British whodunnit arranges for the detective to remain silent till the last chapter, when he provides an oral explanation of the facts, which he may extend as he answers the various questions that help to complete it. Orality prompts a dialogue with the living characters who are free to intervene in the process of illumination. The hermetic poem resists those dialectical intrusions, as is shown in the mistaken efforts of the Times readers to make it yield a sense through interpretations which are neither confirmed nor denied by Morse. The detective’s choice of sending a poem to be printed puts him on the side of writing — that is, according to Roland Barthes, of a form of counter-communication which, contrary to oral speech, intimidates its reader because it threatens him with an unsayable secret. We may remember, after all, that both Holmes and Hercule Poirot only resort to written confessions when they know they are about to die — when alive, they stick to spoken revelation.
- 9 The separation between public code and private expression appears in Morse’s double name — his sur (...)
22— It takes the detective from a public to a private discourse. The detective’s final speech testifies to his role as a social agent: he is supposed to couch the truth in a neutral language that can be understood by the community at large (nobody expects Hercule Poirot to launch into Cornelian alexandrines when summing up his cases). Poetry, in our case, allows Morse to use a private language of his own9, that will fully exploit the emotive function of speech instead of bowing to its referential function. The detective’s discourse turns back to speech, to voice (his, but also the female and religious voices that ought to remain alien to the male official) as it becomes laden with affect — with the expressive intensity of the imperative mood. At last a detective is allowed to talk shop — blood, bodies, desire, violence and death — without sounding as if he were telling us how to use a coffee-machine.
- 10 The novel includes a meta-discourse on this power of words, as a secondary character, an honorable (...)
23— It takes the detective from syntax to lexis. The rational detective, the agent of order, is a man of syntax — he is supposed to order his data into a sequence, according to a hierarchy of predominance and subordination when dealing with the facts, to supply links and connexions between the clues. The poem is interested in names, not in the way of Holmes, who needs names as stoppers, to fill the blanks in a given sentence and set a limit to the very act of interpreting. What it seeks, I think, is to reproduce, even in a clichéic way, the Romantic project of a language that would accommodate the traumatic experience of man lost in the natural world after his first sin, his Fall from Grace — hence its sounding like a Blake-cum-Coleridge pastiche with its “creature white”, its streams and woods, its tigers and “burning nights”. Once more, a human being suffers anxiety and guilt in a nature s/he can no longer communicate with, except in a language that borders on nonsense and sins against grammatical categories, as in the third and fourth lines of the first stanza10.
24I am well aware that my approach of poetic interference in the British crime novel is limited of necessity, and may sound over-dialectical. Still, I do believe that the chronological progression in my three examples is not a coincidence — that the genre has come to realize explicitly the difficulties of coming to terms with the unspeakable realities it is supposed to tackle in a prosaic language and gradually twisted poetical subversion into rational discourse. Poetry, like Aesop’s tongue, has a double-edged influence on the classical whodunnit — it threatens its organic stability and closed structure, its very temporal structure, its attempt at reducing a traumatic content to intelligible language; at the same time, it endeavours to provide an adequate medium to speak of that which ought to remain unspeakable and doesn’t — for our greatest pleasure.