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Partie III. Interlude: Fiction

Murdering Max1

Peter Lovesey
p. 135-141
  • 1  La nouvelle « Murdering Max » a été publiée, avec une introduction de François Gallix « Reader you (...)

In 1989 I wrote the first youdunnit. A small accomplishment, you may think, not to be compared with the first manned flight or walking on the moon. To me, a humble crime writer, it brought satisfaction. For in 1983, Umberto Eco, the celebrated author of The Name of the Rose, had observed:

It seems that the Parisian OULIPO group has recently constructed a matrix of all possible murder-story situations and has found that there is still to be written a book in which the murderer is the reader.

Pardon my vanity. Youdunnit is my claim to stand in the Pantheon with the Wright brothers and Neil Armstrong.

Do you doubt the importance of the achievement?

Am I guilty of self-aggrandisement?

Reflect on this. In the long history of the crime story, no one else had succeeded in writing a youdunnit. From Edgar Allan Poe to Umberto Eco himself, no mystery writer found a way to resolve the problem. Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, John Dickson Carr, Hammett, Chandler, Simenon, brilliant and ingenious as they were, couldn’t crack it.

I did, in 1989. I pulled it off. And for ten years I stood alone. No other writer matched me. I believed I would see out the century as the one writer to succeed in devising a youdunnit.

And I almost did.

In November, 1999, F.G., Professor at the Sorbonne, in Paris, wrote to tell me he had prepared a paper on “Twists and Turns in Crime Fiction – Peter Lovesey’s Youdunnit”. It was to be delivered at the Sorbonne before an international audience.

I turned cartwheels of joy.

After ten years my achievement was to get recognition from the academic establishment. You see, for some reason I don’t understand, my story had not (till then) received its due acclaim. In fact it had passed most people by.

Now, however, my reputation would soar. My life was to be transformed. I decided forthwith to go to Paris.

Ladies and gentlemen of the French Academy, meet Peter Lovesey, trail-blazer, pioneer, writer of the first youdunnit.

Bravo!

Then I read the rest of the professor’s letter and received a body blow. “There is a French author, Max Dorra, who also wrote a short story – Vous permettez que je vous dise tue? – in which the reader is the murderer”.

Unthinkable.

To say that I was appalled is an understatement. With just a few weeks left, this man Dorra had ruined the twentieth century for me. My claim to be the only man in the century, in the millennium, to write a youdunnit, was dashed.

I hated him.

The professor’s letter went on to state that Dr Dorra was invited to the lecture. In my hour of triumph, this upstart would be there to undermine me, devalue my currency, smirk behind my back. It was insufferable.

For a week, I scarcely slept. Dorra was with me day and night, deep in my psyche, irritating, immovable, the grain of sand in the oyster. I pictured him sitting in the lecture room smiling arrogantly, confident that his youdunnit was superior to mine.

Reader, you will have divined by now that I don’t like competition. Once or twice I’ve been told I’m a monomaniac. I don’t accept that at all. Why should I believe the nonsense fools say about me? But when I am attacked from behind, I fight back.

I would devise a plot even more brilliant, even more ingenious than Youdunnit.

First, it would be necessary to find out more about Dorra. More knowledge of the man would be painful, but necessary. I have a French friend I shall call Gérard. For the purpose of this, I must disguise his identity. Gérard once translated one of my stories (not Youdunnit) and took the trouble to call me about some ironies in the text. That’s unusual in a translator, such care over detail. We became the best of friends.

I phoned Gérard and asked what he could tell me about my rival. He knew very little, but offered to find out, promising to be discreet in his enquiries. In the heart of Paris (Gérard informed me) there is a marvellous library known as the BILIPO (Bibliothèque des Littératures Policières), a superb research facility for scholars of crime fiction. Every crime story writer in France is stored there.

Gérard happened to know a Ph.D student, D.K., who regularly used the BILIPO and was remarkably well informed about crime writers. This young lady was brilliant at ferreting out information, and could be trusted not to speak to a soul. She was ideally placed to act out for us. In a couple of hours studying the cuttings library at the BILIPO, she compiled a dossier. Gérard faxed it to me. Thanks to D.K., I was informed about Max Dorra’s literary output, career, family, education, daily routine, the papers he read, the way he voted, the glasses he wore, the blend of coffee he preferred. More than enough.

Without going into detail, Dorra was a medical doctor living in Paris who wrote fiction as a second career. The staff at the BILIPO didn’t know him personally. They hoped he might call in when he came to the Sorbonne for the lecture on November 27th. They were also hoping for a visit from me.

They would get one.

I travelled to France by Eurostar on November 25th and took a room in the Hotel des Grandes Écoles in the rue du Cardinal Lemoine, the same street as the BILIPO. That afternoon I visited the place and announced who I was. My reputation as the writer of Youdunnit must have gone before me. The director of the library, C.C., came specially from her office to greet me. She and one of her colleagues, M.W., showed me round. And I discovered that my translator friend Gérard had not exaggerated in the least. Truly, the BILIPO is a house of treasures. Thousands of books, magazines and documents are kept in ideal conditions, the air maintained at fifty per cent humidity, the temperature at a constant seventeen degrees Celsius.

Happily, this location was perfect for my plan, as I realised when I was shown upstairs, where the books by foreign writers are stored. The upper floor is not usually open to the public; you reach it by elevator, operated by a secret digital code. I watched my host tapping the numbers on the panel, and memorised the sequence.

“Would you like to see your own book?” they asked.

I was taken into a room with tall metal bookshelves with winding-handles or cranks mounted on the ends, and it was explained to me that the shelves were on tracks and could be moved aside with ease by turning the handles. M.W. demonstrated and three shelves slid to the left and closed against each other.

“Dangerous, if someone is between the shelves,” I commented.

“Yes, we have to be careful. That’s why the public aren’t normally allowed up here.”

“But if I wanted to study books in translation…?”

“We would make an exception for you.”

“I see. May I turn the handle?”

They allowed me to try the mechanism. The shelves moved the other way and made a metallic boom as they slid together. Anyone caught between them would have been trapped, squeezed and possibly crushed.

“And nobody except the staff comes up here?”

“Only certain people we trust.”

“Such as writers?”

“And some researchers.”

I was shown other things, including the strong-room containing rare and valuable items, but my thoughts were still on the sliding shelf-system.

That evening, I finalised my plans. I knew exactly what to do about Max Dorra. I went shopping in the rue Descartes, where there are some fine food shops.


***

The lecture on Youdunnit took place as scheduled in the Salle Louis Liard at the Sorbonne. It was an appropriate setting, a magnificent gilded room with an allegorical painting on the ceiling and portraits of the elite of French literature on the walls. I positioned myself to one side of the tiered seats and waited for Professor G. to begin. I knew he must be a man of exquisite taste, and I was pleased to find that he also spoke eloquently and in perfect English, his eyes sparkling in the light of the great chandelier above us.

“I was hoping,” he said almost at once, “that Peter Lovesey would be present this morning.”

I declared myself with a modest wave.

“Ah! Welcome.” He smiled. “… and we also have Max Dorra with us, the writer of a second story in which the reader is the culprit.”

In the centre of the room a slim man in glasses gave a nod and then swung around to stare at me, as if challenging me to do something about it.

I glared back, and then turned to listen to the lecture. I didn’t give him a second glance. I didn’t allow anything to spoil my enjoyment of the occasion.

It was, I have to say, a brilliant, witty and authoritative lecture touching on many obscure manipulations of the genre. The OULIPO, I learned, was a group of intellectuals dedicated to the study of literature and its potential manifestations. They had analysed every permutation of sleuth, victim and murderer from Edgar Allan Poe onwards. It was gratifying to have it confirmed that my story was truly original, a first of its kind. Dorra’s was mentioned, but not, I felt, in the same glowing terms.

By a curious quirk of fate, Professor G. concluded his lecture with a speculation. “Perhaps we may look forward to a story which is yet another innovation, one in which the author himself is the murderer and the victim another author who had written a similar story.”

The hairs rose on the back of my neck. I said nothing.

At the end, I demonstrated that I was a decent Englishman and a good sportsman by crossing the room to shake hands with the man masquerading as my equal. Just as I expected, he professed not to have read my story. “Has it gone out of print?” he said offensively and in quite a carrying voice.

“You can read it in the BILIPO,” I informed him. “They have it upstairs, with the other books by distinguished foreign authors.”

“I shall go there at once,” he announced. “Where is this place?”

I offered to show him. Together, we walked the short distance to the rue du Cardinal Lemoine. Little was said until we reached the BILIPO. We went in together.


***

I returned to England the same evening, quietly satisfied.

A full week passed, and I was beginning to wonder when I would hear from France. At last came a fax message from Professor G.:

“I am not sure if you have heard that there is some concern here about your fellow-author, Max Dorra. He has not been seen since the day of my lecture. There are fears for his safety and the police are investigating. Some people say he left the Sorbonne in your company, and it is possible that French detectives may wish to interview you. I thought in courtesy I should let you know. Perhaps you can throw some light on the matter.”

Of course I threw no light on the matter. I was interviewed next day by a British detective who said he was making inquiries on behalf of Interpol. I signed a short statement confirming that I had escorted Dorra to the BILIPO where he proposed to read my story.

I was not troubled again.

In Paris, however, strange things were happening. The staff on the upper floor at the BILIPO became conscious of an unpleasant smell invading their refined atmosphere of constant temperature and humidity. The odour seemed to come from the area of the sliding shelves where the foreign books were stored. They moved one of the shelves and noticed some fragments of glass and wire that turned out to be a pair of broken spectacles. Alarmed at what they might find behind the next shelf, they called the police.

It was necessarily a slow process. The forensic team had to recover all the bits of broken glass and test all the shelving for DNA traces and fingerprints before rolling aside the next stack to see what lay behind. They fully expected to find a corpse.

When, eventually, they had all their “evidence” and moved the stack of shelves aside, they found only a plastic bag containing an over-ripe Roquefort cheese.

“You’re the victim of a hoax,” the senior detective told C.C., the BILIPO director, as if the police themselves had not been fooled at all.

“This Dr Dorra,” said another of the police team. “Is he a practical joker?”

“I couldn’t tell you. We only saw him once. He’s a writer.”

“Was he wearing glasses?”

“Yes.”

“What kind of thing does he write?”

“Crime stories.”

“Devious, ingenious, tricky?”

“All of those.”

“Ha.” This discovery seemed to have a discouraging effect on the police. They started losing interest in Max Dorra. From that point on, they listed him as a missing person, but they scaled down the investigation into his disappearance.


***

Late the following year, I had a phone call from Professor G.:

“I thought you’d be interested in a new development in the Max Dorra disappearance.”

My stomach gave a lurch, but I made sure my voice was steady. “What’s happened?”

“He’s still missing.”

Thank God for that, I thought.

“But they published a picture of him in one of those magazines that list missing persons. When I saw it, I was thrown into confusion. The picture isn’t anything like the man who came to the lecture.”

“I expect they got the captions mixed.”

“No. I checked with his publisher. I can only conclude that the man you and I met – the man claiming to be Dorra – was an impostor.”

“How extraordinary.”

“Why anyone should wish to pose as a writer and attend a rather esoteric lecture is a mystery.”

“It defies explanation,” I said convincingly.

“It makes me wonder if something happened to Dorra before the lecture took place.”

He was getting too close to the truth for my peace of mind. “I shouldn’t think so.”

I didn’t enlighten the professor. I didn’t tell him I had arranged to meet Max Dorra the evening before the lecture, and that his body now lay deep in the Seine, weighted down with scaffolding bolts. Nor did I tell him that my translator-friend Gérard had been only too willing to play the part of Dorra. Pity the poor translators. They are starved of the attention they deserve. Gérard had savoured the admiring glances of the BILIPO staff when he arrived with the cheese and took the elevator to the upper floor and planted it there with the spectacles. Knowing the secret combination, he left without drawing attention to himself, a nonentity once more.

“I doubt if we’ll ever know the truth,” said the professor.

“If there were no mysteries, you and I would be out of a job,” I said.

“One other thing,” he added, “and quite unconnected with this. Did you give any consideration to my suggestion?”

“What was that?”

“The story in which one author kills another.”

“Impossible,” I said. “It will never be written.”

Notes

1  La nouvelle « Murdering Max » a été publiée, avec une introduction de François Gallix « Reader you murdered him », dans le numéro du soixantième anniversaire de Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine sept./oct. 2001 (46-71).

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