Crime story

Here are some thoughts on the crime story and its function and traditions. I have tried to suggest possibilities, as I lack the skills to expound in detail.

1 Will of the gods
Some time shortly after 1200 BC in northern Greece a nobleman, son of the king of Corinth, was travelling between Corinth and Thebes when he met a traveller going in the opposite direction. The travellers met at a narrow pass, where three roads crossed (the traditional mark of an entrance to the underworld), and one must step aside to allow the other to pass. A quarrel ensued over precedence, both being on urgent business, and one traveller fought with the other. Accidentally, one was killed.

The slain man was called Laius, who was king of Thebes. To the survivor, whose name was Oidipous (later translated into Latin as Oedipus), it was regrettable, but also an escape from a fear he had carried since childhood. Prophets had foretold he was to kill his father and marry his mother. He had fled Corinth to avoid this fate. Now he had killed, but a stranger, not his father. Oidipous came to Thebes, and found it oppressed by a monster who killed all who could not answer a question it put to them. Until Oidipous came, none could, but Oidipous answered the riddle and was able to kill the monster, called the Sphinx (both monster and city were named after places in Egypt, which had founded the Greek city many centuries ago). Oidipous married Laius’ widow Jocasta, and became king of Thebes.

But a time came when the King of Corinth, Polybos, died. Oidipous learned then that he was not the natural but the adopted son of Polybos and his wife Merope. Later still he found out his natural parents were Laius and Jocasta. The prophets had told Laius he would be killed by his son, and so he had attempted to kill that son, Oidipous, by leaving him to die by starvation and exposure in a wild place on a mountain side. The boy had been rescued, taken to Corinth, and eventually adopted by the king and queen, who were childless.

Oidipous was a son who must kill his father to attain the kingship, like the kings Theseos, Jason and Perseos, as noted by James Frazer in The Golden Bough.

The god Apollo had made a prophecy, and it had come to pass, despite Oidipous’ efforts to evade it. His fear could not avert his fate. For centuries Oidipous’ story was a potent example of how fate ruled men’s lives, of how, by using all his intelligence, a man in the end was only able to encompass the very thing he feared, for it was the will of the gods.

The story of Oedipous was told by many poets, but the most famous version, one that survives today, was written and produced in 429 BC by the Athenian Sophokles, just two years after the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War with Sparta. This play was admired by Aristotle, who discussed it in his Poetics of 335 BC, a work which dealt with tragedy, comedy, satyr plays, dithyramb, epic and lyric poetry (only the section on tragedy survives).

Aristotle draws attention to the deployment of tragic irony in the play, whereby the impact of many scenes is made more tragic by the knowledge that the audience to the play have that the characters in the scene are not aware of. The audience know who Oidipous’ true parents are (it was a familiar story) but Oidipous only gradually becomes aware of the truth. This adds considerably to the tragic message of the play, that we cannot avoid what we fear, but must endure the will of the gods. This is an emotional experience to the audience watching the play: they realise that what was true for Oidipous is true for them. This experience Aristotle called katharsis, a purging of the psyche through the actions of the emotions of pity and terror. The question asked in both the myth and Sophokles’ treatment of it is, why has Oidipous killed Laius? Is the cause divine or irrational? Both give rise to fear, but how can the fear be allayed? The answer is found in experiencing the play.

Katharsis has been expressed in Western culture mostly in a religious context. We have been able to come to terms with what we fear,such as our own deaths, by ritual acts of faith and belief in a life after death, in the presence of a fatherly, caring deity and the company of our loved ones who have died before us. The Greek drama of Sophokes and his fellow dramatists was also a religious rite, though of a very different religion to ours.

2 Costs of civilisation
Every invention of mankind that has transformed the natural world: fire, cookery, clothing, the wheel, the spear; has traumatised the natural being that man once was. The more separate from the natural world, the more human beings needed a therapy, a religion, a katharsis to redress the balance. The most disruptive period in mankind’s history occurred mid 19th century: the Industrial Revolution. Man’s relationship to his natural environment was totally destroyed in some parts of Europe. With it was destroyed much of the certainty of the balm of religion. New forms that enabled katharsis came to the fore.

Literature is a kind of therapy through which human beings seek integration with their world. In literature a new kind of hero now arose: Nietzche’s Superman (1885), Kafka’s K (1910-20), Camus’ Outsider (1942). Also new, and distinct from these dramatisations of the attitude of defiance, uncertainty and alienation was a literature whose heroes dealt with fear, with fear of the most terrifying monster, the human being, the Sphinx within. These were the heirs of Oidipous, and they surfaced in the crime story of Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Crime and Punishment, 1866), Wilkie Collins (The Moonstone, 1868), Robert Louis Stevenson (Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, 1886), and Conan Doyle (A Study in Scarlet, 1887) in the late 19th century. These novels were concerned with heroes who experienced, and dealt with, the emotion of fear. As the twentieth century developed, it became evident that fear had become a major part of human life in city and country: fear of the irrational unmasked by Freud; and fear of violence erupting in city streets and on the battlefields of war, religion and politics.

In the 19th century novels I have referred to there is expressed two ways of examining the emotion of fear. The first is to externalise it: the fear is out there, in the society portrayed, in the figure of the criminal (such as Jack the Ripper). Far from examining the criminal, detective fiction vilifies him or her, and the katharsis of the book’s action is the tracking down and punishment of the criminal. Sherlock Holmes is the great defender of stability, and fear is dealt with by confining the criminal behind bars. The second way of examining fear is the opposite to this: it is to internalise it. Novels that deal with this internalised fear are crime stories. Their katharsis is to understand the internal pressures that cause the protagonist to commit a crime of violence. The end in these kind of books is not a solution, but an awareness of how violent instability works.

Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov, and The Double, like their successors Dr Jekyll, the subjects of Simenon’s romans dur, and the ambivalent heroes of the later books of Patricia Highsmith (such as the Ripley series) and Eric Ambler (the Arthur Simpson books) all experience fear, and it’s just as much fear of themselves as of the violent, corrupt and treacherous world they live in. The crime stories of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald likewise admit the prevalence of corruption and violence in the society they depict. Marlowe and Archer put up a moral defence against this, but it is one that can’t prevail, and the defenders of law and order are frighteningly similar to the criminals they encounter. These detectives are part of the problem, but the only kind of heroes who can survive in the milieu depicted in their stories. Read any of these books and you the reader become aware how complicit you are with the problem, how close you are to the criminal. The demarcation line between criminal and law abiding citizen, drawn quite strictly in the detective story, is crossed in the crime story, and the moral standard alluded to becomes subjective.

“The exploration of criminal reality has a natural link with the pursuit of the irrational”. Gavin Lambert, The Dangerous Edge (Barrie & Jenkins 1975. The book deals with Collins, Doyle, Ambler, Simenon, Chandler and Hitchcock). The irrational is both the antithesis of morality, beyond good and evil, and also the location of the reader’s true self. Only we know how irrational we are: how much morality is mere public show, convention, social glue that explains nothing.

Back in July 2008 I had a dream about this, and this is what I wrote later about the dream: ‘I am exploring the idea that life is a murder mystery. I am the detective, but I am also the victim. Perhaps I am the murderer too. Anyhow a crime has been committed by persons unknown. I only know he uses the alias ‘god’. I know he has committed many murders, but each of the clues I discover exonerates him/me. How can this be? One cannot exit the maze by deciding to turn either left or right at the next turning. I have a niggling doubt there must be crime for there to be salvation. Neither crime nor salvation seem really necessary but here I must trust god. It seems worthwhile to aim to have compassion for god, just as I hope god has compassion for me. I would believe the process we both go through is a necessary one though I cannot yet find out for whom of us two it is so’.

If the detective story affirms our social being, the crime story explores our true nature. The villain may be a psychopath, deluded, conceited, blind to human feelings of compassion and pity, like the oily Count Fosco of Wilkie Collins’ Woman in White, Gutman in Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (memorably played by Sydney Greenstreet in Huston’s film version), or the German agent Moeller in Ambler’s Journey Into Fear. But these characters serve also to explain the mysterious workings of Fate, which seems alarmingly immoral. As Wilde puts it: “the good ended up happily, the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means”. Or the story in Somerset Maugham, he says based on a real person, of the thief and adulterer who grows rich and retires to a happy life on a South Sea island. We all have a suspicion that if bad men grow rich, that might be all there is.

Determinism has allied itself with the biological sciences to demonstrate that what we think, feel and value is all the result of automatic mechanisms of the body. From this point of view morality is a question of digestion. If you are well off and well fed, you can afford morality. If you are poor, only fear keeps you honest. From this standpoint we are all criminals if we can get away with it. The only real crime is being caught. In a world of criminals, the honest man is the one victimised.

Psychology has opened up another morass. We are all driven by hidden compulsions, which we keep carefully hidden from ourselves. Each person is delusional, creating the kind of world they are comfortable in and excluding any inconvenient truth. The criminal is as true to their compulsion or psychosis as the law abiding citizen is to their placebo of morality. Should we talk of crime or of illness, or just of differing points of view? The deductive genius of Sherlock is countered by the unhappy, misogynist drug addict Holmes, the weaver of mysteries and their solutions, Conan Doyle, waits patiently at the bottom of his garden for the fairies to appear.

Could crime be the result of living an unreal, fantasy life, non instinctual, divorced from our natural environment, nurtured instead by media stimulation and artificial foods, separated from the intimate contact with fellow men? A necessary by-product of big business, like war?

If crime is irrational, can we ever understand that irrationality? Can there be a solution?

3 Violence in the city
In the slums of Saint Petersburg in nineteenth century Russia the poor lived crowded and deprived in miserable tenements. Two of these meet one hot summer evening, one a conscience ridden student called Raskolnikov, the other a miserly, exploitative pawn broker, Alyona Ivanovna. Raskolnikov suffers from Pilate’s dilemma: is it just for one man to die for the good of the people? Can any person answer such a question? Unfortunately, Raskolnikov attempts to answer it, and to act on his answer. A human being who makes others suffer deserves to die (would you have assassinated Hitler?). He kills the pawn broker, with an axe. Judge, jury, executioner, he is also murderer, and, as it turns out, detective, the mirror of the real detective, as most criminals are. Misled by his perceptions of the career of Napoleon, purely subjective, he kills. While Oidipous sought to avoid the will of his god, Raskolnikov assumes the role of god in assigning punishment. But Nemesis, as the Greeks realised, is in the act itself. As soon as he has killed, Raskolnikov begins to suffer, to punish himself. The factor he has ignored is his irrational self, and the emerging emotion of guilt, which consumes him after the murder. This account of a crime is hallucinatory but real, told with an emotional power that places the axe in your hand and the jolt of the blow in your muscles and the blood shed on your clothes. Like the regret that suicides are alleged to feel, it is too late to turn back for Raskolnikov. Has the morality he subscribes to misled him? Taking the law into your own hands, it turns out, makes you a criminal. If the crime is its punishment, then could it be justified?

The action, as in most crime stories, takes place in a city, the prison that engenders the crime. The drama is played out with no gods whose will must be obeyed, whose decisions cannot be subverted. It all happens inside Raskilnikov. Within that sphere, morality and justification, guilt and fear, recrimination and regret are all subjective. As Philip K Dick would say, what is real?

Regrettably, Dostoyevsky tacked on a lot more to this novel than was called for, making it the most flawed of his major works. He needed money badly, and spun the book out as much as he could. And it is adulterated with a fervid yet synthetic morality that confuses the impact of the first half of the story without adding anything to the tale but reassurance. God appears only to offer salvation, almost bought into being by the commission of the crime. This murky, emotional and subjective morality is at the opposite extreme to the clear, sharply defined and monolithic, merciless movement of Sophokles’ god.

Like Oidipous, Raskilnikov attempts to avoid what he sees as injustice, but his actions only leave him at the heart of it. Like Oidipous he administers his own punishment by committing a crime. The difference seems to be that in the world of Oidipous the gods hold sway. But Greek religion was no panacea. The gods all too often stood for the irrational, of that beyond the comprehension of man. They were not there for comfort. The Greeks separated their perception of the irrational, externalised it, made it into their idea of the gods, remote, ever present, implacable, powerful. Dostoyevsky was one of the first to look at the irrational as it exists within us all, influencing all our actions, good and bad.

Raskolnikov had the same self justification as Lenin, and after him, Stalin. These two men strove to create the people’s utopia. Or as Hitler, who strove to purify the race and end war profiteering. The self justification in all cases proved to be delusory.

The similarities between the action of Dostoyevsky’s book and Sophokles’ play tell us a lot about human fears and insecurities. The differences between the two works reveal much of the inner workings of twentieth century history. Raskolnikov went on to become a mere media celebrity, the axe murderer. Sophokles would have thought he had been framed.

4 An explanation
In Mycenean Greece and nineteenth century Saint Petersburg the fear was the same: that there may be no reason for our suffering. Fear and suffering have had to be explained, then as now. And so we invented the crime story.

©2011 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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