150+ essays on literary topics
Reading G.K.Chesterton is like looking through a stained glass window. You can’t, you can only look at it. The book in question being The Innocence of Father Brown, one sentence from that book will serve to show what I mean.
Among the black and breaking groups in that distance was one especially black which did not break – a group of two figures clerically clad.
A writer less obsessively inclined to alliteration would have written simply, ‘Two priests stood out from the crowd,’ but Chesterton doesn’t want us to see the priests, he wants us to see the picture he paints of them.
Chesterton’s words are viscous. The pages of his book are like fly-paper, covered by the time you have finished reading them with dead characters. He came up with a brilliant idea for a character, Father Brown, a Roman Catholic priest who is also an amateur detective, gave him a reformed master criminal called Flambeau for a partner, made one of them very short and the other very tall, but instead of giving them a life of their own, stunned them half to death with highly polished and well aimed words. Chesterton never follows the priest to his parish or shows him doing anything other than solving the crime, which he does entirely through intellectual effort. He might as well be a little bank manager as a little priest.
I have never much enjoyed detective stories. I wonder if this is because I watched Dixon of Dock Green on the television every Saturday when I was a boy and now associate everything in this genre with the simple, childish pleasure of seeing a crime solved and justice done. A.A.Milne dashes it off with great panache in The Red House Mystery, which I wrote about a few weeks ago, just to show that he can. Chesterton makes it an excuse for ostentatious display of his stylistic ability, verbal peacockery. Raymond Chandler does the opposite, giving Philip Marlowe a voice of his own and letting him speak for himself. In The Big Sleep, we see everything through Marlowe’s eyes, which are nothing like stained glass. If we’re stunned, it’s with the butt of a gun, not fancy words. The same is true of Chester Himes, who shows us, in A Rage in Harlem, a different city from a different perspective, that of the victim, Jackson, a short, fat, black man, an innocent, a Candide, living in the worst of all possible worlds and somehow surviving. These American books are the Jacobean comedies and tragedies of the twentieth century, written while English authors were strolling down country lanes.
After Dixon, a few years later and later in the evening, came Maigret. Perhaps for that reason, seeing Maigret as a grown-up version of Dixon, I have never felt inclined to read the books. La danseuse du Gai-Moulin was my first. It was written in 1931 in a French that is even further removed from Chesterton’s English than Chandler’s American. Simenon could be anyone, someone telling a story with just enough detail to stimulate the reader’s imagination, no more than one adjective to a noun or one adverb to a verb and no alliteration. If Chesterton writes like Swinburne and Chandler like Dante, Simenon writes like Caesar. He sticks to the facts. The contest is between Maigret and the reader to put the correct interpretation on the facts as Simenon gives them. That’s it as far as the plot goes, which allows Simenon to give his attention to the other characters, the night-club dancer, the waiter, the youth suspected of murder, his mother and father, his rich friend, etc etc. Simenon’s skill is like that of the twentieth century photographers whose images of Paris streets are so memorable. We don’t know these people, but we would know them anywhere.
Patrick Modiano, this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, goes one step further than Simenon. The contest between detective and reader in his novels remains inconclusive. In the two novels I have read, Dans le café de la jeunesse perdue and Rue des boutiques obscures, there is no crime, only a loss of memory. Nor is there a detective in the usual sense (though the protagonist in the second novel is a private investigator) just someone trying to remember, following clues to his past in the present and going where they lead. Where they lead is where Modiano meets Simenon. Perhaps Baudelaire too, the Baudelaire of Le spleen de Paris, a collector of images from the streets of Paris before the photographers took over.
Crime fiction is at its best in the hands of writers for whom crime is just another way of describing the human condition. The last page, when the detective assembles all the facts in the right order, is the least interesting, the least true to life. That’s why, in Modiano’s novels, there is no last page.
The next post on 4 March will be the first instalment of my short story, ‘Peter’, to be published in six daily instalments.
My next Reader’s Diary will follow on 11 March.