Golden Age of Detective Fiction Forum

November 23, 2008

Christie’s “Lord Edgware Dies” – is it fair play?

Filed under: Agatha Christie,Fair Play — Jon @ 2:07 am

I’ve recently reread Christie’s “Lord Edgware Dies” (aka “Thirteen at Dinner”) and was again troubled by the question of whether one of the key moments of misdirection is fair.

Hastings has narrated a scene between Poirot and Jane Wilkinson which concludes as follows. [Jane Wilkinson is speaking.]

“‘I shall always think you were wonderful.’

“I only saw Jane Wilkinson twice again. Once on the stage, once when I sat opposite her at a luncheon party. I always think of her as I saw her then, absorbed heart and soul in clothes . . . ” etc.

The tone of this passage is brilliantly designed to be valedictory. By ending with a line of dialogue that sounds like an envoi, and then recounting how he only sat opposite her once at “a luncheon,” Hastings is giving the impression that Jane Wilkinson will vanish from our story. But of course she doesn’t — she’s the culprit.

Brilliant, yes — but fair? I can’t decide. As Hastings somewhat sheepishly declares at the novel’s end, he was “suddenly recalled to the Argentine” and thus never saw Jane Wilkinson at her trial. Hmm! And while it’s true that he literally “sat opposite her at a luncheon party,” this does not happen in some unspecified future but is instead a crucial moment in our story, as JW provides an essential clue in a line of dialogue which Hastings overhears — as does another character who JW then murders. (Of course, a sharp reader, arriving at this moment, might realize that this has to be the luncheon to which Hastings earlier referred, and conceivably question the valedictory tone of the rest of Hastings’ statement.)

Now if Hastings were Dr. Sheppard, doing his best to mislead, that would be one thing. But if ever there was a reliable (if dense) narrator, it is Hastings. Can we really credit him with the cleverness to fool us like this? Or are we to believe that he’s so dense that he doesn’t realize the effect of his words? No, that’s surely impossible, since he’s at any rate smart enough to write up Poirot’s cases so they read like mysteries, with the important facts concealed, etc. He would have to know what he was doing, in writing that dubious passage. In short, the problem is that Christie decides to endow Hastings with her own brilliance here, just for a moment. She lets him make an observation that exceeds his function as a narrator. It has no narrative weight whatsoever — it’s strictly personal, so to speak. Its only purpose is misdirection, something I can’t recall Hastings ever doing elsewhere.

So, fair or not? As I said, I’m honestly not sure. Has anyone else ever had doubts about Christie’s legerdemain here?


September 3, 2008

Fairness and narration

Filed under: Agatha Christie,Fair Play,John Dickson Carr — Jon @ 9:12 pm

I’m probably going to be under fire for this, but I don’t think Seeing is Believing is unfair. An “established fact” is not necessarily a true one.. Natural science is a field of knowledge in which this is evident: the established facts of yesterday are today known (or supposed!) to be false. The same can be said of History. In more prosaic terms, even a fact proven in court may, after all, turn out to be false.

In Seeing is Believing, it is not the narrator that establishes the fact. The narrator merely states that the fact was established. Carr would have been unfair if, for instance, any of the evidence the narrator explicitly states as reliable in paragraphs 3-5 of Chapter I of The Hollow Man would in the end turn out to be false.

I agree this is a borderline case. But I believe it is pure, legitimate misdirection. A puzzle plot mystery is a battle of wits between author and reader in which the reader must be prepared for misdirection from the narrator; a novel is made of words, and words, being subject to multiple (and wrong) interpretations, are therefore a legitimate means of misdirection.

This doesn’t mean I hold Carr as a fair-play saint. In The Man Who Could Not Shudder, one of the characters tells a lie that is so unmotivated the reader has no chance of perceiving it as a lie. In And So To Murder, H.M. explicitly clears the killer – this could have been fair-play if the reader had any element to detect that H.M could be lying, which is not the case. There are also other minor instances. But I stick to Seeing is Believing.

Scott writes: «However, though Carr admitted to approving of and admiring brilliant violations of his Golden Maxim, THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD in fact *never did* violate his maxim that: “The criminal shall never turn out to be […] any character whose thoughts we have been allowed to share.”

I admit I’m confused by this. By definition, the reader is always allowed to share the thougths of a homodiegetic narrator (that is, one who is a character in the story), as the narration necessarily pressuposes the subjective perceptions (= thoughts) of the narrator. Therefore, Carr’s maxim directly invalidates the homodiegetic narrator as criminal. But it does more: it also invalidates the solution in which the culprit turns out to be a character whose thoughts have been revealed by an omniscient narrator, or by a heterodiegetic internal character focaliser (that is, a character that works as focus of perception, a device frequently used by Carr). For instance, in Brand’s Heads you Lose, which I’ve recently read, the reader is allowed to share the thoughts (and dreams) of the killer about his crimes without mentioning the fact that it wasactually he whodunnit. by Carr’s rule (and also by my standard), this is totally unfair. In the end, Brand explains that the criminal was insane and, when thinking about the crimes, he wasnt’t aware he had comitted them – this would provide an explanation for the fact that the omniscient narrator “forgot” to mention that slight detail. But it still is unfair because the reader is not supplied with evidence to point that the murderer might be mad (and, to make things worse, the supposed mental illness provided by Brand is total rubbish). In Carr’s The Emperor Snuff Box, a trick of similar scope is also played, but fairly and brilliantly: we see the facts trough the eyes of Eve Neill (the internal focalizer) and are therefore lead to believe her perception of them, which ends up being false (as a matter of fact this is so fair that I’ve spotted it).

Sayers article is interesting, but she confuses author and narrator. Only the narrator can vouchsafe anything in a narrtive, not the author. Therefore, it seems we must distinguish between:

a) Position of the narrator in relation to the narrative: homodiegetic and heterodiegetic narrator. A heterodiegetic narrator must always tell the truth. But he/she is not obliged to tell anything, or to tell everything in the easiest way possible for the reader. If so, there would be no puzzle-plot mystery stories. This is why I believe Seeing is believing is fair. A Portuguese idiom goes: “Com a verdade me enganas” — it’s difficult to translate but Spanish-language readers will surely understand it; the point is that “Truthfulness may deceive”. This is indeed at the core of classic detective fiction; sometimes, as in Seeing is Believing, it may be stretched, but this is only a quantitative deviation, not a qualitative one, from the standard narrative devices used in all puzzle-plot detective fiction. A homodiegetic narrator may or may not tell the truth: I agree with Sayers on this, which I believe is contrary to the Carr Maxim. An extreme, doubtful case would be that of the narrator-detective-criminal.

b) Point of view: omniscient narrator and internal character focaliser. Here I am refering to heterodiegetic narrators (in fact, except in experimental literature, omniscients narrators are by definition heterodiegetic narrators). Following Carr, omniscient narrators shall not probe into the thoughts of the culprit. This is because, since the omniscient narrator is supposed to simultaneously know everything and tell the truth, there would be no excuse for not revealing who commited the crime before the time that is considered proper to the narrative. In order not to incurr in a narrative assymetry (the narrator probes the thoughts of some, but not of all characters) and in order not to disclose the culprit’s identity to the intelligent reader (the culprit must be one of the characters whose thoughts have not been probed into), from this seems to follow that, ideally, an omniscient narrator should not probe into the inner thoughts of any character. This is extremely difficult to do, technically speaking. I believe this is why Carr’s earlier books mostly use internal character focalisers; his later books may be weaker in many aspects but as soon as he managed to work well with an omniscient narrator within the framework of his own maxims he practically abandoned the internal character focalisers tecnique. I also believe this is why reading some modern authors that try to keep within the framework of the puzzle story while having concerns of “psychological density”, like PD James, is so uncomfortable for readers used to GAD standards. As to internal character focalisers, and still according to Carr, since their thoughts are by definition probed into by the narrator, they shall not be the culprits. I agree with Carr on all of this. In fact, I believe standards of narratorial fair-play must be more demanding in the case of a heterodiegetic narrator, because in this case the narrative is supposed to have a higher degree of objectivity, than in the case of an homodiegetic narrator.. Dr. Sheppard may be permitted to lie or omit not no reveal his guilt, but an objective narratorial instance has no such excuse.

Henrique Valle

May 18, 2008

The Sins of the Saint: Racism in GK Chesterton

I’ve been reading this topic with great interest, particularly since I was indirectly responsible for starting it! My views:  I am, like Henrique (welcome!), a committed Chestertonian. He is, as many of you are by now wearily aware, my favourite detective writer. (The Innocence ranks, in my opinion, alongside Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris, Dumas’s Comte de Monte Cristo, and Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend.) Indeed, I seriously considered doing my Master’s on him.

Mike [Grost] (whose work I respect) overstates Chesterton’s bigotry. There is no doubt that GKC saw non-Caucasians as ‘different’ and ‘exotic’*, and was prejudiced, to some degree, against Jews and blacks.  [*: All cultures, whether British, Chinese or Esquimaux, see their culture as the ‘norm’, and other cultures as differing from it. For most people nowadays, happily, other cultures are ‘different but equal’, rather than ‘different and inferior’.]  However!  Chesterton’s ‘bigotry’ is complex, and has a number of different causes. He was arguably racially prejudiced against blacks (recurring imagery of savages, cannibals and apes), but vehemently against violence or discrimination (see Father Brown’s condemnation of lynching in “The God of the Gongs”).  He was not racially prejudiced against Indians, but disliked Hinduism and Buddhism, on philosophical grounds. He saw Buddhist renunciation of the world and of the will as ‘despair’, and disliked the paganism of Asia (see Everlasting Man).

His attitude to Jews is more complex. The Marconi scandal (prominent public figures, amongst them several Jews, were guilty of insider trading) and Godfrey Isaacs’s subsequent successful suit of his brother Cecil made him dislike Jews in business and politics. However, as Henrique pointed out, Chesterton strongly opposed the Nazi persecution of the Jews and supported the idea of a Jewish homeland. (See also

Some of the examples Mike cited are convincing, although are often not enough to mar the story. Most of them, however, are more complex than he suggests, deal with minor characters, or simply do not hold up.  Anti-black “The Man in the Passage” has a half-black actor, Isidore Bruno. The narrator compares him to ‘a barbaric god’ (p 210), and states that he looks at Aurora Rome with ‘all the appetite of a savage and a spoilt child’ (p 211). However, there are also references to English prejudice. A policeman calls him ‘a cannibal sort of chap’ (p 214), and, at the trial, the counsel for the prosecution ‘got it into his head (mostly by some ramifications of his family’s religion) that Father Brown was on the side of the prisoner, because the prisoner was wicked and foreign and even partly black’. More complex than it appears. A ‘savage’ half-black character, but also reveals English prejudice.

“The Perishing of the Pendragons” has two black servants, henchmen of the villain. Their ‘tight uniforms of yellow’ make Father Brown think of canaries (pp 263 – 64). More dubious is the climactic conflagration, where they attack the heroes with cutlasses. “In the blood-red glare, with their black faces and yellow figures, they looked like devils carrying instruments of torture” (p 267). Racial prejudice, granted – but does it really mar the story?

“The God of the Gongs” is famous for Nigger Ned, the black boxer who is also head of a Voodoo cult. There is no denying that the following passage is racist: ‘That negro who has just swaggered out is one of the most dangerous men on earth, for he has the brains of a European, with the instincts of a cannibal. He has turned what was clean, common-sense butchery among his fellow-barbarians into a very modern and scientific secret society of assassins…’ (p 280) Nor is the description of ‘the fashionable negro…, his eyeballs rolling, his silk hat still insolently tilted on his head’ and ‘his apish teeth’ (p 279) acceptable to modern audiences. However, there is more going on here. Father Brown condemns lynching as a ‘work of hell’, in sharp contrast to Flambeau’s remark ‘sometimes I’m not surprised that they lynch them’, a remark occasioned, admittedly, by ‘an attitude we must always remember when we talk of racial prejudices: something innocent and insolent – the cake walk’ (p 275). Father Brown comments on English prejudice, and the tendency to confuse ‘Italians’ and ‘octoroons and African half-bloods of various shades’ – ‘I fear we English think all foreigners are much the same so long as they are dark and dirty…’ (p 281). The revelation of the villain’s activities plunges England into a state of racist paranoia: Persons of a figure remotely reconcilable with his were subjected to quite extraordinary inquisitions, made to scrub their faces before going on board ship, as if each white complexion were made up like a mask of grease-paint. Every negro in England was put under special regulations and made to report himself; the outgoing ships would no more have taken a nigger than a basilisk… The Black Man meant in England almost what he once meant in Scotland. While there is racism in the treatment of the murderer, the passage also indicates contempt for racism. All the attempts, both popular and official, to catch the killer are unsuccessful (the number of people falsely questioned), and driven by an unreasoning fear, rather than by justified precaution. The remark about passengers being forced to scrub their faces is a reversal of the belief that black pigmentation will rub off. Indeed, Ned disguises himself not as a white, but as a ‘nigger minstrel’, secure in the knowledge that no one will bother to look for a black man under a black face. Since those bands were formed of white men blacked up, this could be taken as an indication that race is to some degree unimportant (as one would hope from a Catholic author who maintained that “all men matter…to God”), with whites blacking up, blacks blacking up, and whites suspected to be blacks whiting up—a rather dizzying merry-go-round of colour.  Anti-Jewish

“The Queer Feet” has a Jewish hotel proprietor. He is ‘a kind man, and had also that bad imitation of kindness, the dislike of any difficulty or scene… It is a mark of the magnificent tolerance of Mr. Lever that he permitted this holy place [the hotel] to be for about half an hour profaned by a mere priest, scribbling away on a paper’. While ironic, it is the magnificent respectability of Lever and his hotel, which tries to shut out the realities of death, rather than his race, which is being satirised. His accent thickens under stress, no doubt because his mother tongue was Yiddish or Hebrew (p 48). The object of Chesterton’s scorn in this story, however, is not the Jewish Mr. Lever, but the Establishment plutocrats, who represent ‘the combination of modern humanitarianism with the horrible modern abyss between the souls of the rich and the poor’. They ‘could not bear a poor man near to them, either as a slave or a friend. That something had gone wrong with the servants was merely a dull, hot embarrassment’ (p 47). Their souls are described as ‘a small dried pea’ (p 49). Father Brown rebukes them: ‘Odd, isn’t it, … that a thief and a vagabond should repent, when so many who are rich and secure remain hard and frivolous, and without fruit for God or man?’ (p 50). Anti-Semitism minor at worst.

“The Duel of Dr. Hirsch” is, in my opinion, not anti-Semitic. Instead, Dr. Hirsch’s plot is to create anti-Jewish sentiment, made clear by Father Brown’s reaction to Valognes’s remark: ‘I believe it’s some plot! … some plot of the Jews and Freemasons. It’s meant to work up glory for Hirsch…’ (p 204). His Jewish attributes (e.g., red hair) are make-up adopted by the villain. Not anti-Semitic.  The villain in “The Purple Wig”, Isaac Green, is a crooked lawyer, ex-moneylender and pawnbroker (both trades associated with Jews). The following passage, which condemns Green, is arguably anti-Semitic: This man used the old feudal fables – probably, in his snobbish soul, really envied and admired them. So that thousands of poor English people trembled before a mysterious chieftain with an ancient destiny and a diadem of evil stars – when they are really trembling before a guttersnipe who was a pettifogger and a pawnbroker not twelve years ago. I think it very typical of the real case against our aristocracy as it is, and as it will be till God sends us braver men. (p 254) At the same time, the story criticises a miscarriage of justice: the government has awarded the title and estate to a crook. Charge of anti-Semitism stands. Possibly influenced by Marconi scandal.

As Curt has already said, “The Curse of the Golden Cross” has a much too rosy view of Jews in mediaeval England, who were, after all, expelled by Edward I in 1290 (later readmitted by Cromwell, who wanted to hasten the Second Coming). Some anti-Semitic prejudice here. Anti-Semitism present, as well as a rather fanciful idea of history!

“The Actor and the Alibi” has a Jewish actor, but is not anti-Semitic. There are two references to his being Jewish: It contained Mandeville’s second walking gentleman, carrying on the not yet wholly vanished tradition of Charles’s Friend, a dark, curly-haired youth of somewhat Semitic profile bearing the name of Aubrey Vernon. (p 513) ‘There was that amiable Jew who calls himself Aubrey Vernon, he’s out of it…’ (p 521) Anti-Semitism not present.

“The Ghost of Gideon Wise” has two unsympathetic Jewish characters, the millionaire Stein (a monopolist) and the revolutionary Elias (described as a ‘sneering Jew’ on p 449, and later, by a policeman, as a ‘“narrow-faced rascal … a more creepy, cold-blooded, sneering devil I never saw”’ [452-53]). Anti-Semitic, but for business reasons (Marconi again?).   Anti-Oriental

“The Wrong Shape” has an Indian mystic, who longs for nihilism and the renunciation of the will (p 96) – a philosophy Chesterton loathed as despair (see The Everlasting Man). Father Brown dislikes Eastern art, because ‘the colours are intoxicatingly lovely; but the shapes are mean and bad – deliberately mean and bad’ (p 92). Philosophically based dislike of Oriental religions.  “The Red Moon of Meru” has another Indian mystic. Father Brown comments on prejudice: ‘Our prejudices seem to cut opposite ways,’ said Father Brown. ‘You excuse his being brown because he is brahminical; and I excuse his being brahminical because he is brown. Frankly, I don’t care for spiritual powers much myself. I’ve got much more sympathy with spiritual weaknesses. But I can’t see why anybody should dislike him merely because he is the same beautiful colour as copper, or coffee, or nut-brown ale, or those jolly peat-streams in the North. But then,’ he added, looking across at the lady and screwing up his eyes, ‘I suppose I’m prejudiced in favour of anything that’s called brown.’ (p 556) However, as stated above, Chesterton disliked Eastern philosophies, as the following makes clear: ‘We, whose fathers at least were Christians, who have grown up under those mediaeval arches even if we bedizen them with all the demons in Asia –we have the very opposite ambition and the very opposite shame’ (566-67). Philosophically based dislike of Oriental religions. No colour prejudice.

There is a half-caste servant in “The Three Tools of Death”. There is an unfortunate line on p 163 (‘His slits of eyes almost faded from his face in one fat Chinese sneer’), but he is a minor character. Minor character. Does it mar the story as a whole?

Norman Drage in “The Arrow of Heaven” is part Asian. ‘Something in his yellow face was almost Asiatic, even Chinese; and his conversation seemed to consist of stratified layers of irony’ (p 334). Father Brown finds him in a disreputable state in a Chinese restaurant. Charge of racism has some truth. Does it mar the story as a whole?

“The Quick One” has a Muslim, ‘a brown Asiatic in a green turban … a distinguished Moslem (one of whose names was Akbar and the rest an untranslatable ululation of Allah with attributes)’ (p 609), who tries to kill a man when Mahomet is insulted, for which his intended victim praises him and acknowledges that he was in the wrong. Far more dubious is the fact that the victim, who hates Jews (607), is described by Father Brown as a man ‘who might have saved England’ (613). Complex.

There is the threat of an Indian curse in “The Salad of Colonel Cray”, but this is really only exotic colouring, in the manner of Doyle.   Anti-native American

This accusation levelled against “The Resurrection of Father Brown” isn’t convincing. If anything, Chesterton is condemning the American reporter Saul Snaith for his prejudice (pp 319 – 21). However, there is certainly some racism in the depiction of the part-African Alvarez: Africa of the forests looked out of the eyes of Alvarez the hybrid adventurer; and Race fancied he could see suddenly that the man was after all a barbarian, who could not control himself to the end; one might guess that all his “illuminated” transcendentalism had a touch of Voodoo. (p 328) Complex. Racism in character of Alvarez, but Mike’s original charge isn’t supported – rather the reverse.  Anti-gay

“The Chief Mourner of Marne” has a David / Jonathan relationship, but I doubt whether this is homosexuality. “The Worst Crime in the World” – Is Mme Grunov a lesbian? She’s married. Neither are convincing. Certainly nothing like Josephine Bell’s genuinely homophobic Summer School Mystery.

Now, by our standards, many of Chesterton’s remarks come across as racially prejudiced. This is part of his worldview, and part of the society into which he was born. There’s less prejudice in Chesterton than, say, MacDonald’s White Crow (the eponymous villain is an albino negro, who looks just like us, and whose brain is superior to the white man’s – and who can also be identified in the dark by his smell, and who has sex with a thoroughly depraved, needless to say, white woman) or Burton Stevenson’s Gloved Hand. In this last, the murderers are wicked because they’re Hindu, and want to convert other people to Hinduism, whereas, while GKC disliked Hinduism and Buddhism from a philosophical standpoint (see The Everlasting Man), the Hindus in “The Wrong Shape” and “The Red Moon of Meru” are used by Anglo villains as scapegoats. Many writers of the time also had racist views. In Death in the Clouds, for instance, two of Agatha Christie’s characters discover that their common interests include ‘a dislike of negroes’ (a prejudice which she lost in her late works).

The Secret of Chimneys is also anti-Semitic, with “Fat Ikey”, alias “Noseystein”, but later books (3 Act Tragedy, for instance) are not.  My problem with Mike’s argument is that, while there is a racist undercurrent to Chesterton’s stories (although complex or very minor), he confuses the wickedness of a work (a moral quality) with its being badly written or constructed (an aesthetic quality). Now, for Mike, any sign of prejudice or bigotry in a work is enough to condemn it as morally unacceptable.   Now, can great art (or even a good book or play) be the work of someone who had racist views? Obviously. Until the present day, very few people saw those of different races or creeds as equal to their own. Most of the great artists of the Renaissance, for instance, would have blamed the Jews for the murder of Christ.

That does not stop their paintings of the Crucifixion from being powerful art. William Shakespeare, the greatest dramatist in the history of mankind, was demonstrably prejudiced against Jews and blacks, not to mention the Welsh and the Irish (Merry Wives of Windsor, Henry V), and his history plays were used as propaganda by a dynasty whose claim to power was dubious. The Merchant of Venice could be described as doubly culpable, in that it has the Prince of Morocco and what seems the stereotypical Jew, Shylock. However, throughout the nineteenth century, the character was nearly always presented as the sympathetic victim of anti-Semitism. Certainly, Shylock is much more sympathetic than Marlowe’s Jew of Malta. Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist has the character of Fagin, although Dickens denied prejudice against the Jews, since many of the fences in London at the time were Jews, and tried to make amends with the sympathetic Riah in Our Mutual Friend. Evelyn Waugh was famously reactionary, and disliked not merely blacks and Jews, but nearly the whole modern world – and yet his works (including Decline and Fall and Black Mischief) are among the wittiest and sharpest satires in English.

The fact that these works contain passages or sentiments which are unacceptable to modern audiences does not prevent them from being great art.  Much depends on the purpose of the work. There is a difference between the artist’s worldview, and the artist’s purpose in creating the work.  Can propaganda be art? Can a work of art be racist in purpose? A far more difficult question. A work which is meant as propaganda can be powerful, beautiful or intensely moving, or an accomplished art-work. Richard III, of course, is Tudor propaganda, and yet the murderous hunchback is a dynamic and fascinating character, and the play’s representation of the Machiavellian pursuit of power is penetrating. Many critics consider Triumph des Willens to be one of the greatest films ever made, considered purely as direction. Parsifal, which some have argued was written under the influence of Gobineau, has some of the most powerful and sublime music ever composed (amongst its mauvaises quatre heures!).

There is, however, a moral gulf between Wagner’s work, in which the racism is only part of the whole, but not the purpose of the Buhnenweihfestspiel, which is about renunciation and purification, and Riefenstahl’s film, which was propaganda for a criminal regime. The author’s purpose is crucial. That said, I feel much more comfortable listening to Lohengrin or Tannhauser, or even the Ring – and I prefer Meyerbeer (who was Jewish) to all of them.  So what am I saying? That while we should admit the existence of racism or sentiments unpalatable to a modern audience, unless they are the purpose of the work, they are no justification for denouncing a work. Even then, in certain cases, a work of propaganda, or in which racist sentiment played a large part in its conception, can have features which make it worthy of our respect, at least in form, if not in content.


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