Show cover
Cover of The Metaphysical Shudder of the Detective Novel  (E. Jardon, 2024) Show/hide cover

Crime and Metaphysics

Metaphysics is indefinable as a fact of existence, and the word itself defies definition, but can be illustrated. Any art will do, though poetry and theatre together form the most potent, perhaps, of ingredients. The texture of material life is dense, but sometimes thinner and more transparent, so that at times one can hold up a candle and something of this transparency will be perceived. Ingmar Bergman was sensitive to this truth. I think of the moment in Fanny and Alexander, a work full of such metaphysical glimpses, in which the old actor grimed and costumed as Shakespeare’s Fool, sings the quatrain ‘When that I was and a little tiny boy’ – the lighted candle had been placed on his head and many people wondered why.

Words are poor things and the prose writer has a hard time of it. Language is imprecise and vocabulary inadequate, and those are formidable obstacles to lucid expression or enlightened discussion; today both the spoken and written word are thrown about like garbage. Ease and rapidity of communication have broadened no path towards wisdom: the glut of verbiage makes for mental indigestion, intellectual diarrhoea.The politician obscures his meaning so that he can deny a pronouncement become inexpedient. The businessman employs bad faith to evade a charge of fraudulent description, while the lawyer is praised, and paid, for expertise in verbal chicanery and learned confusions. The scientist claims that numbers are precise, while words are not, takes pride in illiteracy and the invention of meaningless neologisms. The little boy who saw that the emperor had nothing on, and created a scandal by saying so, would now have his simplicity bewildered by breakfast-food advertisements. Science has become schizophrenic, while art has turned into public relations. A professor must pretend ignorance of a commonplace Greek word, historia, meaning enquiry, and be bullied into speaking of ‘her story’…

In this world the metaphysical realities are swept under the carpet. The disturbed mind has ado to struggle with material untruths; if it cannot trust a literal statement how shall it cope with a spiritual content? Paranoia, the mind beside itself, resolves metaphysics, the reality behind matter, into the claim that only matter is real; all else will be inventions of pseudo-Oriental gurus whose abuse of human credulity can be measured in terms of a Swiss bank account. As Dr. Trelawny (genial invention of the novelist Anthony Powell) is fond of saying: ‘The Vision of Visions heals the Blindness of Sight.’

A physicist derived the not-word quark from Lewis Carroll’s not-thing, the snark; at least, this illustrates nescience. In trouble with an indescribable which has neither weight nor dimension, he shows some metaphysical awareness and speaks of its flavours. Crime offers the same difficulty: what is it exactly? In a world where both ‘good’ and ‘evil’ have become quarks, the Flavour of the Month applies. Language, now the toy of journalists or Presidents, was in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries a splendid and precise tool, as witness Milton or Cranmer. Thus Lord Justice Coke, defining the crime of murder: ‘The unlawful killing by a person of sound mind of a reasonable creature, under the King’s Peace, with malice aforethought, express or implied.’ A noble sentence, clear as the note of the tenor bell. Nothing indeed written by subsequent legalists is anything but obfuscation.

Nonetheless we are troubled by this definition. Surely the King’s Peace precludes riot, unrest, war, and do we not live in a chronic state of all three? What is a sound mind? The English legal definition of insanity, still called the McNaghten Rules after a celebrated decision of 1843 based upon the personal prejudices of Queen Victoria, is a notorious farce. The accused in the Moor Murders of 1965 were tried with no reference whatever to their real state of mind. Other countries, while guffawing heartily at Brit Wiglomeration, have not in fact done all that much better. There has been a notable acceleration in meaningless murders, often multiple and without profit or advantage to the author. Neither legal nor medical mind has coped to anyone’s satisfaction. Metaphysics will not explain, nor give comfortingly moral certainties. The candle, upon the head of the Fool, will still lighten our darkness.

As with politics, opinion about crime has a left and a right wing. It is by some people held that crime is no more than the result of bad upbringing and worse environment and could be curable or at least diminishable by the betterment of both; a starry-eyed viewpoint. More and better psychologists, as a remedy against holocausts, is a belief sustained only by psychologists. Others maintain that if only the laws given by God to Moses were properly applied instead of being progressively diluted by weak-kneed lawgivers, everything would be tickety-boo. Punishment is the thing. But strictly for other people (it is arguable that all extremists suffer from their lack of humour). And as with most areas of opinion the populace will be found huddled in the middle. Huddle rhymes with muddle: they prefer not to think at all because when they do – as when something nasty has been seen in the woodshed – the populace becomes vengeful and bloodthirsty. The honest are ashamed of this, recognizing that fear leads always to violence.

Texts of attractive simplicity and reassuring certainty can be found to support whatever shade of opinion, from ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged’ to ‘An eye for an eye.’ Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord: it isn’t quite clear whether right now or in some unspecified hinterland carved above church doors by medieval stonecutters in which we all hastily assume sheep’s clothing while all too recognisably goat-footed. Disquieting, very, and I have seen a Belgian Benedictine, a man with such respect for life he would not squash a slug, tell an Irish peasant audience: ‘You’ll all go to ’Ell.’ Poor theology.

Founded upon fear and irresponsibility, these slogans won’t get us far. When being fearless we have generally been doped by some artificial stimulus: Honour, or the Fatherland; the quick prospect of Paradise and a flow of adrenaline; the fear of being cowardly; the need to know whether one can still spit. Most of us were brave last Thursday, not quite sure whether we will still be so tomorrow. If Death is a big adventure, one would prefer to stay at home and read about it. As any nurse can tell you, some people take themselves in hand, and others do not. Metaphysically speaking, the avoidance of responsibility is a mortal disease.

This is present in early childhood, as when we say it wasn’t I who broke the window, but to learn responsibility is the initiation into adulthood. Avoidance takes sophisticated forms, such as the Good of the State; governments set an extremely bad example, and the collective irresponsibility of administrative bodies is notorious: there is always someone else to blame, and nowadays a computer. It is thus always present in crowds. It feeds holocausts: but we’ve got to get rid of the Jews, ‘everyone agrees.’ It is fed by facile jargon: ‘I must have been insane.’ This is at the root of most crime. ‘Listen – you know – I was just so frustrated.’ It is nourished by the pleasure principle, linked in turn to the fear of death: if I don’t grab the goodies now, there won’t be any later on. Whatever is nice; sex, or pie, or scratching where it tickles, is good for me even if it’s bad for everyone else.

Irresponsibility, this ugly and clumsy word, translates into a characteristic modern attitude, tolerance towards oneself while being intolerant to all else. If thus I am drunk at the wheel of a car and kill someone (this particular lethal weapon is within the reach of all) I will react by suing the liquor store and the garage attendant: they didn’t warn me. While I’m at it, I’ll sue my doctor for malpractise in failing to tell me it might happen, my insurance company for not seeing that I’m the victim, and the police, who weren’t watching the road properly.

This doctrine feeds my vanity. An administration can be bribed, for these people are small fry, thus poor, thus to be despised. Higher up? – everyone needs a favour. A court? – I’ll get a good lawyer. Dear, but money’s no problem – join a syndicate. Bills come in? – sue the syndicate. I feel a bit low? Phone Mrs. Jones, tell her to come over.

We have tried to build safeguards against this, with systems of ethics to control it, but as well defy gravity; we do try to rise but predominantly we sink. For vanity, in the denial of responsibility, will go some way to assuage fear. For a little while. My vanity will lead me to kill a lot of people if this will make my fear easier to bear. It will lead me to think myself intelligent. My sanity will be squabbled over by lawyers, doctors, who think themselves bright but are all morons.

If only it were that simple, but metaphysics has other traps for us. A glimpse can be had in the lives of ordinary men, promoted to power; Philip II perhaps, or Hitler, who lived lives of blameless austerity and took their responsibilities seriously. Philip went to Mass daily, when it wasn’t twice, and insisted on seeing and annotating every state paper. Hitler ate the simplest vegetarian food and had the utmost distrust of corruption. Admirable men. Lacking humour, perhaps. After falling from power Mrs. Thatcher used the expression ‘Funny old world.’ People are so ungrateful.

We have only one sound key to metaphysical truth. We are aware of the barrier. We realise that the gateway is the moment we fear and attempt, ludicrously, to deny. We try to hold a candle, looking for places where the wall of incomprehension may appear thinner and more permeable. Traditionally we have sought in the areas of experience called mystic, in philosophic adumbrations of emotional kind, and on theological premises. One can find much that is admirable, obscured by the bulging sackload of oddities and the mystifications of the charlatan: it is a discouraging search. Art is nearer to hand, perhaps more reliable; the data are more convincing: any major picture gallery offers striking examples. We begin by calling them magical. But there is no sleight of hand, no illusion. We can go back again and again. This method has the advantage over similar experiences in nature, when one inclines to believe that exaltation or fatigue has played an over-large role in the quality of the experience. I have neither training nor aptitude in music, but surely the aural sense is as trustworthy as the visual? One must cite subjective examples, which those of greater knowledge and skill will examine. Thus, ‘the three Fs,’ suggested Erich Kleiber (like his son arguably the finest conductor of his generation): Freischütz, Figaro, and Fidelio. I will agree; others will find others. For I belong to an unhappy race who cannot grasp mathematics, a grave impoverishment. I know that numbers have metaphysical properties, observed also in the intervals of music, the proportions of architecture, painters’ subjects which exert particular fascination: a tree, a naked body. I reach out numbly for words to express that which I apprehend. I mumble, like the physicist with the flavours of the particle, about my taste. Words are so impoverished.

But they are all I have: the bent I discovered in my childhood was literary. The reasons are genetic and environmental: I grew up with books, without a piano. A child directs the force of imagination – unimaginably powerful and vivid – towards the means of control it finds, subconsciously, the most malleable.

Early – I was eight in the year of his death – I fell under the influence of Rudyard Kipling, and count it a great good fortune. An admirable master, who wrote a beautiful supple English; in his early days an unequalled storyteller and in his mature years a writer who has haunted my whole life, my every day. He wrote towards the end a memoir called Something of Myself conveying, notoriously, almost nothing of himself, but this withdrawn and secretive man does speak of his encounters with the metaphysical world. Now and then, he says, his pen fell into the grip of something stronger than himself. It came most strongly – the barrier was at its thinnest – around three or four in the morning, and most often when a southwest wind was blowing. It was my first lesson in metaphysics. It is real and it can be detected in his printed words. He called it the Daemon. There is no comment to make: he accepted it.

Later it would strike me that this could happen on any level, even that of simple entertainment. To his friend Rider Haggard he said, ‘You did not write that, you know; something wrote it for you.’ The artist who, occasionally, experiences this influence notices that it takes an emotional channel rather than those of reason and logic, and that it is followed by a wrenching sense of deprivation. Peter Abelard, the greatly gifted, sees it as God, which in his century is natural. Very likely it is so.

But if a novelist, and I was thirty-three before this was at all clearly apparent to me, then why a crime novelist? It seemed to me an accident that my first entertainments fell into this category. Or so my first publisher, the shrewd Victor Gollancz, assured me. It had been no conscious choice of my own. If so it seemed fortunate, for in 1960 this was a tired and laboured genre; there was a premium on freshness, and room for a light-weight talent to amuse. To possess it is a great gift.

Yet for some years I felt a sort of rage. Why was this genre treated as escapist fiction on the most trivial level, good only for reading on train journeys, or to rest to superior mind from intellectual labours of more exalted nature? This was certainly nonsense. True, the average English or American detective story had no more merit and deserved no better fate than the Times crossword, and the gangster tales belonged in the ‘two-penny blood’ comics I had read when a small boy. Could one not do better? And if one did, what was needed to avoid permanent consignment to the dustbin? Still – one could earn a living. And perhaps, after long years of arduous apprenticeship, one might learn something. Be that good or bad work, might it eventually arrive at an avoidance of mediocrity? One of the great difficulties in art is that the mediocre appeals to those of mediocre mind. Of whom there are many.

To mature thought, crime is a phenomenon of significance as much metaphysical as material. Inherent is a destruction of mind more frequent than that of body. A murder arouses our attention: loss of life reminds us of our fear of death. It is irrevocable; there is no way back. But it is trivial by comparison with the crimes against the spirit, which may strike in childhood and leave a long trail through the years of ruin and suffering, which can infect generations still unborn, which can create syndromes of deficient immunity in ways more deadly than a slipshod blood transfusion or the wish for sexual pleasure. Crime, factor ever present in social behaviour, is of unforeseeable weight and consequence. Indeed, the element of sexual satisfaction in criminal projects is ill-understood still, and ill-described. To take an example come only recently to light, it is said that a Lord Chief Justice had to change his trousers after passing a death sentence. Some would throw doubt upon this. I find no difficulty at all in believing it.

In prose fiction, crime is the preeminent and often predominant theme. With few exceptions – one thinks of Jane Austen – the novelists of the haute époque through the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century found their central source and impetus in the romantic, naturalist, and psychological treatment of the theme. I have attempted to discuss some of these in detail, in these essays, and it should be clear that the choices made depend only upon personal taste: one could have found as much to say – but with less enjoyment – about Madame Bovary or Melville, Dostoyevsky or Henry James. The selection of Stendhal, Dickens, and Conrad is arbitrary; they have given me so much, and still do.

If art be a doorway towards the metaphysical world, crime is a window upon it and sheds light? I distrust metaphors. Conrad spoke of the shadow line to describe the moment of apprehending this invisible domain. He found keys in work and in the sea; these went together, since life at sea meant unremitting toil, and fatigue increased perception. His overriding theme is that of responsibility – in the first instance that of mate or captain answerable for the safety of the ship: everyone aboard it; everything in it; whatever chance meeting or occurrence. To reach out for, to accept the ‘I answer for this, I and no other’ – that makes the man; nor is he truly man until he has brought his acceptance of both worlds to the limit of his capacity. It can be too much for him; it will kill Martin Decoud and be the ultimate ruin of Nostromo. His perception can never be entire, and that is man’s privilege as well as his tragedy. Kipling made the same point. So did Professor Tolkien: those elves and hobbits are not really for children.

Crime may be no more than a momentary failure (I find the long-drawn romanticised melodrama of Lord Jim exceedingly tedious). The ‘crime of passion’ has found a sudden weakness in our elaborate armour of self-regard. Our condemnation will go, rightly, to a deliberate avoidance of faith and betrayal of trust. Mr. Verloc’s crime is not the placing of a bomb, nor even blowing up poor Stevie. It is against Winnie.

The novelist is handicapped by the feebleness, the imprecision of his words, his chosen medium. He envies the painter, who curses the unreliability of chemicals, or the musician, whose violins are never truly in tune. Who has the closer, the more direct access to the human heart? Each can do what the other cannot. The artist, to the world an eccentric and quite pleasantly barmy, is – also in general – personally violent, unpredictable and unreliable; in human terms often a mental defective. The converse holds good, and the mentally handicapped are often remarkable artists; their metaphysical alertness and awareness are greater than ours. The fact has led many to speculate upon the role played by the jester in medieval courts – as it were, a metaphysical antidote to autocracy and crime. Or the dwarfs in Las Meninas – a summit, surely, in pictorial art? There was a congress (Figeac, France, July 1991) of the mentally handicapped, who there displayed their arts. Peter Brook, the man of the theatre, was struck by the splendour of these talents. And ‘yes,’ remarked a doctor who works with them (quoted by Libération of Saturday, July 20), ‘one has a metaphysical envy of these people.’ The French word envie contains both envy and desire.

We do not know at what moment the man or woman who commits a crime of violence can be held responsible. An Observer report of the same date upon the syndrome of the battered wife and the legal doctrine of provocation is before me as I write. We know less still, in a world where irresponsibility can be so generously rewarded with wealth and fame. A court, in Europe, can be turned upon a hairsbreadth. Release? Imprisonment? A psychiatric ward? And which will engender the most suffering?

What is the artist’s given work? To be an honest witness to his times, to hold up mirrors? He cannot be truly objective; always he will be the prisoner of thought and of senses, of emotion shaped by birth, by environment, by experience. His duty, and his answerability, will be to increase awareness: among the normal of this world; those who ignore or deny; those whose sensitivities have not been awakened.

Crime is the pathology of the human condition, the moment after, it may be, a long drawn-out disturbance or perversion, at which the delicate balance of metabolism – decidedly, this prefix pursues one – tilts into morbidity.

As with all pathological conditions it is sad, sordid, smells bad. Woe then to the pathologist who should lack self-awareness, humour, and humility.

What is one then? The doctor? Or the mental defective?