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20 September 2021

From the NS archive: Bartleby the scriptwriter

29 September 1965: Crime fiction is a genre dedicated to reassuring the ego.

By Brigid Brophy

The separation of “crime” from other types of fiction is, the novelist and campaigner Brigid Brophy wrote in 1965, “unjust but correct”. Though the genre has long been “considered as something a little lower than literature”, in the hands of Patricia Highsmith, for example, it can do far more than another novel might. Reviewing the latest Highsmith novel, “A Suspension of Mercy”, Brophy explored the nature of crime fiction as reflecting “the violent fantasies of the unconscious”. Reading crime fiction is a form of therapy, she asserted, and Highsmith makes this therapy art by “dissolving the hero’s integrity as an ego”.

In the novel, Highsmith returned to a device she had previously used in “The Cry of the Owl” (1962): “Someone disappears and is thought, incorrectly, to have been murdered; and the hero in fact wished to commit the murder.” Brophy understood this device as a “perfect dramatisation of two Freudian remarks”: that for the unconscious, “being dead means much the same as being gone” and “even a natural death is perceived as murder”.

Literary pages which, unlike this one, still segregate the crooked from the straight usually review Patricia Highsmith under “Crime”. The classification is unjust but correct. Highsmith writes not simply fiction about crime but, in the technical sense, crime fiction, instantly recognisable as such by addicts of the genre, which is by now thoroughly established as a distinct sub-compartment within the line of descent from Poe’s invention, the detective story. Neither could an addict be disappointed in Highsmith, who is a very good crime novelist. But there’s the injustice. For as a novelist tout court she’s excellent.

Although crime has long been on its way up in the literary world, the genre is still considered as something a little lower than literature – and not, in general, through mere snobbery. In my judgement and experience (that of an addict under control), Highsmith and Simenon are alone in writing books which transcend the limits of the genre while staying strictly inside its rules: they alone have taken the crucial step from playing games.

Although Poe was a literary person, his prototypical detective story was a sub- or at least a para-literary form. Like his cryptogram stories, it was a puzzle – one of those bits of hard work we undergo to refresh ourselves and not, as we undergo life and art, as its own justification. Yet the actual content of Poe’s story, as well as its formal propensity for puzzling us, is already essential to the effect. And the actual content already includes violent death. From the start the genre reflected the violent fantasies of the unconscious. Indeed, I believe Poe invented it in reaction to the irrational violence manifested at the French Revolution, and I think it was in token of that, as well as to correct the methods of the real-life Vidocq on his own territory, that Poe set the first detective story in France.

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Still, the detective story acknowledges the fantasies only as a ritual or a neurotic symptom does – by exerting itself to master them. The detective makes sense of inexplicable and threatening events and in doing so relieves all but one of the dramatis personae from suspicion. Suspense in the detective story proper consists in the fear that the wrong person will be punished for the crime before the detective can discover the truth. The detective does the ego’s work: making sense of the irrational and acquitting us of blood-guilt. (For those prototypical murders in the Rue Morgue no human was guilty: Poe was releasing the whole human species from the suspicion it had incurred at the Revolution.) And meanwhile the story itself, in its conundrum aspect, is directly providing the readers’ ego with therapy – on the magical principle of all games, “if you can master the puzzle, you can master experience”.

When the private detective developed into the much tougher private eye, the form loosened. No longer much of a conundrum, it was less of a grind, and perhaps less therapy, for the intellect; but it made up for that by ceasing to rub the intellect up the wrong way. A literate ego could now get its therapy without offence from stilted dialogue contrived solely to plant clues fairly but not too squarely or from detectives characterised and humourised only by an idiom (homage to Poe) literally translated from supposed French. Indeed, safely beneath the notice of intellectual pretentiousness, the crime genre evolved immense technical flexibility. I suspect more fertile experiment has been made in B-feature writing than in all the avant-garde schools. The narrative strategy of Dashiell Hammett, the witty narrative tactics of Chandler, and now the quite brilliant narrative surface of Ross Macdonald (most recently in The Far Side of the Dollar), their successor and, perhaps culmination, constitute a superb repertory of technical expertise applied, like Hitchcock’s mastery of cinematic technique, to (a quote precise critical term, which I use in full consciousness of ingratitude for the stunning entertainment I’ve had) high-class hokum. It’s all, on an unbelievably polished plane, so much play-therapy.

[see also: Patricia Highsmith’s psychopath heroes]

When the suspense reaches the point of pain, or when the violent events are admitted in too nasty a verisimilitude (were they in Psycho?), it can be shock therapy, but it’s therapy nonetheless, even if your principle is that of banging your head on the wall so that it will be pleasant to stop. Crime is a genre dedicated to reassuring the ego. However frightening the material that erupts, it erupts round – not in – the hero, who is clever and tough enough to carry the thing through to the resolution, when the irrational events are seen to have been subject all along to a logical (as distinct from psychological or artistic) pattern. The hero’s integrity can survive even a shift of the story’s sympathies on to the criminal side. It’s a fallacy of ill-read sociologists that the glamorous criminal is new. Even if you discount Robin Hood and Dick Turpin, whose sagas antedate the crime genre, the hero of that genre turned criminal quite soon after it was established, though he then incurred the penalty that the violence in the story must in the end turn against him. As early as 1899, EW Hornung took his brother-in-law’s detective pair, Holmes and Watson, and reincarnated them on the wrong side of the law as Raffles and Bunny, who pursued the ego’s business of getting a living by the entirely logical method of stealing it – though the price was that, whereas Holmes proved unlikeable, Bunny ended the first volume of their career in prison and Raffles ended the second dead.

If Highsmith and Simenon deepen this already flexible therapy form into art, I think it’s done by dissolving the hero’s integrity as an ego. Whichever side of the law he’s on, the hero is no longer undivided. He may or may not be so to the police, but to himself he is a prime suspect. The suspense is no longer whether the violent events will catch up with him; it’s whether he will do them. And even if he doesn’t do them in fact, he does them in fantasy; he’s admitted ownership of the violent material in the book. Thus the suspense which is the crime genre’s currency is translated into moral horror, through which the thriller becomes capable of the moral ambiguity of the straight novel.

Both the artists of crime fiction express the hero’s unease with himself through a social metaphor. They create characters who do not quite belong to any class, who are (Highsmith is brilliant at this) neither happily nor unhappily married, who are not stupid but are somehow shifty in relation to the intellect; and their shiftiness is mirrored, by an extension of their pathetic fallacy, in a physical seediness of settings and atmospheres. And both writers enlarge their genre by a simple, very bold act of psychological naturalism: they admit that their characters have imaginations. I’ve long held that Maigret is a novelist, reconstructing by his imagination what the criminal is like; and Simenon’s pure crime studies present as it were the view through the window, with the frame of Maigret’s imagination removed. Highsmith’s new novel A Suspension of Mercy (Heinemann) makes space for its hero’s imagination to the full, logical extent: he is a writer.

In literary status, as in his marriage, his class and his very nationality (he’s an American living, though not quite settled, in Suffolk), Sydney Bartleby is ambiguous. His books have neither succeeded nor failed; he’s on the edge of success as the ideas man of a freelance two-man TV-script-writing team, the scripts being, of course, in the crime genre. An ideas man Sydney is par excellence. His mind runs on the idea of violence and teems with fantasies of murder. He can scarcely see a living body without fantasising how he’d dispose of it were it dead. He can’t rid himself of an old carpet without surreptitiously digging it a grave. When his wife ambiguously (holiday or desertion?) goes off, his very jokes with friends elaborate a fantasy that he’s killed her. He is a man whose stream of consciousness resembles the unconscious in Freud’s dry characterisation of it: “our own temptation to kill others is stronger and more frequent than we had suspected.” And the frequency and fertility of Sydney’s violent fantasies give a plausible opening for an astounding metaphor whereby she brings Sydney’s temptations home to us.

I have in mind Freud’s observations that, because the Oedipus Rex is a tragedy of fate, many authors have tried laying a doom on their heroes; but since they failed to hit, as Sophocles and the myth did, on a doom which is in fact a temptation unconsciously present in everyone, they failed to move the audience’s emotions and produced mere nonsense. What Sophocles did for the tragedy of fate, Highsmith does for the melodrama of coincidence, whose long arm, when wielded arbitrarily and unpsychologically, has produced so much entertaining but mere hokum. In both this novel and The Cry of the Owl, of 1962, someone disappears and is thought, incorrectly, to have been murdered; and the hero has in fact wished to commit the murder.

The device is a perfect dramatisation of two Freudian remarks: that, for the unconscious and children, “being dead means much the same as being gone” and ceasing to annoy the survivors; and that “in the unconscious mode of thinking even a natural death is perceived as murder”. Even, one might add, a death that hasn’t happened. In both novels the “survivor” is the hero, innocent of the deed but guilty of wishing it. His spoken and acted-out fantasies weave a net which, by a development of the suspense in the classic detective story, threatens to trap him from two directions. He is in danger of being wrongly held guilty by the law; but all his actions and evasions are directed by his unconscious wishes towards bringing about the death which has not yet taken place.

As Sophocles hit on the incest, so Miss Highsmith hits on the murder, which is in the subconscious and will out. The Cry of the Owl builds up to Websterian tragedy. In A Suspension of Mercy, also, the doom is too precisely determined to be dodged, but the story reaches it by the comedic methods of ingenious plot-making and social observation. (Highsmith’s ear is a touch faulty for foreign languages, and here her English-born characters sometimes speak American, but there is no mote in her eye for an elderly, middle-class English lady with a novel by Pamela Hansford Johnson beside her bed.) In the characters who voluntarily disappear and thereby assume the status of murderee, and again in the suicidal Jenny in The Cry of the Owl, Highsmith even tackles what Dickens more than once approached and veered away from, the psychology of the self-elected victim.

When we can spare long grave consideration for trilogies of rearranged, de-intellectualised Proust and for scatty light novels with a trimming of Catholicism, it is absurd that the Websterian intensity and the Sophoclean constructions which issue from Highsmith’s imagination should be docketed in ten lines – a mere report, for addicts, on the alcoholic strength – under the heading “Crime”. Simply to take Highsmith straight would do justice to her and the public but injustice to her chosen, and wisely chosen, genre. It says something for it that it can be transmuted into art. I think Dickens was on the point of transmuting it as it then stood established by Wilkie Collins; but it’s as if, flinching from his own moral horror and turning on himself the violence Hornung turned on his criminal hero, Dickens died rather than finish The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Highsmith has superbly carried out Dickens’s task.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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