Author photo by Merilyn Simonds
Wayne Grady just last month won the Amazon.ca First Novel Award for his book Emancipation Day, the amazing story of an African-Canadian man who passes as white his whole life long, to his work-mates, friends, wife and son (even more amazing is the fact that the novel is based on Grady’s own family). Prior to this, Wayne Grady was best known as a Governor-General’s Award-winning translator, nonfiction writer, editor and anthologist, an author with a lengthy pedigree of fine writing and a list of books as long as your arm. In “Tragedy Postponed,” Grady looks at the mystery genre, from Agatha Christie to Ian Rankin, through the lens of Shakespeare’s comedies, finding therein broad similarities, parallels and resonances, not the least of which is a classic U-shaped plot pattern: social order, followed by upheaval, chaos, crime and corruption (not to mention mistaken identity and inappropriate love choices), leading to, yes, a reconstitution of the social order (relief, laughter, and sometimes marriage). Think: Prospero as Detective Rebus.
“That’s all comedy is, a tragedy postponed.”
—Reginald Hill, Bones and Silence
In the city of Toronto, in 2004, criminal charges were laid against five officers of the metropolitan police force’s drug squad. The Crown claimed that, going back to 1997, the officers “showed a pattern of violent shakedowns, beating up drug dealers, stealing their money and then lying to cover their tracks.” Specifically, they were alleged to have pocketed $10,000 seized as evidence during a non-warranted raid on the home of a small-time heroin dealer. At the trial, which dragged on until 2013, all five were acquitted of charges of assault, extortion and theft, and found guilty only of attempting to obstruct justice, for which they were sentenced to forty-five days’ house arrest. In justifying the light sentence, the judge cited the “pain and humiliation” the officers had already undergone during the lengthy trial. Toronto city councillor Michael Thompson said he was “astonished” by the outcome: “It’s very unfortunate,” he said, “and sends a message that leaves a lot to be desired.”
A classic Shakespeare comedy starts with social order, proceeds to something happening that upsets that order, and ends with order being restored. It’s the last bit that matters. A lot of other things happen along the way – when social order is upset, lovers quarrel, kingdoms are usurped, ships are reported sunk, men are turned into donkeys – but when the curtain goes down, everyone is happy again, the audience goes away reassured that the sun will rise in the morning and good government has been reinstated. As in a good lovers’ quarrel, there may be some crying in the middle of it, but by the end everyone is laughing.
“Comedy,” as Shakespeare scholar E.K. Chambers put it in 1916, writing about A Comedy of Errors, is “a criticism of life, which is at heart profoundly serious, and employs all the machinery of wit or humour, with the deliberate intention of reaching through the laughter to the ultimate end of a purged outlook upon things.”
Sometimes the original social order is implied or recalled, as in The Tempest and As You Like It. A little plot summary here: As You Like It begins with a newly established regime (which is really disorder) in an unnamed French duchy: Frederick has usurped his older brother’s dukedom and banished Duke Senior to the forest of Arden. Duke Senior’s daughter, Rosalind, has been allowed to remain in court because of her friendship with Frederick’s daughter Celia. However, all is not well with in new scheme of things: Oliver persecutes his younger brother Orlando, who then flees; and Rosalind, also suddenly banished from court, sets out with Celia (disguised as Ganymede and Aliena, respectively) to Arden to join her father in exile. Chaos ensues, as everyone falls in love with the wrong people, trysts are missed, false weddings performed, until in the end the masks are off, the wrong people turn out to be the right people, and a mass wedding takes place. The old order is restored, symbolized by the brothers: Orlando saves Oliver’s life and their bond is reestablished; Frederick repents and restores the duchy to Duke Senior. The Tempest has almost the identical plot, with Prospero’s island standing in for the forest of Arden.
A classic mystery novel follows a similar pattern. Think of Agatha Christie’s country cozies, let us say her first, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, written in 1916. Everything takes place in that most stolid of British bastions, the country manor house, in this case Styles Court, with the family, a few guests and ancient retainers in residence. A wealthy widow, Emily Cavendish, has recently married the young Alfred Inglethorp. When Emily is murdered (poison), the new order is broken and chaos ensues. Everyone is found to be hiding something, everyone suspects and accuses everyone else. Enter Inspector Hercule Poirot (a Belgian refugee of the First World War). Fingers are pointed, threats are made. Eventually, the chaotic dimensions of the crime are sorted out in Poirot’s “little grey cells,” the suspects are gathered in the drawing room (originally in a courtroom, but Christie’s publisher insisted on the drawing room, which became her trademark scene). The crime is explained, the perpetrator identified and arrested, and order is restored. (There isn’t murder and mayhem everywhere, people, it’s just this one isolated case, and now it’s been cleared up. Everyone can go home, nothing more to see here.)
This basic plot was repeated by nearly all the writers of the Golden Age of Mystery Writing, which lasted from about 1916 to the beginning of the Second World War: E.C. Bentley, Agatha Christie, Marjory Allingham, Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh. And well into the post-war period, such English writers as Michael Innes, Edmund Crispin, Ruth Rendell, and P.D. James followed the same pattern: order disturbed by chaos, and order restored by the intervention of a figure representing the apotheosis of decency and social order, the intelligent and urbane private detective (descendents of Sherlock Holmes: Poirot, Lord Peter Whimsy, Gervase Fen) or the intelligent, urbane Chief Inspector (John Appleby, Reginald Wexford, Adam Dalgleish).
The attraction of the classic mystery novel to contemporary readers is similar to that of Shakespeare’s lighter comedies to his Elizabethan audiences: they affirmed that we were okay, that despite temporary setbacks, someone was in charge, setbacks would be overcome, order would be restored. As P.D. James put it in her memoir, Time to Be in Ernest, “The detective story is, after all, one way in which we can cope with violent death, fictionalize it, give it a recognizable shape and, at the end of the book, show that even the most intractable mystery is capable of solution, not by supernatural means or by good fortune, but by human intelligence, human perseverance, and human courage.”
And not just violent death, but any disturbance of social order. Corruption in high places, governmental perfidy, corporate greed, anything that upsets the apple cart. We needed to know that these were disruptions that could be overcome, not permanent paradigm shifts that signaled a new, unwanted order. We looked to fiction to reassure ourselves that chaos was real but temporary, and that order would be restored in time for the late train on Sunday night.
In Los Angeles, in 1991, after an eight-mile, high-speed chase through residential areas, four LAPD officers were videotaped beating Rodney King, a black construction worker who was on parole after serving a sentence for robbery, nearly to death. They laid into him with tasers, batons and their feet. All four officers were charged with using excessive force, and at trial all four were acquitted. There was general outrage at the verdict. Even then-president George H.W. Bush found “it hard to understand how the verdict could possibly square with the video.” The court’s leniency triggered riots in L.A. during which 53 people were killed and 2,383 injured. Smaller riots erupted in San Francisco, Las Vegas, Atlanta, and Toronto. Rodney King went on television and called for an end to the violence: “Can we all get along?” he asked. He then sued the City of Los Angeles and was awarded $3.8 million. At a second trial, two of the officers were found guilty of violating King’s civil rights, and were given jail terms of 32 months. The other two were again acquitted. Of the thirty-three baton blows delivered to King’s body, the judge decided, only the last six were unlawful.
When did intelligence, perseverance and courage no longer triumph over anger, hatred and evil? When did continuing to believe in justice, however harshly meted, begin to feel a little naïve, a little behind the times, even a little laughable? When did our laughter at the human comedy begin to sound hollow and forced?
As Yeats might have put it, when did things start falling apart and staying that way?
It’s never easy to fix a date to a paradigm shift. George Packer, in The Unwinding, his recent analysis of the sub-prime mortgage debacle and the decline of the American Dream, somewhat arbitrarily points to 1978 as the year in which it became hard to continue to teach our children that honesty, hard work, and financial responsibility were the keys to “getting ahead.” There was no long an ahead to get to. There was only back. Orwellians might fix the date as 1948, when Big Brother began infiltrating our private lives, and the state became powerful enough to quell protest and deny citizens their democratic say in how they were to be governed.
Mystery writers might split the difference. In 1964, the Swedish detective novelist Per Wähloo published Murder on the Thirty-First Floor. Wähloo, with his partner, the poet Maj Sjöwall, were well known to mystery readers in the 1960s as the co-authors of a brilliant but short-lived series of ten crime novels featuring Swedish detective Martin Beck. The series ended with Wähloo’s death in 1975.
The couple also published novels separately, and Murder on the Thirty-First Floor is one of those. Like 1984 and Brave New World, it is set in a futuristic dystopia in which the three traditional defenders of social order – the government, trade unions and the media – have come together to rule Sweden under something known as “the Accord.” All social unrest has been outlawed by official edict. Alcoholism, for example, was socially disruptive, and so drinking alcohol has been made illegal (although there still seems to be plenty of alcohol around). Anyone reported having even a glass of wine in the privacy of their own home can be arrested, and if caught at it three times are sent to a mandatory rehabilitation centre. All magazines, newspapers, radio stations, television channels and printing presses are owned by a conglomerate known as the Skyscraper Group, whose four thousand employees work in a thirty-storey building in Stockholm, and nothing that appears in any of its publications is of the kind that would disturb the public. It’s all good news all the time. Bad news has been totally replaced by entertainment: “eight-page horoscopes, cinematascope picture stories and real-life stories about the mothers of great men,” film-star bios, tips on interior decoration, healthful recipes, regenerative exercises. Sound familiar yet? Don’t forget sports. Meanwhile, alcoholism is rampant, and the prisons are jammed with drunks rounded up off the streets; the suicide rate has tripled; the birth-rate has plunged. None of this, of course, is reported in the press. Everyone in Sweden is either too emotionally and intellectually dead to object, or else are seething with suppressed, helpless rage. The latter are deemed criminals, to be locked up, given pointless tasks, kept out of harm’s way. Besides, most of them are given to drink.
In other words, the old social order has been replaced by the new Accord, only this time there is no forest of Arden, no Duke Senior waiting in the wings to return us to our senses. When the Skyscraper Group receives a bomb threat, Inspector Jensen is assigned to find out who sent it. Chaos doesn’t ensue: this is chaos. And it is Inspector Jensen’s job to maintain it. Jensen is conscientious to a fault. He is a good cop. He may sympathize with those who rail against the new order, but he has a job of work to do and he does it, even if he does keep a bottle of whisky hidden behind the Corn Flakes and suffers from acute acid reflux. Faint flickers of hope in an otherwise dark Scandinavian landscape.
How close are we now to having something like the Accord take control? Again, mystery writers offer a few unsettling suggestions.
In Bad Debts, a recent mystery by the Australian crime novelist Peter Temple, the narrator is a defrocked lawyer named Jack Irish, who sets out to find why a former client of his has been murdered shortly after serving a lengthy jail sentence. (Order disturbed.) His inquiries eventually disclose shady dealings involving the Australian government, a large real-estate developer, and the Catholic Church. (Chaos.) Here’s a newscast Irish listens to that more or less sums up the mess he has helped uncover: “Tonight, this program deals with allegations about the involvement of a Cabinet Minister, public servants, a clergyman, trade union leaders and others in an under-age sex ring. It also alleges police involvement in the death, in 1984, of a social justice activist, and massive corruption surrounding Charis Corporation’s six-hundred-million-dollar Yarra Cove development.”
Although the corruption has been exposed in the media (the collusion of media with the federal government and union leaders that Wähloo depicted in Sweden hasn’t yet spread to Australia, apparently), Irish is under no illusion that order will be restored. “It came to me with absolute certainty,” he realizes, “that my little inquiry into the lives and deaths of Danny McKillop and Anne Jepperson was of no consequence whatsoever. Nothing would change what had happened, no one would be called to account for it.” (Order unrestored.) The novel ends with Irish going to a horse race and making a lot of money on a tip-off, and we are left to wonder how that differs from life under the Accord. The comedy, if it can still be called that, has become dark.
With his $3.8 million, Rodney King bought a large home in Rialto, a suburb of L.A. His cash award was supplemented by $1.7 million to cover legal fees, and King sued his own lawyers for that amount, claiming legal malpractice presumably because they failed to nail the four police officers. He lost that suit, and his life from then on resumed its downward spiral. In 1993, he was arrested for drunk driving after crashing his car into a wall in downtown L.A. Two years later he was charged with hit-and-run after knocking his wife down with his car. There followed more convictions for driving under the influence and driving with a suspended license. In 2007, he checked himself into the Pasadena Recovery Center, where he took part in the television program Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew and, later, a spin-off called Sober House, and declared himself cured of his various addictions. In 2010, he became engaged to Cynthia Kelly, who had been one of the jurors in the civil suit against L.A. that awarded him the $3.8 million. On the morning of June 17, 2012, his fiancé found his body at the bottom of his swimming pool; an autopsy disclosed that the alcohol, marijuana, cocaine and PCP found in his body “probably precipitated a cardiac arrhythmia, and the subject, thus incapacitated, was unable to save himself and drowned.” Earlier, the BBC had quoted King as saying, “Some people feel like I’m some kind of hero….Other people, I can hear them mocking me for believing in peace.”
According to many mystery writers, elected government officials, civil servants, the church, unions, and the police, the very institutions that we have traditionally relied upon to maintain and restore order, have turned against us and are now perpetrating the crimes from which they were designed to protect us. It’s difficult to write a comedy in which everyone is corrupt. The American gumshoe-detective novelists of the 1930s and ‘40s tried it, and ended up creating private detectives who were seedy, dissolute, violent, and seriously flawed, but – unlike the police and public servants – were basically honest and genuinely interested in restoring some rough form of social justice. They were villains, but they were on the right side. It’s impossible to imagine a hero of the Golden Age, Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn, for example, beating witnesses, sleeping with suspects, destroying evidence incriminating someone he likes, and drinking himself into oblivion in order to forget his personal and professional failures. Yet that’s all in a day’s work for Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, or for Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade (who says, in The Maltese Falcon, “My way of learning is to heave a wild and unpredictable monkey-wrench into the machinery”). John D. Macdonald’s Travis McGee is neither a police officer nor a private detective, but a person who recovers other people’s lost or stolen property, which my be the American version of restoring order. But even in these hard-boiled stories about the decline of the American ideal, the detective rises above his environment. Here is Chandler’s view of the detective, as expressed in The Simple Art of Murder:
In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.
The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor — by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things.
A version of this ideal detective crossed the Atlantic in the 1980s, showing up in such brilliantly flawed English and Scottish policemen as Colin Dexter’s E. Morse, Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel, and Ian Rankin’s John Rebus, all of whom are prodigious drinkers (even when on duty), are always more or less at odds with their straighter-laced superiors, have difficulties with women, especially female police officers, and yet are honest, hard-working, and almost always solve the crime and restore order. A classic example outside Great Britain is the Norgwegian crime novelist Jo Nesbo, whose Detective Harry Hole is more than a prodigious drinker, he’s is a falling-down alcoholic who has been dismissed from the force and who, at the beginning of Nesbo’s 2003 novel, The Devil’s Star, the fifth in the Harry Hole series, is working out the last few weeks of his employment. Hole is described by his fellow officer and arch-enemy Tom Waaler as having “a work record with notes on drunkenness, unauthorized absences, abuse of authority, insubordination to superiors and disloyalty to the force,” none of which Hole denies. But Waaler also notes that Hole is “goal-oriented, smart, creative and your integrity is unimpeachable.” Hole also has the best record for solved cases on the force. Things haven’t permanently fallen apart yet, and there is still hope that order will be restored by the end of the novel, or at least the series. Which is all we ask.
We don’t get it at the end of Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River (2001),with the detective knowing about a murder but not reporting it. Nor do we get it in the 2002 movie Insomnia, in which Al Pacino (who two years later will play a brilliant Shylock in The Merchant of Venice) is Will Dormer, a Los Angeles police detective under investigation by Internal Affairs for dubious conduct during a previous investigation (he allegedly secured a confession from a suspect by hanging him by the neck in a closet, not one of Hercule Poirot’s preferred methods). On a new case in Alaska, he shoots his partner, who is to be a witness in the investigation by Internal. In the original 1997 version of the film by Norwegian director Erik Skjoldbjærg, the shooting is clearly accidental; in the American version it is not so clear. As if to underscore the point I’m trying to make about crime fiction as the canary in the social-dissolution mineshaft, the chief suspect in the Alaska case is a mystery novelist, Walter Finch, played by Robin Williams, who witnesses Dormer shooting his partner and offers to help him cover it up in exchange for his freedom. Dormer finds a neater solution. Dame Agatha must have been spinning in her grave; except, don’t forget, it was the good Dame who wrote Who Killed Roger Akroyd?.
In Bad Debts, police corruption is also the subject of an internal investigation. The intention of the official inquiry is to reassure the public that the police are as pure and honorable as they were in Dame Agatha’s day, but of course the officers under suspicion don’t see it that way. They interpret it as an attempt on the part of the “new culture,” which relies on statistics and psychological profiling, to oust (or banish) the instinctual, seat-of-the-pants methods employed by the “old culture.” The new dukes see no reason why a police department should be run differently from any other branch of the government: Internal Revenue, for example, which also goes after miscreants. Why should murder be treated as a more serious crime than, say, tax fraud? Here is one of the old culture complaining to Jack Irish:
“You hear him [a younger cop] sprouting all that shit about getting rid of the old culture in the force? Mate, I’m part of the old culture and proud of it.”
“What exactly is the old culture?”
“The dinosaurs left over from when it didn’t count if you took an extra ten bucks for the drinks when you put in for sweet for your dogs. When you had to load some cockroach to get it off the street. Public fucken service. We’re the ancient pricks think it’s okay to punch out some slime who dob in a bloke who’s walked out on the wire for them to fucking Internal Affairs. That’s us. That’s the old culture.”
Ian Rankin makes this kind of Internal Affairs purge the main focus of several of his most recent novels. In The Complaints, for example, which features Detective Inspector Malcolm Fox, the Complaints and Conduct Department is investigating an officer suspected of being involved in a child-pornography ring. Fox clears the officer, but only by proving that he was framed by an even higher-ranking member of the force. At least the corruption is rooted out and order is restored, after a fashion. Rebus, when he comes back from his earlier, somewhat forced, retirement, is constantly at daggers drawn with Fox, whom he sees as a cancer within the department. “John Rebus should be extinct,” Fox says in Standing in Another Man’s Grave” (2012). “Somehow the Ice Age came and went and left him still swimming around while the rest of us evolved.” Which makes him not a dinosaur, I suppose, more like a Giant Ground Sloth, but certainly belonging to the old culture, the one in which the ultimate goal was actually catching murderers. “I know a cop gone bad when I see one,” Fox continues, incorrectly. “Rebus has spent so many years crossing the line he’s managed to rub it out altogether.” Not true: we have seen, the line began to be smudged around 1930, and disappeared in the mid-1960s. Mystery writers knew it all along and tried to warn us but, well, we were too busy reading something else.
Rebus and Fox square off again in Rankin’s most recent novel, Saints of the Shadow Bible. The Saints of the title were members of the Summerhall Criminal Investigation Division, the murder squad, thirty years before, including the then-young John Rebus. The Saints are being investigated by Fox for possibly destroying evidence that would have convicted a certain Billy Saunders for the murder of “a scumbag” named Douglas Merchant. Saunders was a snitch for one of the CID officers, and the suspicion is, as Rebus puts it, that “we banjaxed the Saunders case to keep a good snitch on the street.” That would be chaotic enough, but it gets worse.
“How dirty was Summerhall?” Rebus’s mentee, Siobhan Clarke, asks him.
“Dirty enough….” says Rebus.
“Beating a confession out of someone? Planting evidence? Making sure the bad buys get done for something?”
“You thinking of writing my biography?” says Rebus, who rarely says anything without being sardonically evasive.
In real life, as in detective fiction, forced confessions, planted evidence and trumped-up charges are old hat. They belong to the Los Angeles of the 1940s, before corruption went systemic. It’s become a lot worse since Philip Marlowe slapped a few suspects around and bought drinks for their girlfriends. Police officers in the good old days broke the law only when it was necessary to catch the bad guys. They weren’t themselves the bad guys. They were still attempting to restore order. Now, it seems, the police break the law simply to protect themselves.
Is it naïve to think that corruption at the highest levels of society has destroyed any hope we might have that order will eventually be restored, if not by the end of the weekend at least in our lifetime? Are politicians in the pockets of developers? Do they sometimes risk hundreds, if not thousands, of lives in order to lessen the chances of another politician being elected? Do entire police forces take money from drug cartels? Does the church cover up evidence of sexual abuse in residential schools? Do corporations own university departments? Have prison authorities lied about the deaths of inmates? Do governments employ tax audits to rid society of groups that oppose their policies? Do banks issue fraudulent mortgages in order to squeeze money out of a middle class that now believes in the quick buck instead of hard work and frugality?
These have all become rhetorical questions. The press hardly bothers to report such abuses anymore. Investigative journalism is “too expensive,” mainly because news outlets that publish them would lose advertisers. Disrupted social order is so ubiquitous it has become a kind of white noise on the Internet, humming away behind the pornography and the mindless social networking. If you Google “police corruption,” you’ll get 159 million hits in 0.31 seconds. Try “political corruption” and you get 283 million in 0.33 seconds. One of them, the website for Transparency International, a global coalition dedicated to exposing misconduct by politicians, begins: “It’s natural to think of elections when we think of political corruption.”
All of this is still grist for the mystery writer’s mill, however. It just doesn’t seem as comical as it used to. Or perhaps we’ve lost our collective sense of humour.
In London, England, on September 21, 2012, the ruling Tory party’s Chief Whip, Andrew Mitchell, was stopped by police while riding his bicycle through the gates of 10 Downing Street after a meeting with the prime minister. There followed a forty-five-second altercation, during which Mitchell allegedly swore at the police officers and called them “plebs.” The offended officers leaked the story to the press, and there was a flurry of calls for Mitchell’s resignation. Mitchell apologized for swearing at them, but denied calling the officers “plebs.” What he claimed to have said was: “I thought you guys were supposed to fucking help us.” But he resigned as Chief Whip. In December, Scotland Yard’s Complaints department mounted “Operation Alice,” assigning thirty police investigators to undertake “a ruthless search for the truth.” After a half-million-dollar inquiry, eight officers were arrested; four of them were charged with “gross misconduct” for lying about what Mitchell had actually said. He never called them “plebs.” Apparently, the officers were targeting Mitchell because of his support for his party’s plan to cut police budgets. “We must now consider,” Henry Porter wrote in The Guardian last October, “that the rot has spread, that the police service in England and Wales is so infected by a culture of dishonesty, expediency, and outright corruption that radical reform is the only answer.”
It’s enough to drive a good cop to drink.
Wayne Grady is a Canadian writer of fiction and nonfiction. His nonfiction works include The Bone Museum, Bringing Back the Dodo, and The Great Lakes, which won a 2007 National Outdoor Book Award. His travel memoir, Breakfast at the Exit Cafe, co-authored with his wife, novelist Merilyn Simonds, appeared in 2009, and his novel, Emancipation Day, was long-listed for the Scotiabank-Giller Prize in Canada and named one of the ten best books of 2013 by the CBC. He and his wife divide their time between their home near Kingston, Ontario, and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.