P. D. James, Death Comes for the Archdeacon

That’s not actually the title of any of P. D. James’s novels, of course: it’s the basic plot of Death in Holy Orders, which I just finished rereading for the first time in a decade or more. Coincidentally, when I picked it more or less randomly out to revisit, I had also just reread Trollope’s The Warden, and so I had rigidly self-righteous Archdeacons on the brain even before James’s Archdeacon Crampton met his bloody end–then James herself made the Trollope connection explicit by having one of her characters read aloud from Barchester Towers with the deliberate intent of “discomforting the Archdeacon.”

The passage he reads is from the novel’s first chapter, in which the gentle and unworldly Bishop (known to us from The Warden as Mr. Harding’s great friend) is on his deathbed. “Nothing could be easier,” Trollope’s narrator assures us, “than the old man’s passage from this world to the next.” Things are more complicated, however, for his ambitious son, Archdeacon Grantly:

By no means easy were the emotions of him who sat there watching. He knew it must be now or never. He was already over fifty, and there was little chance that his friends who were now leaving office would soon return to it. No probable British prime minister but he who was now in, he who was so soon to be out, would think of making a bishop of Dr. Grantly. Thus he thought long and sadly, in deep silence, and then gazed at that still living face, and then at last dared to ask himself whether he really longed for his father’s death.

The effort was a salutary one, and the question was answered in a moment. The proud, wishful, worldly man sank on his knees by the bedside and, taking the bishop’s hand within his own, prayed eagerly that his sins might be forgiven him.

It is, as the provocateur who reads it aloud remarks, “one of the most impressive chapters Trollope ever wrote,” full of pathos, moral tension, and psychological insight. Our disgust at the Archdeacon’s selfishness is quickly countered by his own rueful self-knowledge and sincere penitence–and by Trollope’s explicit rebuttal of those who think he was “wicked to grieve for the loss of episcopal power, wicked to have coveted it, nay, wicked even to have thought about it, in the way and at the moments he had done so.” Ambition is natural in any profession, Trollope notes, and we “can hardly hope to raise the character of the pastor by denying to him the right to entertain the aspirations of a man.”

He rose with even greater vehemence to Archdeacon Grantly’s defense at the end of The Warden, a defense not against imagined external critics but against his own authorial choices:

We fear that he is represented in these pages as being worse than he is; but we have had to do with his foibles, and not with his virtues. We have seen only the weak side of the man, and have lacked the opportunity of bringing him forward on his strong ground. . . . On the whole, the Archdeacon of Barchester is a man doing more good than harm,—a man to be furthered and supported, though perhaps also to be controlled; and it is matter of regret to us that the course of our narrative has required that we should see more of his weakness than his strength.

Trollope typically resists absolutes of either virtue or vice–and that is one reason murder of the particularly calculated and brutal kind that takes place in Death in Holy Orders is so unimaginable in his world. Its cruelty and its finality obliterate ethical ambiguity; such an act disallows the nuance that is Trollope’s moral stock-in-trade.

That said, James and Trollope  do have a lot in common. James herself points to Austen, Eliot, and Trollope, rather than the Gothic or sensation novelists, as her chief fictional influences, and you see it in her patient, probing characterization as well as her meticulous attention to setting. Reading Death in Holy Orders so soon after The Warden I was struck by their shared interest in the Anglican Church as an institution defined both by its corporate identity and by the characters of the individual men who embody it, with their ideals and their faith but also their ambition, greed, and vanity. Both novels also depict the Church as an institution in which continuity and tradition are under constant pressure from changes without and within, and in which the laudable aim of preserving what is good can too easily be twisted into a justification for tolerating what is bad.

In both books, too, it is the self-righteous Archdeacon who epitomizes many of the worst tendencies of the priesthood they belong to, including self-righteousness, arrogance, and a preoccupation with worldly practicalities. While Trollope, as shown, wraps Archdeacon Grantly in the protective padding of his own humane understanding, James and her characters show no such forgiveness towards Archdeacon Crampton, who is universally hated. This is a formal necessity in a murder mystery, to be sure: more than one person must have a sufficient motive to be a plausible suspect, or where’s the puzzle? But it’s the specifics that are thematically revealing–and that turn out, in James’s case, to be a bit disturbing.

If Crampton, like Dr. Grantly, were “a fitting impersonation of the church militant here on earth,” a rigid defender of the status quo, the dislike both Archdeacons provoke could be neatly interpreted (as I think it can be, in Trollope’s case) as a call for the Church to reform, to live up to its professed spiritual ideals rather than insisting indignantly on its worldly authority and privilege. Instead, however, it turns out that one of the main reasons Crampton is disliked is that he was overzealous (as the other characters see it) in prosecuting a priest, Father John, accused of sexually molesting young boys. “The offences had been more a question of inappropriate fondling and caresses than of serious sexual abuse,” reflects Father Martin, another of the priests at the Seminary where Father John now resides, and the punishment might have been light if Crampton hadn’t “busied himself in finding additional evidence,” as a result of which Father John ended up serving time in jail. Father Martin considers Crampton’s pursuit of Father John “inexplicable”: “there was something irrational about the whole business.”

Everyone at the Seminary is sympathetic towards Father John, who seems as kind and unworldly as Trollope’s aged Bishop. If their tolerance were shown as priests closing ranks to protect one of their own, or the Church more generally, from damaging exposure, that would be one thing: then, again, a critical inference could be drawn–especially if solving the murder required them eventually to confront and regret their defense of a convicted pedophile, however otherwise likable he might be. Alternatively, I suppose, Father John’s case could have been used as an explicit model of sin, penance, and forgiveness: he has done his time, and if he were remorseful it could be worth exploring how or whether he was entitled to regain his standing in the Church. Unfortunately, though, the novel overall offers nothing to counter Father Martin’s perspective that Father John has been hard done by: that he has been punished with undue severity for a little harmless “fondling” of choir boys. It’s not just his fellow priests but also Emma Lavenham, English professor and emergent love interest for Commander Dalgliesh, who treats him with indulgent kindness; Dalgliesh himself, James’s moral avatar, expresses more concern about Father John’s trial and imprisonment (“which must,” he reflects, “have been an appallingly traumatic experience”) than he does about the priest’s young victims, whose trauma goes unacknowledged by anyone. Apparently it’s not that the Church needs to be held accountable for enabling and sheltering Father John but that his accusers, the Archdeacon among them, by making much ado about almost nothing, should be ashamed for blighting a good man’s life.

Death in Holy Orders does not ultimately turn on Father John’s history with the Archdeacon; his backstory is not central to the murder investigation but simply adds another (supposedly) unpleasant dimension to what we know about the murder victim. I suppose that could be an argument for not paying too much attention to it, except that the more I think about it, the more creepy that makes its treatment. It’s hard not to conclude that James herself considers accusations of that sort incidental–a lot of unnecessary and damaging fuss in a world, and a Church, with bigger problems. Surely, though, her reforming Archdeacon deserved at least as vigorous a defense as Trollope’s: that James allows Crampton to die cruelly and unmourned puts James out of step with the literary lineage she claimed.

Missing Persons: Arnaldur Indriðason, Arctic Chill

Erlendur stood over the grave in the freezing cold, searching for a purpose to the whole business of life and death. As usual he could find no answers. There were no final answers to explain the life-long solitude of the person in the urn, or the death of his brother all those years ago, or why Erlendur was the way he was, and why Elías was stabbed to death. Life was a random mass of unforeseeable coincidences that governed men’s fates like a storm that strikes without warning, causing injury and death.

I read two of Arnaldur Indriðason’s novels a couple of years ago. Both were pretty depressing; of the two, Silence of the Grave was both bleaker and better. After that I said I needed a break from “grim nordic noir” for a while, and I don’t think I’ve read any since (except The Terrorists for class, which isn’t actually that grim in spirit, despite the severity of its social criticism). After I finished Arctic Chill yesterday, I felt, again, that I’d had enough for a while: it is even more relentlessly unhappy than I remember the other two being, in ways that are pretty well summed up by the quotation above.

Arctic Chill struck me as more perfunctory, as a crime novel, than Silence of the Grave: it doesn’t try to do as much that is interesting or meaningful or literary. It does focus on an important topic: the victim’s mother is an immigrant to Iceland from Thailand, and his death immediately raises questions for the police, and for the media, about whether it was motivated by racism or hostility to immigrants. During their investigation, Erlendur and his team turn up plenty of both attitudes, sometimes casual, sometimes virulent, and thus the novel joins other recent European crime fiction (including Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers and Ian Rankin’s Fleshmarket Close) in examining the tensions and prejudices stirred up by changing demographics in supposedly “liberal” societies.

Though the particulars of the case were reasonably well developed, in the end I didn’t think Indriðason did much of interest with either the form of the novel or the resolution of the case: the crime does not ultimately reveal anything in particular about racism or immigration, for instance, instead turning more or less on random chance and pointless hooliganism. On the other hand, that outcome is consistent with Erlendur’s conviction that life has no meaningful patterns. There are some other thematic threads that add unity to the novel, too, particularly the recurrence of missing people, including  Elías’s older brother, the woman at the center of Erlendur’s other case, and, in the past, Erlendur’s brother, who was lost in blizzard in their childhood. His body was never found, and throughout Arctic Chill Erlendur is haunted by memories and questions about this personal tragedy which has defined the rest of his life in terms of loss and remorse.

I’m never tempted by mystery series that have what strikes me as an unduly cheery aspect: the ones that come with brownie recipes or crossword puzzles or starring cats or dogs. Crime is a serious business, or should be. It hardly makes sense, then, for me to complain that Indriðason takes it too seriously. I think what I want is more of a payoff for the misery: if not a glimmer of hope that life can be more than random “injury or death,” at least more layers to the characters or the social commentary. Arctic Chill just seemed formulaically gloomy.

No Escape: Dorothy B. Hughes, In A Lonely Place

Brub said, “I won’t say that. Although I honestly don’t think he ever does escape. He has to live with himself. He’s caught there in that lonely place. And when he sees he can’t get away–” Brub shrugged. “Maybe suicide, or the nut house–I don’t know. But I don’t think there’s any escape.”

I was glad that the Afterword in the Feminist Press edition of Dorothy B. Hughes’s In A Lonely Place got right to the heart of the problem: “What feminist claims can be made for a novel that is narrated from the perspective of a serial rapist and killer of women?” I had been puzzling over this as I read the book, and my own initial answer was simpler than the one Lisa Maria Hogeland makes in her essay (though similar to it), and also less confident: the novel is told from that perspective, but it is never aligned with it, so we never make the mistake of rooting for Dix Steele. To a limited extent we understand him, perhaps, but unlike in morally much riskier and more complicated fiction (such as Adam Johnson’s disturbing and heartbreaking story “Dark Meadows”) we never sympathize with him. This point I’m pretty confident about–what I’m less sure about is whether that’s enough to make the novel in any sense a feminist one.

Hogeland’s argument (oversimplified) is that the result is a novel that is a powerful indictment of toxic masculinity, one that exposes the fundamental irrationality and violence of patriarchy as a system. Dix may be an extreme case, but, Hogeland rightly points out, over and over in the novel his normalcy is highlighted–the point is made repeatedly that the murderer looks ordinary, indistinguishable from other men. The strategy of showing that even “good” men belong to and benefit from an evil system is an old feminist one, and I think that’s a reasonably persuasive reading of the way Dix is characterized. It’s also true that the novel effectively prevents any shadow of blame from attaching to any of his victims, and, furthermore, that it mostly avoids sensationalizing their suffering and death.

Though I don’t dispute Hogeland’s interpretation, I did notice that she seems aware she’s working a bit hard to make the case. She attributes the challenge to Hughes’s subtlety: for instance,

Love, jealousy, and the need to stalk and kill are all knitted together here, and Hughes’s skill is that she does it so subtly, in a way that never flags it overtly as a critique, yet critique it is. Hughes takes us inside Dix’s misogyny in order to explicate how that misogyny is the very foundation of his heterosexual masculinity, and in order to critique the misogyny she depicts.

 I said my answer to the “but how can this be feminist?” question wasn’t as confident as hers, and I think this is why: at least for me, on my first reading, In A Lonely Place seemed like a book we could interpret in that way, but also as one that could reasonably be experienced very differently–not as a celebration of violent misogyny (because it doesn’t take long for us to be perfectly clear that Dix is a dreadful, terrifying specimen), but as entertainment based (in a fairly familiar way) on violent misogyny. A lot of its suspense is built around the possibility of his next crime, for instance; every woman we meet we fear is a potential victim; there is the usual cat-and-mouse excitement around who knows what and when, or if, he will be caught. There are not, in fact, across the novel, any other men clearly placed on the spectrum of male aggression: sticking so closely and cleverly to his perspective ultimately makes it hard to see him as anything but exceptional, a lone wolf rather than a representative of systemic oppression.

Of course, that’s the artistic tightrope of unreliable narrators–which Dix very nearly is, so close is Hughes’s third-person point of view–as well as of any attempt to render the point of view of someone morally objectionable. I wonder if I would find the “it’s a cleverly disguised critique of itself” argument more overwhelmingly convincing if in fact Dix were the narrator, though I suppose that might only collapse even further the distinction between his twisted psyche and the social systems he works within. But (as I often argue about unreliable narrators, such as Stevens in The Remains of the Day, or for that matter much more blunt instruments such as any of Poe’s macabre personae) the success of unreliable narration depends on gradually developing an alternative version of the story that becomes every bit as clear as the one we are being overtly told: a unmistakable gap opens between the narrator’s theory of the facts and ours. I’m not saying there isn’t a gap between Dix’s story and ours, but are the alternatives as sophisticated as Hogeland suggests? Maybe it’s just because I’m new to In A Lonely Place (and because I also focus on critiques of masculinity when I read and teach other hard-boiled fiction, such as The Maltese Falcon) that it didn’t seem to up-end noir or hard-boiled conventions as much as all that.

Whether or not it’s a “feminist” novel, it’s definitely a stylish thriller, meaning not just the plot and but also the prose:

Fear wasn’t a jagged split of light cleaving you; fear wasn’t a cold fist in your entrails; fear wasn’t something you could face and demolish with your arrogance. Fear was the fog, creeping about you, winding its tendrils about you, seeping into your pores and flesh and bone. Fear was a girl whispering a word over and again, a small word you refused to hear although the whisper was a scream in your ears, a dreadful scream you could never forget. You heard it over and again and the fog was a ripe red veil you could not tear away from your eyes.

That’s good stuff, and chilling–and also, maybe, both taking and giving a bit too much pleasure in that poor girl’s terror.

Nomad: Phonse Jessome, Disposable Souls

disposablesoulsPhonse Jessome’s grim, violent crime novel Disposable Souls is set in the city where I live, and in a city I’ve never seen. Reading it was a constant reminder of the point Ian Rankin has often made about his Edinburgh-set novels: they show a side of Edinburgh that tourists never see — and neither do most residents, even though it is around them every day. The physical landscape is the same, but the shadow city of his crime stories has a different population and runs on different rules. Similarly, the Halifax depicted in Disposable Souls has the same geography as my Halifax, but it’s not at all the same place.

Of course, the reality is that these two cities are one city: I am just, in my own everyday life, ignorant of and sheltered from the one Jessome describes, so much so that even his vivid commentaries on very familiar places were disorienting. His description of downtown’s Spring Garden Road highlights just this duality:

In the bright sunshine of the day, the sidewalks on both sides of the road are crammed with beautiful people buying beautiful things. Trendy office workers lug six-dollar lattes past panhandlers who stand invisible at the curb, empty cups in hand. The homeless sit huddled against fire hydrants and utility poles. Halifax doesn’t have a trendy Main Street or a Skid Row. Spring Garden is a little of both.

At night, the tide shifts, and Spring Garden is taken over by angry, young rich kids in torn jeans and baggy black hoodies. They scowl and bluster at anyone who walks past and then tweet about it on seven-hundred-dollar phones. The real thugs roll past in Escalades, looking for someone to shoot. Even they wouldn’t waste real lead on wannabe hoods.

sgrFor readers who don’t know Halifax at all, Jessome provides not just vivid description but a lot of context about the city’s history. That it never feels like info-dumping is because much of it is provided by his protagonist, Detective Constable Cam Neville, a former army sniper and escaped POW, who in his new role as a cop struggles to overcome both PTSD and his past as a member of the biker’s club Satan’s Stallions. Cam views his home town with merciless clarity and an unhealthy dose of cynicism. “Halifax is a navy town,” he explains;

A military moron named Cornwallis was the first to claim it. He started his career as a bedchamber servant for King Edward over in England. He managed to sneak out of the royal bedroom long enough to slaughter hordes of unarmed Scots. The blood lust impressed the King who, although reluctant to lose a man good with a bedpan, realized he had a new bully ready for battle. With no one left to kill in Scotland, the good King sent him off to clean up the royal mess here. Cornwallis built a fort on the hill overlooking Halifax Harbour and headed off into the woods to make war. He couldn’t find the French, so he drew [Cam’s Mi’kmak partner] Blair’s ancestors into a little game called genocide. The British say he won. Cornwallis didn’t procreate; Blair is here. I call that victory.

He’s similarly blunt about the shameful story of Africville:

For 125 years, the descendants of African slaves lived along the shoreline here. They built a tightknit and proud community in isolation and poverty. Africville was part of Halifax, but the city didn’t want it, wouldn’t provide sewer, water, or even police protection. As far as the good people of Halifax were concerned, Africville was a shantytown to be ignored. The city put the open-pit dump beside it and set up sewage lagoons nearby to drive home the point.

Then, one day, Africville mattered more than it wanted to. The people were evicted, and late one cold night in 1969 heavy equipment swept in and demolished the church. The last house was flattened within a month. The city called it urban renewal. Halifax needed a new bridge, and Africville was in the way. The suddenly homeless people were jammed into inner-city slums and ignored for decades. Some of the toughest gangs in the city came out of those inner-city kitchens where bitterness and frustration still simmer.

cornwallisWe learn almost as much about Cam from these accounts as about Halifax, and, again like Rankin, Jessome also uses this contextual material to emphasize the relationship between social and historical conditions and the city’s distinctive patterns of crime and violence.

Disposable Souls alternates between Cam’s first-person narration and third-person narration that moves around among other characters in the tense unfolding drama. Cam is a well-realized character: tough, angry, brave, loyal. His voice is dominated by the anger and the toughness, and after a while I did find myself wishing for more nuance: not just Cam but the book as a whole seemed too much all in one key, and that a particularly rough, grating one. Disposable Souls is a little bit too hard-boiled for my own taste: I didn’t particularly enjoy it. On the other hand, it’s perverse to expect a story about murder, child pornography, and biker gangs to be “enjoyable” — this is the paradox of all crime fiction, of course, that it offers up horrors as entertainment. In my detective fiction class I often raise questions about this ethical problem, especially when we read Agatha Christie or other writers of Golden Age or puzzle mysteries. The  writers of hard-boiled detective fiction and police procedurals are generally credited with making mystery fiction both more literary and more morally weighty by infusing it with realism, and on those grounds, Disposable Souls is definitely a success. There’s nothing amusing at all about its crimes, and Jessome effectively immerses us in the entirely unpleasant world where they take place. That I prefer my Halifax is a reflection on me more than on the novel!

Disposable Souls is well-told and skilfully plotted. I finished it, however, wondering what else it was, if anything. If I were to assign it in my detective fiction class, for instance, what (besides local color) would it bring to our discussions? I’m not sure what its deeper thematic burden is: I couldn’t see how its particular case stood, for instance, as symptomatic of anything more general, rather than as a case study of a hypothetical but sadly plausible scenario. There’s a lot of talk about rivalries between the regional police and the Mounties, but that felt either personal or bureaucratic, not especially political. The contrasting ethos of the police and the Stallions might be a fruitful avenue to explore, particularly in a course where we will already have talked about the dangerous appeal of vigilantism; I think Cam’s military background and its psychological aftermath would also make for an interesting comparison to Knots and Crosses, where Rebus’s SAS training is a crucial part of both his character and the case. I also don’t want to underestimate the interest and value of thinking about crime as a local issue. Certainly Disposable Souls has already made me think differently about this place where I’ve lived for over twenty years — about aspects of the city I’ve otherwise confronted only through newspaper headlines — and there’s something to be said for bringing our classroom discussions of justice close to home.

Regardless of whether I decide to teach it (and I’m very tempted to), I am glad I’ve read it: it’s the first Canadian crime novel I’ve read in a long time that has really made me sit up and take notice, and I’m grateful to Nimbus for sending me a review copy.

Given to Murder: Amanda Cross, Honest Doubt


“I know you said most professors aren’t given to murder, but are English departments more given to murder than most?”

“Not as far as I know,” Kate said.

Over the years I have read all of the Kate Fansler mysteries by Amanda Cross (who was really Columbia English professor and renowned feminist critic Carolyn Heilbrun). Honest Doubt, published in 2000, is the penultimate of these; the last, Edge of Doom, came out just a year before her 2003 suicide.

I remember not liking Honest Doubt very much when I read it the first time, and rereading it over the last couple of days I could see why. At least for someone with preexisting knowledge of academia and its discontents, Honest Doubt is fairly heavy-handed, with a lot of tendentious explanations of the kind of theoretical and disciplinary infighting that was characteristic of English departments in the 1990s  and also of the territorialism, defensiveness, and self-importance that remain pretty typical. If you live it, there’s not necessarily a lot of charm in reading about it, particularly when the telling offers no new insights or revelations. Often in a mystery the solution to the individual crime points towards a solution to the broader ill it is a symptom of — Honest Doubt, however, does not offer any glimmer of a way forward except the general hope that eventually the worst, with all their passionate retrograde intensity, will die off.

That said, I did appreciate that Heilbrun devised a good formal justification for her expose of academic foibles by approaching her story, not through Kate, as usual, but through a private investigator, Woody, who consults with Kate to make up for her own ignorance of academic ways and means. Woody is an engaging narrator, and her outsider status gives Kate (and many of the other characters) an excuse for explaining how things work as well as how they go awry — with details about all things academic, from adjunct labor to tenure requirements to the hazards of prioritizing teaching over research. It also lets Heilbrun (and thus her readers) have some fun with Woody’s fish-out-of-water experiences on the college campus, and with the hyper-articulate name-dropping poetry-quoting professors she has to interview. There’s no doubt that a lot about how we carry on is kind of absurd if you step back and think about it, and though there are some ways in which Heilbrun’s cynical take seems a bit outdated, she’s not wrong that the extent to which our work often seems inconsequential to outsiders is exactly why the stakes get so high internally. She also does well capturing the ways academics’ identities get bound up in their objects of study, so that it becomes near impossible to avoid taking changes in their field personally. Kate sagely acknowledges the corrupting potential of this over-identification, especially as it converges with academic ambition: she quotes Auden saying that when Tennyson “decided to be the Victorian bard . . . he ceased to be a poet,” and propose that the victim, a curmudgeonly Tennyson expert, experienced a similar fall from grace: “He was a real academic when he began with Tennyson. Then he tried to become the academic and the Tennysonian, and ceased to be even a decent professor.”

heilbrunThe case itself is cleverly contrived but not, I think, particularly meaningful. On a completely personal and thus mostly irrelevant note, I enjoyed that it turned on the victim’s fondness for retsina: retsina is actually the first wine I ever drank, back when I was a regular in a Greek dance performing group, so for some time I didn’t realize just how distinctive (many would say, just how disgusting) it actually is. I haven’t had any in years, but now I’m tempted to see if our local wine store carries any. As I recall, it certainly goes well with the robust flavors of Greek cooking — garlic, lemon, and lamb especially. It isn’t really key to the crime, though, except that because nobody likes it but the victim, it proves a useful vehicle for delivering the fatal poison. (This is not a spoiler, as the method of the murder is one of the first things we find out!)

Otherwise, the only thing that really interested me in the novel was its gesture towards another of Heilbrun’s own recurring interests: solitude. She sees, rightly, I think, that a fondness for solitude is a particularly vexed issue for women, and in Honest Doubt she gives us a character who has managed to achieve the remarkable state of being unapologetic about her need for it. “I don’t want to offer you an extended disquisition on a woman’s life,” she tells Woody (the phrase itself reminiscent of Heilbrun’s slim but mighty book Writing A Woman’s Life)

and how it is made to seem that she really wants what she has, how she believes she has what she wants, and, if she has any secret desires, which are against all the forces of her culture, she hardly dares to face them.

Kate herself also in her own way resists the pressure to want what she’s supposed to – she is happily childless, for one thing – and in other Amanda Cross novels Heilbrun offers a number of characters who try to write their own stories according to their own needs and desires rather than haplessly following cultural norms. In Death in a Tenured Position, for instance, which is the one in the series that I know the best (I’ve assigned it several times in my ‘Women and Detective Fiction’ seminar), a happily married couple struggles with the dubious reactions of friends who realize they sleep in separate rooms — a small private decision that provokes simply because it doesn’t conform to people’s assumptions about marital togetherness. “You’d think they’d decided to be tattooed, or run guns to Cuba,” remarks one of their friends.

tenuredpositionI finished Honest Doubt thinking that, though I didn’t love it this time either, I should reread more of the series. Even 2000 was a long time ago in my own academic career, and for all that aspects of Honest Doubt seemed faintly archaic already, some of its truths hit home in a way they didn’t before. Even its title, in fact, has new resonance to me, taken as it is from Tennyson’s lines (from In Memoriam) “There lives more faith in honest doubt / Believe me, than in half the creeds.” My own doubts about a range of academic values and practices have made me seem to some, I think, like a negative force, maybe even a threat (or, and I’m not sure if this is better or worse, like an irrelevance). I’ve described myself as feeling sometimes like “a nonbeliever in church”: to me, though, my doubts have always been indications of my faith that what we do not only is valuable but can be even more so.

“The End of a Long Song”: Ian Rankin, Even Dogs in the Wild

“But you’re making progress, showing the youngsters a thing or two.”

“It feels like the end of a long song, though — men like Cafferty and Joe Stark . . . and me too, come to that . . . we’re on our last legs. Our way of doing things seems . . . I don’t know.”

“Last century?”

“Aye, maybe.”

As he takes Rebus (and thus his readers) through various phases of the old curmudgeon’s on-again off-again retirement, Ian Rankin seems to me to be inventing a new subgenre — call it, maybe, elegiac crime fiction. There’s something odd about it, because the pervasive nostalgia is not just about (though it’s closely tied to) Rebus’s consciousness of aging, and of being gradually displaced by a younger generation that does things differently and isn’t much interested in old methods or old stories. In Even Dogs in the Wild, it’s also about an older generation of criminals, particularly Rebus’s old nemesis “Big Ger” Cafferty, who is being similarly edged out by new kids on the block who are as indifferent to his authority and as keen to usurp his status as any of the young cops around Rebus.

Some of this is standard passing of the torch stuff, the old order fading and yielding place to new. Having been with Rebus and Cafferty so long, though, and because a lot of the novel is told from their point of view, we inclined to sympathize with them, despite their many past transgressions. This is right and proper enough with Rebus, but it’s a bit disconcerting to realize you are rooting for Cafferty to survive, even if he does declare himself ready to apologize and even make amends for some of the things he’s done. Between them, he and Rebus repeatedly suggest that however nasty things got in the old days, still, there was something about that old way of being a cop and being a criminal that had more dignity to it than the new ways offer. In a strange way, they share a set of values, although they embody its flip sides, and that’s what enables them, particularly in these later books, to work as allies.

I don’t have a lot else to say about Even Dogs in the Wild. Rankin knows what he’s doing: the book is characteristically well written, its plot is cleverly built up, and the pieces of it fall into place with expert pacing from the novel’s gripping start to its epilogue. Malcolm Fox is well integrated into the Rebus books now; his relationships with both Siobhan and Rebus are both plausible, and the three of them continue to develop as characters, though I don’t think there’s much here specifically to learn about our oldest two friends in the series. I appreciate the way Rankin weaves past and present together in the cases here; it suits the book’s emphasis on changing times and serves his ongoing interest in the ways contemporary Edinburgh carries traces of the city’s history.

It is hard not to wonder how much longer Rebus can go on. For all his involvement in the case this time, he’s a civilian now. His identity has always been so bound up in his work, though, that given Rankin’s commitment to letting him age naturally, and the increasing oddity (or so I imagine) of a retired cop being active in current investigations, at some point presumably he really does have to retire — or die, which might seem like a better end for him than seeing him malinger in a “care home” like the one Malcolm Fox’s father has been in, or where he visits one if the witnesses in the case. At any rate, in Even Dogs in the Wild he’s clearly in the mood to take stock, and one reason he does keep at it is because, for him, the underlying principle of the work is the most important thing. “What did it matter,” he wonders, contemplating the possibility that the suspect in a string of murders, who has a damn good motive for them, might not be stopped or caught? But “somehow it did”:

it did matter. Always had, always would. Not because of any of the victims or perpetrators, but for Rebus himself. Because if none of it mattered, than neither did he.

Ian Rankin explains that the title is taken from this song, which is suitably bleak and haunting for a book that, like all of Rankin’s, takes us imaginatively to grim places we’d rather avoid.

“What I Am Is What I Do”: Robert B. Parker, Promised Land


“The kind of man I am is not a suitable topic, you know. It’s not what one talks about.”


“Because it’s not.”

“The code? A man doesn’t succumb to self-analysis? It’s weak? It’s womanish?”

“It’s pointless. What I am is what I do. Finding the right words for it is no improvement. It isn’t important whether I’m scared or excited. It’s important whether or not I do it.”

I came across Robert B. Parker’s Promised Land in the library the other day and puzzled over it: was it possible I had never read this early volume in the Spenser series? Promised Land, which is the fourth Spenser novel, dates from 1976 and won an Edgar in 1977. But though I have been reading and rereading these books since some time in the 1980s, it didn’t look at all familiar, and now that I’ve read it, I feel pretty certain this was my first time.

The reason I think so is that though Promised Land is not a great Spenser novel — by which I mean, it is not much like the Spenser novels I like best — it does some really important work for the series, particularly in terms of Spenser and Susan’s relationship. It also introduces us to Hawk. So surely if I’d read it before, I would have remembered it! But maybe not.

In any case, I’ve read it (or possibly reread it) now, and though I didn’t really like it that much, I was fascinated by it. One way in which it differs from the later Spensers I am more familiar with is that it is way more wordy. I don’t really mean the exposition, though this too I think gets more spare as Parker’s formula develops. But by the last dozen or so titles, Parker’s characters are so well-defined they barely need to speak to each other in full sentences. Their cryptic utterances sometimes border on self-parody, but at other times there’s a beautiful ease to it: you know these people already, so you know what they mean and what they stand for — even, to some extent, what they will do — without their needing to explain it, to each other or to you. Thus Parker is liberated from the expository burden dialogue in novels sometimes carries and can just serve up the situation and let them volley words back and forth, witty and bracing and in some strange way pure.

promisedland1It’s an aesthetic effect that, when it works, perfectly suits the kind of man Spenser is: a man whose actions, as he says to Susan in Promised Land, speak for themselves. This doesn’t mean he isn’t introspective or capable of nuanced insight. He’d just rather act on what he discerns than spell it out. It’s primarily Susan who encourages him to articulate his life, which I’ve always thought was her primary role in the series — that and providing psychological and emotional support to people caught up in Spenser’s cases who aren’t well served, or sufficiently served, by his decisive but often unconsoling minimalism.

Even with Susan, though, there’s often not a lot of talking, or at least not that’s reproduced for us, which is why Promised Land is so interesting, because it’s early enough in their relationship that its terms haven’t yet been established. In fact (and this is the main bit I think I’d have remembered, if I’d read it before) in this novel they go through a crisis precipitated by the cliched scenario of her telling him she loves him and him shying away from what he thinks are the implications:

“Are you saying we should get married?”

“At the moment I’m saying I love you and I’m waiting for a response.”

“It’s not that simple, Suze.”

“And I believe I’ve gotten the response.” She got up from the bar and walked out.

If you know Susan and Spenser from the later novels, you’ll know them as one of literature’s most rock-solid couples, thoroughly devoted to each other but also leading lives of scrupulous independence, with their own homes, for example, without marriage, and only eventually with a shared dependent (Pearl the Wonder Dog!). Though I know some people can’t abide Susan, and I admit I sometimes find her too impeccable to bear (especially her oft-remarked habit of eating and drinking only the most microscopic portions at a time), I have always thought their partnership was exemplary for its balance of love and autonomy. They are two people who have somehow, miraculously (unrealistically?) learned simply to accept each other the way they are. Susan in particular has come to terms with the man Spenser is, from his unyielding (if largely unarticulated) code of honor to his capacity for violence. He reciprocates with unstinting admiration and respect for her. Once in a while the unusual form of their commitment is tested, but they always pass the test, in defiance of the literary and social norms it upsets. (It’s worth knowing that Parker and his wife Joan also had a somewhat unconventional union.)

What’s so interesting (well, to me — sorry if this is just so much insider baseball to you non-Spenser-fans out there) is that it turns out to be in Promised Land that Spenser and Susan first hammer out the terms that will define their relationship for the rest of the series. Not completely, but pretty clearly. The context in which they do this is also interesting, because it sheds some light on the way Parker was trying to sort out the ideology of the series, which can probably be summed up — a bit paradoxically — as a highly progressive form of rugged individualism.

promisedland3The case Spenser is involved with here involves a woman, Pamela Sheppard, who leaves her husband for no stronger reason than general dissatisfaction with her marriage. (There turns out to be more awry with her husband than that he doesn’t really see her for who she is, but that’s where she starts.) She ends up falling in with a group of women keen to start a revolution against the patriarchy, and as a result she ends up an unwilling participant in a bank robbery that goes horribly wrong. Spenser is entirely unmoved by her distress:

“You want me to bring you flowers for being a goddamn thief and a murderer? Sweets for the sweet, my love. Hope the old guy didn’t have an old wife who can’t get along without him. Once you all get guns you can liberate her too.”

Susan said, “Spenser,” quite sharply. “She feels bad enough.”

“No she doesn’t,” I said. “She doesn’t feel anywhere near bad enough. Neither do you. You’re so goddamned empathetic you’ve jumped into her frame. ‘And you felt you had to stand by them. Anyone would.’ Balls. Anyone wouldn’t. You wouldn’t.”

I didn’t like Spenser here at all (even though I don’t disagree with him about the poor bank guard). For one thing, he’s not helping — either Pamela personally, or his own work. More generally, he’s unmoved by arguments in the abstract or in principle, including, in this book, feminist arguments. When Pamela suggests he probably believes in “the sanctity of marriage,” he replies “Sanctity of marriage is an abstraction. . . . I don’t deal in those. I deal in what it is fashionable to call people. Bodies. Your basic human being.” He is impatient throughout the book with what today we would call “systemic” analyses, which is not to say he denies that women are positioned differently and often disadvantageously in society, but that he insists on addressing only the particulars he sees right in front of him.

This is what I mean when I say you can tell, if you’ve read the later books, that Promised Land shows the series was still, politically, a work in progress, or perhaps the right way to put it is that Parker himself was still figuring out how to define, or demonstrate, his own feminist politics. Because I would say, based on the other books I’ve read, that the Spenser series is quite emphatically a feminist series, or at least that it becomes so, and that one sign of that is how often Spenser actually talks about systemic problems — about gender and also, not at all incidentally, about race, though that’s not what Promised Land particularly highlights. Still, throughout the books there is always some tension between understanding that there are problems that exceed individual agency, on the one hand, and Spenser’s highly individualistic code of honor and principle, on the other. Maybe it’s a tension that’s inevitable to the form of the hard-boiled detective novel: Spenser is one man committed to doing everything he can for a particular case; it does him no good as a detective or a modernized knight errant to fixate on systemic injustices — the effect might be paralyzing. I think Parker is also just a bit too much in love with some tendencies of the hard-boiled genre (objectifying beautiful women, for instance) to entirely counteract his more deliberate investment in creating women characters who don’t need any rescuing at all, thank you very much.

At any rate, Promised Land made me uneasy in its resistance to feminism in a way that later books don’t. At the same time I appreciated that Parker makes this unease an explicit part of the book. Spenser wants Mrs. Sheppard to go back to her husband and try again, not because he believes in “the sanctity of marriage” as an absolute but because he thinks maybe if they both let go of their defined roles (his as provider and protector, hers as help-meet and accessory) they might be able to redefine their relationship. Spenser’s conversations with Susan about marriage are clearly affected by their dual (but not identical) concerns about how male and female roles are defined and are changing. When he does eventually propose, Susan, in her turn, backs away: now she isn’t sure what they should do, only that “it’s the kind of thing we need to think on.” That, I do like.