According to popular British history, the battle of Waterloo in 1815 was a glorious victory for both Britain and the Duke of Wellington.
In reality, however, victory at Waterloo had been achieved only with the decisive intervention of Prussian Army troops commanded by Field Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher.
Only a year earlier, a vast alliance of European kingdoms had, after enormous effort, defeated Napoleon Bonaparte and sent him off into exile. But he had escaped and now, having gathered together his old army, and was threatening to do his worst.
The great alliance had to be revived, Bonaparte was declared an outlaw and armies were reassembled all over the continent. By late April, there was little doubt that the first battle of the new war would be fought on France’s northern border with Belgium.
And it was here that the French army under the command of Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated by two of the armies of the Seventh Coalition: an Anglo-led Allied army under the command of the Duke of Wellington, and a Prussian army under the command of Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher.
Information Graphics or “infographics” as they are more often called, owe much of their popularity to the fact that they can make even the most complex subject accessible, by translating large amounts of complex data into more accessible, more readily understandable, visual media.
In the early 19th century, Information Graphics, began to be used as a means of giving complex quantitative information a clear visual narrative. An early example of this approach is Charles Minard’s graphic representation of Napoleon Bonaparte’s disastrous march on Moscow in 1812.
In his “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information”, Edward Tufte declares that it “may well be the best statistical graphic ever drawn”. Because, at a glance, the viewer can see immediately the real, data-based, story of the campaign.
Because they make complex data readily accessible for the casual viewer, visual displays of quantitative information of this sort, are also extraordinarily powerful storytelling devices.
And, because they are more readily understood than the data that they represent, these stories also tend to be believed more readily.
It was this simple fact that eventually led to the downfall of a contemporary of Charles Minard, an Englishman called William Siborne.
William Siborne had set about the task of creating a vast visual representation of The Duke of Wellington’s great victory over Napoleon, at The Battle of Waterloo
Unfortunately, for Siborne, his visual representation directly questioned the Duke of Wellington and the British Establishment’s account of how the battle had been won… and indeed who in fact had actually won the battle.
William Siborne came upon his explosive discovery quite by accident.
In 1829, the British army proposed the creation of a United Services Museum and wanted a scale model of the Battle of Waterloo as its central exhibit. Lieutenant Siborne, a brilliant topographer and military surveyor, then aged 32, received the commission.
Siborne was a meticulous researcher. He spent eight months surveying every inch of the battlefield, and a further eight years identifying every single soldier’s position, at every stage of the battle. He compared accounts from official dispatches, printed memoirs, and by means of pre-printed questionnaires, conducted an unprecedented research programme with surviving veterans from all sides – English, French, and Prussian.
It was the first time in history that a battle had been so carefully researched, and at the end of the process, Siborne had an unrivalled understanding of the position of almost every soldier on the field of battle at every point in the day.
This almost god-like, universal knowledge of the battle, gathered from so many sources, was translated into the scale model that Siborne built.
He conceived this model on a mammoth scale: covering almost 400 square feet, it would perfectly depict every tree, road, and contour of the landscape. Some 75,000 tin models would represent the deployment of the various forces at the moment of the “Crisis of the Battle” at 7 pm on June 18, 1815 – when events turned decisively against the French Emperor.
By this point, the 68,000 British troops with which the Duke of Wellington had started the battle were severely reduced, and his allies – 40,000 Prussians under Field Marshal Blucher von Wahlstadt – were staging their third major attack on the French positions in the village of Plancenoit.
At a time before aerial photography, (or indeed any type of photography at all) this diorama provided the viewer with an unprecedented vision of the battle – one that could be viewed from any angle.
After innumerable practical problems, the model eventually went on show in London, where it was greeted by rapturous reviews and visited by 100,000 people in its first year.
One person, however, failed to share the popular enthusiasm for the model. While Wellington had initially approved of the project as a monument to his military genius, he had become cooler, and eventually downright obstructive, as Siborne’s researches had progressed.
The key point at issue was the role of the Prussians in changing the course of the battle.
After comparing the records of the Prussian General Staff with those of Wellington’s own officers, Siborne had discovered serious inconsistencies in Wellington’s own account of the battle, which had become the official version of events.
Whilst Wellington had always insisted that the Prussians had arrived later in the day, when the battle was already won, Siborne could now prove, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that they had actually joined the battle several hours earlier than Wellington claimed, and consequently had played a far greater part in the victory than was credited to them by Wellington.
However, in questioning Wellington’s version of events, Siborne was not only challenging a pillar of the British Establishment, he was also questioning what had become a central element of national mythology: the conviction that Britain alone – and the genius of the Iron Duke – saved Europe from the tyranny of Napoleon.
Wellington responded by insisting that Siborne was “mistaken” and demanding that most of the Prussian troops displayed on the model be removed.
Siborne knowing that he was correct in his assessment, however, now raised the stakes even further, and published, irrefutable evidence of the decisive Prussian contribution to the victory at Waterloo in two lavish octavo volumes backed up by an accompanying folio volume of highly detailed maps.
Siborne paid heavily for this act of defiance.
Having sunk all of his personal wealth into the project, Siborne was shocked to learn that Wellington’s colleagues at the War Office now declined to purchase the model they had commissioned.
And a proposal for the display of the model at the newly opened National Gallery in Trafalgar Square was quietly shelved.
At the same time whilst his own rather academic account of the war had sold relatively poorly, he now had to watch as the information it contained was plagiarised by the Reverend George Gleig, a Wellington-backed rival, for a best-selling book about the campaign that shamelessly corroborated the official version.
Wellington had good reason to campaign so aggressively to discredit both Siborne’s model and his reliability as an historian.
In the early 19th century Britain’s military reputation was still badly tarnished by it’s humiliating defeat in the Americas. And in 1815, Britain’s relations with Prussia were acutely strained by the suspicion that its ally was intent on territorial expansionism. As Hofschröer points out in “The Duke, the Model Maker and the Secret of Waterloo”,
“had the Duke given the Prussians full credit for their role in the battle, it would probably have led to them making even louder demands for further territorial aggrandisement, upsetting the balance of power so laboriously established at the Congress of Vienna”.
So the Duke had little alternative but to seek to discredit Siborne if Britain’s military reputation – were not to be revealed as being founded on a falsehood.
The Duke won his battle in the short term. And Siborne died in poverty and obscurity in 1851.
However, for once history is not to be written by the victor.
And most historians today would accept Siborne’s evidence that far from being the sole victor at Waterloo, Welington at the very least, should share this honour with Bleucher, without whose help he could quite possibly have been roundly defeated.
What’s more, after almost 200 years , Siborne’s Large Model of Waterloo is once again on public display – in the National Army Museum, in London. Ironically, right beside the Chelsea Hospital, where Siborne ended his days in poverty.
The 4,000 Prussian soldiers that Siborne had so carefully hand-painted, are still missing. But it is an extraordinary testament to a time when an army of model soldiers struck fear in the hearts of the British Establishment.
And to the fact that, in a contest between two competing narratives, the one that has the most persuasive visual representation – especially one based on solid quantitative data – will always be the one that prevails.
Human tribes are bound together by the stories they tell. And these stories reveal much about the hopes and desires, the fears and general preoccupations of those peoples to whom these stories belong.
In the West for the past century or so, the most popular story is that of the detective and their search for the truth.
The first great detective of our time was, of course Sherlock Holmes.
However, Sherlock Holmes is not just the most famous detective of all time, he also represents one of the most potent and compelling ideas in modern popular culture.
With his virtuoso use of empirical observation and deductive logic he is in fact the physical embodiment of ‘The Scientific Method’.
The Scientific Method has dominated the pursuit of knowledge in the West, since the dawn of The Enlightenment and is based on a process of systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and the constant modification of hypotheses.
And is a curious symmetry to be found between popular regard for the promise that science offers, and the evolution of detective fiction over the past hundred years or so.
Science and the end of mystery
Middle and Upper-class Victorians seemed to be at the very pinnacle of human development.
Dominant as they were over a vast working-class majority at home and over millions of “uncivilized” and “lesser” races abroad, it seemed that human history itself, had been nothing if not an inevitable journey away from the dark origins of superstition, savagery and ignorance towards the triumph of the truth of scientific rationalism that was the glory of contemporary Victorian society.
The entire surface of the planet had been mapped – as well as the entirety of the heavens – and its contents were now being duly itemized, classified and catalogued.
And Darwin’s theory of evolution -the very pinnacle of Nineteenth Century scientific thought – seemed to support the inexorable advance of Western culture, legitimizing the great Victorian project of imperial domination of the ‘lesser races’ of the world.
It was thought that there was an underlying order to the universe which could be unlocked through mathematics and scientific enquiry. Indeed the triumph of science was such that it now seemed that everything in the universe was ultimately knowable, and comprehensible to the human mind, and that there was no mystery in the world that could not be penetrated by the persistent and systematic use of the scientific method.
Victorian science however was nothing if not practical, and the Nineteenth century was also an age of unprecedented technological innovation.
London, at the start of the 20th century, was the largest city on the face of the planet and the capital of the greatest empire the world had ever seen. It is estimated that in this period alone, around 10,000,000 square miles of territory and roughly 400 million people were added to the British Empire. At its height the Empire incorporated a quarter of the Earth’s habitable lands, and contained a fifth of its people. And this vast enterprise was made possible by technological innovations like the telegraph, the steam turbine, and the Gatling gun.
A most remarkable invention
It was in Britain in the 1860’s that an exciting new form of literature began to appear. Often referred to as the ‘sensation novel’, or ‘novel with a secret’ these narratives featured a radical new storytelling technique, in which the author would deliberately withhold information from the reader forcing them to use their own powers of observation, logic and deduction to solve a puzzle, a crime that was shrouded in mystery at the heart of the narrative.
These novels were called ‘sensational’ partly because of their content – usually a murder, or better, a murder combined with a sexual transgression –which allowing the reader to experience the dark, mysterious, criminal underbelly of Victorian society from the safety of their favourite armchair.
Scientific rationalism had become a lens through which the darkest, most primitive, and savage actions of less civilized peoples could be viewed, and rectified, by polite society. Clue by clue, discovery by discovery, through the rigorous application of logic and scientific thinking, even the most sinister shadowy mystery could be penetrated and order restored.
In short, the modern detective story, in which the author shares the task of solving the crime with the reader, had been invented.
All detective stories are, by their very nature, about the unequal distribution of knowledge. Not just between the characters within the story, but also between the author and the reader.
Indeed it is only through the careful deployment of false clues, unreliable testimonies, and even barefaced lies that the author gradually allows the truth to emerge and the reader to ultimately share the clarity of their omniscient understanding of the narrative.
And as Patrick Brantlinger succinctly describes it, in his essay What Is “Sensational” About the “Sensation Novel”? from this point on…‘the forthright declarative statements of realistic fiction are, in a sense, now punctuated by question marks.’
Murder most modern
Despite the fact that it is often dismissed as a lesser form of literature, the detective story – or murder mystery as it is also called – has dominated the cultural landscape for over one hundred and fifty years.
Indeed, it is hard not to overestimate the impact that the creation of this radical new type of narrative technique was to have on modern popular culture -paving the way, as it did, for the vast array of modern detective stories that surround us today, in the form of books, of course, but also TV shows, movies, stage plays, children’s stories and even board games and computer games. From the child-friendly adventures of Nancy Drew or Enid Blyton’s mystery books, to the dark brooding landscapes of Scandinavian dramas like The Bridge or the Killing, from the reassuring idealised world of Midsomer Murders to the poisoned industrial wasteland of True Detective, and from the elegant and desirable Venetian lifestyle of police commissioner Guido Brunetti to the small town desperation of Ystad’s Inspector Kurt Wallander, the detective story is clearly the dominant dramatic narrative form of the modern age.
The most popular television drama series in the world is CSI: Crime Scene Investigation – the murder mystery franchise produced by Hollywood director and producer, Jerry Bruckheimer. CSI first appeared on TV screens back in 2000, and since then its audience has grown exponentially, so that in 2009, its worldwide audience was estimated at more than seventy million viewers.
Agatha Christie’s Then There Were None, which, with over a hundred million sales to date, and still climbing, is one of the best-selling books of all time, and, according to Publications International, is the 7th best-selling book in the world (outstripped only by such essential publications as The Bible, The Thoughts of Chairman Mao Zedong, The Qur’an, Xinhua Zidian (The Chinese Dictionary), The Book of Mormon, and, of course Harry Potter).
The longest running play in the world is the murder mystery called The Mousetrap – also written by Agatha Christie. – which first opened in the West End of London in 1952, and has been running continuously since then, with its 25,000th performance taking place on 18 November 2012. A feat all the more remarkable given the fact that the audience are asked not to reveal the solution to the mystery after leaving the theatre.
Scientific certainty: the answer to life the universe and everything
And yet, despite the fact that its legacy dominates so much of contemporary culture, the sensation novel was also very much a product of the certainties of its own time and cultural context.
The Victorian faith in scientific progress was strengthened by the assumption that everything in the universe was ultimately knowable, and that scientific progress would eventually lead to a perfect knowledge of nature’s fundamental physical laws. Indeed for many late Victorians, the completion of this vast god-like understanding of the universe was, only a matter of time.
In a speech at the University of Chicago in 1894 Albert. A. Michelson, the first American physicist to win the Nobel Prize, declared that:
‘The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote…’
At around the same time Lord Kelvin, the mathematical physicist is reputed to have said that:
‘There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement’
And in 1900, the German mathematician, David Hilbert, one of the most influential mathematicians of the 19th and early 20th centuries, put forward a list of the 23 remaining unsolved problems within mathematics at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Paris, (You can read more about Hilbert’s ‘to-do’ list here). According to Hilbert, once answered, these outstanding questions would complete our mathematical understanding of the universe. Indeed by tidying up these last remaining anomalies, we would finally arrive at a universal theory of everything.
What could be simpler? The nature of reality itself, just like the murder mystery novel, appeared to be a puzzle which could be solved, clue by clue, discovery by discovery, through the rigorous application of logic and scientific thinking.
The murder mystery detective just like his real-life counterpart the explorer-scientist, was to become the fictional hero of this great age of scientific discovery. And the greatest of these was none other than the most celebrated fictional detective of all time… Sherlock Holmes.
Sherlock Holmes: the embodiment of the scientific method
Every age has its hero; a figure that, more than any other, embodies the deepest yearnings and greatest aspirations of the time. And for the modern age that figure is none other than the detective.
Sherlock Holmes is not just the most famous detective of all time, but he also represents one of the most potent and compelling ideas in modern popular culture.
With his dazzling use of empirical observation and deductive logic he is the absolute physical embodiment of the ‘scientific method’.
The Scientific method has characterized the pursuit of knowledge in the West, for hundreds, if not thousands of years, and consists of a process of systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and the constant modification of theories.
The widespread adoption of the scientific method in the seventeenth century with its pragmatic, evidence-based approach, stands in sharp contrast to the shadowy world of received wisdom, superstition and taboo that was supposed to have characterized most of pre-enlightenment Europe.
Implicit within the idea of scientific method, is the rather optimistic belief that there is no phenomenon that cannot ultimately be understood… you simply have to do enough observations, measurements, and experiments to reveal the truth.
It is in just this way then, that the famous “consulting detective” from 221B Baker Street, is allowed to work away, unconstrained by tradition, or petty social norms. His intellect, working like a powerful torchlight that can penetrate the darkest secrets and deepest mysteries of a Victorian London that is permanently shrouded in fog and darkness.
And even though the last Holmes story appeared as late as 1927 – by which time, in reality, the streets of London were filled with motor cars rather than hansom cabs and ablaze with electric lights rather than faint flickering of gas lamps – our hero continued to inhabit his mysterious Victorian world of fogbound streets where, as Vincent Sterrett, in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes puts it, ‘it is always 1895’.
Of course, the stories of Sherlock Holmes benefit enormously from the fact that it is ‘always 1895’. By creating a character that quite literally embodies the scientific method and placing this character in a setting that represents the complete opposite – a dark, fog-bound shadowy world of prejudice, ignorance and assumption – Conan Doyle created one of the most famous fictional characters the world has ever seen.
In 2002, Sherlock Holmes became the first fictional character to receive an Honorary Fellowship from the Royal Society of Chemistry, for ‘using science, courage and crystal clear thought processes to achieve his goals.’
A tale of two stories: the unique structure of detective fiction
The classic detective story has dominated the popular culture of the English-speaking world for more than a hundred and fifty years now. So is there some dark impulse at the heart of the modern age that creates such an insatiable thirst for savagery and bloodshed? Or is it more about the sense of the civilized world restoring order, clue by clue, revelation by revelation and the satisfaction, the reward, of that wonderful moment, at the end of these stories when all is illuminated, and we finally understand the truth?
The answer is probably a bit of both.
Murder mystery stories tend to share a specific, defining structural characteristic. And to understand this we need to digress for a moment into the world of literary theory. The terms ‘Fabula’ and ‘Sujet’ were originally invented in the 1920s, by two Russian Formalist literary theorists – Vladimir Propp and Viktor Shklovsky, to describe the difference between a story and its plot.
So, for example, if you were to take the movie Citizen Kane, which starts with the death of the main character, and then proceeds to tell his life story through a series of flashbacks that are intercut with a journalist’s investigation of Kane’s life in the present day, the ‘Fabula’ of the film is the story of Kane’s life – the way it happened in chronological order – while the ‘Sujet’ is the way that this story is actually told, reconstructed for greatest dramatic effect through flashbacks.
An even more extreme example of this separation of ‘Fabula’ from ‘Sujet’ is to be found in the structure of the film Memento, where the story is presented as two different sequences of scenes: a series in black-and-white that is shown chronologically, and a series of color sequences shown in reverse order. These two sequences “meet” at the end of the film, producing one common story.
In The Poetics of Prose, the philosopher and literary theorist Tzvetan Todorov explains how this division between ‘Fabula’ and ‘Sujet’ is uniquely exploited in the narrative structure of the murder mystery story, in that it too:
‘contains not one but two stories: the story of the crime and the story of the investigation. In their purest form, these two stories have no point in common . . .
The first story, that of the crime, ends before the second begins. But what happens to the second? Not much. The characters of the second story, the story of the investigation, do not act, they learn.
…The hundred and fifty pages which separate the discovery of the crime from the revelation of the killer are devoted to a slow apprenticeship: we examine clue after clue, lead after lead…
This second story, the story of the investigation, . . . is often told by a friend of the detective, who explicitly acknowledges that he is writing a book; the second story consists, in fact, in explaining how this very book came to be written . . .
The first— the story of the crime — tells ‘what really happened,’ whereas the second — the story of the investigation — explains ‘how the reader (or the narrator) has come to know about it.'”
The first, that of the crime, is in fact the story of an absence: its characteristic is that it cannot be immediately present in the book…The status of the second story…(is) a story which has no importance in itself, which serves only as a mediator between the reader and the story of the crime…
We are concerned then in the whodunit with two stories of which one is absent but real, the other present but insignificant.”
As Todorov says, ‘The characters of the second story, the story of the investigation, do not act, they learn’ and, of course the most important character in the story of the investigation, the one who does the ‘learning’, is the central figure of the murder mystery genre, the character through whom we the audience learn everything– the detective.
It is through the detective figure that we discover the central mystery-the puzzle that needs solving. And it is through the detective figure that we too speculate and create hypotheses as, bit by bit, parts of the solution to the mystery are gradually revealed.
Until that wonderful moment when all becomes clear, and, together with the detective we experience, for the moment at least, a complete, god-like understanding of everything.
Significantly, the ‘Fabula’ and ‘Sujet’ of a story tend to have very different characteristics.
In classic murder mystery stories, the ‘Fabula’ is primarily about the crime whereas the ‘Sujet’ is primarily about the investigation. So whilst the ‘Fabula’ tends to be about the destruction brought about by the forces of chaos, darkness and barbarism, the ‘Sujet’ on the other hand tends to be about the restoration of order and the all round benefits of civilization. And whilst the ‘Fabula’ is primarily about animal passions, such as love, jealousy, greed and fury, the ‘Sujet’ is primarily about detached observation, intellect and rational scientific thought.
This binary conflict between chaos and order, animal passions and rational scientific thought is also to be found at the very heart of Victorian culture in the second half of the nineteenth century… precisely at the time when the modern detective story first began to appear.
The origins of the scientific detective
The detective story, as a distinct genre, was a product of Victorian culture however, and only a tiny proportion of the detective fiction produced at the time is still available today, even less is still read for pleasure or even studied by academics. There are therefore many theories therefore about the precise genealogy of this form of narrative.
The prototype for the scientific detective – later made famous by Sherlock Holmes – was certainly Chevalier Dupin, a character created by that master of tales of mystery and the macabre, Edgar Alan Poe. Chevalier Dupin, appears in three stories: The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841); The Mystery of Marie Rogêt (1842); and The Purloined Letter (1845).
As T.J Binyon puts it in “Detective in Fiction from Poe to the Present“:
“In Dupin, Poe created the prototype of the great detective, the eccentric genius with stupendous reasoning powers, whose brilliance is given added refulgence by the fact that he is always accompanied, and his investigative tours de force always set down, by a loyal admiring, but uncomprehending and imperceptive friend and assistant.”
Poe himself was aware of how innovative these stories were – “These tales of ratiocination,” Edgar Allan Poe explained in 1846, “owe most of their popularity to being something in a new key.” – and even in outline, the modern reader will recognize many of the features of the classic detective story. In The Murders in the Rue Morgue, Dupin comes across the case in the newspaper of the gruesome murder of Madame L’Espanaye and her daughter in their apparently locked lodgings in the Rue Morgue, and using his powers of logical deduction he unravels the seemingly insoluble mystery, by methodically sifting through all the various accounts and considering various all the possible hypotheses, he exposes the narrow-mindedness of the local prefect of police. Poe had given the form its initial shape, created its first great detective, complete with companion/narrator.
It was almost half a century later, in 1887, with a short story called A Study in Scarlet, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, introduced his own version of this intrepid pair – the eccentric genius with extraordinary deductive powers, accompanied by his trusty, but rather imperceptive assistant – in the shape of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John H. Watson. This duo, were, of course, to become perhaps the most famous duo in literary history, going on to become the subjects of four full length novels and 56 short stories, all but four of which are narrated by Holmes’s assistant, Dr. Watson.
However the author who was responsible for creating so many of the elements that would later become the model for the classic detective stories of the early twentieth century was a writer of ‘sensation’ novels called Wilkie Collins, with the publication of what many consider the first, and greatest example of the genre: The Moonstone in 1868.
The renowned crime writer Dorothy L. Sayers once described The Moonstone as ‘probably the very finest detective story ever written’. Whilst the distinguished modernist poet and literary critic T.S. Eliot called it “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels in a genre invented by Collins and not by Poe.”
Whoever it was that was ultimately responsible for creating this new literary genre – and in reality there were probably many writers who should ultimately take the credit for their own individual contributions – it was the publication of The Moonstone in 1868 that clearly laid down the principles for all the ‘Golden Age’ murder mystery stories that were to follow. These principles can be summarized in the following manner:
The story must form a puzzle, the solution to which is only revealed at the very end
An investigator with unusual forensic and deductive skills who is seeking to establish ‘the truth’ must drive the plot.
And this investigator is placed in direct contrast to the conventional police who are largely incompetent.
It is essential that the reader discovers clues only as the investigator does
There should be a large array of false suspects, and false clues, to confuse and mislead the reader
The guilty party should always be the last person you might suspect
The crime to be solved should be a ‘locked room mystery’ in which a murder has been committed under apparently impossible circumstances
The Golden Age of Detective Fiction
In the early part of the Twentieth Century, this genre exploded into mainstream popularity – especially amongst the British Middle classes. According to Carole Kismaric and Marvi Heiferman in The Mysterious Case of Nancy Drew & The Hardy Boys:
‘The golden age of detective fiction began with high-class amateur detectives sniffing out murderers lurking in rose gardens, down country lanes, and in picturesque villages. Many conventions of the detective-fiction genre evolved in this era, as numerous writers — from populist entertainers to respected poets — tried their hands at mystery stories.’
And Professor William D. Rubinstein, in his essay called A Very British Crime Wave: How Detective Stories Captured the Imaginations of the British Middle Classes in the 20th Century gives some sense of the scale of this phenomenon:
‘Between around 1910 and 1950 Britain was in the grip of a genteel crime wave; a seemingly endless output of murder mysteries… Such works formed a major component of middle-class culture in Britain at the time: for every person who read T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, or Virginia Woolf, probably 50 more read Agatha Christie and double that number Conan Doyle.’
It was during this time, that some of the greatest works of the English murder mystery genre were created. The Grande Dame of the genre, Agatha Christie, was publishing classics with titles such as, Murder on the Orient Express (1934), Death on the Nile (1937), and Then There Were None (1939) as well as introducing her two most famous fictional detectives, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. At the same time, Dorothy L. Sayers’s was busy creating her archetypal British gentleman detective, Lord Peter Wimsey with equally classic murder mysteries like: Murder Must Advertise (1933) The Nine Tailors (1934) and Gaudy Night (1935).
But whilst this was a time of great creativity, it was also the period during which conventions of the genre came to be set in stone, and in 1929 the British clergyman, and amateur detective storywriter Ronald Knox set out his ‘Decalogue’ of rules for detective fiction.
These rules, which ensure that, a detective story “must have as its main interest the unraveling of a mystery; a mystery whose elements are clearly presented to the reader at an early stage in the proceedings, and whose nature is such as to arouse curiosity, a curiosity which is gratified at the end” were perhaps written with slightly more of a wry smile than is generally thought – Father Knox was also known for his love of pranks and practical jokes – but they are rules which most writers within the genre adhere to.
Father Knox’s Decalogue: The Ten Rules of Detective Fiction
The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.
All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
No Chinaman must figure in the story.
No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
The detective must not himself commit the crime.
The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.
In her wonderfully insightful and informative Twentieth-Century Crime Fiction Lee Horsley explains why so unashamedly artificial a genre has had such enduring popular appeal:
‘One answer might be that this reassuring object (a well-known kind of text) is also an invitation to playful readers to participate, challenging them to put a fictional world in order by the act of being, simply, a ‘good reader’. Such a person will judge the writer as ‘good’ partly because he or she manages to delay an appreciative audience’s recognition of the ‘true’ narrative. Seen in this way, the classic detective story combines the comforting familiarity of a repeated pattern with the surprising turns of a well-played game.’
Lee Horsley expands upon this idea by comparing the rise in popularity of golden age crime fiction with the increasing popularity of the cryptic crossword:
‘In the inter-war period, the flourishing of golden age crime fiction, epitomized by Christie and Sayers, coincided with the emergence of another favourite British game, the cryptic crossword. The cryptic crossword, it should be emphasized, differs from the variety of word puzzle which is solved by filling in famous names, general knowledge, or words that fit dictionary definitions. Rather, it consists of complicated wordplay (puns, anagrams, etc.), with completion of the puzzle involving a battle of wits between clue-setter and solver.5 Although the early cryptic crossword was somewhat anarchic, it soon became established that all good setters must abide by the fundamental principle of fair play. One of the best-known setters, Afrit, offered the dictum, ‘I need not mean what I say, but I must say what I mean.’ This would, I think, serve equally for any good detective storywriter. Both games mirror the nature of civilized discourse in their careful ironies, their nuances and clever evasions, and their attentiveness to the exact meanings of words (a particular skill, for example, of Christie’s Hercule Poirot). The correct answer should be accessible to the solver, but must be cleverly hidden, in such a manner that, once enlightened, he or she will ‘see that the solution had, in a sense, been staring him in the face’.
Colonel Mustard and the Murder at Tudor Hall
In the 1930’s, the game-like quality of English Golden Age detective fiction, had inspired a craze for ‘Murder Mystery’ games, played out in hotels across the length and breadth of the country. These ‘Murder Mystery’ games, would involve both actors and hotel guests playing the part of characters in a murder mystery drama – one that centred around the ‘murder’ of one of the guests. The hotel, with its large number, of sprawling rooms, took on the role of the country mansion and when the body was found murdered, each of the guests would fall under suspicion. By piecing together the clues provided, the hotel guests would then have to solve the mystery over the course of the evening.
Anthony E. Pratt was a musician who made a living from playing piano in the country hotels where these murder games were played. Anthony himself was a huge fan of murder mystery stories and in particular Agatha Christie novels like The Body in the Library. And as he watched these ‘Murder Mystery’ games being played out in front of him night after night, he began to have a rather brilliant idea…
Anthony Pratt realized that he could translate these murder mystery games into a board game. By 1943, Anthony with some help from his wife, Elva, had designed his murder mystery board game. The game was called “Murder” and Elva designed the artwork for the board. The object of the game was for each player to move around the game board, which featured the floor plan of an English country house, known as Tudor Hall, with each player in the guise of one of the game’s six characters. As they did so they would collect clues until they were able to announce who had committed the murder, in which room, and with which weapon. So for example the winner might utter the immortal words: ‘I suggest it was Colonel Mustard, in the Library, with the Lead Pipe.’
Anthony Pratt filed his original patent application on 1 December 1944, and in February 1945 showed the game to Waddington’s, the largest British board games manufacturer at the time. Waddington’s immediately saw the potential and, with a few very minor modifications, (It was Waddington’s who renamed the game Cluedo – a combination of “Clue” and “Ludo”, the Latin word for “I play”) decided to go ahead and manufacture the game.
Of course, Cluedo – or Clue as it became known in the United States – went on to become a massive worldwide success. It is fitting, therefore, that one of the most enduring expressions of the English Golden Age of detective fiction is not a book, but a board game, and one with a very specific social setting. Because – in the same way that for Sherlock Holmes it is ‘always 1895’ – for players of Cluedo, it will always be 1926 at a country mansion somewhere in Hampshire.
The end of the idea of ‘Human Progress’
Over the course of it’s first hundred years in Britain, detective fiction had developed many conventions that were in danger of fossilising this otherwise vibrant new artform and lending the genre a somewhat artificial quality.
This was all the more noticeable given the social and cultural changes that had taken place in Britain in the meantime.
During the course of the intervening years the old Victorian attitudes to progress began to change. For many writers, artists and poets it had been the horrors of the First World War that gave the lie to the simplistic nature of the late Victorian worldview. For others it was the increasing familiarity with other cultures and worldviews that occurred as Imperial power declined and new forms of media proliferated.
Whatever the precise cause, we can see that some kind of tipping point in the understanding of the nature of progress was reached in 1931, when the British historian Herbert Butterfield published a short, but highly influential book, called The Whig Interpretation of History. The title referred to the Eighteenth century conflict between ‘Whigs’ and ‘Tories’ in which, the ‘Whigs’ – who were political liberals -believed in the concept of progress and the ‘Tories’ – who were political conservatives – distrusted anything new, and clung to the institutions of the past.
Butterfield’s little book demonstrated the major flaw in the Victorian representation of history; imagining as it did, the past as an inevitable progression towards ever greater liberty and enlightenment, culminating in the finished forms of liberal democracy and constitutional monarchy that we have today. Butterfield’s thinking was rapidly and widely adopted in academic circles. Indeed after this, anyone in academic circles offering a view of the world based on the Victorian notion of progress was in danger of being dismissed as ‘Whiggish’ in their approach.
And yet, Whiggish interpretations of history continued to influence the popular imagination, and to this very day can be found throughout popular culture in the form of films, television documentaries, and even history textbooks. This can be most dramatically seen in the story of the famous scientific illustration, commonly referred to as The March of Progress.
The illustration was originally commissioned for Time-Life Books in 1965, by anthropologist F. Clark Howell and painted by natural history painter Rudolph Zallinger, and it was designed to show a visual summary of 25 million years of human evolution, by lining up a series of figures from the history of human evolution marching in line, from left to right,
It was never the authors’ intention to imply a linear ancestor-descendant parade, but as the popularity of the image grew, the image became known as The March of Progress, reinforcing as it did so, the old discredited Victorian idea of progress: that early human evolution had developed in a linear, sequential fashion along a predetermined path towards our current ‘finished’ form as human beings.
Shocked by the scale of the popular misreading of the image, Howell later remarked that ‘the artist didn’t intend to reduce the evolution of man to a linear sequence, but it was read that way by viewers… The graphic overwhelmed the text. It was so powerful and emotional’.
The end of the dream of human omniscience
However it wasn’t just in the realm of popular culture that the Victorian concept of progress persisted. Watching these Victorian ideas – like the idea of progress and the dream of an all embracing ‘Theory of Everything’ – gradually evaporate during the twentieth century, is a bit like watching the tide go out on a very shallow shelving beach: in some areas they disappeared very quickly whilst in others they lingered in large but increasingly isolated pools.
Ironically perhaps, the last remaining areas left behind by the receding tide were in the field of science. Twentieth century science needed the idea of progress since the idea that science is a body of knowledge passed down from one generation to the next, was, for many scientists, a fundamental article of faith… a prerequisite to the idea of science itself.
But as science developed in the twentieth century, it began to become clear that far from steadily unraveling the nature of the universe, many of these new discoveries were, in fact, simply opening up more questions.
As late as 1930 David Hilbert, (the mathematician who had issued the original challenge to solve the last 23 remaining unsolved mathematics problems at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Paris in 1900) was once again attacking the idea that there were any limits to scientific knowledge. A position exemplified by the phrase ignoramus et ignorabimus, meaning “we do not know and will not know”. In a celebrated address to the Society of German Scientists and Physicians, in Königsberg he once again stated:
We must not believe those, who today, with philosophical bearing and deliberative tone, prophesy the fall of culture and accept the ignorabimus. For us there is no ignorabimus, and in my opinion none whatever in natural science. In opposition to the foolish ignorabimus our slogan shall be: Wir müssen wissen — wir werden wissen! (‘We must know — we will know!)
Less than a year later, in 1931, a 25 year old mathematician called Kurt Gödel, who had actually been at this lecture, demonstrated that Hilbert’s ambitious grand plan to tidy up the remaining questions and anomalies within mathematics was, in fact, impossible. In what came to be known as Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems, the young mathematician showed that mathematics could either be consistent or complete. And that it could never be both.
Hilbert never published again, and never recognised Gödel’s work. The words ‘Wir müssen wissen. Wir werden wissen’ are the only words on Hilbert’s gravestone.
But perhaps the greatest barrier to the discovery of a grand, all embracing ‘Theory of Everything’ was the fact that the two great achievements of twentieth century science, Albert Einstein’s two theories about the nature of the universe – the Theory of General Relativity and the Theory of Quantum Mechanics – had been shown to be incompatible.
After years of research, and experimentation, physicists in the 1950’s had confirmed virtually every prediction made by his theory of the very large – the Theory of General Relativity, which focuses on how gravity affects the way the universe, behaves in terms of large-scale and high mass objects like stars and galaxies – and his theory of the very small – the Theory of Quantum Mechanics, which focuses on the way the universe behaves in terms of objects with both small scale and low mass: objects like sub-atomic particles, atoms and molecules, etc.- within their own domains.
The only problem was that these physicists had also shown that General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, as they are currently formulated, are mutually incompatible. In short, that two of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of the twentieth century, the Theory of General Relativity and the Theory of Quantum Mechanics, cannot both be right.
One answer to these seemingly intractable questions came in 1962, with the publication of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by the physicist Thomas Kuhn.
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions changed the way that many scientists think about science, and triggered an ongoing assessment of what scientific progress really means… the effects of which is still being felt to this very day.
According to TheStanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
Thomas Samuel Kuhn (1922–1996) is one of the most influential philosophers of science of the twentieth century, perhaps the most influential. His 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is one of the most cited academic books of all time. Kuhn’s contribution to the philosophy of science marked not only a break with several key positivist doctrines, but also inaugurated a new style of philosophy of science that brought it closer to the history of science.
Even though the majority of people have never heard of The Structure of Scientific Revolution – or its author – their thinking has still been profoundly influenced by his ideas. Indeed, the term ‘paradigm shift’, first coined by Kuhn, to define one of the central ideas of this ground-breaking work, has become one of the most used, and abused, phrases in modern English.
Kuhn’s great achievement was to, at a stroke, change the way we think about mankind’s attempt to understand the world through science.
As TheStanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it, before Kuhn, our view of science had been dominated by a narrative of scientific progress as ‘the addition of new truths to the stock of old truths, or the increasing approximation of theories to the truth, and in the odd case, the correction of past errors’. In other words, we had seen science, as providing an inevitable and heroic progression towards the ultimate “truth”. A progression in which each successive generation of scientists built on the discoveries and knowledge by ‘standing on the shoulders’ of previous generations.
However, rather than science being this steady, cumulative “progress”, Kuhn saw the history of science as a series of revolutions within which conflicting paradigms overthrew one another. A paradigm is never overthrown until a replacement paradigm is waiting in the wings, and crucially this new paradigm is not necessarily any more ‘truthful’ than the one that it replaces.
According to Kuhn, one of the aims of science is to find models that will account for as many observations as possible within a coherent framework. So, for example, taken together, Galileo’s re-evaluation of the nature of motion and Keplerian cosmology represented a coherent framework that was capable of rivaling and replacing the Aristotelian/Ptolemaic framework.
Once a paradigm shift like this has taken place, the textbooks are rewritten. (And often, at this stage, the history of science is also rewritten, and presented as an inevitable process leading up to the newly established framework of thought). At this point in the establishment of a paradigm, there is a widely held belief that all hitherto-unexplained phenomena will, in due course, be accounted for in terms of this newly established framework of knowledge.
Controversially, Kuhn suggested that those scientists, who choose to operate within an established paradigm, spend their lives in the process of mere ‘puzzle-solving’, since the initial successes created by the established paradigm tend to generate the belief that the paradigm both predicts and guarantees that solutions to these puzzles exist.
Kuhn calls this ‘puzzle-solving’ process ‘Normal Science’. However, this ‘Normal Science’ begins to have problems, as the paradigm is stretched to its limits, and anomalies — i.e. failures of the current paradigm to take into account newly observed phenomena — begin to accumulate. Some of these anomalies may be dismissed as errors in observation, whilst others may merely mean making a few minor adjustments to the prevailing paradigm. But no matter how many anomalies are found, the scientific community as a whole, will not lose faith in the established paradigm until a credible alternative is available.
And yet, Kuhn maintained, that in any community of scientists, there would always be some individuals who would embrace these anomalies, and who would begin to practice what Thomas Kuhn calls ‘Revolutionary Science’… exploring alternatives to the long-held assumptions of the prevailing paradigm. Occasionally this ‘Revolutionary Science’ will create a new paradigm, a rival to the established framework of thought. And in time, if the majority of the scientific community adopts this challenger paradigm, it will completely replace the old paradigm, and a ‘paradigm shift’ will have occurred.
In this way, Kuhn argued that competing paradigms are “incommensurable”: that is to say, there exists no objective way of assessing their relative merits.
In other words, there is no one single, objective,’ Theory of Everything’ waiting to be discovered by modern science, simply the process of ‘puzzle solving’ within the prevailing paradigm which is simply the current shared belief system of the cultural community of scientists… until a new ‘paradigm shift’ takes place.
Obviously many scientists were, and still are, scandalized by the suggestion that modern science is a culturally constructed narrative, rather than the progression towards some kind of universal truth.
But perhaps, and more importantly, even though the majority of people have never heard of either Thomas S. Kuhn or The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, we have all unconsciously adopted his thinking… including the idea of ‘paradigms’ and ‘paradigm shift’. And, unlike our Victorian forebears, we are now willing to believe that reality can be viewed from a number of cultural perspectives. Each of which is equally valid.
The American Detective
British Golden Age crime fiction is often referred to as ‘Cozy’ crime fiction, since it tends to be set in an idealized version of middle or upper class England… a reassuringly ordered world that – although temporarily disturbed by the nuisance of an unsolved crime – is always restored to its natural state of peace and harmony in the end.
The act of solving the crime in a ‘Cozy’ is therefore doubly satisfying, since it represents both, an intellectual accomplishment, as well as an act, which restores order and balance to the world. Furthermore, it is one in which the reader is an active participant in the ‘suet’ of the narrative – the scientific search for the truth – and a detached observer of the ‘fabula’ – the dark story of the crime itself.
The ‘Cozy’ was the product of a different age, an age of scientific and social certainties, and, as the Twentieth century developed, through world war and economic depression, many of these certainties began to unravel, and this form of murder mystery began to look increasingly anachronistic and unrealistic.
And nowhere in the world did Golden Age British detective fiction look more artificial and anachronistic than in the United Staes during the great depression.
Taking the essential structure of the detective story, writers like Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler, were to fashion a new, more contemporary, kind of fiction that was to come to be known as ‘Hardboiled’.
‘Hardboiled’ detective fiction developed directly out of the American world of pulp detective magazines like ‘True Detective’, the pioneering American crime magazine specialized in dramatizing real-life American crime stories.
These pulp detective magazines had reached the peak of their popularity in the 1920s and 1930s at a time when Prohibition was turning ordinary citizens into criminals and ordinary criminals into celebrities. At this time, magazines like True Detective had become so popular – some would sell up to one million copies per issue – that real life cops and robbers vied to see themselves on the pages. Even FBI boss, J. Edgar Hoover himself, found time to write regularly for the pulp detective magazines.
The ‘Hardboiled’ world lacks the comforting certainty of the British ‘Cozy’, embedded as it is in the reality of crime and violence. And in contrast to the ‘Cozy’ tradition – where deeds of a sexual and violent nature often feature as part of the fabric of the ‘fibula’, but rarely as part of the ‘sujet’ – the ‘hardboiled’ world is hostile, dangerous and morally ambiguous – both in the fabula and the sujet. Furthermore, unlike their “Cozy” British counterparts, these detectives solve mysteries, by moving freely within the world of those who commit the crimes and not just by observing them scientifically from a distance.
The first and, perhaps, the most famous example of the ‘hardboiled’ detective is a character created by Dashiel Hammett called Sam Spade. As Hammett himself later described him:
Spade has no original. He is a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been and in their cockier moments thought they approached. For your private detective does not — or did not ten years ago when he was my colleague — want to be an erudite solver of riddles in the Sherlock Holmes manner; he wants to be a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent by-stander or client.
A composite of many of Hammett’s previous detectives, Sam Spade was to become the prototype for a vast number of cynical, world-weary hard-boiled detectives. His is a fictional character that casts a very long shadow. His influence can be felt in characters as diverse as the retired police officer, Rick Deckard, in the movie Blade Runner, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander or private investigator J.J. “Jake” Gittes in the movie Chinatown.
Although Spade first appeared in 1930, in a story called The Maltese Falcon, serialized in a pulp magazine called The Black Mask, it was not the American pulp magazines that were destined to make the hard-boiled detective famous. It was the movies.
And although the 1931 movie version of the Maltese Falcon had been a modest commercial and critical success, it was the great 1941 remake, directed by a young first timer called John Houston and featuring an unknown 42 year old actor called Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, that created the archetype of the modern hard boiled detective, in a new, highly expressive film style that was to become known as ‘Film Noir’. Indeed, John Huston’s Maltese Falcon is widely regarded as the greatest detective movie of all time.
Into the darkness with Film Noir
Ever since the Wall Street crash in 1929, America had been in the grips of The Great Depression. But for the big five Hollywood Studios (MGM, Paramount, Fox, RKO, and Warner Bros.) The Great Depression was a veritable boom time. Going to the movies was one way for people to escape from it all – at least for a while – and by 1939 the number of movie theaters in the United States had grown to over fifteen thousand.
The 1930s had seen amazing technical advances in both Technicolor and sound, as evidenced by epic movies like The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind. But these films were unbelievably expensive to make because the color technology they employed was still in its infancy and the three-strip color process used in the production of these films required massive amounts of lighting and time to create.
To maximize their investment in these expensive blockbuster spectacles, the studios used a system called “Block Booking”. This meant that for cinemas to get the rights to showing the big A-list movies, they would have to buy blocks of films which included an assortment of less desirable B-list movies. At the height studio era, these blocks could include up to a hundred films a year purchased in advance blindly by the theaters, often before they even went into production.
Because of this need for large volumes of low cost B-list movies, there was a massive demand for stories, and many of these were found in the pulp fiction of the time, which featured western, sci-fi, horror stories, and of course, the new ‘Hardboiled’ detective stories.
Given the fact that these were low budget movies and because their financial success was relatively assured, a certain amount of experimentation was allowed in how these stories were told. Directors like the German immigrant Fritz Lang – who had been at the forefront of German Expressionist cinema with its highly stylized set design, use of unusual camera angles and dramatic lighting – were quick to seize the opportunity to create movies in a more expressive style, a style that came to be known as ‘film noir’.
The primary literary influence on film noir was the Hardboiled School of writers such as Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain – both of whom had written for The Black Mask. The classic film noirs The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key (1942) were based on novels by Hammet, whilst Cain’s novels provided the basis for Double Indemnity (1944), Mildred Pierce (1945), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), and Slightly Scarlet (1956). However it was Raymond Chandler – another Black Mask writer – who soon became the most famous author of the hardboiled school. Not only were Chandler’s novels turned into major noirs—Murder, My Sweet (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), and Lady in the Lake (1947) but Chandler was also to become an important screenwriter in the genre as well, producing the scripts for Double Indemnity, The Blue Dahlia (1946), and Strangers on a Train (1951).
But it is the visual expression of ‘Noir’ movies that is perhaps their most striking feature. It was the French film critic Nino Frank that first coined the phrase ‘film noir’ in 1946. And, as the name suggests this is a form of cinema where darkness dominates the screen.
And within these enormous mysterious shadow areas we sense the realm of the unknown. Because in film noir, it is not what you can see, but what you cannot see, that sets the tone of the drama.
It is this deep and unmistakably modern truth that the American painter Edward Hopper articulates so beautifully in his painting Nighthawks, a painting that was heavily influenced by film lighting; indeed it could very easily be a still from just such a movie. Indeed, in turn, Nighthawks has gone on to be used as a reference for the lighting design for countless film noir movies.
Much has been made of the relationships between the three characters seated at the bar. Earlier in his career, Hopper had earned his living creating the cover art for pulp detective magazines, and in the process he had taught himself the ability to condense the suggestion of a large complex narrative into a single image. According to his biographer, Gail Levin, the painting was inspired after reading Ernest Hemingway’s story The Killers, in which two hit men arrive at a diner to murder a burnt-out prizefighter for some undisclosed offence. And yet, we do not really need any backstory to read this painting, whatever about the relationship between the characters inside the diner, the real drama in this painting is in the significance of the relationship between the light of the interior and the darkness of the exterior. Indeed, the darkness outside the diner is the real point of Nighthawks.
Inside it is safe, and there is certainty. But step outside, and nothing is certain… for who knows what danger lurks in those shadows? In these mysterious shadow areas we sense the realm of the unknown. And we know it is not what you can see, but the sheer enormity of what you cannot see, that will ultimately decide the fate of the characters taking temporary refuge in the illuminated interior.
Forget it Jake. It’s Chinatown.
It has been said that the detective novel ‘brings light into dark places, and, in doing so, for a brief period at any rate, it washes the world clean’. And yet, with the advent of American Film Noir, it is clear that we have journeyed a great distance from the ‘Cozy’ world of Lord Peter Wimsey and Hercule Poirot, from stories set in an idealized upper class England… a reassuringly ordered world that, although temporarily discomoded by the presence of an unsolved crime – is always restored to its natural state of peace and harmony in the end.
And this is partly, because the world had changed. We no longer believed in one ‘authorised’ version of the truth, we are less inclined to believe that we can know everything, and we no longer have a simple blind faith in the Victorian notion of progress.
Indeed, the ”Hardboiled’ detective is like one of Thomas S. Kuhn’s renegade scientists, who finding anomalies in the prevailing paradigm is forced to construct their own belief system outside of conventional society.
And although, the essential structure of the ‘Sensation Novel’ is still present – in terms of the audience going on a journey of discovery with the detective – the tone and manner has changed considerably. Here sex and violence feature both as part of the fabric of the ‘fabula’, as well as the ‘sujet’ , indeed, the ‘Hardboiled’protagonist is often as dangerous and morally ambiguous, as the world in which he now thoroughly immerses himself in. And perhaps more importantly, when the mystery is revealed and the crime solved, order is no longer necessarily restored, and evil is not necessarily removed from the world.
Nowhere is this more true than with Roman Polanski’s 1974 movie, Chinatown.
With the exception of John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) is often considered to be the greatest detective movie ever made. The original screenplay was written by Robert Towne in the style of the classic 30’s and 40’s Film Noirs of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and features a protagonist who is clearly based on the likes of Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe… a private eye called J.J. “Jake” Gittes, a part that Robert Towne had written specifically for actor Jack Nicholson.
Robert Towne’s screenplay for the film has become a model for other writers and filmmakers, and is often cited as one of the finest examples of the craft. However, it was the director, Roman Polanski who decided about filming the fatal final scene, changing Towne’s idea of a happy ending, and thus transforming what might have been a good period detective story into one of the greatest movies of all time. “I knew that if Chinatown was to be special,” Polanski later said, “not just another thriller where the good guys triumph in the final reel, Evelyn had to die.”
Towne had worked on many high profile movies such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Godfather (1972) The Last Detail (1973) and in 1971 producer Robert Evans had offered Towne $175,000 to write a screenplay for The Great Gatsby (1974), Towne felt he could not improve on the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel and instead, asked Evans for a mere $25,000 to write the screenplay for his own, original story, Chinatown.
Set in 1937 Chinatown descibes the manipulation of a critical natural resources, by a shadowy cadre of city oligarchs. Chinatown was to be the first part of a planned trilogy featuring J.J. Gittes, as he investigates the supression of public interest by private greed through the manipulation of natural resources in this case water. (The second and third part were to deal with the city oligarchs appropriation of oil and land.) Although the story is set in 1937, Chinatown is based on real-life events in Los Angeles that became known as the Owens River Valley Scandal and actually took place in 1908.
J.J. “Jake” Gittes, a low-rent divorce detective, is hired to follow the LA water commissioner, by his wife who claims he’s cheating on her, at a time when Los Angeles is suffering from severe water shortages. We follow him, as he gradually uncovers secrets that reveal layer upon layer of corruption and deception. The wickedness revealed is staggering, as we’re slowly subjected to the corruption of politics, money, sex, innocence and even the land itself.
And although the central crime in the story is institutionalised patriarchal rape, as Margaret Leslie Davis, says in her 1993 book Rivers in the Desert: William Mulholland and the Inventing of Los Angeles, this sexually charged film is a metaphor for the “rape” of the Owens Valley.
When Jake finally solves the mystery, he is incapable of righting the wrongs he discovers. In the end, there is just a sense of futility and powerlessness, in the face of such absolutely corrupt and unassailable power.
As his partner says: ‘Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.’
As the twentieth century drew to a close Western science began to become more and more aware of just how much it did not know. Indeed, in a complete reversal of Victorian thinking which saw everything as knowable and a complete Theory of Everything being just over the horizon, scientists now began to realise that the vast majority of the universe is made up of stuff that we cannot see, detect or even comprehend.
The first inkling scientists had that there might be more mass in the universe than was previously realised came in the 1970s, when Vera Rubin, a young astronomer at the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, began observing the speeds of stars at various positions in their galaxies. Traditional Newtonian physics predicts that stars on the outskirts of a galaxy should orbit more slowly than stars at the center, and yet Rubin’s observations found that all the stars in a galaxy seem to circle the center at roughly the same speed. Research by other astronomers confirmed the anomalies that Rubin had found and, eventually, based on observations and computer models, and in true Kuhnian fashion a paradigm shift began to take place as scientists concluded that there must be much more matter in galaxies than that which is visible or detectable. They called this material dark matter, and estimated that it accounted for 23% of the matter in the universe.
In the 40 years that have followed, scientists still haven’t been able to establish what dark matter is actually made of. But a more recent discovery than Dark Matter, Dark Energy is possibly even more mysterious. In the mid-1990s, two teams of researchers were looking at the speeds of stars to determine how fast the universe was expanding at various points in its lifetime. Based on the prevailing paradigm astronomers had predicted two possibilities: either the universe has been expanding at roughly the same rate throughout time, or it has been slowing down in its expansion as it gets older. Shockingly, the researchers observed neither. Instead, the expansion of the universe appeared to be accelerating.
If the Big Bang theory is true, all the gravity of all the mass in the cosmos should have been pulling the universe back inward, just as gravity pulls a ball back to Earth after it’s been thrown into the air. There was clearly some other force out there operating on a cosmic scale that was counteracting the force of gravity. This force has been called Dark Energy and is estimated to account for 72% of the universe.
Together then, Dark Energy and Dark Matter account for an extraordinary 95% of the matter in the universe. That which we can see, detect and attempt to comprehend, a mere 5%.
Knowledge vs Ignorance
With the screening of True Detective in 2014, the medium of television finally confirmed its position as the creative equal – some would say the creative superior – of its older sibling, the cinema.
Traditionally, cinema has always looked down on television as a lesser medium, with actors, writers and studio executives regarding movement from the small screen to the large screen as career advancement and movement from the large to the small as, well, not a good idea….
But that was before the extraordinary commercial and critical success of television series like The Sopranos, The Wire, and Breaking Bad. Not to mention the great Scandinavian mystery sagas like The Bridge or The Killing.
These television series have taken the core strength of the medium – the opportunity to tell stories, develop characters and expand upon themes over a much longer time span than the mere couple of hours that a conventional movie affords – and dramatically exploited this advantage to create an exciting new kind of narrative.
So much so, that critics like Brett Martin in ‘Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution‘ believes that these television drama series have “become the significant American art form of the first decade of the 21st century, the equivalent of what the films of Scorsese, Altman, Coppola, and others had been to the 1970s…”
But really it was only when Hollywood ‘A Listers’ Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson made a play for their own small screen franchise, with True Detective, that it seemed clear that some kind of tipping point had been reached.
In the same year that, McConaughey won his Oscar for Best Actor, he and his good friend Woody Harrelson launched True Detective through the HBO network. Having teamed up with the highly regarded author and screenwriter Nic Pizzolatto, and equally respected film director Cary Joji Fukunaga to produce a drama that features some of the finest writing, acting and cinematography to appear on any screen… large or small.
Combining the two core strengths of each medium – the lavish production values of a full scale cinematic production (remarkably, Cary Joji Fukunaga insisted on shooting the whole drama on film), and the leisurely pace that television affords (the entire drama is eight hours long) – they created a narrative structure that expands on many levels to explore grand themes like the nature of truth, the nature of belief and the nature of space and time through the exploration of a number of damaged male characters set amid the poisoned and polluted post industrial landscapes of the Gulf Coast of Louisiana.
True Detective is many things at once—a powerful character study of damaged people in damaged landscapes, a gripping murder mystery, a tour de force for Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey. But first and foremost it is about knowledge and ignorance.
There is a scene at the heart of True Detective that shows this in a startling and profoundly moving way.
Rust Cole, played by Matthew McConaughey, is an ex-cop from Texas and a flickering ghost of a man. Still haunted by the loss of his two year old daughter, who died tragically more than twenty years ago, he is now a disheveled looking alcoholic, who is being interviewed by two Louisiana detectives, who want to know about a murder investigation that he was involved in seventeen years earlier.
We learn that the case notes have all been lost in the wake of Hurricane Rita, and that we now have to rely on the testimony of Cole – and his ex-partner Marty Harte, whom the two detectives interview separately – to understand what happened all those years ago.
Cohle treats his interviewers with the disinterested disdain of a man who has ventured far beyond the realms of conventional society, and has little need of its illusory comforts or, indeed, any of its social niceties.
Knowing how much they need his testimony, he insists on being allowed to smoke in their non-smoking office, and drink his choice of Texan beer, before he explains things any further.
In contrast, ‘Rust’ Cole’s ex-partner, Marty Harte, comes across as a regular guy and a good-ole-boy with simple Bible-Belt family values. Unlike Cohle he appears to be a well-adjusted member of society, who exudes bonhomie and treats his interviewers with genial professionalism.
During the course of the two interviews, however, we begin to see that Cohle and Harte are not all that they seem… ‘Rust’ Cole is a detached, outsider figure who seeks knowledge at any price. Intolerant of any kind of falsehood or superstition, he wants to know the truth, no matter how uncomfortable, inconvenient or downright dangerous that truth might turn out to be.
Marty Harte, on the other hand, lacks knowledge… not just of the world around him but, more importantly, he lacks knowledge of himself. Critically, he fails to understand those who should be closest to him, including his wife – to whom he is unfaithful – and his two daughters – from whom he is profoundly absent even when he is present in their company.
With a stack of empty beer cans in front of him, ‘Rust’ Cole asks the two detectives if they are familiar with M Theory – the latest attempt by theoretical phycists to create a theory of everything, and reconcile the conflicting requirements of quantum mechanics and general relativity.
Cohle says: You ever heard of something called the M-brane theory, detectives?
Detective 1 responds non-commitally: No. That’s over my head.
Cole says: It’s like in this universe, we process time linearly forward but outside of our spacetime, from what would be a fourth-dimensional perspective, time wouldn’t exist, and from that vantage, could we attain it we’d see our spacetime would look flattened…
At this point Cole, with an empty beer can in one hand, extends his arms, brings his hands together and smashes the can into a flat silver disc. Cole continues: …like a single sculpture with matter in a superposition of every place it ever occupied, our sentience just cycling through our lives like carts on a track. See, everything outside our dimension that’s eternity, eternity looking down on us. Now, to us, it’s a sphere, but to them it’s a circle.
We cut to Marty Hartes two daughters aged seven or eight, sitting on the front lawn of their suburban house. They are dressed in princess outfits – perhaps they are waiting for their dad to come home – but they have grown bored and are now bickering with one another. In frustration, one of the girls grabs the others tiara and throws it high up into the tree above them. The camera follows the tiara up into the tree and waits. And waits. We sense that time has passed, before eventually the camera comes back to its original position to see that the lawn is now empty. A car pulls up into the driveway, the passenger door opens and a clatter of empty beer cans fall out, followed by a teenage girl who is so drunk she can barely stand.
It is Marty Harte’s daughter.
When Cole first starts talking about M Theory, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was nothing more than the ramblings of the town drunk, happy to waste police time for a few free beers. However, the film language tells us something very different. By telescoping time, as if to echo the collapsing of the beer can, the edit shows us what Cohle knows and Harte doesn’t: that time spent away from his young family is time that can never be recovered and that this ignorance will have far reaching consequences for all of them.
The missing particle
Just a few kilometers to the North East of Geneva, and nestling in the foothills of the Jura Mountains, there is a massive underground nuclear research facility, which would not look out of place in a James Bond Movie. It is called CERN (The European Organization for Nuclear Research) and it is here that some of the world’s most brilliant scientists – guys who like to invent things like the internet in their spare time – are probing the fundamental structure of the universe. Here, in a vast 27-kilometer circumference underground complex, rather modestly called the Large Hadron Collider they are smashing particles of matter together at close to the speed of light in order to provide insights into the fundamental laws of nature, and specifically to confirm the existence of an elusive sub-atomic particle known as the Higgs Boson.
The Large Hadron Collider took about a decade to construct, for a total cost of about $4.75 billion. Electricity costs alone for the LHC run about $23.5 million per year, and the total operating budget of the LHC runs to about $1 billion per year. The search for the Higgs Boson involved the work of almost 3,000 physicists from 169 institutions, in 37 countries and five continents
On the 4th of July 2012 Fabiola Gianotti, Italian particle physicist, and spokesperson for the project at the Large Hadron Collider announced success. But as soon as she did so, she said that: “We need more data.” As Stuart Firestein, who chairs the Department of Biological Sciences at Columbia University, puts it in Ignorance: how it drives science
“We need more data.” With these words, Fabiola Gianotti wrapped up the triumphant announcement that the elusive Higgs boson particle had been detected. Gianotti is the physicist in charge of the experiment at the Large Hadron Collider where this unveiling was made. She added “surprise, surprise” to the end of that sentence, not as a damp squib, or faux humility, nor a beg for more grant money. She said these words because she understands that science is a process not a bank of knowledge…
As a culture, we have a voracious appetite for information. And it is perhaps the ultimate irony, that just as the digital revolution has given each and every one of us easier and faster access to exponentially larger and larger amounts of information, we are only now beginning to become aware of just how much we do not know, and in fact, just how much we cannot know.
Put simply, we are beginning to realize that larger and larger amounts of information do not necessarily guarantee larger and larger amounts of knowledge – indeed there is evidence to suggest that in many cases the opposite may often be true. This is a phenomenon that is often described as ‘the illusion of knowledge.’
The illusion of knowledge and its counterpart, the ignorance of ignorance, are two of the most important philosophical ideas of the digital age. They have found their simplest and best articulation in the rather unlikely form of a statement by Donald Rumsfeld – the then United States Secretary of Defense – when he responded to a journalist at a press briefing in February 2002, who had asked him about the lack of evidence for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. What Rumsfeld said was:
‘…there are known knowns; there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.’
Despite being the subject of much derision at the time – The Plain English Campaign gave Rumsfeld its Foot in Mouth Award – Rumsfeld’s statement has come to be seen by many as being (however unintentionally) one of the best summaries of the problem of quantifying ignorance, and the impact that ‘unknown unknowns’ may have on our world.
‘Unknown unknowns’ or the ignorance of ignorance are central to the thinking of Nassim Taleb and his use of 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill’s metaphor of the black swan.
‘A black swan’ was a common expression in 16th century London as a statement of impossibility, much like the way we use the phrase ‘flying pigs’ today. This was based on the presumption that because all swans ever observed in the Northern hemisphere were white, ALL swans in the world must therefore be white. After the Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh discovered black swans in Western Australia in 1697, the term metamorphosed to mean that a seeming impossibility might later be disproven.
The idea of Black swan events – ones which cannot be predicted but have a massive impact on human history – were introduced by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his 2001 book Fooled By Randomness. His 2007 book The Black Swan extended the idea and showed that almost all major scientific discoveries, historical events, and artistic accomplishments are, in fact, “black swans”. The Internet, the personal computer, World War I, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the September 11 attacks are all examples of black swan events.
As a Lebanese, whose family home was destroyed by an unforeseen war Nassim Taleb, is more aware than most of the dangers of ignoring ‘unknown unknowns’, and refers to our attitudes to ignorance, as epistemic arrogance or ‘our hubris concerning the limits of our knowledge.’
Stuart Firestein, eloquently describes how the presence of these ‘unknown unknowns’, means that science can never be a finite process, but an ongoing process that is constantly revising itself:
Science, then, is not like the onion in the often used analogy of stripping away layer after layer to get at some core, central, fundamental truth. Rather it’s like the magic well: no matter how many buckets of water you remove, there’s always another one to be had. Or even better, it’s like the widening ripples on the surface of a pond, the ever larger circumference in touch with more and more of what’s outside the circle, the unknown. This growing forefront is where science occurs… It is a mistake to bob around in the circle of facts instead of riding the wave to the great expanse lying outside the circle.
Three decades ago, Stephen Hawking famously declared that a “theory of everything” was on the horizon, with a 50 per cent chance of its completion by the year 2000. In 2002, Stephen Hawking gave a lecture entitled Godel and the End of Physics, in which he described how he no longer believed that a “Theory of Everything” was possible, given ‘Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems’, which show that mathematics can either be consistent or complete. And that it could never be both.
In The Grand Design, written with Leonard Mlodinow, Professor Stephen Hawings explains how, in the early 1990s, string theory was struggling with a multiplicity of separate and distinct theories. In fact instead of a single theory of everything, there seemed to be five. Beginning in 1994, though, physicists noticed that, at low energies, some of these theories were mathematically equivalent to one another, suggesting that they may just be two descriptions of the same thing. Eventually, one string theory was shown to be mathematically equivalent to 11-Dimensional Supergravity, a theory that described not only strings but membranes, too. Many physicists now believe that this supergravity theory is actually one piece of a hypothetical ultimate theory, which they call M-theory, of which all the different string theories offer us the merest glimpses.
Thus, according to Mlodinow and Hawing the only way to understand reality is to employ a philosophy called “model-dependent realism” in which we cannot ever attain a single comprehensive theory of the universe. Instead, science offers many separate and sometimes overlapping windows onto a common reality.
Great science is not just there to answer questions, and provide explanations. Indeed, the works of Gödel, Schrodinger, Eisenberg, and Einstein have, perhaps, all raised greater questions than they have answers.
And that is something we should all celebrate rather than deny. For as Thomas Kuhn has shown, so much of experimental physics is simply puzzle solving within an existing paradigm, whereas what we should be doing is exploring the inconsistencies that may point the way towards a new paradigm. The Late Victorians had longed for a science that would provide the answer to life, the universe and everything. And although this yearning was to find its perfect expression in the fiction of the scientific detective, it would never be realized in the real world of experimental science.
Unlike detective fiction, whose purpose is to solve and explain puzzles, perhaps the ultimate purpose of great science is exactly the same as any great detective story – not to solve mystery… but to create it.
As Professor Stephen Hawking puts it:
‘Some people will be very disappointed if there is not an ultimate theory that can be formulated as a finite number of principles. I used to belong to that camp, but I have changed my mind. I’m now glad that our search for understanding will never come to an end, and that we will always have the challenge of new discovery. Without it, we would stagnate. Gödel’s theorem ensured there would always be a job for mathematicians. I think M theory will do the same for physicists…’
With palm trees swaying gently in the breeze and surf crashing upon miles and miles of golden beaches, Cape Coast is without doubt, one of the most beautiful places in West Africa.
But there is a long dark shadow that falls across these golden sands.
For here, standing on a rocky promontory like some brooding African Elsinore is an ancient fortification called Elmina Castle, which for almost four hundred years was an important link in the North Atlantic slave trade.
Elmina Castle was built by the Portuguese in 1482 as São Jorge da Mina Castle, and is the oldest European building south of the Sahara. First established as a trade settlement, the castle later became the portal through which millions of Africans were forced to pass on their way to the slave markets that lay over the horizon in the Americas.
A number of years ago I travelled here with a good friend of mine, a West Indian who had been born on the small Carribean island of St Vincent, and whose ancestors had been slaves. Upon our arrival we met a local teacher called George who offered to show us around.
The castle itself is a dark, oppressive place. The pain and the suffering of hundreds of years of human trafficking, seems to be soaked into the very fabric of the walls.
Within the bowels of this castle is a doorway that is known as “The Gate of No Return.” Looking out from the darkness, through this doorway you can see the surf crashing on the golden beaches below… this doorway feels like a portal to another world.
“This, then, was the door. It struck me as vaginal. You passed through it and onto a ship for Suriname or Curaçao,… You passed through it, lost everything, and became something else. You lost your language. You lost your parents. You were no longer Asante or Krobo, Ewe or Ga. You became black. You were a slave. Your children inherited your condition. You lost your children. You lost your gods, as you had known them. You slaved.
And born into a new life, all that they carried with them were their memories and their stories. Everything else they were forced to leave behind.
Eventually we had had enough of this dark place, and we were all quite relieved to get out into the late afternoon sunshine. George suggested a place a little way back down the coast where we could get a cold beer.
Soon we were sitting outside a small wooden bar on the beach, with the dark castle cast in silhouette as the the sun set beyond over the vast Atlantic Ocean.
As the light began to fall George began to talk about the local culture and in particular, he started to tell stories about the spider god Anansi.
Surprisingly, it soon emerged that my friend knew similar stories, having learned them from his grandmother, as a child on the island of St Vincent.
Winston told one of his Anansi stories. Then George told one of his. And then Winston responded with another.
This went on for a while, until something quite extraordinary happened:
Winston told a particularly funny Anansi story…
And George was laughing because it was one that he had never heard before.
And at that moment we understood.
This story must have been carried over the Atlantic ocean to the Carribean island of St Vincent at some point in the past four hundred years. – probably after passing through the castle which stood so ominously behind us in the gathering darkness.
It had been passed down, from generation to generation, until Winston brought it back back to Africa, to share with us that evening.
The fact is, that these Brer Rabbit, Anansi stories have the most amazing ability to travel across vast swathes of space and time. And media.
Which is why these trickster tales are alive and well, and still being shared on a daily basis.
Despite the fact that many of the original books are out of print and the movie called “Song of the South” is deemed by the executives at Disney to be too politically sensitive to be re-released. And despite the fact that here have been many attempts to make the stories more socially acceptable to by removing the Uncle Remus character and the use of the Gullah language. These stories are flourishing, not in traditional media, but in that original social media… the shared oral tradition.
The rabbit who survived the Black Holocaust, may well have a few more surprises for us yet.
Nobody knows exactly how old Brer Rabbit really is, but he is clearly many, many hundreds of years old.
He was first smuggled across the Atlantic in the stories told by African slaves, to America, where he found fame and fortune in popular books and movies, going on to become a character beloved by generations of children around the world.
In more recent years, these books and movies have become mired in arguments about political correctness and all but disappeared from the popular imagination. But, remarkably, the ancient oral storytelling tradition that gave birth to this character, keeps his adventures alive to this very day.
The Atlantic slave trade was a human tragedy on a scale like no other. The “Black Holocaust” or “Maafa” (a word derived from the Swahili term for “disaster”, or “great tragedy”) lasted for almost four hundred years, and although we have no way of knowing exactly how many people died as a result, many modern historians estimate a staggering death toll of at least ten million men, women and children.
The most deadly part of the journey was the notorious “Middle Passage” where prisoners were held below decks in slave ships for months as they crossed the Atlantic Ocean.
Despite the apalling conditions in which they were transported, it is thought that around eleven million Africans survived the journey to become slaves in the Americas.
The majority came from the west coast of Africa, and they came from at least 45 separate racial groupings. These included, the The BaKongo, The Mandé, The Akan, The Wolof, The Igbo, The Mbundu and The Yoruba to name but a few.
Mostly these people would have spoken one of the Niger Congo family of languages (these days, some 85 percent of the population of Africa speak a Niger-Congo language). However, it is estimated that there are at least 1,400 of these Niger-Congo languages.
Huddled together, in chains, in the darkness of the great slave ships, many of these people could not even talk with one another.
Over the years, West African Pidgin English, also called Guinea Coast Creole English, became the lingua franca along the West African coast.
This language began it’s life among Slave traders doing business along the coast, but it quickly spread up the river systems into the West African interior, because of its value as a common trade language among different tribes; even amongst Africans who had never have seen a white man.
It is still spoken to this day in West Africa.
Slaves in the Americas found West African Pidgin English as useful as a common language on the plantations as they had found it back home in West Africa as a trading language. And when they had children, these too adopted their own version of West African Pidgin English as their native language, thus creating a number of American English-based creole languages.
One of these creole languages is called Gullah and is still spoken today by about 250,000 people in the Southern United States, specifically, on the coasts of South Carolina and throughout the State of Georgia.
And it was in the language of Gulah, that a young Irish American called Joel Chandler Harris was to first hear, the animal stories, and songs, that were to bring him worldwide fame with the tales of Brer Rabbit.
Joel Chandler Harris was a journalist who wrote for a newspaper called “The Constitution” in Atlanta, Georgia, in the years immediately following the American Civil War. A war that had destroyed so much of the South, but wreaked devastation on Atlanta in particular.
Harris published his first Brer Rabbit tale, “The Story of Mr. Rabbit and Mr. Fox as Told by Uncle Remus”, in a phonetic version of the Gullah language, in the July 20, 1879 issue of the newspaper, under the heading “Negro Folklore”. He would publish 184 more of these tales during the next 27 years.
Becoming a household name, not just across the States and but also around the world with readers who delighted in these strange tales told in the creole language of Gullah.
Because of this, Joel Chandler Harris’s position amongst American men of letters at the start of the 20th century was second only to that of Mark Twain.
And his influence on other writers was equally far reaching; the children’s literature analyst John Goldthwaite has said that the Uncle Remus tales are “irrefutably the central event in the making of modern children’s story.” In terms of content, their influence on children’s writers such as Rudyard Kipling, A.A.Milne, Beatrix Potter, and Edith Blyton is substantial. Not to mention their stylistic influence on modernism in the works of Pound, Eliot, Joyce, and Faulkner.
And yet, today, few children would recognize the name Uncle Remus, let alone that of Joel Chandler Harris.
In the late 1960s most Brer Rabbit books were removed from schools and libraries in the States because they were deemed racist. And despite the enduring popularity of the signature song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”, the Disney movie, “Song of the South”, which was based on these stories, has not been seen in it’s entirety for over fifty years. And never been released on home video or DVD.
In 1981 the writer Alice Walker , author of “The Colour Purple”, accused Harris of “stealing a good part of my heritage” in a blistering essay called “Uncle Remus, No Friend of Mine”. Strangely enough, and to be fair to Joel Chandler Harris, he would probably have agreed with much of what Alice Walker had to say.
Cruciallly, Harris saw himself as an ethnographic collector of the oral traditions of these former slaves rather than an original author of fictional literature in the style of Mark Twain. His tales were roundly praised by leading folklore scholars of the day. He became intrigued with the new “science of ethnology” and became a charter member of the American Folklore Society (along with Twain). As he began to fill his library with ethnological texts, journals and folklore collections, he become intrigued by the fact that the tales he was collecting bore striking resemblances to tales from cultures in other parts of the world.
Which they clearly do.
In English “Brer Rabbit” means “Brother Rabbit”. As indeed, “Brer Fox”, “Brer Bear”, “Brer Wolf” and “Brer Buzzard” are in fact: ” Brother Fox”, “Brother Bear”, “Brother Wolf” and “Brother Buzzard”.
As such, the names of these characters betray their very ancient origins in Western Africa.
As Karen Armstrong has pointed out in her brilliant “Short History of Myth”, pre-agrarian, hunter gatherer societies exhibit a strong sense of identification with all living creatures, particularly those that are hunted for food. Seeing all animals as siblings is a common expression of this perception.
Brother Rabbit, is a trickster. And as such is also another iteration of Brother Spider, or Anansi. Brer Rabbit tales, like the Anansi stories, depict a physically small and vulnerable creature using his cunning intelligence to prevail over larger animals. Brer Rabbit, originated from the folklore of the Bantu-speaking peoples of south and central Africa.Whereas, the Anansi tales which are some of the best-known in West Africa are believed to have originated in the Ashanti people in Ghana.
Although, many Brer Rabbit and Anansi stories are easily interchangeable, they often took on a whole new level of meaning on the plantations.
In the introduction of the first volume, Harris wrote: “…it needs no scientific investigation to show why (the Negro) selects as his hero the weakest and most harmless of all animals, and brings him out victorious in contests with the bear, the wolf, and the fox.” And Brer Rabbit, born into this world with “needer huff ner hawn” – neither hooves nor horns – has to use trickery to survive. The enjoyment of his amoral, and immoral, adventures, being made all the more fun as a thinly veiled code for the black slave out-foxing his white masters.
It has been said that these stories were usually told by one adult to another. And children, if they were lucky would get to listen in.
And the adult tone of many of the stories reflects this. Stealing, lying, cheating,torture savage beatings, and even cold-blooded murder are normal fare for what has been described as “this malevolent rabbit”.
Take “The Sad Fate of Mr. Fox,” in which Brer Rabbit not only tricks Brer Fox into getting himself beaten to death by Mr. Man, but then takes Brer Fox’s severed head back to his wife pretending that it’s beef for her soup pot. Or another story which has Brer Rabbit slowly scalding Brer Wolf to death, while another has him killing Brer Bear by engulfing him in a swarm of bees.
Several stories even touch on sex as a theme, usually with Brer Rabbit beating Brer Fox and the other animals for the attentions of “Miss Meadows and de gals,” who then make merry in a thinly disguised brothel.
But perhaps no better tale demonstrates Brer Rabbit’s supreme wickedness than “Mr. Rabbit Nibbles Up the Butter.” In which “lumberin'” Brer Possum gets burned to death in his own fire. The little white boy, who is listening to Old UncleRemus tell this dark tale, protests indignantly that since Brer Rabbit stole the butter, he should be the one to be punished for it, not poor Brer Possum. To which Remus shrugs and says: “In dis worl’, lots er folks is gotter suffer fer udder folks sins.”