Redcross on Detective Fiction

by Kim Orsel


Proving that even if truth is not always stranger than fiction, sometimes fiction can be related to truth. Written on December 31st 2007, with slight additions before posting here. This is what happens when you just let go of characterisation and make your characters say what you think. Dangerous but fun territory.




He’s come early, because last time when he was somewhere between on time and late, there nearly weren’t any seats left, and this time Howard Redcross would actually like to have the best seat in the house. He’s trying to remember where that is, but he’s never been to university like this; things were different when he was here, an age ago. He tries to remember what Jules said on the matter, and recalls that she said there were three ways of sitting in a lecture hall. The simplest way is not to care, which means no seat matters. The second way is at eye level, which is where you want to sit if you want the lecturer to know you’re there. Howard decides he really doesn’t want to know what she was talking about when she talked about that one, but then again he overheard the conversation, and she was talking to Astin, so he supposes that it was something like talking dirty among lecturers and ex-students. The third way is the casual way, and it is never casual, she remarked at the time. Seven or eight rows down, first or second seat on the row, which you can still catch late and from which you can leave soon, but is usually enough to make certain you were noticed by about anyone in the lecture hall.

Howard suspects this is Jules’s preferred seat, and wonders where Astin would sit if he were still a student. Not all the way up, where those who wish to do other things are sitting. And not all the way down, because that would be admitting his love for literature too openly. Somewhere in the middle rows, then, just off the centre, to the right, the lecturer’s left. A good spot, and Howard decides to take it.

He isn’t the first to arrive, and he quietly thanks whatever deity presides over these things that he isn’t the oldest person here. He chose a grey tweed suit to wear, with a simple white shirt and red tie, thinking it was the safe choice. He’s slowly discovering he should have come in corduroy and a shirt, because that seems to be the more respectable choice overall, even for those nearer to his age. But there’s the difference, he thinks: they’ve just come here to listen, and I’ve come here to see my son.

To his left and right people have taken seats, and some have taken out notepads and pens, while others are still talking, even drinking coffee, all waiting for one person. Turning in his seat Howard looks up at the lecture hall, and finds that numbers have grown since he entered himself. He wonders whether the lecturer feels like entering the lion’s den, finding this crowd waiting for him.

Except then he notices the lecturer already there, standing talking to someone three rows down from the top of the stairs leading down to where he’s going to be doing the actual speaking from. He isn’t exactly a tall man, but his leanness makes him look it. His suit immediately pronounces him the best-dressed man in the room, because there isn’t anyone, Howard is certain, who chose a three-piece dark-blue pinstripe with light-blue shirt and dark tie when they were standing in front of their closet this morning.

Several people, colleagues, Howard guesses, are waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs. The lecturer is made aware of them, and smiles an apology; both down to those waiting and to the person he was talking to, and nimbly makes his way down. One of the people exchanges some quick words with him, then walks over to the lectern in the centre, and clears his throat. He looks more nervous than the lecturer, Howard thinks. It’s strange, because the man has to be there for two minutes to make his announcement, and the lecturer has to be there for nearly an hour, without taking the answering of questions into account.

A neat academic biography and bibliography is relayed, dates Howard knows almost as well as the lecturer himself, he dares to bet, and he watches the lecturer collect a pair of glasses from his jacket pocket. It distracts Howard a moment, because he didn’t know that; the glasses are new. And suddenly the announcer is finished, and retreats in favour of the lecturer, who is hailed by the public with applause. Howard happens to know there is nothing the lecturer dislikes more than applause, because it makes the event something typically public. “My students never applaud,” he’s remarked more than once. “I prefer being taken for granted.”

Glasses on his nose he smiles at the crowd, then gestures shortly, cutting off the applause almost immediately. So immediately the crowd chuckles in unison at their own reaction, making the lecturer smile broader. Even those who don’t know the lecturer take a liking to him right then and there, before he has even as much as said anything.

‘Thank you, Patrick, for that quick summary. I want to bid you all welcome to the first of a string of public lectures organised by Cambridge University that I have the honour of kicking off. You’ve actually come in such great numbers that we had to shift the entire venture into a larger lecture room, and I do hope you’ll attend in equal force for my colleagues. I’ve been wondering if the fact that my subject is considered less academic than any other on the agenda for this year is a reason behind this turnout, but perhaps it’s better not to go too deeply into that one.’

There is laughter, and Howard wonders if that was a real joke or an inside one, to which only certain people reacted, most likely the lecturer’s students.

‘Your response indicates that you consider that a joke, but actually it isn’t; for years, academic interest in detective fiction has been considered to be an indulgence of fans; not something to be taken very seriously. Luckily there have been pioneers who have lifted...’

Howard smiles when he realises the entire hall is listening attentively. This is more a tour de force than anything else, and this becomes especially clear when the lecturer pockets his glasses again, leaves the lectern and begins walking while speaking, one hand in his pocket, gesturing easily with his other hand. He introduces Poe’s Dupin, sweeps some common misconceptions about the origins of detective fiction off the table, and introduces Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes through an uncommon factor: Irene Adler.

‘At first sight, Conan Doyle is writing what can be considered Poe fanfiction; his “A Scandal in Bohemia” is very similar to Poe’s “The Purloined Letter,” almost so much so that the word plagiarism comes to mind. In fact, quite a large number of academics easily call it plagiarism, I argue wrongly, and discard Conan Doyle as a lucky copier, the reversed ending notwithstanding. There is no denying that Conan Doyle was a great fan of Poe. But merely saying that the character of Sherlock Holmes is copied from Auguste Dupin is denying the rich heritage of detective fiction that came between the two publications: “The Purloined Letter” was published in 1844, “A Scandal in Bohemia” in 1891, and in-between detectives written by literary greats like Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins were as much models for Conan Doyle’s detective as Dupin was.’

Sherlock Holmes brings back memories. Memories of a six-year-old boy in black clothing and a borrowed top hat, much too large, making his way around the house peering through a magnifying glass. Never a deerstalker; he had always objected vehemently to the deerstalker, literary-historically correct six-year-old that he was. Howard still can’t say where that came from, because it certainly didn’t come from him or Gabriela. It explains the signed photograph of Basil Rathbone that’s still treasured though. And it explains a whole lot more besides.

‘Conan Doyle has never disregarded Poe,’ the lecturer gestures vehemently down in front of the lecture hall. ‘From Holmes rather terse comment in A Study in Scarlet that he does not consider being compared to Dupin a compliment, and “A Scandal in Bohemia” itself, Conan Doyle continuously tips his hat to Poe. Imitation, after all, is the sincerest form of flattery. Structurally Poe works against the grain in “The Purloined Letter.” A minister steals a possibly compromising letter from the Queen and uses it to blackmail her. Dupin is asked to steal the letter back so it can be returned to its rightful owner: rather than reveal the truth his task is to obscure it. The Queen’s privacy is respected, but there is a suggestion that things aren’t entirely above board. But then again, Poe never claimed to write detective fiction.’

He struggled with the MA thesis because of this exact problem, Howard knows, even if he never came to the estate house again until after his graduation. Poe and Conan Doyle, plagiarism or flattery, hadn’t been the subject of the thesis, but it had been the thing he worried about most, possible threat to the entire structure of the thesis that it could have become. After graduating, and when his doctoral thesis had begun to take shape, that problem had not turned out to be a problem at all, but he had secured his subject by then, had found his niche in the academic world. Which is why he’s here now, speaking as easily, as passionately about it as he is. He is lecturing on his growth as an academic, and no one here probably even realises that.

‘Conan Doyle adheres to a more mainstream structure in fiction. As a client, the King comes to Holmes to ask him to steal a possibly compromising photograph. This photograph is not technically the King’s property, even though there is the threat of it being used for blackmail. It is the controlling nature of the King that makes him want this picture before it can be used against him. As the detective, Holmes succeeds in discovering where the photograph is, but the owner of the photograph, Irene Adler, sees through his guise and trickery, and removes it from its hiding place before Holmes can get to it. In its place she leaves a letter in which she explains she has no intention to use the photograph for blackmail unless the King forces her to.’

Howard thinks of blackmail, and wonders what the word calls to mind for Astin. Is it the emotional blackmail used so often in the Redcross family, the more pecuniary kind that also proved no uncommon occurrence, or neither? Is blackmail merely literary to Dr Redcross? Is it Poe going against the grain, Dupin making blackmail impossible only so the Queen’s deception can continue unchecked? Is it Irene Adler fighting oppression from a powerful former lover and proving herself to the Great Detective in the process?

‘It is too simple to side with the theorists and claim that these stories are entirely identical with the exception of some variations; most notably the gender variation and the letter versus the photograph as the object that is used for blackmail. I argue that these two short stories are accompanying pieces, and that comparison lifts them beyond their worth in their own right. Conan Doyle meant to flatter, but also took the piece further. “A Scandal in Bohemia” was the first of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes short stories to be published in The Strand Magazine, the magazine that would bring him fame and be remembered for the Sherlock Holmes connection forever after.’

The greatest revelation for Howard the past few years was the reiteration that there were few secrets Astin didn’t know about. Blackmail, had it really meant something else for him, would have been easy. But instead he had been Dupin making blackmail impossible for the Queen; not by stealing a letter, but by keeping his head down and his mouth shut. He had been the Great Detective failing, with his own Juliette Winterborough proving herself to him by continuing and succeeding where he had failed. It was more defining than Astin would ever let on, this specialisation in detective fiction. Here was Holmes, here was Dupin, and probably a dozen other detectives, all rolled into one person, this literature lecturer with the odd hobby, more foe than friend to the police, fighter for freedom and justice, but above all truth and honesty. Had he ultimately become what he so admired, or had he always been that person, and had the detectives simply appealed to him because they were so alike?

‘Detective fiction emerged from eighteenth and nineteenth century popular genres, and perhaps because of that reason doesn’t hesitate to borrow. Even today, authors reach back to those authors and their creations that set the standard, that founded the genre. It is a kind of code that only the initiated can read, but with detective fiction’s continued widespread popularity, it has become a universal code: easy to crack, easy to enjoy. What surprises many first-time readers is that the stories that influenced Conan Doyle are still enjoyable to read, even if they are not always as easy to come by. It is exactly the borrowing, the flattering, that has kept detective fiction alive and thriving. It has changed, but never so much as to become unrecognisable. But because we have forgotten the earlier stories we don’t always realise that anymore. As in all reading, it pays to become more perceptive of what has influenced the texts we read now.’

Howard hears the applause rise around him, and watches the lecturer shortly bow his head in acknowledgement and then smile; a smile that hides all that he really feels and leaves only the professional pride of the academic having successfully concluded a public lecture. The announcer interrupts and reminds the audience of the opportunity to ask questions, and the lecturer returns to the lectern and a glass of water, which he sips carefully, and systematically begins to deal with questions from his listeners.  Very possibly he is more comfortable with this part, even if this medium doesn’t leave him the opportunity to return the question to the inquirer as is his wont in the classroom.

Leaning on the lectern Astin Redcross smiles and jokes and in all reality just continues his lecture in more detail. Howard wonders if Astin has spiked the room with his own students, making certain they ask him the right questions, but suspects his son is really as good at what he does as he appears he is. He joins the applause that follows the questions and watches the audience stream out of the room, while Astin and his colleagues remain at the bottom of the room. Some people join them, but Howard only makes his way down once the people seated on his right have all gone.

Howard wonders if he’ll look out of place, but before he’s even properly descended the stairs Astin has already seen him, and is beaming proudly, stopping all conversation around him, because it’s clear he isn’t listening anymore. Howard shakes Astin’s hand and is introduced to people he’s certain he’s been introduced to before, and before he knows it Astin tells him to look into a particular direction, as someone takes a quick picture.

They leave and have an early dinner at Astin’s house. Astin doesn’t stop talking for any real amount of time that day, not even during cooking, and from experience Howard knows he’ll collapse at some point and become very quiet, but he enjoys discovering that twenty-eight years later his son isn’t all that different from the six-year-old with the top hat and the magnifying glass. But the collapse doesn’t come, because a telephone call comes first. Astin never says it, but Howard is certain it’s Juliette Winterborough, and half-listens to Astin slowing, calming down, and returning to his normal self. What surprises him is how Astin speaks to Jules in a voice Howard’s never heard him use in his life, and he feels like he’s intruding even listening to it.

After drinks in the study Howard leaves for home, and Astin hugs him tightly when they say goodbye.

Later the following week the picture made after the lecture is sent to him by email by Astin himself, and Howard has Harris take the file off to a printer (he’s not really certain how; receiving email is an accomplishment in itself at his age, Howard thinks). The next time he sees it it’s in a frame on a prominent side table in his study, and until the last it makes Howard Redcross smile, and remember his little boy in an oversized top hat and carrying a magnifying glass.