The Expert Leading The Blind

When I was studying Engineering we had a paper called “Structural Concepts”. The brilliant lecturer, Jose Retrepo, was able to strip out all the complex maths and very simply demonstrate how you could get a pretty good idea about what was going on in even very complex buildings by breaking down a problem into parts, by looking at alternate solutions to see possible different solutions, and so to reach an understanding of the fundamental behaviours in operation without touching a calculator. That kind of approach is the absolute cornerstone of my daily practice – without his insights, I don’t see how I could actually use all the fancy-pants analytic tools which were the bulk of my study.

The more complex an idea is, the harder it is to strip it down to its essential moving parts and figure out what’s really going on. The smarter you are, the less necessary it seems to fill in all the little bits’n’pieces of working that form a conclusion. That’s why another very excellent lecturer we had gave no partial credit, and no marks for the correct answer. Either every necessary step of the working was both present and the correct answer was reached, or you didn’t get the mark. A hard lesson, but a good one.

Well, I’m about to make a sweeping generalization about literary criticism – these people are talking about something very complex, and they’re very smart. In a lot of cases, that doesn’t seem to be doing me much good. Here’s a pretty typical example of some critical text, from Rowland, Susan. “The Wasteland and the Grail Knight: Myth and Cultural Criticism in Detective Fiction.” Clues 28, no. 2 (Fall 2010): 44–54.

What is known as Golden Age detective fiction is more readily identified with the myth as a successful quest. Here the wasteland may well be returned to a paradise on the achieve-ment of the detective’s discovery. On the other hand, paradise is, explicitly in this self-conscious, ironic form, a place of imaginative desire rather than social realism. For example, the Golden Age includes Dorothy L. Sayers, who shows the consequences of her grail knight, Lord Peter Wimsey, questing in the feminine with erotic and social relatedness to the waste-land. He discovers the high price of connectedness by his inability to cut himself off from the sufferings of punishment.

Now, I’m pretty sure that I know what she’s going on about: do you? Actually, I lied, I’m not sure that I know what’s she’s going on about at all. I can make some educated guesses, but they are just that – highly, extremely, educated guesses, based on 6 months of reading critical material on detectives day in and day out.

There are a number of problems I have with this paper and its method of construction. The main thing is that she has deeply sublimated the concept of the detective story as a mythic experience and hence the detective as a mythic hero. She’s swiftly aligned the concept of “Grail Knight” with “Lord Peter Wimsey”, and characterised his detective activities as “questing in the feminine” and the English countryside as “waste-land”. I’d like to see some kind of close textual support for all of those things, some kind of glimpse into the reasoning which draws those conclusions on.

To me, the concept of the Grail Knight and the detective seem straightforwardly oppositional. The quest for the Holy Grail was fundamentally about a rejection of society in favour of a higher purpose, a religious purpose, and in order to complete the quest the knight had to overcome largely internal problems of honour versus desire. The Grail Knight leaves society in search of a higher truth, a direct meeting with the legacy of Christ. The detective remains inside society, albeit aloof, and purges it of vice to the best of his ability, and searches not for a higher spiritual meaning, but a pragmatic eradication of evil’s presence.

Regard The Name of the Rose as a straightforward example of where an overtly religious detective rejects divine explanations and resolves a human culprit for the deaths in the monastery.

I think that if we were going to assume some close equivalence between the mythic knight and the detective that we would like to see some of these correlations working in reverse – the Knight as Detective, if you will. But no courtly tale that I can think of has anything like a deductive or investigative process in it. Think about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for example – Gawain sets off in search of the knight, but instead of searching for him, spends his days in Bersalak’s castle being tempted by Bersalak’s wife. The very obvious opportunity for investigation is completely destroyed to focus on the real topic of interest: the moral character of the knight. Furthermore, the moral character of the detective is never part of the question being resolved by the text: he is never at fault, as knights so often are.

If you pull out this lynch-pin of her statement, the whole essay begins to seem nonsensical. If Peter Wimsey isn’t a knight, we need some other way of interpreting his empathy. In this case I think WH Auden’s perception of the detective story being an allegory for the Original Sin is far more compelling. Peter Wimsey is thus Jesus Christ (who, I realise, also didn’t do much by way of ratiocination), restoring purity to Eden and suffering by proxy as a purgative for mankind. For whatever that’s worth.

I thus await still some kind of really good argument making a generic case for the detective as Grail Knight, one founded on close textual reading and which offers insights into the work which aren’t available in another reading stance.

However, there is a little more to get out of this piece if you come with an open mind. From the way her entire argument is framed, I think it’s quite reasonable to substitute “Man” for “Grail Knight”. Similarly the “Wasteland” from the article title is simply “the world”. Other substitutions need to be made, replacing terms derived from mythological study with simpler terms like “man”, “woman”, “gender inequality” and so on.

The work is overtly interested in the male/female dichotomy and their different roles in detective practices. This is its real focus, distorted by layers of associative and cognitive dissonance fostered by her choice to bring into play highly charged terms. She has repeated the classic mistake – destroying what’s essential to her argument by trying to fortify it with fancy terms and references.

Why has she done it? Well, the obvious answer is hinted above – to provide a two-way critique of two different spheres of her interest. By aligning detectives and grail knights, she offers a reverse-critique on medieval romances as inherently masculine, because that is her critique of detectives. Unfortunately, this is so oblique and buried that it submerges what could be a really interesting question- how could the rise of female detectives since the 1980s be mirrored in the creation of female questing knights in a romance?

Unfortunately, it’s not really news that the detective genre is highly gendered, and this mythical obfuscation doesn’t really go beyond that central point. I wish it would, because there is one area where I think there is a shared characteristic between knights and detectives: courtly love. The interaction of courtly love with the knight’s quest and the detective’s investigation is one area, unlike the gross “quest” aspect Rowland focuses on, that could yield fruit.

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8 Responses to The Expert Leading The Blind

  1. milites says:

    Umm, didn’t you recently write about how many of your crime fiction examples weren’t actually about finding clues and solving the crime? In some ways, the protagonist hanging around the “Dame” and convincing her to tell him what’s going on seems aligned with your descriptions of other crime stories. There certainly appears from my limited reading to be quite a lot of the “questing knight” about many detectives.

    “Name of the rose” seems both out of character for a chanson and for a crime novel, since our investigator is actually interested in clues.

    • mashugenah says:

      Excellent question!

      There are a number of different things going on here, and probably I have inadvertently conflated some of them in explaining myself.

      There are basically two main strands to the “detective” genre:
      – the classical/formal Holmes-derived ‘ratiocinative’ detective who collects clues and builds a theory of the crime and expunges the guilty party restoring the world to a pristine and functional condition
      – the hard-boiled detective derived from Race Williams and the Continental Op who moves about the crime landscape ‘investigating’ but who ultimately does not assemble clues so much as assert a plausible theory; clues are present, but they don’t matter nearly as much. The criminal they identify is usually a symptom of underlying societal/systemic corruption and so they more navigate than correct the crime

      The article that I talk about above did not draw a conscious distinction or definition of the detective it was talking about, but from context and cited examples, it was primarily thinking about a classical/formal detective. I don’t see the close story/structural correspondence that she does between the two, though I admit there are certain shared characteristic behaviours (principally, Chastity).

      Picking up Gawain again – he doesn’t find out anything from the wife. If you want to posit the tale as a “mystery” (i.e. “who is the Green Knight?”) then Gawain is not only totally surprised by the revelation, he also doesn’t think it’s important. Gawain’s only real interest in anything that goes on in the Castle or afterwards is with respect to how it tests his innate Knightly qualities – the origin of the Green Knight, the source of his power, the mechanics of Gawain’s test – none of these matter to Gawain, though the reader probably finds them interesting. So in that example, he’s clearly not a classical detective.

      But, is he a hard-boiled detective? The argument there is a lot stronger, because hard-boiled detectives are often tempted by beautiful women that they must reject in order to succeed in their quest. They, like Gawain, often listen to a criminal’s explanation rather than providing one themselves as the classical detective does. Gawain is attempting to navigate/survive a basically hostile and corrupt milieu where everything is a lie. He doesn’t “solve” anything – the “criminal” (i.e. the Green Knight) is beyond his power to punish and so escapes Scott-free. And for both, the quest is as much about proving personal integrity as resolving a problem.

      • milites says:

        Picking up Gawain again – he doesn’t find out anything from the wife.

        Doesn’t he get the magic belt that will stop him dying from having his head cut off?

        That does seem reasonably important.

        She also seems in on the whole tempting him to do the wrong thing, which seems to be on behalf of the green knight. You could see her as the distracting dame part of the detective genre, couldn’t you?

      • mashugenah says:

        Doesn’t he get the magic belt that will stop him dying from having his head cut off?

        Gawain-as-detective would interpret the gifted girdle as what it is – a clue as to the real nature of what’s going on. Sir Poirot would immediately work out that the attempted seduction forms part of the test of chivalric character in a structurallly similar way to the general shape of the challenge, and understand that Bersalak’s apparent knowledge of the Green Knight’s location is a little too convenient, and the presence of a magic green girdle which protects the weilder from harm absolutely seals the case.

        Gawain-as-knight regards it purely within the paradigm of the challenge with the Green Knight. He lacks awareness of the situation he’s in on so many different levels, levels which are not explicitly drawn out by the narrator either. He doesn’t use it to understand his situation in any way. So as a plot element, the girdle is significant, but it doesn’t have a strong function as part of a clue/mystery complex.

    • mashugenah says:

      This line of argument, however, is just not central to the article that I was discussing. It’s adopted some of these conclusions in the background to try and talk about something else entirely, which is the gender politics of the classic detective story. In order for her argument to function in that way, you need to start thinking about, say, Miss Marple as a questing knight, and there are so many points of non-correspondence there that it’s just not tenable.

      Finally – my main worry about this whole endeavour is that it runs the risk of eliding the points of difference which are fundamental to a genre-study approach to fiction. For example, Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade in broad terms functions both as a detective and a questing knight. He is literally questing for the Grail, and he does so by being better at decoding and following a series of clues than his foes. He engages in some rough-and-tumble along the way to lend credence to both viewing him as a knight and a hard-boiled detective. However, in this combination of the two roles he helps highlight the fundamental difference – the moral stance of the character. The knight is a pure agent of good, ideally. the hard-boiled detective is explicitly a mercenary. Gawain does the right thing because of his moral centre, the Op does the right thing because that’s what his client is paying him for.

      This ambivalence is interesting – for example, at the end of the Big Sleep, Marlowe is forced to choose between doing the morally right thing and the thing he was paid to do. Marlowe might be a questing knight because he makes the right decision. The Op never chooses what’s right, only what’s paid for.

      In conclusion – the hard-boiled detective may use many of the story functions of the chivalric knight, but has quite different objectives, motivations and hence moral concern, which are of central importance to Grail quests.

      • milites says:

        The knight is a pure agent of good, ideally. the hard-boiled detective is explicitly a mercenary. Gawain does the right thing because of his moral centre, the Op does the right thing because that’s what his client is paying him for.

        Really? My take-away from what little noir I’ve read is that the hard-boiled detective is at heart a damaged romantic. Someone who wishes the world was somewhere you could do the right thing, but realistically that only leads to failure, heartache, dead friends and alcoholism. Their start points can be places where they are seeking, or perhaps have found, their own piece of idealism, even if that idealism is taking revenge, covering their partner’s back, or rescuing the dame (along with enormous cynicism about the morality of the world). Often taking jobs for people who can’t really afford the going rate, often working out of horrible offices because they can’t afford better (because they don’t take the high paying jobs or can’t get them).

        This might be a consequence of my limited reading in the genre however, so I’m not going to die in a ditch over it.

        (I haven’t even seen IJatLC).

      • mashugenah says:

        My take-away from what little noir I’ve read is that the hard-boiled detective is at heart a damaged romantic.

        Conversely, my take-away from the chivalric lore I’ve read is that the Knight is a romantic ideal. Someone who succeeds principally by doing the right thing in a world which is basically just and fair. So there’s clearly a dialogue going on there, perhaps even a critique – but that doesn’t enable you to straightforwardly interpret hardboiled detective=knight, which is what that article does.

        Again, one of the problems with accepting such a broad-based congruence of “having a code” is that this is a major stream through almost all essentially escapist literary creations. Bond, for example, has a strong behavioural code which, like the hardboiled detective, allows him to do all kinds of things which are morally antithetical to the principles of the chivalric knight. If we think that the character mode of “having a code” is all that we need to cast a detective as a knight, can’t we then cast James Bond as a chivalric knight because he too “has a code”? At the point where we’re allowing all broadly adventurous characters that aren’t capricious in activity some claim to knighthood… what does that even tell us anymore about any one of those strands?

        Sticking with Gawain for a second here – he regards the whole adventure with TGK as an irredeemable moral failure, and wears the green girdle forever more as a sign of abject shame. By straying from his code just a little, and even though everyone else in the fiction is fine with it, he regards himself as a total failure. That is the point: the difference between a true knight and a wannabee is that level of devotion to the code, against all temptations. On the contrary, the hard boiled detective (aside from Marlowe!) regards himself as essentially victorious and successful at the completion of the adventure regardless of the compromises made. Spade rejects O’Shaughnessy at the crucial moment at the end -but he was perfectly willing to accept her sexual favours and string her along through the middle of the story. “I’ll have some rotten nights” he says – but everything he says still casts himself as the winner and her as the loser.

        Having said all that – your basic point is a good one. Romanticism is important. Stories are about good and evil, often in pretty bald terms. The detective does have a code. Particularly in the hardboiled strand, there is a kind of travelling about and questing. All of which is very interesting, but still to me doesn’t allow you to conclude that the detective is a knight, because of the very many divergences discussed above.

      • mashugenah says:

        (I haven’t even seen IJatLC)


        It’s quite good actually. 🙂 I found it by far the most satisfying of the original trilogy.

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