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The Labyrinth of Detection

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Amie Pascal-Joiner

One might say that every great book establishes the existence of two genres, the reality of two norms: that of the genre it transgresses, which dominated the preceding literature, and that of the genre it creates. (Todorov 43)

A book goes beyond its author's intentions. (Borges, Conversations 33)

Detective fiction historically has led a reader towards discovery and insight when the detective reveals the solution. Edgar Allan Poe and Agatha Christie have delighted readers for decades with their captivating detective stories that reveal the detective's genius in the end. Detective fiction is defined as a text "whose principal action concerns the attempt by a specialist investigator to solve a crime and to bring a criminal to justice" (Porter 5). Edgar Allan Poe truly invented "traditional" detective fiction as we know it today in 1841 with "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," which focused on "uncovering the cause of crime," detection, as opposed to literature's previous emphasis on murder (Porter 22-3). Dennis Porter reveals the reader's appeal to traditional detective fiction as being rooted in desire:

That is, [detective fiction] begins by stimulating desire, proceeds to tease it through a technique of progressive revelation interrupted by systematic digression, and finally satisfies it, however unsatisfactorily, in an end that reveals all. In contrast, the tendency of much modernist fiction in the twentieth century has been to stimulate in order not to satisfy. (Porter 245-6)

In reaction to the reader-satisfying detective fiction, some modernist writers developed what I call "anti-detective" fiction. Simply put, in anti-detective fiction, which is devoid of the traditional reader satisfaction, the detective fails to solve the crime that the author has presented. As Porter remarks, the anti-detective does not reaffirm "a hidden order satisfying both the reason and morality" but contributes to "a core of doubt" (45).

Two modernist writers who have written various anti-detective texts are the American Paul Auster and the Argentinean Jorge Luis Borges. In their anti-detective fiction, Auster and Borges use the quest of the detective to show the labyrinths of the tragic human intellect, and they use the failure of that quest to question the author-function, as well as to show the futility of a search for the Truth. The detectives in these authors' texts search for the Truth in order to solve a crime, as in traditional detective fiction; however, this quest leads them, as anti-detectives, to their destruction. Both detectives work through a maze, a labyrinth— "the presiding metaphor for human experience" (Porter 251)— of information, only to be so engrossed in it as to not see their own impending destruction. This destruction of the detective is contrary to the previous "rules" of detective fiction because "a rule of the genre postulates the detective's immunity" (Todorov 44).

In Borges' short story "Death and the Compass," the failings of the protagonist's intellect lead him to his own death, illustrating the tragedy of the human intellect. The protagonist in this story is an obsessive detective named Erik Lönnrot, who is called upon to solve the murder of a scholar attending a conference of Talmudic commentators. "Lönnrot believed himself a pure reasoner, an Auguste Dupin" (Borges 76). Lönnrot becomes absorbed in studying the victim's books on Jewish mysticism and decides that the investigation must have a "rabbinical" explanation. However, the murder is only the first in a series, with the culprit leaving more and more indications that a Cabalistic scheme underlies the murders. After a long immersion his own Cabalistic (Jewish mystical) studies, Lönnrot believes that he has the case solved. He journeys to the scene of the next crime, only to find the murderer, Red Scharlach, waiting for him. Scharlach reveals himself as the adversary who, relying on Lönnrot's tendency for total absorption in one Truth, has been manipulating him with Cabalistic clues in order to lure him to his death. Thus, Erik Lönnrot becomes the last victim in the series. Erik Lönnrot is so absorbed in his intellectual exploration that he fails to see any explanation for the murders outside of that path. Lönnrot's intellect is sound enough to create the solution, yet wholly inadequate to see outside of it; it is enough to conspire in his destruction yet insufficient to prevent it. Hence, the great tragedy of the human intellect. Lönnrot even insists to the other investigator: "Here we have a dead rabbi; I would prefer a purely rabbinical explanation, not the imaginary mischances of an imaginary robber" (Borges 77). He refuses to see any other possible explanation, a tendency that his foe is counting on.

His enemy, Red Scharlach, is astute to the tragedy of the human intellect and sets to ensnare Lönnrot in an absorbing scheme. Fittingly, the word red in Spanish translates as "net" in English. Triumphantly, Scharlach tells Lönnrot, "On those nights I swore by the God who sees with two faces and by all the gods of fever and of the mirrors to weave a labyrinth around the man who had imprisoned my brother. I have woven it and it is firm" (Borges 85). Even though "the intricate web in which Borges' anti-Dupin is trapped reveals its diabolic rationality" (Porter 256), Lönnrot still cannot see outside of his own explication and insists to Scharlach that he knows of an even better solution: "In your labyrinth there are three lines too many [. . .] Scharlach, when in some other incarnation you hunt me [. . .] Wait for me afterwards at D, two kilometers from A and C, again halfway between both. Kill me at D, as you are now going to kill me at Triste-le-Roy" (Borges 87). In the face of death, Lönnrot's intellect tragically haunts him. Lönnrot is the perfect example of characters "whose fatal weakness is a susceptibility to exclusively narrow and rigid patterns of thought" (Lindstrom 29). This rigid intellect and human propensity to shortsightedness is representative of the tragedy of the human intellect, that which leads the detective Lönnrot to his demise.

Similarly, in Auster's novel City of Glass, the protagonist, a writer turned pseudo-detective, follows a path of "clues" that only lead to his own destruction. The main character, Daniel Quinn, is an author of conventional, moderately popular detective stories. Through a chance event, he is mistaken for "Paul Auster" (who in the novel is an author mistaken for a detective), and Quinn becomes involved in what initially seems like a fairly simple case. He is hired (as "Auster") by Peter and Virginia Stillman to guard them from Peter's father, who was recently released from jail. This Peter Stillman Sr. had served 13 years in prison for abusing his son in a language deprivation experiment created in order for Stillman Sr. to discover the "original language of innocence," (as with the Tower of Babel). For seven years Stillman Sr. kept Peter isolated from human speech and contact so that Peter could reach the purest language, the language of God. Now Virginia and Peter fear that he plans to kill them, and Quinn's job is simply to keep Stillman Sr. away from them.

Soon into his investigation, Quinn realizes that Stillman Sr. has no intention of harming them, but instead is pursuing an investigation for a discourse on the establishment of a new Tower of Babel. When Quinn is troubled by Stillman's odd behavior, he contacts the "real" Paul Auster, who is unable to help. In the end, Quinn gets so caught up in his investigation and case hypothesis that he is destroyed. The unfolding of Quinn's destruction unfurls in much the same way as with Lönnrot. Quinn reaches a dead-end in his investigation with the Stillman case, but he "discovers," or, more precisely, creates, a path to continue on, a path that leads to his destruction.

"How exactly was he to proceed? [. . .] He could proceed, then, as he wished." (Auster 171) He proceeds to the Stillmans' apartment to sit outside and watch them, to continue the job in his own way— without having to contact them. "Quinn stepped across to the other side, found a spot for himself in a narrow alleyway, and settled in for the night" (Auster 172). For months, Quinn camps across the street from their apartment in an alley, thinking that he can maintain a watch, he can make sure that Stillman Sr. does not try to come and harm them. After his tightly conserved three hundred dollars and a few months run out, Quinn "was nowhere now. He had nothing, he knew nothing, he knew that he knew nothing" (Auster 159). Looking for a new path for his intellect to follow, Quinn contacts "Auster" again for help. As Scharlach reveals Lönnrot's intellectual limits, "Auster" reveals to Quinn that his intellect has disillusioned him:

"But there is no case. It's all over."
"What are you talking about?"
[. . .]
There was a silence on the other end, and for a moment Quinn felt that the conversation was over, that he had somehow fallen asleep and had just now woken up to find the telephone in his hand. "Stillman jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge," Auster said. "He committed suicide two and a half months ago." (Auster 187)

His path now obscured, Quinn tries to return to his apartment but finds someone else living in it and all of his belongings gone. He goes to the Stillmans' next and finds the apartment open and empty. With his red notebook, he settles into a room; without moving, he stays there, waking only to write in the red notebook, writings mostly unconcerned with the Stillman case, and to unquestioningly eat the anonymous trays of food left for him. The narrator tells the reader that the last sentence in the red notebook reads: "What will happen when there are no pages in the red notebook?" (Auster 200), and that no trace is heard again from Quinn.

In Quinn's pursuit, as with other anti-detectives, "detection becomes a quest for identity, as the mystery outside releases the mystery inside the detective" (Sorapure 77). As Quinn assumes the identity of the detective "Auster," he loses himself in his intellectual blunderings on the obscured search for clues, and he is ultimately destroyed. The detective failures of Quinn and Lönnrot mean the destruction of not only themselves but also the author-function. In traditional detective fiction, the main characters "(the detective and his friend the narrator) were by definition immunized: nothing could happen to them" (Todorov 47). The detective is traditionally given the same power as the "author," because the reader expects the detective to reveal (or confirm) the Truth. The failure of the detective in anti-detective fiction destroys that power and puts into question the authority of the author-function. Madeleine Sorapure reiterates that: "No doubt, the satisfaction of reading traditional detective fiction [. . .] derives from the implicit assurance that detective and reader will eventually ascend to the position of the author [. . .]. Anti-detective fiction, however, denies this satisfaction and instead portrays the detective's frustrated pursuit of authorial knowledge" (72).

As well, the use of multiple unreliable narrators further questions the author-function because the information the author presents is no longer reliable. The "author-function," a phrase coined by Michel Foucault in the essay "What is an Author?," is an authoritative persona created by society. Culturally, the author has gained an intellectual domination over the reader and as long as literature belongs to the author, it cannot belong to the reader; the author-function limits how the reader discovers information, since the author holds the key to literary power and understanding. Literature has been relegated to a place where the individual author "owns" their texts as "a marked writing [that is] characteristically the 'expression' of a person's 'mind' or 'psyche' whose essential identity scrawls across a page and declares its imaginative 'ownership' of these self-revealing and self-constituting lines" (Bové 63). Ideas no longer hold collective ownership and origin; "the author" has been given the singular imagination to impart "the word." However, Foucault maintains against this author-function: "In writing the point is not to manifest or exalt the act of writing, nor is it to pin a subject within language; it is rather a question of creating a space into which the writing subject constantly disappears" (890).

The writing subject disappears, and thus the author-function is destroyed, when the author utilizes multiple and/or unreliable narrators, as Borges and Auster do. As well, since the detective is culturally relegated to the same power position as the author, when the anti-detective fails and does not maintain authority over the reader, the author-function has also failed. A story such as "Death and the Compass" destroys the author-function because of Lönnrot's detective failure. "The end [of the story] offers not the assertion of mastery and a return to order but the surprise of impotence. Borges's detective is not and never will be adequate to his investigative task" (Porter 256). If traditionally the detective is given the same authoritative position as the author, Lönnrot's failure as a detective undermines that authority and the power position can be returned to the reader. Additionally, the criminal in this story, Scharlach, acts as the reader who destroys the author-function, the power position of the detective. Scharlach reads the clues better than Lönnrot does, as when he taunts, "I foresaw that you would add the missing point" (Borges 86). As the reader, Scharlach also understands Lönnrot better than the detective does himself; his role as a criminal is to think outside of himself and keep more power than the detective that hunts him. Scharlach points out to Lönnrot: "I have premeditated everything, Erik Lönnrot, in order to attract you to the solitudes of Triste-le-Roy" (Borges 86). Scharlach's power over the detective further destroys the detective's position of power, and inadvertently, the power of the author-function.

In another anti-detective story by Borges, "The Garden of Forking Paths," the reader encounters an unreliable narrative, which undermines the authority of the author (or the narrator), who in traditional detective fiction can be and is trusted. The reader does not know who is presenting the story and for what reason. "The Garden of Forking Paths" is an account of one Dr. Yu Tsun who possesses a supposedly crucial war "Secret" (Borges 20) and who has to find a way to communicate this secret to the right people before he is killed. However, the way the narrator presents this story undermines history and undermines the validity of Tsun's account. The first two paragraphs of the story read:

On page 22 of Liddell Hart's History of World War I you will read that an attack against the Serre-Montauban line by thirteen British divisions [. . .] planned for the 24th of July, 1916, had to be postponed until the morning of the 29th. The torrential rains, Capitan Liddell Hart comments, caused this delay, an insignificant one, to be sure. The following statement, dictated, reread and signed by Dr. Yu Tsun, former professor of English at the Hochschule at Tsingtao, throws an unsuspected light over the whole affair. The first two pages of the document are missing. (Borges 19)

The reader is immediately encouraged to question the validity of this account by the questionable narrator. The author-function is disappeared when the reliability of the author and the narrator are debunked. The reader thus has the authorial power to interpret this information as s/he wishes. Similarly, from the outset the narrator of City of Glass also prepares the reader for the impending failure of the detective and for the inevitable destruction of the author-function. The narrator states:

The detective is the one who looks, who listens, who moves through this morass of objects and events in search of the thought, the idea that will pull all these things together and make sense of them. In effect, the writer and the detective are interchangeable. (Auster 15)

The narrator is telling the reader: "The author and the detective are one in the same," and the reader can assume that if the detective fails (which he will), the author's power, the author-function, will also fail. Anti-detective fiction such as City of Glass continually frustrates and breaks down the knowledge base, and thus authority, of its detective:

The author function in detective fiction provides the basis on which detective and reader can move with assurance through the text; positioned beyond the events of the texts, the author, in effect, guarantees that there is such a position. City of Glass, however, insistently frustrates the efforts of its author-characters, [the detective, for one], to achieve an author's perspective on the events in which they are engaged. (Sorapure 85)

The detective is denied any chance at success and is doomed to take the author-function down with him when he fails.

The author-function is further destroyed in City of Glass when the author "disappears within a multilayered maze of fictional embodiments, the author-characters" (Sorapure 84). City of Glass is described by Sorapure as a "meta-anti-detective" story. She classifies the story as such because several of the characters are each, at the same time, authors and detectives: "author-characters who take on the role of detective are forced to radically revise their understanding of both authorship and detection" (Sorapure 73). Quinn, the author of detective stories (who publishes his detective stories under the name of William Wilson, an Edgar Allan Poe character, and who assumes the name of the detective "Paul Auster"), records his detective discoveries in a red notebook, which the narrator of the story (a writer friend of the thought-to-be-detective "Paul Auster," who is also an author) delivers to the reader as the anti-detective novel City of Glass. The readers immediately feel doubtful of the detective story they have just read when they read this statement from the narrator at the end:

The account of this period is less full than the author would have liked. But information is scarce, and he has preferred to pass over in silence what could not be definitely confirmed. Since this story is based entirely on facts, the author feels it his duty not to overstep the bounds of the verifiable, to resist at all costs the perils of invention. Even the red notebook, which until now has provided a detailed account of Quinn's experiences, is suspect. We cannot say for certain what happened to Quinn during this period, for it is at this point in the story that he began to lose his grip. (Auster 173)

This narrator and the information he provides, the reader concludes in the end, are unreliable. The author-function loses all power over the reader when the entire story is qualified in the end as one that "could not be definitely confirmed." The narrator further confirms the destruction of the detective at this time "for it is at this point in the story that [the detective— and the author?] beg[ins] to lose his grip." The role of the detective and the author are further linked when the detective loses grip on himself and at the same time the author-function loses grip on the reader. The reader expects detective fiction to be based on concrete facts and expects all that the detective reveals, in the end, to be the truth, which it is not. Since the reader is disillusioned with the power of both the detective and the author in the end, the reader turns back to the story to look back over the text and realizes that little of it is based on stable ground.

In both "Death and the Compass" and City of Glass, a search for the Truth leads to the destruction of the detective, who decides early on what will lead to that truth. The reader questions whether Truth exists and, if so, whether it could ever be found. This search for truth is explored in the essay "On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense" (1873), in which Friedrich Nietzsche largely details the inherent human drive to arrive at a truth at the end of every road. He illustrates the kind of society humans have created, one in which a predetermined societal Domain is the foundation for all "truth." Nietzsche also outlines the terms "truth" and "lies" that are set by that Domain, particularly in regards to how language has created a "truth" from illusions or metaphors. First, Nietzsche describes how humans arrived at a search for truth. According to Nietzsche, the search for truth is not necessarily a rudimentary trait as humans "are deeply immersed in illusions and in dream images; their eyes merely glide over the surface of things and see 'forms.' Their senses nowhere lead to truth" (54).

Humans would not seek a "truth," then, if it were not for pride (perhaps the ego), which developed out of the human capacity to learn and to know. Pride accompanies human "knowing" and brings with it deception, which is explained by Nietzsche as the false manner in which people live. This deception, according to Nietzsche is so inherent, is such "the rule and the law" in humans, that "there is almost nothing which is less comprehensible than how an honest and pure drive for truth could have arisen among them" (54). Human senses don't lead towards truth, but we have created it anyway. Truth was invented then, according to Nietzsche, in language. Man wants to exist peacefully "with the herd," and therefore "a uniformly valid and binding designation is invented for things, and this legislation of language likewise establishes the first laws of truth" (54). Therefore the domination of language led to the establishment of "truth." Truths, according to Nietzsche, are nothing but illusory metaphors that society has created with language. Nietzsche further reveals this Domain when he explains that humans are driven towards truth and wish for "the pleasant, life-preserving consequences of truth" (54). Truth is an easy and peaceful state of existence. Nietzsche also shows how it is then not pure deception people necessarily hate but the consequences of particular deceptions; humans avoid not the act of lying but the end result of harmful lies. Man has created this "truth," a linguistic conviction, because it is an easy, comfortable status.

Detectives are traditionally applauded in society for their quest for and preservation of truth. The Nietzschean anti-detectives' failures, however, reveal the futility of the quest for truth. No one "truth" exists. Detectives as author-figures reinforce the idea that truth only exists because language does. Authors work in language; therefore, the detective's work is a linguistic act to forge truth out of illusion. The anti-detective exposes the futility of that act. In "Death and the Compass," the "truths" that Lönnrot sees on the pages and reads in the clues are dubious, and what he sees as the truth, as the answer or the solution to the crimes, only leads him to his death. When the murderer leaves a clue at each crime spot, "The first letter of the Name has been uttered," Lönnrot takes to reading into that clue such that he finds in his readings that "God has a secret name," and further discovers "the virtues and terrors of the Tetragrammaton, which is the unutterable name of God" (Borges 78). Lönnrot is obsessed that the truths behind these crimes lay in religious facts, and the reader is swept up in that same theory until Scharlach reveals that the information was conjured and manipulated in order to lure in Lönnrot's intellect (Borges 85-6). The reader is left feeling that the search for the truth is futile and destructive because no real truth exists and if you try to find it, you will only lead yourself towards destruction. The traditional detective "works to restore order and truth" (Sorapure 81-2); however, the anti-detective reveals the futility of that endeavor.

In City of Glass, Quinn has just enough perspective to discern the absence of truth in detection: "Much later, when he was able to think about the things that happened to him, he would conclude that nothing was real except chance" (Auster 7). In this story, the reader is all the more doubtful when the truth-base of the detective "facts" begins to break down. For instance, Stillman Sr. reveals in one conversation with Quinn that he made up the "proof" that is in his book, the book on which he based his experiments on Peter (Auster 125). The reader begins to see that Quinn's investigation is full of deceptive holes. Quinn drops hints to the reader that he may not be working on solid ground. He admits that: "There was nothing he could do now that would not be a mistake. Whatever choice he made [. . .] would be arbitrary, a submission to chance. Uncertainty would haunt him to the end" (Auster 90), and later that truth eludes him: "There was no way to know: not this, not anything" (91). An author of detective fiction, Quinn begins to realize that the stories he had written were not based in the realities, the truths, of the real world. Detection could never work like it does in the stories, because that type of solid truth does not exist in reality. He has been playing a game the entire time: "Little by little, Quinn began to feel cut off from his original intentions, and he wondered now if he had not embarked on a meaningless project" (Auster 96). This comment gives the reader a feeling as if the entire quest is a farce. This reader hunch is confirmed further when the "Auster" character subtly reveals that there truly may not be truth in any part of the story. The author of the story "Auster" tells Quinn about an essay he's writing about the Quixote and says:

In my opinion, Don Quixote was conducting an experiment. He wanted to test the gullibility of his fellow men. Would it be possible, he wondered, to stand up before the world and with the utmost conviction spew out lies and nonsense? [. . .] In other words, to what extent would people tolerate blasphemies if they gave them amusement? The answer is obvious, isn't it? To any extent. (Auster 154)

And then "Auster" sits there looking at Quinn, extremely bemused. "The man was obviously enjoying himself, but the precise nature of that pleasure eluded Quinn" (Auster 155). This subtle revelation puts the reality of, the truth behind, the detective's "facts" in question. The reader is left feeling that Quinn was being tricked and that he fell for the gullibility test. There is no straight answer; there is no truth, no clean, neat solution, to the mystery of this anti-detective story.

This interpretation, suggested by the text of City of Glass, also implies that what the author knows and withholds from the reader is not the redeeming truth— the solution which puts the mystery to rest— but instead the fact that the whole thing is a sham, built on nothing, with Auster representing "Auster" constructing an elaborate hoax. (Sorapure 85)

The truths in which the reader thinks the story's reality is grounded are slowly taken away in this anti-detective story, the truths are slowly dropped to the floor like articles of clothing. When this disrobing leads to destruction, it is futile to try to put the clothes back on. This striptease, the shedding of clothing (or of truths), is illuminated by Roland Barthes when he states that:

The end of the striptease is then no longer to drag into the light a hidden depth, but to signify, through the shedding of an incongruous and artificial clothing, nakedness as a natural vesture of woman, which amounts in the end to regaining a perfectly chaste state of flesh. (86)

This nakedness, a human state of innocence, is illuminated in anti-detective fiction as the human state devoid of "truths." It is the state of being that Stillman Sr. sought to find for language, and it is the state readers find themselves in after reading these masterpieces. "The pleasures [anti-detective fiction] authors offer are associated with the experience of awe and of still unsatisfied desire. If, as has been suggested here, detective stories traditionally take the form of a striptease, in [anti-detective fiction] every garment that falls discloses new and unexpected garments. In [these] stories the promise of pleasure persists beyond the end because the final G-string never falls" (Porter 259). These pleasures are heightened for the reader when Auster and Borges reveal the failures of a detective in order to disrobe the tragedy of the human intellect, to strip down the power of the author-function, and to leave the illusory metaphor of truth shivering naked in the middle of the room.

Works Cited

Auster, Paul. City of Glass. New York: Penguin, 1985.

Borges, Jorge Luis. "Death and the Compass." Trans. Donald A. Yates. Labyrinths. Ed. Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby. New York: New Direction, 1962.
---. "The Garden of Forking Paths." Trans. Donald A. Yates. Labyrinths. Ed. Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby. New York: New Direction, 1962.
---. Interview. Twenty-Four Conversations with Borges. Ed. Roberto Alifano. Housatonic, MA: Lascaux, 1984.

Bové, Paul A. "Discourse." Critical Terms for Literary Study. Ed. Frank Letricchia and Thomas McLaughlin. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990.

Foucault, Michel. "What is an Author?" The Critical Tradition. 2nd ed. Ed. David H. Richter. Boston: Bedford, 1998.

Lindstrom, Naomi. Jorge Luis Borges: A Study of Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1990.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. "On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense." The Continental Aesthetics Reader. Ed. Clive Cazeaux. London: Routledge, 2000.

Porter, Dennis. "Antidetection." The Pursuit of Crime: Art and Ideology in Detective Fiction. New Haven: Yale UP, 1981.

Sorapure, Madeleine. "The Detective and the Author: City of Glass." Beyond the Red Notebook: Essays on Paul Auster. Ed. Dennis Barone. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania Press, 1995.

Todorov, Tzvetan. "The Typology of Detective Fiction." The Poetics of Prose. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1977.

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