Crime fiction

Memory Is a Dark Hole

Shylashri Shankar is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
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A haunting mystery set in East Europe and an anodyne addition to Scandinavian noir


THE DROWNED DETECTIVE | Neil Jordan | Bloomsbury | Pages 265 | Rs 499 |
THE INVISIBLE MAN FROM SALEM | Christoffer Carlsson | Speaking Tiger | Pages 297 | Rs 499

WHAT DO A BRITISH expatriate running a detective agency in an unnamed East European city and a weary cop in Sweden have in common? Both take the reader on a journey through the protagonist’s subconscious and memories. But the resemblance ends there. The Drowned Detective is a very strange mystery. Its prose is lyrical, haunting and staccato. Its sensibility is by turns ancient and highly modern. Its themes are about exile—the protagonist is an Englishman in a decaying Eastern European city; love—facing a crisis in his marriage because of his wife’s infidelity; jealousy—you know why ‘I channel jealousy… the jealousy that is useful is the meditative kind’; and following—he is a private investigator who sees following others as a basic pleasure of the trade. ‘It has its rhythms, its own moods, its basic quotidian duties and its sudden surprises.’

It is the sort of book an Irishman or a Scotsman would write—a dark but wry humour pervades the pages. ‘We eventually came to the bitter conclusion that her husband the government minister was severely compromising his security by seeing a woman who lived above a tyre-repair shop.’ The Drowned Detective begins like a typical private eye story. A couple ‘on the other side of middle age’ approach the protagonist to find their Petra who had gone missing 12 years ago in one of the resorts along the Black Sea. The mother had a dream and consulted a psychic (whom Jonathan too has approached but ‘is embarrassed to admit the reason’) who has told her that Petra is somewhere in the city ‘in a small room she cannot leave’. The father spits out the word ‘bordel’, brothel.

Jonathan takes the case because little Petra, when she had gone missing is the same age as his daughter Jenny is now. Then one night, while brooding over his wife’s infidelity with his partner who smells of ‘lynx and aftershave’ and ‘shaves his chest’, and while staring into the cold water from the bridge over the unnamed river that divides the city, he sees a young woman crouched by a stone angel below him. She jumps. He dives in after her, and thus begins a strange set of encounters between an exile and the denizens of the city where he has set up his office and is trying to live a life that is now falling apart. The novel morphs into the antithesis of the private eye genre.

Neil Jordan has the ability to etch a very difficult and complex image, such as the protagonist’s marriage, in a handful of pages. Here is what the joint session at the shrink’s office reveals about Jonathan and his wife Sarah: Jonathan is obsessively jealous about affairs—his wife says she ‘will not admit to that’ and the residual affection that remains—which ‘is better than contempt’, he notes.

Jonathan meets the psychic again with a map. ‘She raised her hand a little. There was a tiny brown singed spot somewhere to the east of the river, among the regimental grids of the industrial suburbs. And there was a small whorl of something like smoke coming from it. And I knew it had to be a trick and I knew it wasn’t a trick, and both certainties were battling for precedence when she spoke again, softly blowing out tobacco smoke.’

The lyrical writing is offset by a modern sensibility—short sentences and no quotation marks for the dialogues. The weather is a very vivid player in the story— ‘soft summer rain falling.’ And the text is peppered with archaeological references –—‘purse and the handbag are the burial mounds of the trade.’

THE DROWNED DETECTIVE IS A VERY STRANGE MYSTERY. ITS PROSE IS LYRICAL, HAUNTING AND STACCATO. ITS SENSIBILITY IS BY TURNS ANCIENT AND MODERN. IT IS MUCH MORE THAN A CRIME NOVEL

I had just finished Ruth Downie’s Tabula Rasa set in Roman Britain, and what struck me was that a novel set in 122 CE relies on logic and on recording interviews with suspects and others on a wax tablet (tabula rasa) and on sifting through these interviews for evidence on who kidnapped a boy, while a modern 21st century novel like this one relies on a psychic and on unexplainable coincidences to uncover the whereabouts of the missing girl. It is ironic, is it not, that as a reader, one is drawn to a book like The Drowned Detective precisely because it moves away from dissection of facts and discussion of every nuance in the lives of its characters? Jonathan’s wife, Sarah, says at the shrink’s: ‘Certain things can be understood and not necessarily… talked about. Can we understand what happened without talking about it? I can, she said. The question is, can he?’

This is the question for us readers. Can we? The reliance on a psychic harkens back to the pre-scientific age, to a time when magic and ghosts and gods populated the imagination. Not reason and facts. Can we live with knowing and not knowing at the same time especially since we know and have experienced the world of reason, of technology that continually drowns us in facts, and in a zero-one style of thinking? I think we can.

The reader walks into the protagonist’s subconscious world and in the daily rhythm of his life (feeding, ferrying, and putting his daughter to bed) while simultaneously retaining a modern soul’s instinct to disbelieve what cannot be factually explained. Bach’s music creates the bridge between the mystical and the everyday reality experienced by Jonathan. The search for why the young girl ran away from home brings reason back into a tale haunted by the irrational and the unexplainable. The therapist sums it up for Jonathan:

‘Take things at their face value, as they happen to you; you are presented with a puzzle and if there is a solution, find it. Does it matter if the elements of the puzzle are rational or irrational, happened to the individual or didn’t happen? The result is the same. The problem is the same. The trauma is the same.’ Later Jonathan asks the psychic whether she can make sense of it. ‘Some things don’t make sense, Jonathan.’

THE INVISIBLE MAN FROM SALEM WON A PRIZE FOR BEST SWEDISH CRIME NOVEL IN 2013. HOWEVER, THE DELUGE OF TRANSLATED SCANDINAVIAN CRIME FICTION MAKES THE STORY WEARINGLY PREDICTABLE

As a reader, I am fine with it. The Drowned Detective is much more than a crime novel. That is why it makes for such a surreal and exquisitely nuanced read.

THE INVISIBLE MAN from Salem is in many ways the antithesis of The Drowned Detective. Here, at least initially, everything is spelt out by Christoffer Carlsson. ‘I get out of bed and go to the kitchenette, drink a glass of water, and pop a serac pill on my tongue… I go back in and pull on a pair of jeans, button a shirt, and run my fingers through my hair.’ Unlike Jonathan who remains faceless, we get a sense of what Leo Junker looks like: pale, and having lost weight, appears to wear borrowed clothes.

Neither do we find humour to leaven the long journey in time undertaken by Leo Junker, a cop who has to search his memories to find the murderer and the motive for why a woman was murdered in the halfway house apartment below his own. The victim is clutching a necklace with Leo’s fingerprints. From here, we enter Leo’s memories about growing up in a bad neighbourhood of a suburb of Stockholm, Salem. ‘In Salem, the houses stretched eight, nine, ten storeys up towards the heavens, but never so close to God that He would bother to put out His hand and touch them.’ We relive his torment at being bullied and his relationship with a friend and the friend’s sister, and an incident that changes his life.

But Leo Junker is not someone you root for, especially after you enter his memories and find the chain of events in his past that lead to his present predicament as a key suspect of the murder. At the same time the flaws in his character make him more real, and perhaps more true to what life is like for those born on the wrong side of the tracks. Not surprising, since the author has a PhD in criminology. The book won a prize for best Swedish crime novel in 2013. The translation by Michael Gallagher is smooth and the book seamlessly progresses between Leo’s present and past.

Had I read it 10 years ago, I might have had a less jaded view of the book. However, the deluge of translated Scandinavian crime fiction makes the story wearingly predictable. A policeman, suspended from the service, wrongly accused, brooding over a failed relationship, hankering for the woman who has moved on, who has no real friends, a couple of well wishers, a so-so relationship with his parents and so on. The feel is gritty, and it is a bit of a struggle to get to the end since you have stopped caring about Leo, and don’t feel particularly well disposed towards his travails. Not because he is flawed. It is possible for skilled writers to imagine unsavoury characters in a way that creates empathy between the character and the reader. Think of Tom Ripley, Hannibal the Cannibal, the doctor ‘I’ in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and John Lancaster’s delightfully murderous protagonist. What one enjoys about these characters is their sly and macabre sense of humour and their active and acerbic engagement with the world around them. One doesn’t find this in the ‘Invisible Man’ from Harlem. Leo Junker is passive and prosaic. Someone frames him, his girlfriend rejects him, and so on.

The past has a weighty effect on the present of the protagonist. If we are like Christopher Isherwood, we would view our younger selves in a detached fashion and bring to the analysis of the younger self’s behaviour the same critical eye that we cast on other people’s conduct. There is an element of detachment in the way Leo Junker examines his adolescence, but it is not enough. Ultimately, passivity is the dominant characteristic informing his past, as it does his present, and perhaps it is this that makes the book less compelling and less delightful than The Drowned Detective.

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