New website Gestalt Mash have just put up the first in a series of pieces I shall be writing for them entitled Sherlock’s Little Mistakes.
The piece is a commentary on the BBC’s recent Sherlock TV series and the idea behind it is to speculate ways in which Holmes might have been mistaken. In looking at the first episode in the series ‘A Study in Pink’ I considered the possibility that sometimes a suicide is just a suicide.
Georges Gerfaut is a man very much like you or I : He works a mid-level office job that involves plenty of meetings and no manual labour. He has a wife and kids who put up with his little foibles. He loves West Coast Jazz. He drinks a little bit too much. Georges Gerfaut is a man very much like you or I. In fact, he could very well be you or I. Georges Gerfaut will soon kill three men.
One night, Gerfaut is driving home when he witnesses an accident. Gerfaut is concerned enough to take one of the survivors to hospital but not so concerned that he bothers to leave his name. Did he do the right thing? His wife is unsure, Gerfaut is not. Either way, two men approach Gerfaut while he is on holiday and attempt to strangle him. Then shoot him. Then blow him up. Without a second thought, Gerfaut takes flight. Leaving his wife and kids completely alone. He must kill the men who tried to murder him.
Originally published in French under the title Le Petit Bleu De La Cote Ouest, Three to Kill is Jean-Patrick Manchette’s seventh novel. Shamefully, it is also one of only two works by Manchette currently available in English. At a little over 130 pages, Three To Kill is a lean and minimalist work of behaviourist hard-boiled crime fiction. However, despite its relative brevity, Manchette’s novel is a work of considerable grace and challenging profundity as it seeks to answer the question of what Kurtz would have done with his life had Marlowe managed to bring him back to civilisation alive?
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The first two adaptations of David Peace’s novels have been characterised by a stylistic dualism. Their foregrounds are both occupied by more of less convincing Crime tropes. Searches for murderers, attempts to ferret out corrupt cops, investigations of conspiracies and doomed love stories. However, the meat of these two films lay not in the foreground, but in the background. Red Riding : 1974 and 1980 were films whose visuals spoke of an encroaching and slowly expanding evil. An evil that slowly becomes systemic before taking on almost mythological proportions. Visually the films gave us an image of the North as a Garden of Eden fallen into the worst kind of sin. Red Riding : 1983 undoes a lot of that work by using words to fill in beautiful cracks and gaps left by powerful images. Its obsession with salvation seems naïve and very much like a cop out. However, the sheer banality of 1983’s evil has a power of its own.
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In order to grasp the devastating beauty of Derek Raymond’s He Died with His Eyes Open (1984), it is first necessary to grasp the devastating beauty of another text; Conrad’s altogether more famous Heart of Darkness (1899). Conrad’s book ends with one of the most memorable soliloquies in British literature :
“Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before, and hope never to see again. Oh, I wasn’t touched. I was fascinated. It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror — of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision — he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath:
‘The horror! The horror!’”
As one of the most commented upon texts in academic literary criticism, this passage has been found to contain endless meanings but one particular meaning has clawed its way up out of the Darwinian jungle of ideas with greater panache and ferocity than the others. The most common interpretation of that final line is that Kurtz has somehow seen the savage, devouring emptiness that lurks at the heart of existence. A heart of darkness that can only truly be grasped by the mad or the inspired who can free themselves of the comforting fictions that animate our day-to-day lives. For Queen. For Country. For Myself. For Love. All fictions. One reason for the popularity of this interpretation is that it echoes the themes of meaninglessness that pervade existentialism, that most popular of Post-War philosophical postures.
Noir crime fiction is seen by some as a form of populist agitprop for existentialism. While Camus and Sartre took over the left bank, it was the Noir writers who were on sale in every news-agent. It is only natural to read Raymond’s book as a continuation of this de facto intellectual alliance, but I would argue that Raymond’s take on existentialism is almost diametrically opposed to that of Sartre, Camus, Kafka or Marcel.
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