Death of a critic
There are two kinds of readers out there. Well, maybe 57 kinds of readers, but for this study, we’ll stick to two. There are those who read detective and crime stories and those who do not. I read them. It’s my dirty little secret. A P.D. James mystery novel is a truly delicious escape from the real world.
There is some good theoretical work out there on detective fiction–on the etymology of crime, on knowing “truth,” and solving cases–that explains the seduction of detective fiction. In the crime novel, there is a truth, it can be known, it is not ambiguous, etc. Beats the pants off reality, in other words.
I’m reading a German novel that is roman-a-clef and detective novel all in one. Martin Walser’s Der Tod eines Kritikers was published to much hoo-haw in Germany in 2002 (me, I’m the timely reader of important contemporary fiction) because Walser so very obviously has an author kill off Germany’s premier (Jewish) literary critic. Antisemitism, anyone? Walser has had run-ins with other literary figures before, like the time when Ruth Klueger (author of Still Alive, which you should read if you are at all interested in personal histories of the Holocaust) totally outed him for being a xenophobic Antisemite, though he had also been her friend–her closest friend–in the years immediately following the war.
I haven’t gotten very far yet. At this point we have a dead critic, whose name is Ehrl-Koenig, which is truly witty, since it parodies Marcel Reich-Ranicki’s hyphenated last name AND Goethe all in one, an author imprisioned under suspicion of having done the dirty deed, an author who is determined to prove the other’s innocence, and a city covered in a blanket of snow that covers all tracks. The suspect-author is not talking. Evidently Ehrl-Koenig thought his last couple books sucked.
This is no escapist fiction, alas, for Walser wants to reflect on the knowable world, and on the narratives we weave out of crime. It’s a bit obtuse, in the way fiction that takes itself very seriously sometimes is. I read on, comfortable in not knowing who the good guy is or what the outcome will be.