Swans Commentary » swans.com September 24, 2012  



Eloquent And Bloody Murder


by Peter Byrne


Book Review



Gill, Bartholomew: The Death Of A Joyce Scholar 1989, Harper Collins, ISBN:038071129X, 324 pages.

Dibdin, Michael: Back To Bologna 2005, Faber and Faber, ISBN: 0571227767, 223 pages.


(Swans - September 24, 2012)   At midnight, Fourth of July, 2002, Mark McGarrity died in a twenty-foot fall from his second story apartment in Morristown, New Jersey. Divorced, he lived there alone and being without his key on this festive night tried to gain entry through a window. Since 1996 he had been a feature writer and columnist at The Star-Ledger of Newark. He wrote about nature and the outdoors and would often stroll down to Pocahontas Lake and work there with his laptop on a wooden picnic bench.

In 2007 in Seattle, on the other side of the landmass, Michael Dibdin died at sixty. He had come to the city in 1997 to join the woman who would be his third wife, a crime writer like himself. They lived in separate but adjoining houses. All we know of Dibdin's death is that it followed a short, unnamed illness. His friend Maxim Jakubowski spoke of him as a man of large girth and "worldly appetites who loved women, wine, food, literature and travel."

Dibdin, British born, had moved around considerably and spent four years as a teacher in Italy. The experience would lead him to do a series of books about a Venetian detective he named Aurelio Zen. Each volume centered on a region of Italy where Zen worked a case. The series proved popular though it never sold well in Italian, perhaps because it gave an unflattering picture of the country and Italians felt they had enough native writers mining that vein.

McGarrity, under the pen name of Bartholomew Gill, also wrote crime fiction. Like Dibdin he launched a series based on a single detective, a genre convention that dated at least from the Sherlock Holmes books. Gill also followed his policeman, Peter McGarr, around a single country, Ireland. American born and educated, Gill had gone to Ireland to do graduate work and fell into an obsessive interest in the little country.

A shopworn take on American travelers says there are two sorts, the F. Scott Fitzgeralds and the Ernest Hemingways. The first never penetrate foreign lore, remaining in a haze of home, often thickened by the fumes of alcohol. The second kibitz with the waiter in the local dialect and teach him something about his own vin du pays. Dibdin, being British, sidestepped both categories and wore his identity firmly attached like a state-of-the-art hairpiece. Gill outdid Hemingway to the point that most readers took him for a Dubliner.

Crime writing is a fine-cut genre, at once narrow and vast. The crime it always contains must be presented as a puzzle to be solved. Puzzles imply deception. Crime, even in white collar or country house, implies violation, i.e., some degree of violence. The solution, even when found by a muscle-bound private eye, involves some ratiocination and tidy closure.

This inflexible recipe, however, leaves room for a variety of ingredients, including almost anything found in the writer's pantry. Crime writing can be bulked out with specialist's facts from forensic medicine, urbanology, psychiatry, legal procedure, blood-and-gore sadism, acrobatic sex, or what have you. Respect for the essentials keeps narrative incisive and within two to three hundred pages. Crime writers, obliged to be short-winded, can take care with their language and style. This leaves them closer to art than the writers of that other popular genre, the airport special. Stuffed with mimetic "realism," and sweaty suspense, repetitive as a spasm of yawns, these heavyweights can count three times the pages, guaranteeing a full vacation's worth of inaction on the sand.

Both Michael Dibdin and Bartholomew Gill are stylish writers, the first a model of contemporary prose and the second particularly adept at making art of Irish speech. Not that either is a "literary" novelist, a title that must be reserved for work whose overriding aim is literary merit. Genre fiction, good or bad, well or badly written, puts entertainment first. It isn't "serious," or primarily concerned with "universal problems," although it takes a brave critic to pin down seriousness or the universal in any such distinction.

Dibdin and Gill stay within genre bounds while here choosing literary and intellectual matters as the special facts they write about. By sending his Venetian detective Aurelio Zen to solve a murder in Bologna, Dibdin brings under surveillance regional conflicts that fester at the heart of contemporary Italy. The depiction of Zen himself follows the now familiar crime fiction practice of showing the investigating detective as likable but flawed, weak in his way, and more like the criminals he pursues than the citizens who pay his salary. Zen is a hypochondriac engaged in permanent hostilities with his obstreperous mistress. (British genre detectives regularly have problems with their superiors and are on the losing side of the class war; the French tend to overindulge in food, drink, and cynicism; the Americans have been traumatized in Vietnam and are rancid with guilt.)

The victim in Zen's case is an outsider from the not very distant city of Parma who had the gall to buy the Bologna football team. His murder by an "ultra" -- a particularly vicious football fan that Italy tends to spawn -- provides the principal misdeed of the story that never stops delineating the inexhaustible variety of intra-Italic-peninsular gripes and the comfortable lifestyle of Bologna. Though its storied university enters the plot, this is no academic novel. What Dibdin does is to make room for satire in his depiction of the university's single world famous figure. His character Edgardo Ugo is a cheeky send-up of a living celebrity, professor Umberto Eco.

Eco has been for decades and remains in 2012 (surviving Dibdin), the iconic figure of the idea-juggling writer in Italy. Word association goes like this: novelist, Proust; painter, Picasso; filmmaker, Fellini; Italian intellectual, Eco. Born in Piedmont but early identified with Bologna, Eco first had a reputation in Italy as a semiotician and a vanguard theorist of communication. In 1980 he burst on to the world scene with his novel The Name of the Rose that would be filmed with Sean Connery. Another five novels followed, the last in 2006. Nothing could be farther from crime fiction as practiced by Dibdin. These novels stretch from 400 to 700 pages and style is not their priority. However, it would be outrageous to consider them airport specials. They could be beach reading only for off-duty professors with a taste for playful enigmas and allusions without end. Profs alone would have long enough vacations to reach the ultimate riddle on the last page. Dibdin's primary impression of Eco's novels is that they made millions of dollars.

For Dibdin, Edgardo Ugo is a fussy authoritarian who has succeeded in having his semiotic lingo accepted as the last word in contemporary wisdom. At the same time he keeps his name before the common reader by a steady flow of magazine columns. (Eco has never stopped writing for the leading Italian news weekly, Espresso.) His fortune permits him a townhouse and a country mansion. (Eco has both a city and a country dwelling, containing, respectively, 30,000 and 20,000 books.)

The intricate plot of Back To Bologna reaches a critical point in front of Edgardo Ugo's townhouse. Annoyed by tramps who pee in a dark corner near his front door, he counterattacked like a post-modernist. He had a replica made of Marcel Duchamp's 1917 ready-made sculpture Fountain. This, it will be recalled, was a mass-produced, glazed ceramic urinal. Ugo's replica in the finest white Carrara marble had the plumbing reversed. Anyone peeing into the pristine trough would have the liquid emptied back on to his pants and shoes. The reader is delighted when one of Ugo's wronged students takes a pistol shot at him in his doorway. The bullet ricochets off the smooth Carrara marble and settles in Ugo's fat backside.

Gill also takes on the academy and famous writers, approaching them like Dibdin from their unsavory side. His Dublin still belongs in spirit to debonair James Joyce and his glum one-time helper Samuel Beckett. The Death of a Joyce Scholar is, curiously, a murder mystery that could serve as a rough introduction to their books. A young Trinity College professor, Kevin Coyle, is murdered on the verge of a career that would have led to notoriety of the sort Umberto Eco has attained. (Eco, coincidentally, began his climb to fame as a Joyce expert.) The stabbing takes place on June 16, Bloomsday, recalling the twenty-four hours in 1904 that Joyce embroidered on for seven hundred pages in his Ulysses of 1922.

Kevin Coyle was a genius come from poverty to make a place for himself among the elite whom he despised. He has been reckless in making enemies, one of whom will turn out to be mortal. A deep rift exists between Coyle, a kind of reincarnation of Joyce, and Holderness, a Beckett specialist whom he has baffled. This wealthy dilettante mimicked Beckett as he understood him. Coyle called Holderness "A Beckett clone without Beckett's depth, wit, or sympathy for the human condition."

The fictional conflict corresponds to a real one. Joyce, who felt he possessed what he could give a name to, filled his work with such a profusion of named things that researchers are still at work tabulating them. The aspiring writer, Beckett, faced with this overwhelming example at close range, was seized with panic. It reduced him to pleading ignorance or rather incompetence. In the end he defended himself with a theory that insisted the names and words created by others are incapable of rendering our own experience. To express what we feel we would need a language unique to ourselves. While awaiting its arrival he would stutter out the work that won him the Nobel Prize.

For the sake of drama, Gill's crime novel will present the not really mutually exclusive positions as irreconcilable. (After all, the same reader finds Joyce and Beckett's books rich and fertile though in different ways.) Gill's skill and local savvy will allow him to give life to the thinking of Coyle and Holderness by embedding the two men in the Dublin quotidian. Their verbal duels proceed with a seriousness that's illuminating for readers who know the work of both masters.

The tour de force of placing Coyle and Holderness in the Dublin landscape while keeping the debate of ideas going is facilitated by Gill's use of the investigating detective McGarr, who knows little of either Irish writer. He did once accompany his trendy young wife to a performance of Waiting For Godot, but remembers it only as a void with a hollow laugh or two. As for Ulysses, like millions the world over, he has heard of the novel but never read a page. McGarr, for professional reasons, will now have to sit down and read the novel of novels. His long slog through Joyce's "word-hoard" will advance his enquiry and add sparkle to his crime novel. If Gill wasn't a mere crime writer we would talk of his intertextual flair.

In scintillating passages, Gill even dares to pastiche the great Irish panjandrum himself. In Chapter 6, Chief Superintendent Peter McGarr sits down in his office to discuss the case with his staff. The witty dialogue that ensues recalls the Aeolus episode from Ulysses. Then it was a newspaper office. Now McGarr's staff kick around what the papers say of the case. Each officer has his own sour comment couched in his personal version of mordant Dublinese. It could be an anthology piece.

The Aeolus episode has been called by one critic "a veritable thesaurus of rhetorical devices." Gill, the crime novelist, has no such ambition or pretension. But he does give us an updated surge of piss-taking and pun-making gifted-gab in the Irish tradition.

Gill finishes his novel with McGarr's female assistant alone on stage, or rather in bed. During the murder enquiry she has rediscovered her femininity via the embrace of a fellow officer. Now lolling alone amongst the pillows she reads from the unforgettable monolog of Molly Bloom that runs unpunctuated, closing Ulysses on an opening out, positive note, page 299:

he said I was a flower of the mountain yes so we are flowers all a womans body yes that was one true thing he said in his life...that was why I liked him because I saw he understood or felt what a woman is and I knew I could always get around him and I gave him all the pleasure I could leading him on till he asked me to say yes and I wouldn't answer first only looked out over the sea and the sky I was thinking of so many things he didn't know of...then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published September 24, 2012