Whodunit Now? The Metaphysical Detective

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Just about everybody loves a good detective story. As a reader, you function as a kind of detective yourself, as one by one you fill in the missing pieces of the puzzle until, finally, the criminal is apprehended and the mystery solved. Some of the most famous detective figures in classic detective fiction include Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Dame Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot.

Through ratiocination, these fictional detectives outwit criminals and restore peace and “order” to a society. The Holmes and Poirot novels are part of what is now referred to as the Golden Age of detective fiction — an essentially British genre that became very popular during the period in which British Imperialism was at its peak.

But the safe and ordered Victorian world of Europe was changing. Already shaken and unsettled by fin-de-siècle revolutionaries and thinkers such as Freud and Einstein, Victorian society was shattered after the devastation left in the wake of the two world wars. These developments and events led to a questioning of the worldview of the Enlightenment, which up to the end of World War II dominated Western thought. The new way of thinking that emerged is today referred to as postmodernism — an aesthetic movement and new philosophy that would change the ordered and safe fictional world of Holmes and Poirot forever!

A New Kind of Detective is Born!

Developments like Freud’s ideas regarding the subconscious, Einstein’s theories on relativity, the revolutionary research conducted in the field of quantum physics, and the human cruelty that came to the fore during the two world wars, put into question long-held Enlightenment beliefs, such as the notion of progress and the “truth” of science and rationality. It is in the turbulent time leading up to WWI, and especially after WWII, that the metaphysical detective was born.

Metaphysical detective fiction is possibly best described as anti-detective fiction, as the detective, more often than not, fails completely to solve the case. His or her fictional world is mostly a dystopian space in which notions such as justice, truth, and equality are but wishful thinking. It is also one in which there is no pre-existing “order” to return to. During their investigations, metaphysical detectives do not only investigate the crime but also, often, have to attempt to answer questions like “Who am I?” and “What world is this?”

A good example of a postmodern metaphysical detective story is Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose.” Set in a monastery in the Middle Ages, this is both a historical and a detective novel. The detective, William of Baskerville, is masterfully modelled after Holmes: he has a beak nose, periods of unexplained inertia, and his surname points to Doyle’s “The Hound of Baskerville.”

Although William does ultimately manage to solve the mystery, he does so by accident, as the path of reasoning he embarks on is incorrect. Although he correctly reads the signs, he fails to understand the connection between the signs. During his investigation, William learns that there is more than one path to the “truth,” and that meaning is never stable and constant but everchanging and evolving.

The Metaphysical Detective in a Transnational World.

In our current postcolonial and transnational world, literary metaphysical detectives do not only have to cross physical borders during their investigations, but racial, ideological, and ethical borders as well. Although the fictional world of the postmodern metaphysical detective had become seriously destabilised, the world of the transnational detective is arguably an even more bewildering space in which to conduct an investigation.

In the postcolonial and transnational world where many of the discriminations of the colonial past linger, a clear distinction between what’s criminal and lawful, right and wrong, or ethical and unethical becomes blurred or, at times, even impossible to distinguish. And, often, transnational detectives are marginalised figures or immigrants, which adds complexity to their investigations.

In Michiel Heyns’s “Lost Ground,” for instance, the detective, Peter Jacobs, is a gay man who left his home country, South Africa, when he was 18 years old in order to avoid conscription. He returns to his hometown, Alfredville — a fictional little town in the dry and desolate Klein Karoo of South Africa — to investigate the case of his murdered cousin, Desireé. As a well-educated, gay man who has up to recently been in a relationship with a black Jamaican man, Peter views himself as a worldly and liberal subject and as superior to the conservative, and to a large extent, racist community in Alfredville.

Despite his cosmopolitan worldliness, however, it soon becomes apparent that Peter is not only a very selfish man, but that his worldview is just as limited as that of the community in his hometown. Before he even sets foot on South African soil, he already decides that he “knows” that his cousin’s coloured husband, Hector, is the murderer. To add insult to injury, it also turns out that his motivation for investigating the murder is not so much to affect justice for his cousin, but to write a piece on race relations in South Africa to revive his dwindling career as a writer.

As his investigation continues, Peter is inevitably forced to face his past, including his relationship with his childhood best friend, Bennie — a policeman in Alfredville in the present time of the narrative. Ultimately, Peter fails horribly in his investigation because of his lack of empathy and understanding for others. Not only does he accuse the wrong person of the murder, but the murderer actually has to tell him who the guilty party is. And, to make things far worse, Peter’s jumbled investigation indirectly causes the death of his friend, Bennie.

Completely devastated by his friend’s death, Peter realises that he actually came back to Alfredville to investigate his own past and to try regain a part of himself that he had lost a long time ago. It is only after Bennie dies that Peter comprehends that he has lost the only true friend he has ever had — and that he only has himself to blame. As the epigraph of the novel states, “The true paradises are the paradises we have lost.”

Whereas in classic detective fiction, such as the Holmes stories, the investigator uses his or her intellectual prowess and rational thought to solve a crime and rid a society of evil elements, ratiocination proves wholly inadequate in solving crimes in a postmodern and postcolonial world. Instead, the metaphysical detective is forced to apply other hermeneutic processes, such as empathy, intuition, and self-examination. For, more often than not, metaphysical detectives have to face the awful truth that in the politically opaque landscape of the globalised world, nobody is innocent — not even themselves.

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