mystery stories: double crosses, clues and false clues

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The mystery story involves a stripped-down logic of the boundary that easily demonstrates the 'intransitive' nature of human boundaries. The mystery story uses a 'teleological hinge' to combine signifier and signified, law and order, chance and necessity, metaphor and metonym. Following the topological necessity of this hinge to play itself out in time and space shows how topology dominates projective models of spatial/temporal perception. The following is an excerpt from a work-in-progress on the use of boundaries in the mystery story . . .

the shape of mystery

The nature of human space and place is not easy to explain. Spatiality is a key aspect of every manifestation of human nature, expression, thought, and culture. But, what is there, in our wildly varied spatial behavior, that can be explained or even described in any consistent way? The "spatial fields" of architecture, cultural geography, visual arts, film and so on give broadly varied accounts. This book skips the imposing task of sorting these out in favor of a detour through the entertaining and somewhat gaudy neighborhood of the mystery story, a literary genre that makes remarkably direct and intensive use of what might be called "spatio-temporal rules."

How can a "temporal" medium, mystery narrative, say anything serious about space, especially when its "duty" is to entertain above all else? The answer lies in the mystery story's obligation to make effective and witty use of time and space. The story must reach its end, and so it creates a perfect laboratory - not of places copied from any literal model but of imaginary landscapes made to flourish in the imagination's own "out there." This means that mystery's spaces are accessible in a particular and interesting way, for they're designed specifically to take hold of the imagination of any and every audience. The ink or film images that deliver the story may find an inattentive reader or sleepy audience, but they nonetheless undertake their task according to certain traditions. Mystery's spatial constructions are always available "in the original," so that we're looking at first-hand evidence of whatever compels the audience's fantasy. Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles is not a distorted version of the "real thing," but vice versa. The "real" Los Angeles would not include, for example, Chandler's framing devices or the characters that animate his fictions. In contrast, the fictional Los Angeles includes not only those places that serve as settings for action but also the unknown and invisible places that, never seen or mentioned, provide the necessary grey cloud behind the action. The fictional version is the authentic basis of place in the imagination's use of the form of mystery.

The mystery story, despite its historical acceptance of a second-rate literary status, is not historically or psychologically "innocent." The genre is framed by particular beliefs about the nature of knowledge, social ideology, and models of truth. As G. K. Chesterton aptly observed, in "A Defense of Detective Stories" (1902), the mystery story shows, more than any other fictional form, just how civilization is "the most sensational of departures and the most romantic of rebellions." Tales of detection arise with the development of city culture - the urbanization of society and the mass movements of goods, people, and ideas. They reflect, in the purest form perhaps, the city's original "topological" essence - the idea of hegemony. Hegemony is the idea that the unknown exterior is "inscribed" at the center of a symbolically bounded space, and the city is the ideal setting for this inscription. Mysteries, in fact, began their popular career with the late nineteenth century city, whose shadowed spaces harbored the "unknown exterior" - foreigners and diseases, strangers and strange thoughts, anarchist bombers - in its very heart.

Applied to culture, hegemony implies a spatial topology very close to the logic of the mystery story. Slavoj Zizek ties hegemony to the device of the "suture" - the method by which the audience finds its point of view materialized within the representational ("diagetic") space of the story.

suture re-locates the exterior fear to the innermost refuge

In Edgar Allan Poe's well known story, "The Masque of the Red Death," a mysterious guest appears dressed as a personification of the plague. The catastrophic outside erupts precisely in the heart of the protected interior, and this precision has both geometric and poetic significance. The feared externality appears inside the cozy defended homeland with the same trick that puts the audience into the illusory center of the work of art. The discovery of contamination involves a "flip," an inside-out topology.

The versatility of this inside-out topology is its applicability to both the reception of the artwork by the audience and the structure of the artwork itself. It means that the mystery story - which uses this suture topology in a particularly intensive way - holds important clues about the spatiality and temporality of human nature in general. But, what about the mystery's widely admitted second-rate literary status? What is the basis for this reputation? The mystery's inferiority is linked to its use of the formula of "flattening." Characters are simplified so that they respond to the story rather than their personal psychological needs or higher aspirations. Plots are streamlined so that the variations are more clearly seen against the backdrop of uniform expectations. Settings are stylized so that topology rather than geography dominates. Isn't it the case that the mystery story's second-rate status is precisely what makes it so valuable? The point of all these reductions seems to be to reduce everything to caricature except the one trick that endears the mystery story to its audiences - a trick that accomplishes the essence of the suture, the transference of the audience to the interior of the work of art. As if to show just how little the transfer of the audience to the interior of the work depends on elaborate representational illusion, the mystery story prefers to devote itself to the pleasures of its "impossible-Real" puzzle-pattern.

the trick of the return (of the impossible-real)

In many ways, the mystery story is a direct descendent of the magic tale. Its central theme of sacrifice, the acts of discovery and punishment that release collective guilt, and its "impossible" puzzles of space and time echo the themes of the fantastic. The mystery, however, is grounded in the rational, according to the tradition of the "fair play rule" that requires the audience be given or allowed to construct an acceptably "rational" explanation of how the crime was committed. In fair play, the pop-culture rules of rationality are not broken but, rather, made to fail momentarily and then repaired, creating both a source of surprise and a sense of accessibility. Where the magic tale ends in wonder, the mystery begins with it, settling its affairs only after the same "rituals" of sacrifice, discovery, and retribution have been enacted. One might ask: why this connection and perverse conversion of magic to mental puzzle?

This takes us to the issue of the mystery story's portable survival kit. The mystery story's "magic" singles out the question of identity: Whodunit? And, in many respects the popular culture notion of identity shows just how the mystery can expand from this point. The pop-notion has two rules, derived from the spatio-temporal idea that "you can't be in two places at the same time": (1) duration - a single thing retains its identity in the face of almost every change of state and (2) singularity - no two spatially distinct things can be identical, no matter how similar they are. Magic, of course, violates these rules directly, through (1) the theme of the double, or the action of reincarnation, where single persons may indeed lose their enduring identities and be possessed by other souls; and (2) related themes that involve the spatial and temporal consequences of this doubling that violate singularity, such as the contamination of reality by the dream, and travel through time. The mystery story also needs to suspend "reality," but it must do so "rationally," through a tricky use of space that could be labeled the "impossible-Real return." This, in short, is when the end of the story "returns" the "impossible" solution, which seems to violate the audience's main presuppositions and expectations. This return establishes the mystery story's authenticity. Its claim to the "Real" is based on a rationalized surplus or lack of apparent "reality," just as the magic tale achieved its authenticity through supernatural means. The mystery story takes the word "super-natural" in a near-literal sense as a "surplus (or lack) of nature/reality." The mystery's suspension and restoration of identity is packed with dramatic potential. The "returns" of the mystery take on the same forms that form the basic repertoire of the magic story and genre of the fantastic: the double, travel through time, the story within the story, and the contamination of reality by the dream.

In the theme of the double, the crisis of identity is intensified by the "coincidences" that draw two characters into conflict. Because the characters tend to occupy different "worlds" and move with different rhythms, this conflict involves more than just personal rivalry. The double structure can thus be used to organize the space, time, and causality of the entire story. The Polish film director Krzysztof Kieslowski's masterpiece, The Double Life of Veronique, begins with Weronika, a Polish girl whose bell-like voice seems to be a ticket to operatic fame. At her first major performance, however, she suffers a heart attack and dies. At the same moment, a French girl of exactly the same age, a perfect double of the Polish Weronika, decides to give up her singing career and thus "cheats fate" of a parallel death. It is as if Weronika has "returned" to correct her original misstep, the choice that led to her death.

The mystery's travel through time is rationally constructed out of the backwards "forensic" focus of detection. The crime must be reconstructed, relived. The action moves "forward," towards the identification and capture of the Whodunit, but the forensic project of detection moves "backwards" to the original crime. In the classic "Hercule Poirot" mysteries of Agatha Christie, the Belgian detective gathers everyone together both for a minute-by-minute reconstruction of the original crime minute by minute and, as a surprise ending, and to announce the murderer, who sits in their midst. The forward-moving chase combines with the archaeology of the original obscene event. This is not limited to main events such as drawing-room conclusions. At a smaller scale, venatic and forensic time criss-cross with every clue and discovery. The clue can be used as evidence to entrap the Whodunit precisely because it relates directly to the original crime event.

The story within the story closely follows the logic of travel through time, for evidence in the mystery must come in the form of "exposition" revealed by characters or clues. The structure of action and exposition is concentric in myth, but in the mystery the two stories (detection and the original crime) parallel each other, with exposition crossing over to deliver evidence and clues. The main diagetic space of the story is paced to the ancient rhythms of the chase ("venatic" time) - we are hunting for the perpetrator. The keys to this hunt, however, must come from the forensic reconstruction of the past, which runs backward to the past.


The magic theme of contamination of reality by the dream would seem impossible to execute under the mystery story's hard-boiled ban on dreams and miracles, but the theme of contamination is actually the driving force behind the other three forms. It's easier to see the mystery story's "rationalized version" by looking at the other themes as structures. The double theme inevitably ends with an "impossible" confrontation challenging the identity of two competing elements. Travel through time aims to bring forensic and venatic time together at a "festal" point where origin and end fuse in a scene of recognition. The main diagetic/venatic action of solving the crime and the forensic "backstories" or exegesis that supply the main hunt with clues and evidence from the past must merge at the end, which is also in some sense the beginning


The contamination of reality by the dream is perhaps the most common form of magical identity. The "return reality" leads to the famous paradox of Zhuang Zi: "A man dreams he was a butterfly and awakes, but he wonders if he is not now a butterfly dreaming he is a man." Having to decide which world - the man's or the butterfly's - is the real one seems to create a symmetry that returns repeatedly to its problematic core. But, the symmetry, like the mirror-faces of wood or insect wings, turns out to be based on a key opposition. Zhuang Zi can reflect on whether or not he is a butterfly or Zhuang Zi, but the dreaming butterfly (who is in turn dreamed by Zhuang Zi) lacks the human obligation to represent himself or his dreams or anything at all; he cannot speculate about his dream experience of being a Chinese philosopher. The "reality" of symbolic relationships that fixes Zhuang Zi within a web of social significations does not exist for the butterfly, so the contamination of reality by the dream is really a "return" of the impossible-Real to itself, like Weronika's "impossible" return to Veronique, who is the only one who can represent — and, hence, alter — this sense of the double life.

It would have been difficult for David Lynch to have produced any of his films without these devices of the impossible-Real return. Mulholland Drive repeats and in some sense "perfects the economy" of the return. Lynch uses one actor to play two different characters and two actors to play a single character. Betty and Diane are both played by the actress Naomi Watts; Betty is Diane's dream projection at the moment of death. Betty's dream companion, Rita, suffers amnesia, but she turns out to be, in Diane's "reality world," the successful actress Camilla Rhodes. Another, blond Camilla Rhodes, a rival to the lesbian Diane, works as a "place holder" for the dream sequence, allowing Betty to be the superior actress while Camilla is demoted to undeserving Mafia protégée.

The disruption of identity is mediated by the clue — a material object leads a double life as a sign. Properly speaking, we might use the term "anamorphosis" to describe the clue as a single object that looks like two different things depending on what point of view you take. The logic of the clue has ancient roots that give anamorphosis a broadened and more pragmatic context. Roman friends at the occasion of parting used special pottery (tessera), broken in two, to promise a future reunion. The breaking and re-assembly of the fragments symbolized a completed cycle, but there was a delay - a period during which the jagged fragment meant nothing except to the possessors. The symmetry was "suspended," "put on hold," "delayed," "disguised." A reversal of sorts took place. The more jagged the line of fracture, the more the authenticity of the re-assembly process was guaranteed.

Something like this happens with the mystery story. Between the initial crime and the ultimate discovery and application of justice there is a delay filled with the labor of detection. The clue restructures the space around it because of the "impossible" symmetry between the two "moments" of identity and the delay between them. The clue is the mystery story's specialized application of the "suture." The effect is like that of the collision between two photons, which appears to produce two electron-positron pairs, each going their own way. If, as some physicists such as Feynman hold, there is no collision but instead an electron which emits two photons, causing it to reverse its direction in time. Moving backwards as a positron, it absorbs two photons and then continues on in a forward direction as an electron. This is the same physics used by the mystery story, where any single clue works as a hinge between the "ordinary time," in which the crime seems impossible, and the "forensic time" of the crime's initial motivation, planning, execution, and disguise.

What physics does with the time of the electron, the mystery story does with the figure of chiasmus, the c- (chi-) shaped structure that combines opposites by means of a ladder of links that helps the reader climb from a naïve ingenuousness into a room high in a tower (or deep into a cave) where all will be revealed. The c splits time into two parts. One "hunts" for reality in a straightforward, rational way, but sometimes gets chased along the very same line. This "venatic" reality is psychology's most basic highway of approach and avoidance, desire and fear. The other part of the c looks for clues along the way and, of necessity, lives in the past, with things that, by their very existence, certify that the past is past. Like evidence at a courtroom trial, these objects determine the real presence of the past, its forensic truth. Venatic time and forensic time imply one another. They perhaps forged their bonds during the millions of years human beings were hunters along broad grassy plains, when hunting game that was faster and smarter required cunning calculation. Whether suture indicates the audience's "insertion" into the point of view through "seamless" editing (the conservative interpretation) or the more ambitious view that involves spatial and temporal inversion, the result is the uncanny - the unease that communicates directly to the audience, creating suspense, fright, and anxiety.

the optic dimensionality of evil

The idea of delayed symmetry, with a chiastic ladder climbing into a secret interior, gives new meaning to old ideas: Marcel Duchamp's notion of all art as delay and, more ancient, the musical techniques of counterpoint. The mystery story is thus not isolated by its technical nature but, rather, related to issues shared by all art and culture. For example, is not the audience's interest in crime literally the idea of the "evil eye"? Is there an "eye for evil" just as there is an "eye for beauty" — in effect, a learned capacity to look in a specialized way that the mystery story supports? How could this look be related to the envious look of the dispossessed that is the alleged source of the ethnographic phenomenon of the evil eye? The matter is more complex. The evil eye of folklore gazes in order to establish equilibrium. Attracted to excess beauty, wealth, or luck, the evil eye is not so much envious as retributive. Its physics mandates that "the good" is a fixed and invariant quantity, and that surplus good in one place equals a lack of good in another. The evil eye, localized in the envious gaze of some wretched poor person or generalized as an omni-directional "I see you!" is the initial step towards correcting the imbalance. The actual mechanism that restores the balance is, however, invisible and delayed. Like the famous John O'Hara story of "An Appointment in Samarrah," it's not just a case of "what goes around comes around." The mystery story employs a self-fulfilling logic. The perpetrator of a crime, like the possessor of surplus wealth, plants the seeds of his own destruction; and in the case of the crime, those seeds are clues. When the other face of these simple objects is revealed, truth "arrives" as if from the past.

Why is it important to understand the delayed clue-logic of the mystery story? And, what does this understanding have to do with the broader and more complex "spatial enterprises" of architecture, visual art, and the study of place in geography and landscape architecture?

The case rests with the most fundamental issue, the nature of human space itself. In the post-Cartesian critical view, this is a space of experience, not a container-space of extension. Time is implicitly a part of space, not the line exiled by the three Cartesian dimensions of height, width, and breadth. The static x-y-z view formally ended with Lobachevsky, Riemann, and Minkowsky in the 19th century, but its commonsensical shorthand remained. With or without the backing of Newtonian physics, humans prefer to "project" reality on to models, images, maps, and ideas (with time omitted or reduced to a line) - and to see the projections as reality. Reintegrating time into space will always be a "radical act," for the isolation and spatialization of time is an important constituent of everyday perception. The "solid world" that endures, that defies Heraklitus's flux and seems more or less the same day after day, requires us to package time in a more or less Cartesian manner. Were it not for the commonsensical, quotidian, and "self-evident" nature of Cartesian space, we could not be so effectively and repeatedly surprised by the deviant topologies of art that make time twist and loop. We must make ourselves into fools by believing in the "natural attitude" of everyday space - fools of time and fools of the Real that must surely, by this willful act of denial, return with flash and a clap of prescient thunder.

The mystery story handles these heady issues with characteristic modesty. It's a simple, even mostly simplistic genre that relies on a few sturdy mechanisms to produce audience delight. The mystery story must work and work well because there's very little else going for it. Its survival is tied to the techniques binding the audience to the artwork. The fortunate part of this economy is that the audience-art relationship, itself a streamlined apparatus made of frames, boundaries, and border-crossings, shares many features with the frames, boundaries, and border-crossings that the mystery story requires of its own drama. The audience, were it to suddenly develop a double awareness dividing its attentions between the entertainments of gruesome crime and the critically refined operations of art, would find a certain symmetry, whose delay in this case corresponds precisely to the duration of the artwork's hold on its collective imagination.

With all the back-and-forth mirroring of art and audience, beginning and end, the time of reality and forensic time, the question how to study the mystery becomes problematic. What should be the order of study? Is there any way of proceeding from simple to complex, in the positivist manner? Doesn't the nature of the boundary itself call this order into question? The mystery story is a literary "world in itself," already mined and defended by its own redoubtable experts. The point is not to attack the ramparts, but to borrow the genre briefly to lay out the conditions of this internal mirroring and show its general relevance to perception, thought, and culture. The boundary approach requires speculation, but reading requires an order. The main study method, the technique of collàge, mandates cutting and pasting diverse materials onto the same surface of consideration. The reading method, in contrast, has to tunnel beneath the city of truth. The linear order of the tunnel is the necessity to take up each issue one at a time. The chapters move in a sequence from the general idea of teleology to the specific uses of boundaries to establish structure, form, and senses of time. At the end, the play returns to the broader implications of the audience's ways of looking at the artwork, and the artwork's ways of looking at the audience. The desire set in motion by the work of art necessitates the theme of return, with its historical, psychological, and philosophical implications. If the text must necessarily take the form of the tunnel, then the pathway is at least a meander and not a maze.

crime scenes

Mystery stories are the substance of this excursion into boundary theory, and many mysteries are used, either as brief examples or extended "experiments." Among the former are Michael Innes's Death at the President's Lodging, Jorge Luis Borges' "Death and the Compass," and snippets from Agatha Christie's and Arthur Conan Doyle's many creations. More focused attention is given to G. K. Chesterton's "acousmatic" mystery, "The Queer Feet," and films by Alfred Hitchcock: Young and Innocent, The Thirty-Nine Steps, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, Notorious, Vertigo and North by Northwest. David Lynch's Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive offer clear views of some tricky aspects of "suture." The point has been to lay bare some essential properties of the "language" of boundaries rather than provide a representative sample of the mystery genre. Lynch's concern for bringing liminality into the center of narrative and Hitchcock's consistency and respect for audience response have made these films the perfect laboratory.

This is not, however, simply a critical review of crime novels and suspense films from a spatial-temporal point of view. It is a meditation that begins with the subject of teleology - ideas about the structure of time - and ends with advice on how to map the interests of the mystery story onto other cultural matters - for example, the folk belief in the evil eye. Throughout, the "method," if there is one, is to use diagrams that clarify how authors and filmmakers use time and space to foil our "projective" sense of reality and replace it with structures that can only be described through a "Real" of topology. This is an old but still not easily understood theme in art criticism. Mozart once explained that his first conception of a new work was like a ball of thread - a whole that had to be unraveled in the process of actual composition. Lacan and others have used knots, along with fractals and Möbius-band analogies, to get at the intricacies of human action and thought. The topographical diagram replaces the screen-based map as a basis for modeling these intricacies, just as a logic of tangency and substitution replaces the "projective" attribution of symbols popular in pop psychology. To begin with teleology is to confront immediately the issue of the "knot" that ties the future to the past and makes of any present moment a complex and compound substance.

The point is to show how the mystery story condenses and refines that particular property of all boundaries, the capacity for self-concealment. What better way to approach this important feature than a genre of literature where self-concealment is its essence and raison-d'être? Any study of popular culture, despite the centrality of its materials, has to make an argument about the value of the margin, the marginal, and marginality itself. This study shows that the marginal is mystery and the mystery is, if anything, a thing of margins.

death at the president's lodging

Michael Innes's turgid though precise mystery novel, Death at the President's Lodging (1936), rather exactly demonstrates an important aspect of boundaries: the role of concentric containment, or "echelons." Within the confines of an imaginary British public university college grounds, the suspects frame each other with a perfect, closed chain of double-crosses. A implicates B, who implicates C, and so on until the final implicator implicates A. The detective works out the mystery by finding which of the suspects is an example of the "groucho fractal" ("Your honor, my client may look like an idiot and talk like an idiot; but do not be decieved - he is an idiot!"). The neatness of Innes's algorithmic approach to mystery writing gives boundary notation a unique opportunity to model the relationship between this "great chain of deception" (any echelon formation of concentric spaces) and the creation of a Möbius-band structure that reconnects the barred (immobilized) subject to the matter of the Other's missing center that, when returned to its central position, will identify the Whodunit.

The primary structure of Michael Innes' novel is the creation of a series of "framer/framed" pairs out of the limited set of characters. The set of implications is circular, so that the echolon's "final" space is identical with its "initial space." This is a way of creating a spatial emblem of self-reference. The outside is really the inside, and vice versa. This structure permits us to formalize a way of writing the mystery condition as a relationship between the Whodunit — a perfect example of the Lacanian "Big Other" (Autre) — and the subject's "barred" condition, exagerated in the mystery story by making the subject a murder victim.

The condensed expression, A (B)B $, states briefly that the symbolic network that binds subjects within a framework of authority (laws, customs, language, etc.) is asymmetrical and symmetrical at the same time. The asymmetry that victimizes the subject is actually a delay of a symmetry that will be played out outside the net of symbolic relations. This will be a "loop" that twists/braids a circuitious relationship between the $ and A that will identify, precisely, the "lack" in the authority of the other, namely, his guilt. This can be seen by re-writing the realtionship between A and $.

This is a picture of the "complex" symmetry of the Möbius band. The twist of the Möbius band exists in a 3-dimensional, projective space "so that we can see" the logic of the band. The twist doesn't belong to the Möbius band proper. It is a "fiction" invented so that we can see, first, a paradox, and then see how the paradox is "resolved." The problem/solution structure is the result of our relationship as an audience to the topological accomplishment of the Möbius band.

Similarly, the mystery story is an event made problematic by the concept of ethics and law. The victim must be avenged by finding the perpetrator. Crime must be symmetrically balanced by punishment and is separated from it by the invention of those who see the crime but cannot identify the perpetrator. The process is both backwards and circular, a return to the center of the Other, the Other's surplus (concealed secret).

It is interesting to refer to the general significance of this figure: a circuit regulated by a single inverter "switch." A non-self-referential circuit is regulated by a double inverter switching function, such as that provided by a continent boundary that works effectively whether motion is entry or exit.

This analogy, though technical, is far-reaching. The circuit with a single inverter switch is a model for the Fibonacci series, the value of Ø that is self-defining. The "golden mean" is thus not limited to geometric situations but also dramatic ones such as the mystery story and topological ones such as the Möbius band. This "mystery molecule" exemplifies the notion of delay, elaborated as a circuit of relationships dominated by paradox, self-reference, and anamorphy because and on behalf of the audience/spectator that is built into the need for and supply of a "twist" that relates topology to projective, logical space.

The whole Möbius band of the mystery story can be generalized as a circuit with a twist, a crossing at the level where appearances and motives "coincide" (B). The gap in the circuit, 'a', is in other circumstances, an element of poché, jouissance ( pleasure), or object-cause of desire. The 'a' is created and maintained by lack (secret, ignorance, etc.) and is thus extremely stable. Hence, the mystery story, a notoriously second-rate literature, is extremely stable because its narrative is grounded on this lack.

  © 2012, Donald Kunze, all rights reserved