- Masquerade, Crime, and Fiction: Criminal Deceptions
Masquerade in crime fiction would seem a rich vein in which to go prospecting. From the Memoirs of Vidocq through Chesterton's Father Brown stories to Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely, disguise and theatricality have been important in the depiction of criminals, not to mention to detectives and to the resolution of crimes. Usually the protagonist, a detective, must unmask the criminal, though in the 1800s and through the Sherlock Holmes era, it was common for the detective to mask himself as well. [End Page 404]
Linden Peach, the prolific author of studies of Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, Angela Carter, Dylan Thomas, and the contemporary Irish novel, would seem to be the perfect polymath for the job, particularly as he focuses on how gender and modernity interact with performance in crime fiction. And there is a good deal to like in Peach's study, not least his clear, nearly jargon-free prose.
In seven chapters, ranging roughly from the fiction of Dickens to fiction about serial killers, Peach develops the notion that crime, especially as it is narrated, is performative, and that these performances are constructed from a mix of the dominant and subversive cultural constructs of the day. This perspective depends on the insights of Judith Butler, but is crossed with those of the New Historicists. Among theorists of the detective novel, he is closest to Dennis Porter and Stephen Knight. Strangely, however, he seems not to have heard of Kathleen Klein, who published the first study of gender and genre in crime fiction in 1995.
Peach's first chapter explores the ways in which Dickens's Oliver Twist and Bulwer-Lytton's Paul Clifford and Eugene Aram, among other texts, engage in mocking modernity. Peach reads the performances of Fagin and the Artful Dodger in Dickens, for example, as "inverse images" (10) of Victorian respectability and hard work. The second chapter pushes into instances of gender and dress in criminal performance, with prime examples again coming from Dickens (Bill Sikes and Mr. Brownlow in Oliver Twist, Magwitch in Great Expectations), Arthur Conan Doyle, and, reaching forward, Graham Greene. But this chapter ends with a strange excursion into American narrative, arguing that gangster movies such as Little Caesar and The Public Enemy "were primarily concerned with the American ideals of individualism, self-reliance and individual wealth." This is simplification, though not as bad as the subsequent assertion that it is Dan Cody in The Great Gatsby "on whom Gatsby's reinvention of himself, and ultimately his 'performance,' is based" (46). If there is masquerade going on in those narratives—and one could argue there is, in the Powers's performances for the various female audiences of The Public Enemy and at Gatsby's parties—it gets lost in grandiose claims about contrasting "East Coast masculinity" and "America's expansionist celebration of the frontiersman" (47). But one is astonished to read that Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely "alludes to" The Great Gatsby. Those allusions come in The Big Sleep, where Chandler mimics the descriptions of the Buchanans' house in describing the Sternwood mansion. Farewell, My Lovely is a novel that Peach should swoop down on, unmasking the outrageously attired Moose Malloy, as well as the Hollywood Indian Second Planting and psychic Jules Amthor. It's one big costume party, and Moose Malloy does in fact embody [End Page 405] the obsolescence of the frontier myth. But Peach seizes on minor character Lindsey Marriott who, far from engaging in masquerade, is another instance of Chandler's well-known homophobia.
"The Cadaver as Criminalized Text" is the intriguing title of chapter 3. What's developed here is the notion that the crime scene, from Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue" onward, is a deceptively staged charade, which is of course true. Peach's argument that there are sexual overtones to those corpses that Poe stuffed up the chimney is entirely persuasive, though not new. Using "The Murder of Marie Roget" as his turning point, Peach tightens his focus on the corpse per se. But if...