The Death of the Detective
The novel is an art form necessarily bound to society; even the experimental anti-novels of Beckett and Burroughs are rooted in a vision of a very real society. The form of the novel has undergone many transformations since the detailed social chronicles of Dickens and Trollope and Austen, but its creators still seek techniques appropriate to the world they hope to create or recreate in order to move the reader. Perhaps the chief dilemma facing the contemporary writer is how to portray the incredible, grotesque variety of the modern world, how to dramatize the violence and confusion loose in society. Irony no longer seems a strong enough tool, satire often falls flat before the hideous realities of the day, realism turns out to be unbelievable.
Some authors choose to evade the issue by dealing with a small corner of the world, by portraying only personal interior visions, or by writing about the past or the future. Many fine writers flail aimlessly, trying to match their personal vision with the bizarre reality around them; occasionally, their anger or determination hits the mark and they produce a book or a chapter or a few pages that do speak to the condition of the world. Mark Smith obviously feels a compulsion to grapple with the world he knows in all of its extremes, to force it into a unified artistic conception to the best of his abilities. His courage is substantial and his final achievement in The Death of the Detective, while uneven, is formidable. Any reader today who cares about a literature which addresses itself to the world he encounters on the streets must be grateful to an author who is willing to take such risks.
This long novel is set in Chicago during the Korean War. At the beginning, a wealthy and evil man named Farquarson lies dying in his mansion in Lake Forest, Illinois. Years ago, he railroaded his wife into a mental institution, where she had a son by another inmate. This inmate, Joseph Helenowski, has vowed a deadly vengeance on the world. Now, he has broken out of the asylum, believing that he is Death itself. As Helenowski stalks his victims, Arnold Magnuson, a well-known, Duesenberg-driving detective, is stalking Helenowski. The detective always arrives on the scene just after Death has struck, by drowning, by strangulation, by shotgun, hatchet, pitchfork, beer bottle, whatever lies at hand, leaving a dozen corpses in his wake. The crossing of these antagonists trace out a map of Chicago from Lake Forest mansions and Gold Coast luxury apartments to factories and parks, working-class taverns and lesbian bars. There is much background atmosphere, including detailed portraits of Chicago’s hillbilly bars, its political life, its seedy ghettos. The picture is rich and at times overwhelming, in the sense that life, too, can be overwhelming. Smith’s accurate eye and ear and deft style have filled the book with scenes and images of brilliance, but these gifts do not prevent the book from failing to live up to its promise. The question must be asked, How did this talented and daring writer produce a book that, although extraordinary in breadth and detail, is not always satisfying?
The Death of the Detective is a very schematized book, an intellectualized conception of a novel. The complicated plot is meticulously worked out and peopled with “interesting” characters and then decorated with the detailed landscapes. In a sense, this elaborate novel resembles a huge jigsaw puzzle put together with infinite skill, but in which the outlines of the separate pieces are so visible that they consequently detract from the completed picture. The author’s self-consciously brilliant style tends to come between the reader and the characters. Many of the human...
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