Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1146
The Investigation is a detective novel. Several corpses have apparently become reanimated while awaiting burial, and some have disappeared. As Gregory, of Scotland Yard, investigates the cases, he and his associates must deal with such problems as how to distinguish the normal from the miraculous, how to develop explanations for any phenomena, and how to distinguish facts from interpretations. The narration follows Gregory’s work on this case, playfully manipulating the conventions of detective fiction.
The novel opens with various experts studying the details of several cases in which corpses have been disturbed or have disappeared. The presumed crimes have been perfectly executed, for there is no evidence to identify their agent, nor is any motive indicated. Sciss, the statistician, finds a pattern in the occurrences. They are moving, like a wave, away from a central point. He successfully predicts the probable location of the next occurrence.
The central section of the novel details Gregory’s investigation of what turns out to be the last in the series of disturbances. Gregory’s analysis of the scene moves him toward concluding that a naked male corpse has come back to life, left its coffin, climbed out a window (even though the door was unlocked), and crawled through new-fallen snow to the back door of the mortuary, before finally succumbing. The sight of the reanimated body climbing through the window probably caused the constable on special guard duty to panic, and as a result, the only eyewitness to one of these events ran wildly into the road, where he was struck down by a passing car. Having suffered a fractured skull, the constable remains unconscious and near death during the investigation.
In addition to fulfilling the pattern of location discovered by Sciss, this event shares with the others the time of occurrence, between midnight and dawn; the presence of a small dead animal, a cat, at or near the scene; and foggy weather.
The detective’s problem is to find the person who is causing these events to happen, which involves finding some intelligible motive for producing these phenomena. The police begin with the natural idea that a madman is the perpetrator, but no known form of madness would lead to these acts. When Chief Inspector Sheppard assigns the case to Gregory, no solution seems possible. Together, however, the two men consider several possibilities. Gregory finds the inhuman perfection of the incidents most disturbing, as it suggests that there is no agent. Sheppard points out that a fanatic attempting to start a new religion might try to imitate Christ’s resurrection, in which case the perfection of the incidents would be the goal rather than merely a means of escaping detection. Sheppard also suggests the possibility that these are real miracles, without a human or natural cause.
As Gregory works on the case, he circles among such alternatives. A well-trained detective, he is trapped intellectually by the problem. Detection requires that the human cause be found, but it also requires the right answer. The very self-criticism that should lead him to the right answer moves Gregory away from a human cause. Yet the detective is above all else a materialist, like David Hume. Hume defines a miracle as a violation of the laws of nature; nevertheless, Gregory eventually finds himself saying, paradoxically, “anything is possible if it frees me from the necessity of believing in miracles.”
Having irrationally chosen Sciss as a suspect, Gregory follows him and converses with him and his associates. Sciss has discovered a statistical correlation between the reanimations and the incidence of cancer in the region, which suggests that something about this area prevents cancer from developing in its normal way. As a result, whatever agent causes cancer—defined in this story as a producer of disorder within the usual order of the human body—has metamorphosed into its opposite, an agent that temporarily restores a kind of order to dead bodies. Although possibly correct, this hypothesis remains unexplored, requiring as it does scientific rather than police investigation. The investigators’ ability to construct alternative explanations creates increasing uncertainty.
Sciss and his associates seem to convince Gregory that the real difference between the normal and the miraculous is the frequency of occurrence. In making such an argument, they follow Hume more rigorously than Gregory does. For example, when Gregory objects that the “virus” seems too intelligent, one of Sciss’s associates points out that meteor showers exhibit a similar kind of intelligence. Yet because there are reasonable explanations for the behavior of meteor showers, they are not thought intelligent. If dead bodies were temporarily reanimated every day in the same way that dropped apples always fall, the event would be considered normal and not mysteriously caused by any intelligence, even though the common understanding of the force of gravity is no greater than the investigators’ understanding of the power which makes the bodies return to life. Sciss explains that what is common and has been described is often generally thought to be understood, when, in fact, humanity continuously encounters the inexplicable.
The belief that most normal phenomena have been explained stems from Newtonian physics; from Victorian optimism, as expressed in classical detective fiction; and from the human need for an orderly mental environment and the interpretation of facts. The detective lives by faith, whether he knows it or not—the faith that there are laws of nature that a miracle might violate.
Gregory eventually entertains other hypotheses. Perhaps Sciss insanely creates interesting statistical events. Perhaps an extraterrestrial civilization is studying the human body. Perhaps a scientist is secretly testing a new chemical.
Finally, the injured constable regains consciousness and gives testimony before he dies. He says he saw the body return to life and try to come out through the window. Gregory can simply reject such testimony under the circumstances as unreliable, even though it is perfectly consistent with his observations of the scene. As Hume argued, testimony for miracles is inherently unreliable.
Faced with the apparently impossible, Sheppard fabricates a human explanation which Gregory agrees to accept. A distribution company moves empty trucks by night through the affected area. One driver was recently killed in a train accident. His profile and schedule would allow the police to associate him with all but one of the occurrences. If that one is classified separately, they can construct “the story” of these occurrences and close their case.
As Sciss’s novelist friend points out, the police mind requires a perpetrator. The police, in effect, create a fiction, committing a kind of crime themselves, so that this crime may not go unsolved. Thus, they mirror the “cancer virus” that metamorphoses into its opposite when absolutely prevented from performing its natural function. Even though Sheppard and Gregory have come to accept Sciss’s interpretation intellectually, they cannot let it rest and still continue to play their roles as detectives.
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