Monday, 25 June 2012

Genius is madness, becoming sane: the detective fiction of Fernando Pessoa

“Three months, four months ago – I write in January 1908 – there died in London, of general paralysis, a man who was most remarkable. He was obscure and reserved, though he was not modest. He lived far from the active world, a philosopher and a dreamer. His name was William Byng and he was said to be ex-sergeant.”

So begins the preface to Tales of a Reasoner, an unfinished collection of detective stories Fernando Pessoa started writing in 1906, while still living in Durban. It is ironic that in 2012 we continue to publish new books by Pessoa. At the time of the Portuguese poet’s death in 1935, he had only published one book, the nationalist prophecy poem Message. At the moment I’m writing this, his collected works encompass over twenty volumes of poetry in his name, poetry in his name written in English, poetry of his heteronyms, prose of his heteronyms, The Book of Disquiet, letters, criticism, essays, short-stories, theatre, and more. The legendary chest full of thousands of pages he left behind never ceases to produce new surprises. The most recent surprise is Tales of a Reasoner, fragments of stories Pessoa wrote in English, under the pseudonym of Horace James Farber, which shed new light on his love for the detective genre. Together with the essay “Detective Story,” an analysis of the genre, they’ve been made available to the public in a single bilingual volume for the first time.

I found the story fragments rather maddening, because there’s nothing more frustrating than reading incomplete detective stories, unless they’re deliberately written like that, and in Pessoa’s case they weren’t. Like many other projects he intended to finish, he left this incomplete. The tales are obviously influenced by Edgar Allen Poe, whom Pessoa considers the greatest of the detective story writers (at one point Pessoa planned to translate and publish Poe’s tales of deduction in Portuguese), and also Arthur Conan Doyle. And Byng’s approach to solving crimes – analysing the psychology of criminals instead of gathering facts – is also reminiscent of G.K. Chesterton’s method which he put to use in his notable Father Brown stories. However there doesn’t seem to have been any relationship – Pessoa’s stories predate them and he doesn’t mention Chesterton once.

Byng isn’t a very interesting character, perhaps because Pessoa didn’t believe characters in detective stories should be very complex. Thus he owes more to Auguste Dupin’s austere reason than to Sherlock Holmes’ vibrant eccentricities. We know little of Byng, except that he was a former sergeant, and that “the end of his life was sad,” the narrator ominously declares in the preface. Byng liked Kant, Descartes, and Thomas Aquinas. And he was an eccentric man, but only because the narrator says so, not because of anything he actually does in the stories. Storytelling, I fear, was not Pessoa’s forte. Although Byng hardly comes alive in the page, we know that he dies of delirium tremens. “That man who drinks,” the narrator says. This detail is pure Pessoa. Before Raymond Chandler invented the hard-drinking detective, Pessoa was already taking him to his logical extreme.

However, these fragments and the incomplete essay are enough to give a good idea of how Pessoa conceived the detective story. In his view, the genre was purely intellectual entertainment, and a detective story should worry less about mystery than with unravelling the mystery. He makes a good distinction between mystery story and detective story in the essay: “A tale of mystery is the delight of the many: nothing more is needed for it than the most level reason and no imagination at all: a woman with a mysterious past, a girl who cannot speak some oppressive secret, blackmail, murder, robbery and the devil knows what more.” Mystery tales are all about keeping the reader on the edge of his seat, and Pessoa rightly argues the point that it’s very easy to make something mysterious by just omitting information. Detective tales, however, are about unravelling mysteries. “If ‘detective tales’ were called ‘decipherment stories,’ that juster title would define them as the usual one does not. For the detective story differs from the simple mystery tale in that the mystery tale is based on its mystery and the detective tale on the decipherment of the mystery.” For this reason he declares that, “The tale of mystery is imaginative, the detective story is intellectual, in its essence.”

The first of the stories, “The Case of the Science Master,” opens with views similar to the ones expressed in the essay. The narrator introduces himself as a lover of the genre and comes down hard on mystery stories: “From the earliest youth I have been attracted, in a way more or less morbid, by all things inscrutable or strange, no matter whether fact or fiction. To healthy exercise and even to good reading I have too often preferred that large portion of literature dealing with subjects horrible or mysterious. But my mind was healthy in so far as it rejected with scorn the impossible and, many times, the improbable inanities of the “Monte Christo” [sic] type, stupid extravagances such as flowed swiftly from the pen of Ponson du Terrail and others I found exasperating and foolish.”

There are two interesting points to consider here: first of all, the narrator remarks that detective fiction is not ‘good reading.’ This is not Pessoa’s view; in his essay he defends it from the critics who saw it as an inferior genre. On the other hand, Pessoa believed that in order to remain true to its strengths, the detective tale was incompatible with the requisites of good literature. Other writers since him have fortunately proved this is not the case.

The second point is that poor Ponson continues to take a beating on my blog. If you’ve read my article on Eça’s detectivenovel, you’ll remember that he gently mocks Ponson in it. Eça, however, had a unique charming way of insulting people without looking like he was insulting them. But what’s the problem with him? Ponson was a harmless peddler of dime novels and an accomplished adventure writer whose influence on 20th century popular culture is undeniable – without Rocambole we’d have no Arsene Lupin, no Fantomas, no Doc Savage –, and although uncredited he continues to shape popular fiction to this day. He easily stands alongside R.L. Stevenson, H. Rider Haggard and Bram Stoker. Pessoa, however, was a mediocre storyteller. He may have been the greatest poet of his time, but he couldn’t create a compelling character to pay for his alcohol fix. For all his attempts, he couldn’t even finish one of his detective stories, and what he left us doesn’t speak well of their merit.

In this sense Pessoa resembles the narrator, who dreams of becoming a great detective, but lacks the skills to solve actual crimes:

“I have, of course, often attempted the solution of real problems. Some newspaper articles reporting weird or complicated cases have given me the most unspeakable worry; I have often spent the sleepless nights in striving to think out how a wooden legged burglar with a heavy box, who had burgled some iron safe, could have got out through a 4th story window which was fast closed and shuttered and thence down nothing into the street below. When some smart detective had solved the case, it was found that the man had just gone out by the door, a means of exit which I do not think I considered.”

The narrator, accepting his inability to solve crimes logically, meets Byng during the investigation of a murdered teacher, and thus becomes the narrator of his exploits. In the first story, Byng lays down many of his methods. Byng isn’t very concerned about morality, just with the intellectual challenge. “You may, of course, consider a crime as a moral act – I mean as an act concerning morality, in a contrary way of course –, or you may consider it a mental act, if you have regard to the intellect behind it. But these considerations are erroneous. A crime is not a moral act.”

Byng isn’t very interested in facts and data, although he considers them too. No, Byng is more interested in human psychology and the character of the criminal. He believes solving crimes is mainly about investigating the “human faculties or conditions used in the carrying out of physical acts,” since what “is traceable in all crimes is the temperament of the criminal.” A detective then must concern himself primarily with the criminal’s mind. This happens to be very similar to Chesterton’s approach. Chesterton in “The Secret of Father Brown” explains the method of his detective priest in this way: "You see, I had murdered them all myself... I had planned out each of the crimes very carefully. I had thought out exactly how a thing like that could be done, and in what style or state of mind a man could really do it. And when I was quite sure that I felt exactly like the murderer myself, of course I knew who he was."

In one of the mini-articles he wrote for the magazine El Hogar, Jorge Luis Borges wrote this of Chesterton and detective fiction: “The solution, in bad detective fiction, involves material reasons: a secret door, an extra beard. In the good ones, involves psychological reasons: a fallacy, a mental habit, a superstition. An example of good ones – and even of the best ones – is any tales by Chesterton.” Like Father Brown, Byng is less a fact-checker than a reader of souls. The former sergeant reflects a lot about psychology. For that purpose he’s even created a table of human temperaments to classify criminals:

  1. Genius (under action of Perversion)
  2. Excitable (under action of Perversion)
  3. Excitable (courageous)
  4. Excitable (not courageous)
  5. Animal type (courageous)
  6. Animal type (not courageous)
  7. Greek type (not courageous)

Some of these classifications require hilarious explanations. The Greek type, Byng explains, “is the union of the widest perception of the beautiful and the great with a deteriorated moral sense; I call this the Greek type because the latter Greeks were remarkable for their sense of the beautiful and of the great and for their nauseous perversions of its use.” The Greek type, Byng warns us, “will kill his lifelong benefactor with the greatest coolness, as easily as he will disgrace his own daughter or his own sister.” But worry not, dear reader, for Byng assures us that ‘such moral degradation is very uncommon,’ so the chances of the reader ever meeting a Greek type criminal in his lifetime are slim.

Equally curious is the category of genius. “Genius is madness, becoming sane,” Byng declares in a nice turn of phrase. But this type is also rare. In these tales Pessoa proves to be a very well-read man in the forensic science of his time. Not only does his discuss psychology, but also phrenology, handwriting analysis, and Cesare Lombroso’s now outdated theories on ‘born criminals.’

The other stories have their own delights: “The Case of the Quadratic Equation” is about the investigation of a mathematician who killed himself after receiving a letter requesting him to solve an apparently basic equation. My favourite, however, is “The Case of Mr. Arnott,” which has a Borgesian premise: it’s about a stranger who enrolls an innocent man in a secret society, which may not exist at all. The motive is never ascertained. The initiate is made to change his name and make a mark in his face to be identified by other members, allegedly – but maybe not; maybe it’s just a pretext for the stranger to turn him into a double of another man for some nefarious purpose. Byng’s labyrinthine digressions into the possibilities of this case constitute the best part of the stories. Like all the other tales, only fragments remain, without a resolution, but it was the most promising of the bunch, and includes this excellent sentence: “The best way to keep a secret from him were to make him believe there was no secret.”

The weakest story is “The Stolen Document.” It’s not an actual Byng story, but rather a ‘correction’ of Poe’s “The Purloined Letter,” Pessoa intending it to be a ‘presumed true account of the stolen letter affair.” Pessoa always had a serious problem in surpassing the people he admired. He worried about living in other people’s shadow and usually this resulted in a heightened sense of importance (in The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, José Saramago pokes fun at Pessoa’s envy of Luís de Camões, who was the national poet he could never become). This tale may predate the Byng stories and it’s inconclusive whether Pessoa was attempting to rewrite it as one of his tales. It’s the shortest fragment and so there’s not much more to be said about it.

This leaves us with the essay “Detective Story,” the highlight of the book. It shows Pessoa’s deep knowledge of the genre’s histories and its tropes, and in it he makes lists of things writers should beware of. For instance, he warns writers against romantic subplots, and long subplots that distract from the mystery’s unravelling. In this regard he faults Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet for its imperfection because of the tedious Mormon backstory, which he thinks should have been explained in a single paragraph. I very much agree with him on this one.

Pessoa wasn’t impressed either by threats against the detective and the narrator, since that had nothing to do with the proper act of detection. So of Richard Freeman’s novel The Shadow of the Wolf (1925), he asks, “Why, also, the attempts on Thorndyke’s and the narrator’s lives? We know Thorndyke is unkillable and the narrator is presumably still alive when he narrates.” In other words, the writer shouldn’t waste his time creating thrilling sequences – that’s telling an adventure story – since we all know the detective can’t die. Fortunately this orthodox view never had many proponents.

Pessoa also railed against coincidences, the use of occult elements, and withholding facts from the reader. He considers three ways of putting all the facts before a reader and still ‘puzzle him with a logical conclusion.’

Since real crimes tend to be unremarkable and don’t lend themselves to fiction, Pessoa recognizes that crimes in fiction must be ‘abnormal,’ and he lists five ways of being so: “(1) by the introduction of coincidences, (2) by the intromission of new discoveries or invention, (3) by the natural superposition of one crime or another, or, at any rate of one suspicious or mysterious circumstance upon another, (4) by the confusion, deficiency or superfluity of evidence, (5) by the creation of an abnormally intelligent criminal, who naturally devises an abnormally skilful crime.” Pessoa deplores the first two methods, appreciates the third and fourth, and considers the fifth the best method.

Furthermore, he believed detective stories should be simple in plot and short in length, for “there is never a problem that need take up very much space.” But if that’s the case, there are many fine detective novels that would be excluded because of Pessoa’s orthodox conception of the genre. 

Finally he tackles the critics of the detective genre: “A very erroneous idea has great acceptation – namely that a detective story is but a literary composition of an inferior kind. Critics, especially those who occupy themselves with poetic and philosophical works, are very unanimous in decrying this kind of tale. They look upon it as something needing no imagination and little if any logic. But they are in this mistaken – that they have never attempted to analyse the stories I treat of, that they have never considered what a detective story really is, and what faculties are needed for its writing.” I agree with him: detective fiction has its own rules, logic and purpose, and to judge it against the requisites of fine art is meaningless. A detective story should worry about being a good detective story, not meet the criteria of academics. But if Pessoa is harsh on critics who only care about high art, he’s too much of an elitist to go softer on the public. “The crowd judges from the same premises and it draws an opposite conclusion” and wrongly considers “those authors to have reached the limit of human sharpness.” For the readers, “the tales are perfect.” But of course they’re too stupid to recognize a good detective story, and easily confuse Ponson du Terrail with the best. If only people would read his unfinished essay, they’d possess the critical tools to adequately judge their merit.

Pessoa showed to be conversant with contemporary British detective fiction, the home of the genre. Although he started writing it in 1906, he continued throughout the 1920s and he discusses the works of Arthur Morrison, Richard Freeman, Mary Roberts Rinehart. His essay bears striking similarities with Ronald Knox’s 1929 “Decalogue,” a series of rules on detective fiction writing, and also S. S. Van Dine’s 1928 “Twenty Rules for writing detective fiction.” Although Pessoa’s essay started in 1906, he kept writing it throughout his life, so one can’t know if he was familiar or not with these lists. Although he never finished a story, his love for the genre was clear, and he’s a staunch defender of the genre as a game, something I think much of modern crime fiction has lost sight of in favor of being socially relevant or thinking it needs to compete with high art in its own terms.


  1. How interesting to learn about all this. Thanks for writing up the book. In places this is very much of a piece with my idea of Pessoa - that list of types could have been written by Soares.

    Too bad he never finished a story, although that would violate my idea of Pessoa.

    The two Roberto Arlt novels I read frequently mentioned Rocambole. The young narrator of Mad Toy identifies his two heroes and models: Baudelaire and Rocambole.

    1. Tom, hello. It was a pleasure to write this, I have a lot of fun sharing information about books you'll never be able to read ;)

      Roberto Arlt was a great novelist with the rare sensibility to appreciate high and low culture. Or as I've read somewhere, a lowbrow novelist who carved a place for himself amongst the greats. Of course we should be suspicious of this - avand-garde writers have a tendency to put pop on a pedestal, kind of what the surrealists did with Fantômas. A lot of the time, they're just bringing a urinol to the art gallery :)

      I love Rocambole because, being a huge fan of superheroes, he's one of their grand-daddies.

  2. "...he’s a staunch defender of the genre as a game, something I think much of modern crime fiction has lost sight of in favor or being socially relevant or thinking it needs to compete with high art in its own terms." It was worth reading your very excellent review if for no other reason than to arrive at that conclusion.

    1. Seraillon, hi.

      I have nothing against modern crime fiction, but the reasons I read, say, James Ellroy has nothing to do with why I read G.K. Chesterton. I sometimes share Borges' view that too much sex and violence has damaged a genre that was primarily about stimulating the intellect.