The use of historical figures in mystery fiction goes back at least as far as Lillian de la Torre’s 1940s series of stories featuring the 18th century man-of-letters Samuel Johnson—an ante facto Nero Wolfe if ever there was one—and his stalwart biographer, James Boswell. John Dickson Carr made notable use of Edgar Allan Poe in his 1950 tale “The Gentleman from Paris.” The practice really took flight, however, in the wake of Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1974), which paired Sherlock Holmes and Sigmund Freud in a quest to cure the former’s cocaine addiction and stop the world from plunging into war. (You’ll be happy to hear both goals were achieved.)
Meyer’s novel, the literary Helen that launched a thousand pastiches and ignited a new era of Holmesian fandom, sparked land-office business in the fictional use of real-life people. In Solution’s wake everyone from Niccolo Machiavelli to John F. Kennedy has been given a badge or a magnifying glass and embroiled in murderous intrigue.
Writers turn up frequently as detectives; Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, Josephine Tey, and Conan Doyle, among others, have been dragooned into crime-solving. In my own work I’ve used real-life scribes Fred Dannay and Dashiell Hammett in “The Ten-Cent Murder,” a short story that appeared in EQMM several years ago. More recently, the French novelist Marcel Proust appears in two stories for AHMM as well as my novel The Paris Manuscript, which will be published by Perfect Crime Books in April.
Why are writers such popular choices for gumshoe activity?
I attribute it to the deep connection between writing and sleuthing. Both Scrivener and Investigator are obsessed, each in their own way, with means, motive, and opportunity. Both examine – and seek to understand – the less savory parts of the soul. Both hunger for resolution, the satisfactory conclusion of a story or a case. Intuition plays a key role in both activities, as does hard work and that ineffable thing called talent.
The Proust I’ve conjured up elaborates on this matter. When asked how a certain deduction was arrived at, he likens it to how a writer chooses one word over another, and adds:
“It’s a question of inclination and sensibility. My book, for instance. At one point I needed to describe the branches of a hawthorn tree. Odilon drove me to the countryside. He broke off several branches and held them up to the car window. My asthma stopped me from getting out of the car, from rolling down the window to touch the leaves and savor their smell. I had to content myself by feeding upon what I could see. But what I can see is never enough. Asthma has deprived me of the free and unlimited use of my senses. I must augment with imagination what I cannot touch, what I cannot smell, what I cannot taste or feel for fear of that infernal tightening of the lungs. I must extrapolate. I am predisposed to the art of detection by illness . . . I am compelled to seek what is hidden . . . The artist searches for what is hidden in himself and, therefore, what is hidden in others.”
Utilizing Dannay, Hammett, and Proust in works of fiction is a way of paying tribute to them, their achievements, and their worlds. Manhattan and Paris in the earlier part of the twentieth century are seductive sirens whose songs draw me ever closer, ever deeper into their lore. It’s a form of literary time travel that, as the Ink Spots once sang, “will have to do until the real thing comes along.”
Given my interests, drafting Proust into the ranks of crimefighters was a natural development—and a challenge. Could this epitome of High Modernism be turned into a detective? A daunting task, to be sure, but Proust had been transformed into a character in a book long before I gave it a try.
That book is Remembrance of Things Past, Proust’s masterwork, often referred to these days as In Search of Lost Time. I’ll stick with the former title because it’s the one I encountered first, in the Moncrieff/Kilmartin/Enright translation.
“Marcel” is the narrator and central figure in Proust’s multi-volume, million-word novel. The correspondence between the Marcel of the book and Marcel the man who wrote it is not “Marcel” is an only child, whereas Proust had a younger brother; “Marcel” is obsessed with a beautiful young woman named Albertine, but Proust pined for young men, most notably Alfred Agostinelli, a feckless young man who occasionally served as his chauffeur and not-very-effective secretary. Many other differences exist between the author’s life and the book he distilled from it. Remembrance is the record of a sensibility, not an autobiography.
I’ve read Remembrance twice over the years and, if I live long enough, may read it again. I’ve also perused countless biographies and studies that inform various speculations and conclusions of mine about Proust included in the stories and novel. I make no claim to be a literary critic but I am a passionate reader, a Proustian proselytizer, ready to grab your lapels and tell you exactly why you should read Remembrance.
“The All-England Summarize Proust Competition,” a classic Monty Python sketch, gets great comic mileage out of attempts to condense the thousands of pages of Proust into a handful of sentences. The French literary critic Gérard Genette actually did the job in three words: “Marcel devient écrivain (Marcel becomes a writer).” That’s the heart of Proust’s sprawling, encyclopedic book.
How and why he might have become a detective is the heart of mine.