Crime & Mystery
The Mysterious Popularity of the Arcane
J. MADISON DAVIS
Arcane knowledge has always been a part of mystery and suspense writing. The salient bit can be as exotic as Sherlock Holmes’s description of the toes of the Andaman islander or as simple as Encyclopedia Brown’s recognition that a coin minted before Christ would never have “b.c.” on it, but it is usually some detail the sleuth recognizes that leads to the only logical explanation for the crime or the identity of the criminal. The Detection Club, a group of such eminent British mystery writers as Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, and A. A. Milne (yes, he was a mystery writer, too), swore in their tongue-in-cheek initiation oath never to conceal a vital clue from the reader. The reader then has the pleasure of participating in the investigation, one of the main things that has kept the mystery vital as a genre. In what is often said to be the first mystery tale, Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” all the odd clues are exposed: the red hair in the victim’s hand, the body stuffed up a chimney, and the strange shouting in a foreign language. They are all odd enough that few readers put them together and shout “Orangutan!” Nevertheless, seeing how all those jigsawed pieces fit together is as pleasurable as a neat geometric proof.
Scientifically verifiable fact is the linchpin of the traditional mystery. As Sherlock Holmes observes, detectives are helpless in the realm of the supernatural. If murderers could escape by dissolving through walls or stab a victim by psychokinesis, there would be no way to rationally deduce a solution. Furthermore, there is also no fun in the deduction if the facts lead to a too obvious conclusion. Most real crime is banal because the facts are obvious. Jack and Jill fight in a bar. Jack is found an hour later with a cracked cranium, and Jill’s tire iron is sticky with blood. There’s not much whodunit to that. For an author to maintain the mystery in her mystery, there must be some concealment within the facts, and this frequently is based on arcane knowledge, something the reader might congratulate himself for noticing. How delighted I was as a preteen to catch the solution in “The Five Orange Pips” before Holmes explained it to Watson! I recognized that “KKK” were not the initials of a man but of an organization. It made me feel very bright, but, then, neither Holmes nor Watson had the advantage of growing up in the American South.
Many mysteries are filled with extraordinary nonsense as “fact.” Holmes supposedly could distinguish between various types of tobacco ash, which is pretty much impossible. The Holmes story “The Speckled Band” is one of the best mystery stories, yet the facts are almost all wrong. A snake cannot hear and, therefore, cannot be trained to respond to the sound of a flute—snake charming is an illusion. Snakes cannot climb silken cords, and they don’t drink milk. It is only the authority of Holmes that makes us accept all these things as facts and suspend disbelief.
Most traditional stories depend on one or two arcane points to unlock the mystery, but recently a subgenre has developed that is dense with arcana. The investigator in these novels plods through a forest of obscure facts to reach a solution. No reader could be expected to know these things without having special expertise or doing extensive research. The arcana is so particular that often the main investigator is a solitary expert genius. Police and ordinary mortals are helpless when confronted with the esoteric fineness of the facts, but the investigator is like one of the Native scouts in a western: a broken twig tells them who passed this way, and when, and how quickly, and how many guns he is carrying. Consider the current popularity of television shows based on forensic science. In the United States, the CSI franchise goes far beyond the usual fingerprints, fibers, and bloodstains of ordinary police work. In reality, it is rare that a criminal investigation would ever be carried out to such lengths. The New York Times had actual crime-scene experts watch an episode of CSI: New York. They enjoyed it but laughed at much of it. Prosecutors have complained recently that juries, used to these shows, want to see obscure analyses and complex tests introduced into evidence, or they begin to doubt the merits of the charges. It isn’t that jurors understand much about mitochondrial DNA or blood proteins or chromatographs. They just think it is part of the “show.”
The 600-pound gorilla of popular novels in recent years is Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, a best-seller for longer than most novels are in print. It opens like an ordinary mystery or thriller, with a murder. But as he dies, the victim poses himself to send a message about who is responsible. This is not an unusual plot device, either. Fictional detectives are often interpreting the scrawl of the dying. This time, however, the clue, referring to Leonardo’s drawing of Vitruvian man, can only be understood by a particular scholar, who leads us from arcane fact to arcane fact until a worldwide conspiracy is exposed. Before the actual story begins, Brown’s book has a page labeled “Fact.” The first claims that the Priory of Sion is a genuine secret organization founded in 1099, verified by documents found in the French national library in 1975. Brown does not mention that, unfortunately, these documents were the work of a nutty conman named Henri Plantard, who was trying to establish himself as the heir of the Merovingian dynasty. Plantard and some confederates founded the Priory of Sion and created the documents. Nevertheless, the priory becomes the basis for entertaining hooey for millions of readers when Brown’s arcana leads to the Holy Grail, Leonardo, and everything but the pope’s kitchen sink.
It is difficult to think of a forefather for the mystery of the arcane other than Umberto Eco, in particular with Il nome della rosa (1980; Eng. The Name of the Rose , 1983). It seems to have tapped a hidden yen for the arcane, becoming a best-seller in the United States in 1983 and making the author a cult figure when no one, not even the publisher or Professor Eco himself, expected it. Only thirty thousand copies were initially printed, but over nine million have been sold. Readers wallowed in the minutiae of late-medieval life in a way that was baffling to the moguls of popular culture. Partly, the book might have partaken of the “most bought, little read” phenomenon in which particular books become “hip” and many people buy them, not to read, but to display on their coffee tables. On the other hand, readers often like to feel they are “learning something” with a novel, rather than merely entertaining themselves. Surely, The Name of the Rose fed this hunger and was based on Eco’s deep knowledge of the period.
Many historicals and novels of the arcane are—like the “facts” in the Holmes stories or The Da Vinci Code—junk food, creating the semblance of erudition without the nutrition. The popularity of The Name of the Rose, however, is also based upon arranging the arcana along the buffet line of a murder plot. Though Eco deemphasized this mystery aspect, it was reemphasized in the motion picture of 1986. Many commentators argued that this distorted the essence of the book, made it Moby Dick without whaling. However, without the mystery element, many casual readers would have abandoned the novel. Among these readers, The Name of the Rose might also have built on the popularity of Ellis Peters’s Brother Cadfael series, which began in 1977. These were much more conventional mysteries, set in the monastic world, and raise a recurring question brought up by many historical mysteries. Does it make sense that anyone outside of the modern period would think in the scientific manner required by the mystery story?
If The Name of the Rose was thought by publishers to be a singular phenomenon, they soon changed their minds. Now novels of the arcane with mystery elements appear regularly, as the following examples demonstrate.
The Historian (2005), by Elizabeth Kostova, has persisted on best-seller lists by combining a global search through Transylvanian lore with the king of the undead, Dracula.
Codex (2004), by Lev Grossman, combines old and new in the mystery of a fourteenth-century manuscript and a computer game that obsesses its hero.
The Rule of Four (2004), by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason, is a bit unusual in having co-authors credited. Perhaps they were both needed: this novel out-complexes most in the genre as a Princeton student attempts to decipher the Hypnerotomachia Poliphii, an erotic Renaissance text, for his senior thesis. Yes, there’s murder as well.
The Geographer’s Library (2005), by Jon Fasman, begins with a professor’s murder, and reporter Paul Tomm is soon on the trail of whoever is reassembling the library of al-Idrisi, a twelfth-century geographer.
Bibliophilia is a frequent theme of arcane novels as well as art history. Ross King’s Ex Libris (1998), set in London in the 1660s, concerns the struggle for a centuries-old manuscript. Inspiring many comparisons to Eco’s work, Iain Pears’s novel An Instance of the Fingerpost (1998) is also set in the 1660s, combining multiple points of view with rich historical detailing.
The arcane is also popular internationally. Two Spanish-language authors have recently gained much acclaim. The Flanders Panel (1990), by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, has a main character attempting to solve a 500-year-old murder. The Club Dumas (1993), which was made into the Johnny Depp film The Ninth Gate (1999), is set in the world of book collecting and revolves around a manuscript of The Three Musketeers. Among the best Spanish-language authors hitching a ride on Pérez-Reverte’s success is Carlos Ruiz Záfon, whose The Shadow of the Wind (2001) moves through the rare-book subculture of Barcelona. One widely read author in Europe should also be mentioned. Peter Berling, a German living in Rome, writes such hefty novels set in the Middle Ages as Die Kinder des Gral (1991; Children of the grail), Das Blut der Könige (1993; The blood of kings), and Das Kreuz der Kinder (2003; The children’s crusade). His few novels translated into English have devoted fans, and it is surprising they are not more well known. Berling came to writing from the film business and appears as an actor in Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, and, appropriately enough, he played Jean d’Anneaux in The Name of the Rose.
University of Oklahoma
J. Madison Davis is the author of several crime novels and nonfiction books, including The Van Gogh Conspiracy, published last September, as well as Conspiracy and the Freemasons: How the Secret Society and Their Enemies Shaped the Modern World, due out this month. He was recently elected regional vice president of the North American branch of the International Association of Crime Writers and teaches novel and film-script writing in the Professional Writing Program of the Gaylord College of Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of Oklahoma.
“From the May-June 2006 issue of World Literature Today (80:3), pages 28-30. Copyright 2006 World Literature Today.”