Dear Associates,

I am the literary critical detective.

In my work I examine the mise en scene of classic detective stories carefully, paying attention to the smallest metaphorical detail, sifting through the facts and then distorting them according to my whim.
My friends have been kind enough to express some interest in my observations and so to this end I am making this journal available. I hope that you might also find it of some interest.

The Literary Critical Detective.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

The Colour and Consistency of Amber

It is too dark in here. The light that my brass lantern causes to seep across the desk seems to have the colour and consistency of amber. I cannot turn it up any brighter so I have just lit a number of tall candles. However, the wicks are already starting to burn low and the flames are guttering and flickering. The dark shadows next to the bookcases seem to be growing deeper and denser with each passing minute. They are pulling things into obscurity even as I write. I cannot see the corners of my room anymore.

It is not light enough to read with any care or precision. Françoise has already chastised me for attempting to work in this gloom. ‘It will only damage your eyes. You have to wear those glasses as it is because of all that close work you do. I wouldn’t work in this light.’ Of course, she doesn’t realise the obligation that these texts have placed me under this evening. How could she? I am only just beginning to realise it myself. And in any case, I am starting to believe that this darkness could bring with it some enlightenment. Maybe by losing my bearings, by being unable to see the critical and theoretical signposts, I will happen across a new path to meaning. Maybe.

A draught has just blown in through the sash of my study window. For a moment it seemed as though it had brought some of the night sky in with it. Actually, I can see that it just blew out one of the candles.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Reading Trajectories

My reading is usually fairly wide ranging – both by necessity and by choice. This attitude has not made for a very coherent bookshelf but it has helped me immensely in my work as a literary critical detective.

However, over the last few weeks a certain pattern seems to have emerged from the vagaries of my choices.

The last few texts I have read are:

1.     Alexandre Dumas fils, La Dame aux camellias
2.     Alphonse Daudet, Letters from my Windmill
3. Anatole France, Crainquebille, Putois, Riquet and Other Profitable Tales
4.      Anatole France, The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard
5.      Cara Black, Murder in the Marais.

The next book I will be reading will be Jean-Paul Sartre’s classic, Nausea.

I drew up this reading record last night for my own benefit. When I did so it occurred to me that all these volumes have one thing in common. And that one thing, or place, is Paris.

I will limit myself to just two comments about this fact.

Firstly, let me say that I hadn’t really intended to read two books by Anatole France at all. I bought one in a small shop in Oxford, the other on an antique stall in Yorkshire. Strangely enough, they each cost the same amount – £4. They were also in a similarly poor condition: their spines were ripped and their pages slightly damp to the touch.

 They are just the kind of volumes that Françoise chastises me for buying. ‘But why,’ she says, ‘do you insist on filling your study with these musty old books when you could buy pristine new copies of the same texts.’ She is right as always. I am sure that I could have bought modern critical editions of these works.

My interest in old Anatole really only lies in his complicated and somewhat patronising relationship to Proust – he wrote the ‘Preface’ for the younger man’s Pleasures and Days. France’s style is easy going and at times quite lyrical (at least in these translations) but is nothing compared to that of his one time acolyte. It lacks the insight, precision and even the directness of Proust.

The second thing I would wish to say about this unlooked for connection is that my own writing has caused me to think about Paris. So perhaps the coincidence is really no coincidence at all.

Now, however, my focus has shifted. Another text lies in front of me – and it is one that is set in a different city in a different country. St Petersburg. (I am looking at the small globe in my study as I write these words. Leaning the candle towards its surface I can see the dot that represents the city).

The text is Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment. This is a text that has, in a sense, always been there ahead of me. It is now almost time to confront it.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

In the Clearing: a space to think and write.

I have finally managed to create a kind of clearing in my study. I will now be able to look around me and get my philosophical bearings.

I thought I had understood the literary materials I had been working on. I had made perfect kinds of non-sense of them. The case was almost closed. It soon sprung open again. The more I thought, the more I had to read. And the more I read, the more I needed to read. And the more I needed to think and write.

The mystery novels were soon buried under a mass of other materials. Texts piled up on texts. I pushed  various objects to the back of my desk. The photos of Proust and the old Broadwood piano were shoved away. One old postcard fell down the back of a bookcase. I did not retrieve it.

There, on the floor, were copies of works by Plato and Aristotle, arranged in piles. To my right, all the documents relating to one of my previous projects had spilled out of a folder and had not been replaced. Sheets of lined paper covered in faded, hand-written notes; copies of paintings; music; manuscript paper; the letters of some great author.

Now, though, I have got everything in something like an order.

Françoise is very happy with this change. She attributes this miraculous event to her own influence, her own pervasive sense of propriety. When she came into my study a few moments ago she almost fell over herself with surprise. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘it’s about time. I told myself you needed to have a good sort out. How could you ever have expected to get any work done with all that paper sitting around?’ I told her that I was a critic, a detective-critic, and that all these documents were essential to my thinking. Her face lit up with a smile that told me that she felt nothing if not sorry for me. ‘You call yourself a writer,’ she continued, her tone one of supreme condescension, ‘and yet you never write. You tell me that you are reading and yet you never read. All you ever seem to do, so far as I can see, is take books off the shelves – books that I will only have to put back.’ These were, I admit, hard words to hear – hard because true. Françoise sees through me.

I’m sitting in the clearing I have created for myself. I am calm.

The philosopher Heidegger speaks of standing in the clearing – a space in which Being is revealed. My clearing is not that kind of clearing. It is just a space in which to write.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

The Notebooks of Fictional Detectives

I have become increasingly interested in the notebooks of fictional detectives.

Chief Detective-Inspector Alleyn, the central character in Ngaio Marsh’s mystery novels, is always writing in his. And then there is Columbo, who makes scribbled notes whenever he can remember which pocket his book is in, and whenever he has a pencil.

How I would love to pour over these hasty memorandums, these jotted references to times and dates, names, lists of clothing and motives.

Of course, in one sense I have been reading these notebooks – they are the classic murder mystery itself, en abyme. The whole of the plot is worked out between their covers.

As a literary critical detective I am a compulsive keeper of notes. As regular readers of this blog will know, I have been given two splendid books especially for use in my critical investigations (see the post for 12th January 2011 below). They are on my desk now, next to my mug of tea and a Ngaio Marsh omnibus.

I record odd metaphors, flashes of creative-critical insight and echoes between texts and contexts.

And this blog is itself a kind of notebook.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011


I am in a fevered state of intellectual activity. My mind is beset by a series of critical, literary and philosophical problems. I find that even the piano keyboard cannot now calm my nerves.

The clues are scattered all about me, here in my study. It is just that I cannot yet see how all the ideas fit together. When I know that, the case will be closed and all that will remain will be for me to write up my findings.

Below is a list of some of the clues I am busy analysing.

1. Sherlock Holmes’ plunge over the falls of Reichenbach in ‘The Final Problem’
2. Franz Liszt’s trip to the Swiss valley of Chamonix in the summer of 1836, on which vacation he was accompanied by Countess Marie d’Agoult, George Sand and her family and Major Adolphe Pictet.
3. The name ‘Mr Fellows’.
4. The concept of the empty house.
5. The figure of Hamlet on the castle walls.
6. The train journey from London to Canterbury.
7. The difference between the abstract and the concrete.

Some of these clues might turn out not to be clues at all; the sole purpose of others might be to lead the critic astray. This is something that I will have to contend with as I pursue my investigation. And of course, there remains the possibility that amongst these fragments of ideas there lies the one thought that will unlock the whole case.

I shall continue to think.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

The Road to Whitby. The Road to Sherlock’s.

The road dropped away beneath us. About two hundred yards ahead it turned sharply to the right and vanished behind a mass of green. I confess I was anxious that we might not make it to our destination, that our little carriage might not survive the journey. I enjoy conducting research in the field but being thrown bodily onto the moors would not have been ideal.

I had escaped the claustrophobia of my study once more, perchance to read, to think and detect. I was on the hunt for clues and found them in abundance. My travelling companion and I were heading for the sea.

In York, the gothic Minster throws long shadows.

To my delight, there are great, musty stores of texts hidden in these patches of gloom, shops where you can find yellowing volumes whose stitched spines are coming unpicked. As I rummaged through the shelves a pattern of correspondence seemed to emerge. I bought a copy of the letters of Felix Mendelssohn and, most crucially of all, texts on Liszt. The green covers of old murder mysteries spoke out but were in no condition to be handled. They lay as dead on the shop tables as the bodies they describe slumped at the bottom of staircases. Their backs were broken.

From York we struck out into the wilderness, braving uneven road surfaces and uncertain conditions. We remained undeterred, however, and eventually came to rest in a strange hall of mirrors, a room of kitsch reflection and cultural detritus that stirred the imagination.

And then, finally, we arrived in Whitby. I stood on the East Terrace and looked across to the ruined Abbey, much as Mina Harker does in Dracula. I effected the literary pose. However, there were no eyes piercing the night, no ‘brooding presences’, no entranced women in white.

We, too, examined those gravestones, worn by the weather to look like melted stone. We too sat on Lucy’s favourite seat and looked at the harbour as the storm clouds passed out at sea. The gulls carved ever-widening gyres in the sky.

Whilst in Whitby, whilst living inside its literature, we took tea, my companion and I, in Sherlock’s Coffee Shop. Here, a violin was suspended from the right hand wall. A shelf was covered in medical bottles and jars. A deerstalker hung on a coat peg. And the cake...

Even though the literary critical detective, like the literary detective himself, can exist on little rest and even less food, cake never hurts. And here, in Sherlock’s, I had my fill.

That night I slept with the curtains open so as to be able to see the abbey.

We have returned. I am back at my writing desk and find myself dreaming of gravestones. My thoughts are rolling like thunderclouds and here in this room lit by a solitary candle. I might just experience the lightening strike of a critical idea.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

The Literary Critical Detective En Plein Air.

The time I have spent in these same old spaces has lead me to keep thinking the same old thoughts.

My ongoing case presents peculiar challenges that I will not be able to overcome with these worn out ideas. I must admit that even my most radical readings will not serve in this instance.

I knew I had to change something. I knew that, despite the fact that there is no place that I would normally rather be than in my study, where the still air is filled with the smell of those books accumulated over long years, the burning wick of my candle and warm sealing wax, I would have to leave my comfortable environment.

So this morning I packed up my notes, my books, my stationary and my hat and left these cluttered streets behind. I adopted the Romantic pose and headed out into the country. I became the literary critical detective en plein air.

After walking for an hour across fields I eventually reached an old country monument, a stately reminder of time lost. Here, with my back to a stone post, I sat down and re-arranged my notes in front of me. I looked for the meanings. And as the shadows of clouds drifted across the parklands I felt the shadows moving and lifting from the ideas in my mind. New concepts, new solutions drifted into my own sky. I scribbled these down furiously, occasionally consulting the texts at my feet.

After two hours I became aware that the monument behind me had a door on its front. The thought of this closed portal stopped me dead, I had to put my pen down. The sudden realisation of this locked door struck me as being greatly portentous. It became significant; it seemed to suggest something to me, something that may have a bearing on the case at hand.

Now I have returned home to make sense of all this, if there is sense to be found. Françoise has brought me my evening meal, which I have barely touched, and my wine, which I have nearly finished. I must work.

Comments can be left here or sent to my special postal address.

Friday, 27 May 2011

A Kind of Dream Work

In my fever of literary detection, in the moment of inspiration, I have become the complete opposite of that woeful man on Margate Sands.

Here and now, this instant and in this room, the clues are mounting up. Signs move over one another and things that are usually distant are starting to overlap. Texts are linking to texts.

And isn’t this something like dreaming, or maybe even hysteria? Freud said something about this somewhere, about the connectedness of things in the dream work. I must remain alive to the possibility that my work as the world’s only consulting literary detective is really a kind of dream work.

There’s another clue… I must record it. More to follow.

Friday, 20 May 2011

The Fog of My Stupor

For the literary detective, the most complex problem is what to do in those long hours and days between cases.

Holmes, that supposedly great thinker, turns to the needle and the bow. In so doing he transforms himself from a man of decisive action into a man of utter inaction. He is to be seen slumped on the sofa, unconscious to the world or, alternatively, to be heard sawing away on his violin.

When that Herculean detective, M. Hercule Poirot, retires he moves to a small house in King’s Abbot, complete with its flower beds and vegetable plot. The marrows, we know, cause him such distress that they are sent over the fence into the garden of that most dangerous of neighbours, Dr Sheppard.

As for myself, the literary critical detective, I have spent my time between cases looking back at myself, reflecting on my own life and ambitions. I have reconsidered the thought processes in which I once set so much store. In so doing I have never been too far away from the literary. I have, on certain evenings, played the role of my own chronicler. I have become my own Hastings, my own Watson, and have sought to turn my own life into a fiction. Pen and paper in hand, I have scribbled myself into a different existence, a dreamy half-life of words and memories. These short exercises in distraction have, to my great delight, found favour amongst my associates. Both Thistleton and Bowler have been kind enough to say a few words of encouragement.

But now my mental energies are returning once again. The fog of my stupor is lifting. There is a new case, one that requires me to be at my sharpest. It is also one for which my literary-autobiographical efforts will have been a kind of apprenticeship. For if I am now to discover the solution to the mystery, or at least a solution to the mystery, I will have to turn to fiction. I will have to adopt a new form of discourse, one that is at once critical and poetic.

And so I shall draw the curtains, light the candles on my desk and shut the door. I shall sharpen my pencil, pick up my notebook and turn to the first blank page. And I shall begin the work.

Monday, 21 February 2011

The Literary Critical Detective receives a missive

I received a letter addressed simply to ‘The Literary Critical detective’ c/o Françoise. I came downstairs from my study to find it half wedged through the letterbox of my front door. Françoise herself was out, and although I could have simply opened it there and then my sense of correctness meant that I waited until her return.

The address had been typed out onto a separate sheet of paper and then stuck on to the envelope. As such it allowed me no clue as to the identity of my mysterious correspondent. Interestingly, it was also incorrect, or rather incomplete, which suggested that whilst the writer had taken pains to obscure their identity, they were nevertheless still a little careless in their work

When, some hours later, Françoise finally returned I pressed her to open the letter. Immediately sensing my urgency she took great delight in fussing over her things. ‘It won’t do for me to simply drop my bags when I walk in through the door. How am I supposed to  get my work done when I’m expected to just stop like this? Am I not even allowed to take my coat and shoes off, after I’ve been out all day fetching things for you? And let me put my shopping away first. Tut.’ This last was just to annoy me, it being a game she played to frustrate me when I was at my most fervent, and to impose her own will on any situation. ‘Let me have a look then.’

She opened the envelope, pulled out the one sheet of paper and cast her eye over it a little suspiciously; then when the suspicion had worn off, with a look of concentrated confusion; and then, finally, with a yawn of boredom. She tossed it away, so that I had to retrieve it from the far side of the desk at which she had placed herself. ‘It is from Thistleton,’ she said, her tone letting me know precisely what she thought of that.

Indeed it was from Thistleton, that great scholar, a fact that will account for the inattention to the address – he was in a sense, only sending something out for it to come back. I have not seen this man for some time past, despite his protestations that we should be great associates. So this letter came as something of a surprise. In it, he apologises for not writing sooner, accounting for his silence by the need to find some suitable response to my previous works.

He proceeds to warn me in his own particular way, quoting those lines from the Aeneid: ‘The descent to Avernos is easy … but to retrace your steps and escape back to the upper air, this is the task, this is the difficulty’. Thistleton reminds me to be mindful of this in my work as the world’s only consulting Literary Critical Detective, and mentions to me the figure of Daedalus.

I am, indeed, beset by difficulties, and by tasks that lie at hand. However, I will be always mindful of these words.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Work In The Field

I am out working in the field again. This is something at which I have always excelled. In a former life I even won an award for it. Of course, my field now is very different. Where, once, I stood on a rainy hillside on the Isle of Arran, auger in hand, I am now working in studies and libraries, unearthing new kinds of sense and non-sense in literature, remarking upon textual auguries of great significance.

I am now better equipped to work in this rough critical terrain. I have my leather bag. I have also now received my new study books. The first of these is a small green pocketbook, to be used for making brief notes and recording ideas as they come to me. For the literary critical detective as much as the fictional detective, there are great flashes of insight, moments when things fall together, when the little grey cells set to work. I will now be sure of saving those moments, confident in the preservation of my vision.

My second book is a larger decorated volume that I intend to use as my case book. Here, bound together in one space, I will be able to make my notes; I will be able to plot the connections and connect the plots; I will be able to order and disorder my thinking. Such a superbly crafted item is a treasure, and one that shall not leave my desk.

Finally, I have received my splendid new business cards. When I call on an associate only to find him or her not in I will now be able to leave one of these at the door. I will also include them in those missives that I send out to my colleagues.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

The Literary Critical Detective receives a package

I sat in my study and looked about me. My books, ever present, covered the walls. In front of me my desk was crowded with notes, half-recorded thoughts and musings. An empty cup lay abandoned on the side.

It occurred to me in that moment that if I was to be successful as the world’s first and only consulting literary critical detective then I would need some new equipment. I duly set about ordering this. I am pleased to announce that my first parcel arrived this morning.

It was wrapped carefully in brown paper and had been stamped with the name of the store it had come from on the reverse. Inside was a beautifully hand-crafted leather bag, designed and made by Mr W Blaikie of Bespoke Leather in Somerset. I had seen this bag in his shop window and guessed that it would perfectly suit my purpose. Seeing it again this morning, in my room, I did not doubt that it would serve me well through the coming years. I cannot recommend the work of this master craftsman highly enough.

My new neighbours have already begun to comment on this new possession. Mr Davenport was suitably impressed, although I suspect that he was thinking more of the image of professionalism and income that it conveyed than any practical benefit it might have for my work. Mr Thistleton, a more Romantic soul, remarked that it improved my silhouette and that it threatened to transform me into a character from a fin-de-siècle short story. I took this as a compliment.

Monday, 3 January 2011

The world’s first and only consulting literary critical detective

My meeting with that great philosopher and theologian Mr Benjamin Thistleton has forced me to re-evaluate my entire project. I have explained the reasons behind this in my account of our developing friendship and  association: ‘The Literary Critical Detective Meets an Associate’. I would direct you to that text for a full explanation.

However, allow me to publicly announce my important decision here. I am, as you will know, the first literary critical detective. I would now like to declare myself the world’s first and only consulting literary critical detective. I am now taking on cases brought to me by others.

So, if you know of a particular classic literary detective case that you would like me to examine then please contact me. I will start a discussion thread on the Facebook group page ‘The Literary Critical Detective’. Please leave your requests there. Alternatively, post a comment on this journal or write to me at my postal address:

I cannot promise to take on your case. As Holmes disregarded seemingly important cases for those that merely interested him, so too I will only re-investigate and criticise those literary cases that I think might produce imaginative results. I cannot prescribe my approach or my findings; nor can I make any grand claims that I will ‘solve’ anything. I will certainly not set out to answer any specific questions. Whilst my readings will certainly be wrong-headed they will also be inspired. If I do take on your case you can trust to the fact that I will commit all my energies to it; I will not rest until it is done. You can also rely upon my depth of reading. Should I need any help my growing network of associates will be able to supply me with texts and knowledge.

Some important points to bear in mind. I will only take on ‘classic’ literary detective cases. This means Doyle, Christie, Marsh and, at a stretch, Chandler, but nothing past this. If you have any questions, please contact me through the usual channels. Also, the findings of my research, my written accounts and all related original documentation will remain my property.

If you decide to visit me in person with your case, please inform Françoise of the reason for your visit and hand her your card. Should I be playing the piano when you call I will not admit you.

Until then I remain

Your loyal author,

Dr James Holden
(Consulting Literary Critical Detective)