Classic detective fiction has long used the murder victim as the silent partner of both criminal and detective. It could hardly be otherwise, as the body of the murder victim is the presence that sparks the absence of a third party – the killer. The body is the killer’s calling card, an invitation to the detective to put the powers of detection in motion. However disgustingly dismembered the body of the victim, the corpse acts as a type of elegantly opened door in which narrative symmetry is ushered in and from which resolution and reconstitution will follow. The corpse talks in codes and signs and, before long, the next body finds its ways into the jigsaw which awaits the pleasure of reader and detective alike. The final confrontation of detective and culprit is, in its way, an act of propitiation to the dead. The dead exist in three ways: murder victim, corpse, dead person and all are slightly different in resonance. Moreover all characters in detective fiction exist as potential victims as well as potential killers.
Out in detective land there are whole villages and estates of the walking dead – in Midsomer land over sixty have been slaughtered to date, in Morse’s land of dreaming spires, Jericho gives up its dead and in the recent Glasgow thriller The Cutting Room (2002) by Louise Welsh, a whole chapter is called, ‘In the Shadow of the Necropolis’. The characteristic determinant of a victim is that they are, so to speak, ‘In the Shadow of the Necropolis’, already dead, a mere fictional preparation for the poison, axe, knife or ligature that will end their talking part. In the recent Prime Suspect V1, (ITV: 2003), the illegal immigrants are already ‘ghosts’ as one DI notes. These characters, although they do not know it and although the reader may only suspect, are already the living dead, whose actual life will only begin when the knife enters their back in the locked room of No Hope Villas. Their death will provide the abyss into which and from which the semilogical semaphore will write the fragments of a story. Unlike the living whose inner life is unknowable, the dead exteriorise their pain in blood, hair and fingerprints and together these tell a narrative of pre-ordained events in which the first inevitable and fatal meeting leads to another where restitution awaits. This talk is less a history than a parable in which the dead are finally laid to rest. Indeed, in Dorothy L. Sayers’s The Nine Tailors (1934) the final tolling of the bell (the ‘killer’ itself) is actually in a church and the first televised Midsomer Murder was ironically called Judgement Day.
The body of the victim may be an absence but it is also a location. A whole geography maps itself onto the body and its ever increasing circle of space. Thus in A Study in Scarlet (1887),Watson watches Sherlock Holmes, dash ‘backward and forward’ like a ‘well trained foxhound’, trotting ‘noiselessly about the room’ of death measuring ‘with the most care the distance between marks’ and ‘applying his tape to the walls’. The body is not merely a map of physical functions but also cartography of the city or countryside it is located within. The dead, their fellow victims and murderers do not float in space but inhabit the materiality of country houses with libraries and French doors, French chateaux overlooking golf courses, seedy provincial towns like Frost’s Denton, the entire shires of Midsomer awaiting Barnaby and Troy, Morse’s Oxford where death is located in places that have ‘escaped the vandals who sit on the City’s planning committees’ or Welsh’s seedy, dismal and Glaswegian gothic West Nile Street with its ‘blocked drains and steaming gutters’ or Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh where ‘underneath the City Chambers there are whole streets of the whole city’. The corpse may be going nowhere except the morgue, the autopsy room and the grave but its miraculous and sudden appearance – so expected yet so surprising – sets all else in motion: ‘You may take him to the mortuary now’ intones Holmes before dashing off on an adventure that will take the reader from Brixton to ‘the arid and repulsive dessert’ at the heart of the United States, ‘from the Sierra Nevada to Nebraska’ and from the ‘Yellowstone River to the Colorado’. A home full of a secret library of erotic books takes Louise Welsh’s amateur sleuth Rilke from the Gorbals to Paris; Jane Tennison counts dead Yugoslavs in London on her way to Bosnia.
The corpse is a siren calling seductively to the detective to make a holiday with the dead. In lonely villages in East Anglia, on trains to the Orient, boats on the Nile on darkest Dartmoor’s Grimpen Mire and amid Oxford’s spires (where Chapter One of the Dead of Jericho begins ‘Oxford’s main tourist attraction’), the detective is always our guide to the tourism of death: when Antony Gillingham turns up in A A Milne’s classic detective tale. The Red House Mystery (1922) he is on holiday. Murder provides a holiday and holidays mean leisure as the film Gosford Park nostalgically pointed out in its pastiche of Agatha Christie.
Even working policemen are on holiday when murder calls for, as Poirot points out in Murder on the Links (1923) says ‘here is something distinctly out of the ordinary’. When murder calls, Frost and Morse can display their maverick refusal to conform to rules and regulations, their ‘order’ and ‘method’ (to quote Hastings on Poirot) are constellated around places made weird by death, new alien spaces amidst the normalcy of routines never clearly stated and always grumbled against. Dead bodies require the return to amateurism, corpses cannot be appeased by professional who follow the book, everything becomes ‘incredible’ as Rebus says, ‘you could walk over a reality without … encroaching on it’.
A.A. Milne tells us,
‘For the detective himself I demand first that he be an amateur. In real life, no doubt, the best detectives are the professional police, but then in real life the best criminals are professional criminals. In the best detective stories the villain is an amateur, one of ourselves; we rub shoulders with him in the murdered man’s drawing-room; and no dossier nor code-index nor finger-print system is of avail against him. It is the amateur detective who alone can expose the guilty man, by the light of cool inductive reasoning and the logic of stern remorseless facts. Indeed, this light and this logic is all which I will allow him Away with the scientific detective, the man with the microscope’. 1
And yet … the body has long been a silent witness, forensic evidence oozing out of every wound and orifice. Since its first successful use against the murderer Colin Pitchfork, DNA has now become a staple of such investigation from the mortuary slab. Blood typing was classified by Karl Landsteiner in 1900 (and fantasised by Conan Doyle years before in ‘A Study in Scarlet’), whilst finger printing was first used by William Herschel in 1858 to identify Indian roadworkers). It was Edmund Locard who noticed that ‘every contact leaves a trace’. Yet traces mean nothing unless, connected with clues, they become part of the fine details of puzzles in which logic and connection bring recognition and resolution. The physical anatomisation of the body, once by the murderer, twice by the coroner is little more then a set of conjuring tricks in which pieces of evidence dematerialise into the ritual of deduction. They are only tenuously related to the actual work of pathology, transferring the material procedures carried out by ‘the surgeons of the dead’ and transposing them into the realm of a theology of the body where physical systems become exegetical texts of murderous history: the body retelling the tale of its past abuse.
Through blood, fingerprints, bodily fluids and DNA the identity of an individual is fixed. Individuality is now defined by these particular means of measurement. No longer in the age of fingerprinting can you claim to be a reincarnated ancestor or kill by sympathetic magic. The discovery of uniqueness in individuals (for that is what is amounts to) accompanies the concept given to that uniqueness – individual personality. Personality is the particular combination of action (body) and mentality (mind) that separates each individual from each other. Yet the consequence of this is that the individual is divided into separate and discrete bodily functions each of which is unique in itself. Each individual is therefore divided against themselves by the very parts that make up the totality of personality. Each part in forensic medicine is culpable.
The relationship of personality to life in this paradigm is that they function as synonyms for each other. Curiously both life as personality and personality as life always function in their own absence, for the culprit has left the scene and the body of the victim is already cold. Personality is always acknowledged by its absence and situated in what it has deposited by the way of prints, blood or fibres. Moreover, this tiny collection of personal memorabilia will offer the pathologist the only route he or she will have in reconstructing the personalities and events that preceded their own appearance on the scene. A classic example is offered by the work of Sir Berhard Spilsbury. In May 1911 a man was found dead in strange circumstances.
Always interested in the human brain and its thought-processes, what he saw at the mortuary took him to the scene of the tragedy, of which he made a close examination. A man named Surgey, employed by an insurance company, had cut his own throat in the street, dying soon after of air-embolism caused by the wound. The weapon was a new pocket-knife, he had closed it, and replaced it in his right jacket pocket. He was gripping a blood-stained handkerchief in his right hand. Beside him lay a copy of a weekly paper. The exterior jugular vein was completely severed. Yet, having realized with horror an instant after what he had done, the dying man walked nearly a hundred yards before he collapsed. Spilsbury paced them, and his quite masterly deductions from this and other features of the case, which he outlined later that year in an address on air-embolism to the St Mary’s Medical Society, were summarized as follows in the Hospital Gazette. ‘Dr Spilsbury showed two cases of cut throat, and clearly demonstrated by his intricate arguments that the mantle of Sherlock Holmes has fallen on his shoulders’. 2
What strikes the reader is that here personality is a matter of character analysis based on action and events not psychological probing of the unconscious. Because forensics is a branch of anatomical medicine it has tended until recent times to ignore psychological investigations. Thus the psychological interest of forensic medical men tended to be based on materialist concerns centred on neurological probing of brain tissues. For morbid pathologists of the early twentieth century the mind was a mechanical function of the brain (a mode of activity, like muscle spasm). Thus, personality was a matter of character defined through action and social intercourse motivated by social demands. In a word, personality was exteriorised and it functioned externally, visually and theatrically. As a mere function of the individual, personality actually exteriorised into social space all the functions of the individual. It did this to show the morbid interior motivational forces that led to crime. Pathologically, personality is therefore a process that has finished and that presents itself as an action that is over. Hence, personality has to be reconstructed as part of the events of the preceding violence. As such, objects and people function as signifiers of a lost history in need of an archaeological reconstruction of arrested actions (Spilsbury’s hobby was archaeology, as was Freud’s and Agatha Christie’s: the appearance of detective fiction coincided with the origins of archeology).
A pathologist deals only in dead matter - blood, semen, fibres, skin. This matter was once alive and it functions to signify a living presence now lost. The exact measurement and quantification of these substances coupled with careful observation and thence classification are the essential elements for a pathologist and his team. Such work is now so specialised that only teams of workers can complete the reconstruction of a crime in its specific details, working closely with the police and courts in the apprehension and conviction of a criminal.
The pathologist Francis Camps (who liked to think of himself as Maigret) was one of the first to create a ‘team’ of experts in death.
From 1953 onwards, while still a lecturer, Camps’ ‘team’, as he was fond of calling his staff, numbered more than twenty people, including five pathologists, two chemists, two serologists dealing with blood grouping, salvia and secretion tests a dentist and a photographer. 3
All such experts deal in dead matter. To them the body and its arena of activity is always already dead, being defined by its mechanical, anatomical functions. Reconstructions take into account two classic propositions, that of Louis Quetelet, ‘that no two people can be identical’, and the other of Edmund Locard that, ‘any contact leaves a trace’.
Trace and difference. These two propositions are modern. They tell us of our impurity. These are the forensic ‘definitions’ of the ‘individual’. Yet there is an irony. In defining each experience as unique, nevertheless, the forensic method provided evidence that classification only proved that things are always similar. Single events may be unique, but combinations are reproducible and therefore more amenable to investigation. In an age when the criminal attempts to hide his presence as effectively as possible, combination is his greatest enemy, for in every combination is the detailed accusatory voice of presence (a presence which is the product of a past that was left behind in a ‘unique’ way).
All morbid pathology is an act of historical reconstruction. Until long into the nineteenth century, it was believed that influence counted and corpses would react to their killers, determined by sympathy, occult miasmas, the evil eye and hexing – fate was an invisible fluid connecting objects and people. This could involve out-of-time and out-of-space experience. For the modern pathologist, the search for origination is of prime importance but is conducted in material space and time and deduced logically by reference to nature rather than supernature. In both the ancient and modern systems however the need is to trace an originating moment in time and space such that the present exists as a logical consequence (deduced on a sequential basis) of the historical past. In both systems hypothesis and probability lead to logically resulting certainties which lead to convictions.
Nevertheless, the linear trace of biological and personal detritus left by the killer and jumbled together with the dead, still speaks of the sympathetic magic of malevolence whose pervasive miasma kills (in sequence) those whose connection with the original murder victim awaits a final explanation. The corpse still names its killer in fiction if not in life. In Ian Rankin’s Knots and Crosses, the murder victims exist merely as a complex acrostic device in which the name of the actual target is spelled out, the literary symmetry between killer and detective contained in the investigator’s own name, Rebus, a clue to his own solution.
In murder fiction, the dead walk with the living. ‘We are dealing with ghosts’ says the detective in Prime Suspect VI of the underworld of illegal immigrants and in Knots and Crosses Detective Sergeant Rebus must be hypnotically regressed in order to revisit the ghosts of repressed experience. It may be true that, ‘its only the living you have to be scared of, not the dead’ as a revivified Alma Cogan states when confronted with the weird synchronicity of her own life and that of Moors murderer, Myra Hyndley (Gordon Burn, Alma Cogan, 1991), but that misses a question. What do the dead do on their day off, where exactly do they go? What is the horror that awaits? What is their narrative function, acting as they do, as a certain ‘gap’ in the text?
It is usually agreed that detective fiction grew out of Newgate narratives, Blackwood tales and gothic shivers. These, however, are themselves merely symptoms of a fiction of cultural neurosis regarding displacement and naming. Detective fiction is the expression of an ontological crisis in an age of empire, ethnology and class division: A genre whose very nature is both materialist and theological. This is not merely a matter of genre, for although detective fiction may come out (at least potentially) of the gothic both are symptomatic of a concern with the dead as ‘other’ in detection’s case with ‘putting back’ that which was missing in the very nature of explanation. The return of the dead in horror fiction is the corollary of the burial of the dead in detection. In both, the alien nature of the body is brought into focus: in horror as supernatural personality and in detective fiction as consciousness without a body - the persona defused in clues scattered throughout the text, and free floating as signifiers of a lost origin. This origin is full consciousness attached to subjectivity, the job of the detective being to replace such consciousness by relocating it (elsewhere) in the personality of the killer.
Are the dead aware of their status, their objection? Is this what motivates their jealously of the living and their desire to seduce, kidnap or terrorise the unsuspecting who fall into their clutches. Do the dead know they are dead and that they suffer from a gulf which separates them from the living without them ever being aware of it? Don’t the dead think they are the same as the living unable to understand the leap that the living take into the something – nothing of death itself? The question strikes at the heart of debates over consciousness: The debate surrounding the nature of the ‘philosophical zombie’ is the debate over the difference between the dead and the living, the human and the machine, the mind and the materiality of the body, the sentient and the non sentient, self awareness and automatism.
A man wants to commit suicide but does not want to cause his family any grief. He finds out about an elixir he can take which will kill him, i.e. separate his soul from his body, but leave his body intact to wake up, go to work, play with the kids, keep the wife satisfied and bring home the bacon. But before he takes the elixir, a well-intentioned friend sneaks in during the night and injects his suicidal friend with the stuff, thereby killing him, i.e. releasing his soul. The man wakes up and doesn’t know he’s dead (i.e. that he has no soul), so he takes the elixir. He can’t kill himself, since he’s already dead. But he thinks he can kill himself and become a p-zombie. However, he is already a p-zombie. Question: if the p-zombie can’t tell the difference between a real person and a p-zombie, why would we think that we real persons could tell the difference? 4
A philosopher’s zombie ‘is a being that is physically (and hence also functionally) exactly like an ordinary human being, but which has no conscious experiences’. 5 It is a being, which to all intents and purposes acts identically to us but displays no self consciousness remaining ‘all dark inside’ 6 Yet this darkness is itself mere nullity, the ‘nature’ of which is to have no nature, to be merely void, to encompass mere ‘itness’. Freud himself touched upon this ‘problem’ of an inside to consciousness when he named the void das es and it is at the heart of the Descartian conundrum: ‘a body without consciousness which would nevertheless behave like a body with consciousnesses’. 7
The ‘absence of’ ‘conscious states, or qualia’ leads us to see that there is ‘no logical entailment from physical facts to facts about consciousness’. 8 The ‘dead’ pass amongst us unaware that they are dead, believing that they are just like us, indistinguishable except for self consciousness, a quality of which they are bereft. Thus Wittengstein teases,
But just try to keep hold of this idea in the midst of your ordinary intercourse with others, in the street, say! Say to yourself, for example. ‘The children over there are mere automata; all their liveliness is mere automatism’ and you will either find these words becoming quite meaningless, or you will produce in yourself some kind of uncanny feeling or something of the sort. 9
The living may be fooled – for a time, but there is always a tell-tale sign, a missing awareness that creates an atmosphere of terror and recoil, leaving the ‘dead’ isolated, confused, and banished. For the dead have no guilt, no shame, no horror of their condition, no natural disgust at their own state because no self consciousness. It is here that abjection should be located but there is a lack of self disgust in the dead and this is precisely the moment of otherness when you don’t realise your status. If the dead had such self awareness they would recoil from themselves, cease to be zombies (the living dead) and join the living in full self consciousness. The question of self-consciousness is the question of the constitution of the subjective ‘I’, for which the detective in detective fiction stands as perfect exemplar.
Like colonialism itself, detective fiction is a tale of displacement and recovery of a lost origin found only in a reconstituted history. Say to yourself one morning ‘am I dead’. This is precisely what the plantation slave must have said each day: ‘I am dead, or else this ‘life’ becomes intolerable. At the desire of the slave owner, the slave turns into an object – dead inside, compliant as an object. To avoid objectivication black men, women and children became ‘dead’ to survive and thus became the abjected object they tried to avoid. They do not always remain abject. At certain times they represent not less than white power but more. At this moment they say ‘we are just like you; we too are human and have feelings – needs, desires, hopes’. At such a moment the black person declares their self consciousness to themselves and to their oppressors that they too are human. It comes to nothing, for this demand to be recognised represented nothing less than an inexcusable excess – the excessive blackness of ingratitude.
Blackness became a mark of excess as rebellion after rebellion swept the plantations of the Caribbean and Atlantic islands. Thus it was in Haiti where General Desmoulins made blackness an absolute condition of citizenship and of ‘life’ itself. Haiti becomes the excess which whiteness somehow lacks and forever attempts to recover. Haiti – land of zombies and of the impossibility of the colonial project in a geography of otherness.
Whiteness has sometimes come to figure itself through a narrative of disenchantment. To be white in a postcolonial context, for example, can mean that one is in a condition defined in a very particular sense by lack. Whiteness may be taken to indicate that one does not have ethnicity; or at least, that one does not have enough ethnicity. There is a kind ‘postcolonial racism’ which develops out of this scenario of lack, where whites compensate by reading the ethnicity that surrounds them as excessive. 10
This ‘excess’ which confronts the white tourist/anthropologist in Haiti is nothing less than death itself returned as the inexpressible blackness of Africa in the soul of the free black; nothing less than the return of the jungle in voodoo ritual, chicken blood and zombiefication. The Haitian zombie, is of infinite fascination to the Hollywood producer and the Imperial adventure novelist. Using voodoo ritual as an exotic background, the white zombie movies of RKO and Universal evolved into the radiation mutant zombie-B-movies of the Cold War.
The imagination’s undead of the modern world: vampire and zombie. Yet they should not be confused. The vampire possesses an exquisitely painful self awareness, an ego born of romanticism, making war on the conformism of the bourgeoisie just like the romantic artist and the revolutionary terrorist. For such predatory and nocturnal creatures (as well as nineteenth-century dynamiting anarchists) blood is merely the necessary if disgusting prerequisite to ‘life’. It is also a bizarre and perversely delicate intoxicant as Sherlock Holmes ironically quips, ‘a study in Scarlet eh? Why shouldn’t we use a little art jargon? There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life’. Hannibal Lecter pours Chianti for Clarice Starling, brains on the menu for tonight.
Zombie passion has nothing of this vampiric desire. It is merely a blind craving for living human flesh. Once reanimated, zombies seem to retain some knowledge from their past life, although their ‘memory’ cannot be expressed in language nor is it retained in the brain: it is body without consciousness.
Fluid levels within the organism appear to be maintained; otherwise the animated corpse would simply dry up and be unable to function. Yet we never see a zombie drinking water or liquid, except through the consumption of food.
A zombie does not require food for sustenance. A zombie with all its internal organs removed will continue to function. It has not been indicated to what extent the removal/damage of the internal organs will affect the longevity of the reanimated person.
A zombie can also function without the normal flow of blood, since it has been remarked that the heart stops beating. This critical fact means that cells are not supplied with nutrients and fluid in the normal manner. Yet the cell structure seems to remain intact over a period of years. 11
In detective fiction, the victim is in effect the prerequisite for narrative consciousness. The victim is a character whose actions are always predetermined by victimhood and therefore narrative annihilation. Thus the victim is always only of interest because of their meaning for others and hence they are robbed of self consciousness and volition. As a p.zombie, a textual victim is never aware of their ontological status within the narrative. If they were they would run screaming from the page! Moreover the victim’s body determines narrative as an effect of its diffusion of constituent parts (the clues) and acts only as a uniting fluid between killer and cop, where full consciousness can never be restored to its proper possessor, the victim, but must be transferred to the act of killing and the subjectivity of the killer. Detective fiction acts as a ritual of naming: of giving the appropriate nomenclature to its various triangulated characters – victim, killer, detective.
Infected by alien viruses, space probe accidents, meteorite showers, strange comets, laboratory plagues, biological interference, chemical spillages and radioactive clouds drifting across small town USA, zombie brains crave nothing but flesh, animated in their desire in the ‘midst of normal society’ in shopping malls, car lots, drive-ins, Laundromats, snuffling along and shedding flesh in their pursuit of the American dream, now turned into a nightmare. Here too the psychotic cravings of fiction’s serial killers give away the deadness and automatism that stalks living teenage blood and that only FBI rookies or retiring cops can combat. The serial killer too, surrounded by self-imposed rituals, torture rooms and photos of stalked victims is the zombie returned as psychopath, ‘all dark inside’. As Jake Arnott’s journalist character Tony tells us in He Kills Coppers (2001).
Horror is the most infantile feeling of all. … When all stories are dark and sinister.
And may be that’s where it all began for me, right at the beginning. I’d had a traumatic birth. My mother never ceased reminding me [she’d] brought a monster into the world.
Even here perhaps, the writer too is implicated ‘telling all, revealing nothing’ – ‘all dark inside’.
A.A. Milne, Authors introduction, The Red House Mystery (New York: E P Dutton  1965) p. viii
Douglas G. Browne and Tom Tullett, Bernard Spilsbury (London: Grafton, 1987) p. 279
Robert Jackson, Francis Camps (London: Panther, 1975) p.14
Robert Todd Carroll, SkepDic.com p.2
A. Cottrell, ‘Sniffing the Camenbert: On the Conceivability of Zombies’ (Journal of Consciousness Studies 6) p.4
David Chalmers, homepage: www.jamaica.u.arizona.edu/~chalmers/ p.3
Carroll, web page cited
Chalmers, web page cited
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations trans, GEM Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell, 1953) p.126
Ken Gelder, unpublished paper
Chalmers, web page cited