Gothic Guesswork

The Wonder-Worker

by Dan Jacobson
Atlantic-Little, Brown, 191 pp., $5.95

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

by John le Carré
Knopf, 355 pp., $7.95

The Rachel Papers

by Martin Amis
Knopf, 240 pp., $5.95

Lord Richard’s Passion

by Mervyn Jones
Knopf, 368 pp., $7.95

The detective story, like the love story, is a fictional category which no one has any trouble in identifying, and both these categories can be identified among the four British novels which I am reviewing. But it is apparent that detection enters extensively into works which could not be confused with the ordinary detective story. They are something very different, and yet they apply themselves to clues and surmises and surprises. The long and tortuous history of the Gothic novel, with its special interest in magic and madness, and in doubles and Doppelgängers, may be thought to illustrate the proposition. Whether or not a Gothic tale offers, as Jekyll and Hyde does, some of the satisfactions of the detective story, it tends to offer detection. It may be quite like an Agatha Christie, it may be that the double done it: but, one way or another, it is likely to have an element of suspense, delusion, and discovery. This preamble is meant to introduce the suggestion that Dan Jacobson’s latest novel depends upon detection, while not being a detective story, and that it asks to be considered in the light of the Gothic tradition.

That in itself may be a surprise. Jacobson’s earlier fiction, which I greatly admire, was not such as to lead people back to, or persuade them to persist with, an attention to the Gothic modes. Together with his critical writings, it might be thought to inculcate a respect for stories that are straightforwardly told and rationally pondered, and a distrust of those authors, Gothic and otherwise, who believe that fiction should continuously reflect on the manner of its telling and should interrogate and explore the author’s relationship to his subject matter, of those authors who believe in making a mystery or a multiplicity of the consciousness that informs the tale. His earlier works—I am thinking of certain short stories, of the marvelous novella A Dance in the Sun, and of his enjoyable comedy about the ploys of two dealers in a South African mining town, The Price of Diamonds—were, in this sense, unsophisticated.

His last novel but one, however, The Rape of Tamar, brought a change of tune. Here was a work with a Biblical theme and a narrator who used a modern idiom and seemed keenly attentive to the presuppositions of an audience centuries-remote from the events recounted: there appeared to be two levels of experience—that represented by his Biblical persons and that represented by the ironic retrospect which invested them—and the narrator’s complex relationship to his theme appeared to be a main source of interest. It was some time since Mr. Jacobson had left South Africa for London, thereby losing touch with the people and places of his first fictions, and there may be those of his readers who suppose that the change I am discussing was produced by habituation to a new environment, that of the Anglo-American big city, and to the sophistication and artifice …

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