Saturday, October 2, 2010

Chance of a Ghost; Ghost of a Chance

I read a lot of detective fiction and mysteries. And, as I imagine most fans of the genre do, I follow my favorite authors and their detectives from book to book. However, over the years I have from time to time waved farewell to authors and their detectives, abandoning series, not caring a hoot about what new mischief may be afoot in subsequent books. There were several reasons why I gave up on them, but I wish to discuss only one.

Last year I bid farewell to two police procedural series—both featuring detectives in contemporary England. In the last book I read of each series, the author wanted the reader to accept supernatural occurrences—ESP, stigmata, spirit channeling—as real events. Because the mystery genre demands reason and logic, and thus cannot countenance superstition and obscurantism, I could not tolerate such nonsense—and so ditched the authors and their works. Twenty-first-century rationalism was not to be flouted.

But why, if I am unable to accept ghosts and such in modern-era detective fiction, am I tolerant of the ghosts, for example, of Hamlet’s father and Banquo? The reason is the same as that for my acceptance of the intervention of the god Herakles in Sophocles’ Philoctetes or of the oracles whose prophecies cause so much trouble for Oedipus, Laius, and Jocasta. I accept, for Shakespeare, his work in the context of the belief system of Elizabethan/Jacobean England, and for Sophocles, his work in the context of the belief system of 5th-century B.C. Greece. In context, our “supernatural” was their “natural,” and part of the warp and woof of their belief systems. However, what is most important isn’t their intellectual, philosophical, religious differences from us, but the similarity of their concerns about the conundrums of human existence: chance, evil, honor, greed, love, lust, etc.

So, I am willing to allow an Elizabethan ghost to walk the battlements of Elsinore and move his son to revenge or a Greek god at the last moment to reconcile the irreconcilable.

But if Herakles appears in the mystery I am now reading and solves the detective’s case, that book is straight for the dumpster.

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