Between Fingerprints and Red Herrings. The Metaphysical Detective Inquest in Contemporary Biographical Novels about Oscar Wilde

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Thesis Summary

“Between Fingerprints and Red Herrings. The Metaphysical Detective Inquest in Contemporary Biographical Novels about Oscar Wilde”

Kirby Joris

–My Ph.D. as a Research Fellow F.R.S-FNRS in Belgium (2008-2012) has examined how Oscar Wilde’s life has been re-appropriated in recent fiction, more particularly in nine first-person biographical novels: The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde (Peter Ackroyd, 1983), The Coward Does It with a Kiss (Rohase Piercy, 1990), The Unauthorized Letters of Oscar Wilde (C. Robert Holloway, 1997), The Case of the Pederast’s Wife (Clare Elfman, 2000) and the first five The Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries (Gyles Brandreth, 2007-present). I have had the opportunity to present my research findings at various international conferences in Belgium and abroad, to publish articles in books and peer-reviewed journals, and to meet renowned Wilde scholars, such as Brandreth (author of the mysteries cited above) and Merlin Holland, Oscar Wilde’s only grandson. The private viva of my Ph.D. took place on 28 January 2013 and I publicly defended my work on 5 March 2013.

My doctoral research project has shown that the narratives I selected for close analysis not only allow for an intimate re-acquaintance with Oscar Wilde according to the multifarious angles developed in the stories but also that the very nature of this re-acquaintance can only be fragmented, either because it is memory-bound or because of the very medium narrators make use of in the novels, i.e. writing. The concept of ‘metaphysical detective story’ has therefore been the guiding principle and the principal lead in my inquest into Oscar Wilde’s private life, especially since it had never been discussed before in any other study.

I structured my doctoral study according to the different steps of a detective investigation, not only because the postmodern subversive aspect of the novels lends itself to a rethinking of detective fiction as it is foregrounded in metaphysical detective stories, but also because the different aspects of any inquest as I understand it accommodate the novels in a most peculiar way, each narrative broaching in its own individual way specific parallelisms between the fin de siècle and postmodernism, but also between traditionally successful investigations and a more topical questioning of identity and promoting of open endings, i.e. of cases that can never be closed or run cold.

As such, the two main concepts on which my research hinges – i.e. biofiction and metaphysical detective stories – have first been broached in the theoretical introduction to the doctoral study, entitled “Preliminary Investigation. Recent Biofiction and Its (Dis)Contents.” I have shown that ‘biofiction’ as a relatively recent genre knows all kinds of alternative denominations that are as varied and contradictory as the depictions of Oscar Wilde in contemporary biofictions. I have explained why I decided to favour the term ‘biographical novel’ for my own analysis and have then switched to a more thematic approach, i.e. the link between such novels and metaphysical detective stories. My choice of Oscar Wilde as the privileged subject-suspect in such postmodern-postmortem representatives of life writing has then been introduced as a set of hypotheses to be developed in the following steps of my own subversive metaphysical detective inquest. The historical basis of the novels actually stands at the centre of each chapter, all the while highlighting that the fictional elements allow for a renewed interest in Wilde that borders on admiration and/or obsession.

The narrator-investigators in the novels have all proceeded from a different modus operandi, which is reflected in the titles I gave to my chapters. Chapter 1 (Profiling the Suspect) has drawn Oscar’s profile by giving an outline of the novels of the corpus. Necessarily descriptive in nature, this step has introduced the novels in a chart, thereby providing a more pragmatic and cursory perspective of the corpus, as any efficient portrait-robot should be able to display. I have subsequently moved on to profiling the corpus, the narrator and the subject-suspect, i.e. the fictionalised Oscar Wilde. Chapter 2 (Tailing the Missing Person) has focused on Elfman’s The Case of the Pederast’s Wife, a novel in which tailing the recluse suspect and endeavouring to frame him are essential steps if one wants to get acquainted personally with the absent husband. The analysis of the book has highlighted that Elfman’s novel specifically problematises how the narrator, i.e. the fictive psychiatrist Martin Frame, finds himself by novel’s end confronted with the loss of his own identity as an investigator and as a man. Because he has failed to obtain a definitive answer to his existential questions into the very nature of the fictionalised Oscar Wilde’s reality, Frame ends up realising that his quest might very well have been a fiction, implicitly acknowledging the danger of imposing one’s truth, and accentuating the relative character of names and psychological case studies. Chapter 3 (Interrogating the Suspect), on the other hand, has been scrutinised as a highly subversive ontological narrative that crosses boundaries of time and place in order to make Oscar even more present in the contemporary world. In Holloway’s The Unauthorized Letters of Oscar Wilde, the epistolary exchange between the fictionalised Holloway and Oscar has been looked into as a transmogrified police interrogation according to the nine steps of the “Reid’s Technique.” It has shown that both the suspect and the interviewer reveal and conceal their true self simultaneously. C. Robert enters into a dialogue with Oscar so as to question, it would seem, the boundaries between now and then, between reality and fiction, and suggest the possibility of perpetual renewal for all kinds of fictionalised ‘Oscar Wildes.’ Both feeding on and challenging the detective tradition, Holloway’s novel is as a result much more than a – at first sight – casual encounter between two gay men from different fins de siècle.

If metaphysical detective stories in general give to works of fiction a highly fragmentary quality, where discontinuity and polyphonic openness resonate, Chapter 4 and its detailed analysis of Brandreth’s Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries, has subsequently demonstrated that Witness Statements equally contribute to this parcelled out character of contemporary biographical novels, not only because multiple I-narrators imply multiple points of view about History (or biography) in general and Wilde in particular, but also because they allow for compelling mises en abyme and mises en scène of the biofictional enterprise that underscore what it means to write someone’s biography when only memories, notebooks and biases are available. Two additional alternative takes on Wilde’s story are located in Chapter 5 about the written Confessions delivered by Oscar in Ackroyd’s The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde and by his wife Constance in Piercy’s The Coward Does It with a Kiss. Both novels have been interpreted as bestowing a unique metaphysical quality to such biofictions by showing the parallel between a traditional autopsy of the body and an autopsy of the mind, reinforcing notions such as indeterminacy and provisionality. The similarities in the two novels’ ‘non-endings’ have been presented as fundamentally epitomising the metaphysical biofictional angle in which this doctoral research is rooted. The conclusion of this doctoral study is aptly named “Trial(s), Judgment, Closure?.” Not only have I endeavoured to bring together all the evidence displayed in the corpus as would be the case in court, I have also cross-examined and confronted my analyses of the novels to the notion of ‘biofictional metaphysical detective story.’

My general structure (which retraces the steps of what could be deemed a classical inquest), together with my personal analyses of the works have thus been meant to reflect the paradoxical and postmodern re-appropriation and transmogrification of detective fiction, in the same way as what is known about the historical Oscar Wilde is re-contextualised in each and every biographical novel. The chapters of my Ph.D. have displayed various means to elicit information on Oscar Wilde through the subversion of detection and psychology (Chapter 2), the ontological crossing of boundaries (Chapter 3), the metafiction of biofiction in general and the re-appropriation of Oscar as a sleuth who discovers the secrets of other individuals but manages to keep his own skeletons in his ivory closet (Chapter 4), thereby reinforcing the fact that the historical Wilde did not reveal everything about himself either. The transmogrification of a practical police autopsy into an autopsy of the mind was paralleled with the confessions of the soul instead of the body, as it has been discussed in the penultimate step of my investigation (Chapter 5). The fervent, text-oriented autopsy that takes place in the novels of the corpus in general is dedicated to Oscar’s mind rather than his body, and is as a result meta- physical.

My doctoral thesis situates itself within a largely unexplored area of literature, for while much has been written on biofiction from a theoretical point of view, this has not been the case for its relationship to metaphysical detective stories, which forms the touchstone of my own study.

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