The best crime writing I'm reading today is one screenplay long, and
the man who wrote it is dead. Dennis Potter wrote The Singing Detective,
which was produced by the BBC in 1986 and later aired in America by PBS,
and now is available in libraries and video stores that still rent videos.
Potter died suddenly in 1994 of pancreatic cancer. British and even
American tv aired a last wild interview with him, where he was equipped
with coffee, cigarettes, and a glass full of liquid morphine, to ease the
pain of his condition.
His condition - at least his physical one, if not his mental one - had
been intermittently painful throughout his life. Long before he had
cancer, he had a rare disease called psoriatic arthropathy, and this same
disease afflicts the main character of The Singing Detective,
The miniseries is complex and intentionally confusing, a postmodern
layering of the mysteries of Marlow's writing and his life. Marlow is on a
ward with other immobile men, among them cardiac patients, one of whom is
reading the crime novel Marlow composed, also titled The Singing
Detective . The book is crime fiction, but the movie has as much to
say about the crime of writing as crime writing itself. I identify with
Marlow on two levels, as a fellow sufferer of an at-times awful skin
condition, and as a writer guilty of murdering real people to put slices
of them under the microscope of the page.
Marlow's raw skin is on show to the audience of the ward unless the
curtains are drawn around him, and a nurse is greasing him with salve. He
escapes the place by sliding into images and imaginings of the text he
wrote, of a rich British fellow and his wartime intersections with
callgirls who might be Russian spies. The plot involves unsolved murders,
and there are lots of shootouts in places both shadowy and bright.
Intermingled with these exits, Marlow remembers his childhood in the
Forest of Dean, a country place with its own dialect of English in the
south of England. The adult Marlow's joints are nearly paralyzed by the
disease, but he manages to fit a cigarette in the clenched claws of his
hands. Hallucinations from high fevers are another complication, and as
the program progresses the text of the book overlaps with his thoughts on
his real-life, or rather the people in the life he has lived beyond the
I have seen the series three times, and each time I've had a different
impression of it. The first time I was blown away by the pomo layering of
possible activities, and the ward patients, doctors and nurses bursting
into song. The second time I saw The Singing Detective I was
recovering from my own agonizing bout with ezcema. Mine case was not
nearly as extreme as Potter's or his Marlow's. Ezcema doesn't cripple
movements, so I was allowed to put pen to paper, but at night I wore
pajamas with socks sewn over my hands so I might allow some healing to
happen before morning. I shared with the narrator Marlow a deep suspicion
of life and my ability to live it, and a wonder over my role as a writer
vs. my role as a person in the life I was staging. How dare I tell
people's truths in supposed fictions?
In the miniseries The Singing Detective's book characters
eventually question Marlow's treatment of them. "You can't do that," they
say when they are about to be killed. In another scene, where the writer
is playing a word game with his psychiatrist, he says, "Liar," when
prompted by the word "writer." During my second viewing, I felt ruined by
my desire to compress real lives into fictions. It didn't matter that I
wrote non-crime related stories, that I wrote fairy tales of places that
were not quite here nor there. I still used people, their emotions and
their situations, and toyed with them God-like on the page. I knew my soul
was as disfigured as Marlow's face and fists, plus the rest of him, the
rest of me. We itched to get out of our skin.
The third time I saw this production, I was eight years away from my
big battle with ezcema. I saw the things I'd seen in my first two
viewings, but I also saw things I hadn't noticed at all. For instance, the
writer walks out of the hospital, his condition vastly improved. He leaves
smiling. Maybe the writing he's done in his head in his bed has led him to
solve some of the mystery of his being, as all writing can do for the
writer, regardless of he genre.
What I wonder is why did I never see Marlow's happiness before? Perhaps
I didn't want to, or perhaps I was more interested in sheer entertainment,
and then, in finding out about the crime of writing. I still commit the
crime of writing, and try to tread carefully on the lives I know and use
within my writing.
I try to stay away from reading crime writing because I know it is like
junk food, food that leaves you hungry for more food. When I first moved
to Seattle I happened upon paperbacks about Ted Bundy. I sat alone in my
apartment and devoured them, walking warily to the supermarket when I
could stand the growls of my stomach no longer. I couldn't understand why
the clerks in the market were so friendly. Did they want something from
me? Were they charming me to make me a victim? It is too easy to increase
my suspicions of the world by reading about lots of nefarious folks.
Isn't the overwhelming success of The Lovely Bones part of this
need to know the bad side of humanity? The main character was raped and
murdered, and while the act was not described too luridly on the pages,
the reader gets enough information to whet his or her appetite for the
horror of the act. I felt soiled after I spent so many pages with that
book, waiting for the wonder so many readers apparently found in the
novel. Wouldn't it have been better to just describe heaven, and skip the
stuff about earth, if concern for the dead's death and afterlife were the
goal of the writing?
I come at this suggestion with books from the late 1800's that delve
into the subject of heaven and hell. In one there is a beautiful
description of heaven's rooms for little children. Those prematurely
removed from earth wallpapered heaven with real roses. This made a pretty
picture in parents' minds., which made sense when infancy and childhood
were such unlikely things to survive. I don't know how fascinated the
reading public was with gruesomeness at the time of these books -- likely
everyone was reading about Jack the Ripper with lust and disgust -- but
today the apetite for crime and the knowledge of crime's ends is greater
than our hunger for beauty. Why would we want to believe in beauty when
death is so much more likely?
Just this week I handled hundreds of crime titles at a used bookstore
that is reorganizing its contents. It was my job to decide what books were
thrillers and what were mysteries. (I didn't have to touch the ture crime;
their place in the book world did not need my sifting. True is true,
right, and needs no more categorizing?) If the word suspense was included
on the back cover, or spy, I put the book in thrillers. If the words crime
fiction described the book, it went in mysteries. I was tempted to take
some mystery classics home for a while, or even sample the modern
favorites. But I was afraid I'd feel compelled by the compelling writing,
and have another habit to try to keep under control.
So for now I will stick to Dennis Potter's huge stab at crime writing,
and its examination of the crimes of the writer.
Amy Halloran lives in upstate New York with her husband and son. She is
working on a fiction project about the demolition of downtown Troy in the
urban renewal phase of the last century, and wonders how she will manage
to make the wild facts of that era a fiction.