strolled into a used bookstore in Versailles, France. It’s true. On the one hand, you’ve got the beautiful gardens of the Versailles Palace, not to mention the Palace itself. And then, on the other hand, there’s a used bookstore. Well, I did live there in Versailles, about a half mile from the Palace, so there’s that.
I asked for un polar. Now according to La FNAC, that cultural center of books, music and electronics, there is a difference between un polar and un thriller. Un polar is more of a criminal investigation with concrete facts, while un thriller is more psychological with implications often for the world at large. Un polar is also called un roman policier, a detective novel.
The book I was presented with is called Enquête dans le Brouillard by Elizabeth George. Literally this means Investigation in the Fog, but it is called A Great Deliverance in English. The funny thing is that it was originally in English, but I had the French translation.
Philosophical Question: does this count as a French book?
How do we answer this thorny question? Indeed, I had a French book in hand, from a French bookshop. So, French. No, no, no. It is a book written in English by an American who was an English teacher and a psychologist before diving into the world of detective novels.
In order to answer this question, I believe we need to turn to math. Believe it or not, there used to be, in 1917, a different solution to the following problem:
8 ÷ 2(2+2) = ?
First of all, there is an order of operations: parentheses, exponents, multiplication / division, addition / subtraction. And if the operations have the same precedence (level) you proceed from left to right.
Ready? 8 ÷ 2(2+2) = ?
- Modern approach: Clear the parentheses (2+2). That’s 4. The equation is now 8 ÷ 2 x 4 = ?
Because multiplication and division are the same order of precedence, you go from left to right:
8 ÷ 2 x 4 = ? What we have now is 8 ÷ 2 , which equals 4, and then x 4. Result is 16.
2. However, earlier in the day, due to a funny typesetting problem which will be explained (or not really) in the YouTube video below, the answer was quite different.
8 ÷ 2(2+2) = ?
Clear the parentheses (2+2). That’s 4. The equation is now 8 ÷ 2 x 4 = ? But according to the old typesetting, the minute the typesetter saw a division sign, anything after that sign went into the denominator. So, in 8 ÷ 2 x 4, the numbers after the division sign are 2 x 4 or 8. Now we have 8 ÷ 8 or, 1.
Wait, what? Is it 16 or is it one?
I think this is the most wonderful example of modulated thinking. The answer to the problem, one, is the wrong answer. Google and calculators agree on the answer of 16. But at one time, in 1917, the answer was one! It’s as if reality, represented by math, has these bumps and humps in it, and even something apparently simple and straightforward as an ordinary math equation can be rich in ambiguity.
LET US RETURN TO THE BOOK
The important thing about Enquête dans le Brouillard is that it is the first in the Langley series. Lynley, a wealthy detective, is paired with Barbara Havers, a troubled iconoclast who tries to care for her aging mother as well as do the detective work. A Great Deliverance, the English title, catapulted the author out of the classroom and into literary stardom, where she wrote many Lynley detective novels after the first one.
So, is it French or not? Perhaps not, although it was given an award by the French. The important point, besides the richness of ambiguity (see above), is what a brilliant book it is. Off you go to the bookstore!
The book begins with a gruesome murder and a daughter who claims she was the one who murdered her father. Rich, wealthy Inspector Lynley, an earl, no less, teams up with Sergeant Barbara Havers who is definitely a working-class girl and who is on probation on the police force due to her insolent attitude. Off the two go into the rural British countryside, the Yorkshire Moors, where a tiny community winds up being linked in strange and nefarious ways to the murder. Think Heathcliff country and the British novel Wuthering Heights by Charlotte Brontë, a Gothic tragedy with lots of mystery. In both of these books, almost everybody has a secret, and not a pretty one at that. In the Elizabeth George, I especially like that the two detectives show their vulnerability and attempt a bridge across the wide class division they represent. In the Brontē novel, ghosts abound.
MORE BOOKS MORE BOOKS
It so happened today that I found another book by Elizabeth George called Well Schooled in Murder. This takes place at a school so is either irresistible to teachers or something they cannot face on their own time.
Our own Stacey Abrams, who delivered Georgia to the Democrats in the Senate by her tireless voter registration campaign, has a courtroom drama out called, While Justice Sleeps. I am a sucker for Supreme Court dramas, such as The Pelican Brief, a novel by John Grisham, made into a movie with Julia Roberts and Sam Shepard.
And in non-fiction, we’ve read about the South in The Love Songs of W. E. B. DuBois. A non-fiction book called South To America by Imani Perry has a subtitle which is a guide to the book: “A Journey Below the Mson-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation.” This book is delightful to read, separated into chapters addressing various cities in the south, bringing memoir, history, poetry, family stories and Perry’s erudition and common touch to bear in this series of essays.
Don’t forget Ian Rankin with maverick Detective Inspector Rebus set in Edinburg, Scotland. The first book is called Knots and Crosses. And for an exotic flavor, namely in Shanghai, we have the Inspector Chen novels by Qiu Xiaolong, where the hero is a former student of English literature, an expert on Chinese poetry and a poet himself. The first in the series is called Death of a Red Heroine.
MORE ABOUT AMBIGUITY
Let’s consider Lucky.
Remember how the vagabonds are waiting for Godot?
Instead, they get Lucky with a rope around his neck and Pozzo, the master, who maintains that in different circumstances the roles would be reversed. The vagabonds are waiting for Godot to save them, but they have to deal with this second strange pair. Now, Lucky’s speech, from a miserable, enslaved human, is really quite remarkable. Lucky declaims about philosophical realities that affect us all. Hence, not the former criminal but the former police commissioner, perhaps? (Some of you objected to the mere mention of the possibilities of criminal backgrounds for our tramps.)
WHO IS LUCKY?
Is he Godot? Is he all of us? Let’s look at what he says in his famous speech.
Somebody had the interesting idea to put in bold some of the words from the beginning of the initial sentence of Lucky’s speech.
Given the existence as uttered forth in the public works of Puncher and Wattmann of a personal God quaquaquaqua with white beard quaquaquaqua outside time without extension who from the heights of divine apathia divine athambia divine aphasia loves us dearly with some exceptions for reasons unknown but time will tell and suffers like the divine Miranda with those who for reasons unknown but time will tell are plunged in torment plunged in fire whose fire flames if that continues and who can doubt it will fire the firmament that is to say blast hell to heaven so blue still and calm so calm with a calm which even though intermittent is better than nothing but not so fast
This bolding does make sense of the philosophical quandary Lucky is expressing, basically heaven and hell.
I especially like it when Lucky says “quaquaquaqua.” The term qua in English is used like the word “as.” For example, take this sentence: She was acting in her capacity of stockholder qua stockholder. Notice that the same word is used to define the word it refers to. This is fun because it is a tautology, where the same word defines its meaning, meaning that we are going around in circles. Also, quoi in French means “what.” It’s kind of an amazed kind of “what,” familiar, and not the more formal que. So, to my ears Lucky is saying whatwhatwhatwhatwhat, quacking almost like a duck, and repeating “what” which could preface so many philosophical questions, such as what is the meaning of …. well, anything. Finally, quoi, is sometimes thrown in at the end of a sentence, meaning something like “yeah.”
Is Lucky a philosopher? Is he a slave? Is he a regular guy? Can he be all three? Godot, too? Well, I don’t think so, quoi. Do you?
PS. And who or what is Godot? We might need more math to think about that. Is it a beach read? Only one way to find out! Get thee to the beach with Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett under your arm.