Detective novels: a great literary hunt for unpunished killers

In her latest book, How to Solve a Crime, the exciting state of the art in forensic science, Angela Gallop, the great British forensic expert, jokingly warns criminals: “Dear killers, if you haven’t been arrested yet, don’t think that you will never be arrested. » His feats of arms in resolving miscarriages of justice or cold cases – the famous “cold cases” – are eloquent. Since 1974, thanks to her expert sample and her skill at making evidence speak at crime scenes, Angela Gallop has repeatedly exposed murders disguised as suicides, fired killers, released them under lock and key for lack of evidence, and exonerated innocent people by identifying the real culprits. . With her, for sure, unpunished criminals have more restless nights …

Forensic science is not new. Song Qi, the first scientific forensic scientist listed, worked under the Song dynasty in the 13th well as century in China. He told how he managed to confuse the killer when he noticed that the flies were attracted to traces of gore on his sickle. Since then, “forensic” science has undergone notable changes: the analysis of fingerprints, traces of blood, DNA, and, finally, the use of palynology, the study of particles such as pollen. Things we know perfectly well, having become experts thanks to the novels of Patricia Cornwell or series like The Experts, NCIS, Bones and, of course, Cold Case…

On the other hand, we know, perhaps less, that there are also unsolved cases in the world of fiction. Like the real world, detective stories are full of miscarriages of justice and unpunished killers lurking between the lines, eluding the clairvoyance of their investigators as well as their authors. Fortunately, there is Pierre Bayard. Professor of French literature at the Sorbonne, psychoanalyst, prolific essayist, he is the founder of police criticism, the scientific police applied to literature. And his track record of clearing up unsolved literary cases is no less impressive than that of Angela Gallop.

Interpretive nonsense

In 1998, in the film Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? “In his first counter-investigation, Pierre Bayard purges the one whom Hercule Poirot wrongly accuses of Agatha Christie’s ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’: Dr. Sheppard. Before revealing the name of the real culprit in the very last pages of the book, Bayard reveals how the queen of crime misled her favorite detective, leaving him wallowing in her interpretive delusions.

In 2002, in Hamlet’s Inquiry, Bayard solves a riddle that has puzzled many Shakespeareans for more than four centuries in the face of the implausibility of the bard’s symbolic play. Undoubtedly, there is something rotten in the Kingdom of Denmark and Pierre Bayard to reveal to us who really killed Hamlet’s father. By giving us the name of the real killer, he pays tribute to Claudius, whose confessions never convinced anyone.

In 2008, in The Case of the Hound of the Baskervilles, Pierre Bayard challenges another investigator, and no one else: Sherlock Holmes himself. It shows how this, reluctantly resurrected by Conan Doyle for The Hound of the Baskervilles, failed his investigation on the misty swamps of Dartmoor, resulting in the unfortunate animal being falsely accused, allowing the real killer to escape. readers.

Agatha Christie, queen of crime, would she be wrong?Advertising Archives/Images of Bridgman

In 2019, “the truth about” there were ten “” “Bayard again penetrates the Roman Queen of the Criminal World, previously known as” ten little blacks “. This time, Bayard confuses the real serial killer responsible for ten murders on the island. Because a lot of things don’t fit into the solution offered by the novel: an untimely assault, as well as a confession letter sent to the police, an easy process that presents all the characteristics of fake news. Agatha Christie, wishing to blind her readers, would she not blind herself to the outcome of the investigation?

Last but not least, in 2021 with Oedipus the Innocent, Bayard returns to well as BC to force the Delphic Oracle to lie and acquit Oedipus: he reexamines the clues scattered in Sophocles’ play about Oedipus Rex and concludes that he could not materially kill his father. Revelation in the form of a thunderclap: what if entire layers of our civilization – hello, Sigmund! – Were ultimately based on miscarriage of justice alone?

Interpol from fiction

And if killers use their freedom on the run in fiction, they don’t conclude that this will always be the case! Moreover, since 2017, a group of experienced scientists, inspired by the work of Pierre Bayard and under his high patronage, created InterCriPol (International Police Critics) – an organization equivalent to Interpol in the world of fiction.

But how does Pierre Bayard do it? Because if, thanks to the serial modus operandi of the scientific police, we are familiar with, then we have the right to ask ourselves, what mysterious paraphernalia does the literary counter-investigator operate with? With the help of what scientific science does he manage to expose an unpunished criminal hiding in a literary text?

1707215 The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sidney Lanfield starring Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes)

1707215 The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sidney Lanfield starring Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes)Bridgman Images

First of all, it should be noted that the literary counter-investigator maintains the inviolability of his crime scene: namely, the text. There can be no question of adding or removing the slightest clue to the novels under investigation. In his search for truth, he becomes attached to the text, to the entire text and only to the text.

And yet, thanks to a new reading of the indexes, it turns out to be radically changed. Reading Pierre Bayard’s counter-investigation makes you experience the same effect you had when you were first presented with a picture of a rabbit, showing you that it really is a duck (or vice versa).

secret passages

With Bayard, we find that literary texts are not closed. And if there is, then like sealed rooms, like those of Chesterton, John Dickson Carr or Gaston Leroux, from which the killers nonetheless find a way to escape. Any artistic text, no matter how perfect it may be, has its own pitfalls, its own hidden passages and its own flaws, which the counter-investigator must explore and use: the descriptions there are essentially incomplete; the action there inevitably moves along an ellipse, leaving a certain number of events in the shadow; the points of view of the characters (and sometimes the narrator himself) are always biased and biased, even erroneous, unless they are deliberately misleading…

Not to mention the implausibility that creeps in unnoticed by the authors themselves – even among the most brilliant of them. And especially in mystery detective novels, which often pride themselves on being regulated like a Swiss watch. A contract to deploy an arsenal of false leads to go around blinding the reader for as long as possible, so it’s almost inevitable that when the investigation is closed – close the drawers, as we say in jargon – the author is forced to force things a bit to keep everything organized the way he considers it necessary. Often a magician gets confused in his trick.

So, guided by implausibility – and with a well-honed paranoia – the counter-investigator goes looking for clues in the text to get him to say (again): his fingerprints are a lexicographic field; his traces of blood, the psychology and flesh of the characters; his DNA testimonies, the author’s work is investigated (because often the criminal solution was developed in his other work); and its pollen particles, it is intertextuality, an exchange with all other texts, a dialogue that books maintain among themselves. In short, it is painstaking and highly scientific work.

enlarged works

But, fortunately, one should not count on reading dry papers like autopsy reports or police reports. Counter investigation by Pierre Bayard “irresistible”as the English say. Impossible to let go, because these are essays that read like detective novels: we devour them in search of the culprit who is still there – tadam! – is revealed on the very last pages. On the contrary, they are detective novels that read like essays: each counter-investigation is savored as a gleeful erudite treasure hunt between Umberto Eco and Colombo, exploring with relentless cheerful seriousness all the facets of the humanities, the possibilities of fiction and the dizziness of reading.

Pierre Bayard, iconoclast and restorer

Pierre Bayard, iconoclast and restorerPatrice Normand/Editions de Minuit

It is even more amazing that this work of deconstructing literary masterpieces not only does not damage them or dull their brilliance, but paradoxically restores all their brilliance. Bayard is both a rebel and a restorer. Because the solutions that his counter-investigations offer us are not only more rational on a criminological level, but also give each novel an additional beauty. Stripped of their implausibility, these works appear magnified. As if by reorganizing the vanishing points of the paintings, Bayard ultimately exposed their elegance, which remained hidden between the lines. The mystery, even diffused, retains all its mysterious beauty: blindness becomes dazzling. And in fact, these counter-investigations, which are by no means accusatory documents, are magnificent exercises in admiration.

Ironically, it’s time for us to reveal that Pierre Bayard is himself the subject of miscarriages of justice. First, he is often mistaken for the narrator of his essays. And with him – something unheard of in the humanities – I’m different. I am the game. In his famous How to Talk About Books We Haven’t Read, doesn’t the narrator admit that he doesn’t like to read and always wants to be brief? Nevertheless, many readers and even critics have been deceived and continue to be deceived.

Secondly, that even if it has been translated into 30 languages ​​and loved by his peers, he did not always receive the Nobel Prize for services to literature from the jury. Outrageously unfair! Is something rotten in the Swedish kingdom? In any case, this deserves an investigation: the truth about the Pierre Bayard case.

All about literary cold deeds

Pierre Bayard’s writings on police criticism:

“Who killed Roger Ackroyd?” (Minimum releases, 1998)

Investigation of Hamlet (Editions de Minuit, 2002)

The Case of the Hound of the Baskervilles (Editions de Minuit, 2008)

“The Truth About Dix petits nègre” (Editions de Minuit, 2019)

“Oedipus is Not Guilty” (Editions de Minuit, 2021)

Interpol literary cold cases

InterCriPol (International Police Critics), founded in 2017, is Interpol’s counterpart in fiction. Led by Pierre Bayard (Honorary President) and Caroline Julio (Le Mans Lecturer and President), an experienced team of scientists from all over the world and writers (Laurent Binet, Dominique Manotti, Patrick Reynal…) track down all crimes with impunity. in fiction. Their hunting board can be found on

Criticism of the police, user manual.

For more on “police criticism” and more on the postulates of interventionist criticism, check out Pierre Bayard’s excellent interview with Christine Marcandier on Diacritik on the occasion of The Truth About Ten Little Negroes in 2019.

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