John Lichfield: Our Man in Paris

Case of the literary murder inquiries that don't stack up

Share

Did Sherlock Holmes bungle his most famous case? Was Hercule Poirot a murderer? Did that celebrated serial killer Hamlet also murder his dad? Did Oedipus, the celebrated father killer, NOT kill his dad?

The French literary critic and psychoanalyst Pierre Bayard is attempting to invent a new literary genre. He calls himself a "critical detective". He reinvestigates the plots of famous books, correcting the errors of their authors and reversing literary injustices.

All authors are unreliable narrators, Bayard argues. Just because a writer wrote a book, it doesn't mean that he or she understood the story.

Bayard, 54, has recently achieved great success in the United States with a book called How To talk About Books You Haven't Read which has just been published in Britain to glowing reviews. Much less known in the English-speaking world is his series of books explaining how celebrated writers – from Shakespeare to Agatha Christie – got their own stories wrong.

His most recent work, just published in France, is a re-examination of the criminal evidence in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles. Bayard proves (to his satisfaction and mine) that the dog and its master were innocent. Thanks to the incompetence of the world's greatest detective, the murderer is still at large. So as not to give away the answer, it is enough to say the "real" crime on Dartmoor is a fiendishly clever, double act of revenge.

The incompetence of Holmes, clearly proved by the book, is also a kind of subconscious revenge, Bayard suggests. Conan Doyle had grown to detest his detective and had tried to kill him off. Holmes refused to die. Author and detective were so engaged in their own personal life-and-death struggle, they missed the real murderer.

L'Affaire du Chien des Baskerville completes an "English trilogy" which Bayard began in 1998. The first book reopened Hercule Poirot's first case, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. and wittily proved the evidence has been unfairly stacked against the charming village doctor, who is both narrator and murderer. Christie and Poirot framed an innocent man.

Bayard, a practising psychoanalyst, literature professor and writer, then turned his angle-poise lamp on to Shakespeare. His Enquête sur Hamlet tries to clear poor Uncle Claudius and suggests – not quite convincingly – that Hamlet killed his own father.

Bayard's books make a point about the nature of writing and reading: all books contain dozens of other possible books. Each book is different, according to the identity of the reader. Even the greatest works include the elements of quite different stories, which the writers do not consciously comprehend. This is what gives them their depth and resonance.

"My central argument is that nothing is fixed in a work of literature. Everything is unstable," Bayard told me. "I would even argue that the presence of other, incomplete, works in a book is one of the signs of greatness in a writer. Writing is partly a conscious act, partly an act in which the writer loses control of his own creation."

Bayard's next work may attempt to correct an injustice which is 2,400 years old. He is convinced that, whatever the ancient Greek dramatist Sophocles may say, Oedipus did not kill his father. He also has a shrewd idea of the identity of the real culprit.

Bayard inscribed his Baskerville book to me with the following words: "To John Lichfield, a man with a deep sense of justice". But Bayard's opinion of me is as "unstable" as he believes literature to be. When I last visited him in 2002, he inscribed his Agatha Christie book: "To John Lichfield, whose innocence in the death of Roger Ackroyd remains to be proved."

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Digital Trade Advisers - Yorkshire and Humber

£29500 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company in Yorkshire and t...

Recruitment Genius: Project and Resource Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing experience-led technology co...

Recruitment Genius: Production Scientist

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises in the...

Recruitment Genius: Factory Manager - Food

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Day In a Page

Read Next
'A Five per cent tax might seem low, but this is an issue of fairness, and not only for those menstruating in the UK'  

Don't think the tampon tax can be scrapped? You're wrong — all we need to do is follow these 5 steps

Laura Coryton
Craig Oliver, David Cameron’s Director of Communications  

i Editor's Letter: Poultry excuses from chicken spin doctors

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable