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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Web Developer (C#, ASP.NET, AJAX, JavaScript, MVC, HTML)

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Web Developer ...

C# R&D .NET Developer-Algorithms, WCF, WPF, Agile, ASP.NET,MVC

£50000 - £67000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# R&D .NE...

C# Developer (Web, HTML5, CSS3, ASP.NET, JS, Visual Studios)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Developer (ASP.NET, F#, SQL, MVC, Bootstrap, JavaScript)

£55000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A couple stand in front of a beautiful cloudy scene  

In sickness and in health: It’s been stormy but there are blessings in the clouds

Rebecca Armstrong
Chancellor George Osborne (C) wears a high visibility jacket as he makes a visit to the Prysmian Group factory and speaks to factory manager Steve Price  

Keep the champagne on ice – there are some clear and worrying signs that the economy is slowing

David Blanchflower
Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?