John Lichfield: Our Man in Paris

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


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."

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