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Sherlocking One’s Way into Empathetic and Generic (Re)birth: (In)quests of Mourning in Penelope Lively’s The Photograph (2003)

Réécritures de Sherlock Holmes et (re)naissance empathique : (en)quêtes du deuil dans The Photograph de Penelope Lively (2003)
Héloïse Lecomte


La Photographie, de Penelope Lively, s’ouvre sur la découverte par le protagoniste Glyn Peters d’une photographie qui révèle l’adultère passé de sa défunte épouse Kath. Empruntant alors les codes du roman policier, l’investigation d’un passé rendu incertain semble réincarner la figure de Sherlock Holmes dans le texte. Cependant, Lively tire toute la force métaphorique du récit policier (sorti de son contexte), pour l’investir d’une dimension psychologique et élégiaque. Le modèle de l’investigation rationnelle se délite peu à peu au fil de la révélation des secrets de la coupable/victime, pour mener à une forme de (re)naissance empathique et éthique des personnages endeuillés et ressusciter progressivement le fantôme de Kath et donner corps à sa mémoire. L’enquête épouse les particularités temporelles de ce deuil retardé, pour amorcer un retour à la vie des personnages et élucider le mystère de la vie et de la mort de Kath.

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  • 1 The latest instalments being the BBC One TV series Sherlock (Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, 2010-pr (...)
  • 2 Cynthia S. Hamilton’s study of Sara Paretsky’s work (Detective Fiction as Trauma Literature, 2015) (...)
  • 3 In the original French text, Todorov provides a more detailed outline of detective fiction’s dual p (...)

1In 21st-century popular culture, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective Sherlock Holmes has become an iconic figure, whose multiple reincarnations take literary, televisual or filmic forms.1 Besides explicit tributes to the character’s peculiar investigative genius, a strand of contemporary writing questions the epistemological assumptions of such detective fiction by reconfiguring or reframing its narrative formulas.2 As Tzvetan Todorov argues in The Poetics of Prose (1971, 57), the plot of any kind of detective fiction is necessarily dual, as it revolves around a mysterious ‘story of the crime’ and a ‘story of the investigation,’ which aims at deciphering the secret of the past.3 Indeed, the ‘process of detection’ that is central to the narrative (Porter 1981, 29) is both retrospective and forward-looking, since it takes place once the event is over, after the ‘crime’ has been committed and details the procedure that leads to a revelation. The ongoing appeal of this narrative paradigm stems from its adaptability to multiple contexts and frames of analysis, as the rational attempt to explore the riddles of memory usually ‘offers the reader the opportunity to grapple with chaotic, confusing aspects of the human experience,’ according to Casey Cothran and Mercy Cannon in New Perspectives on Detective Fiction (2016, 3).

2Penelope Lively’s choral novel The Photograph (2003) thus examines the elusive nature of memory and grief in a multi-perspectival narrative that revives detective fiction formulas by initially taking the form of a criminal inquiry, the better to work around its narrative codes. The story’s absent core is Kath, a vibrant yet elusive woman who killed herself years before the novel’s plot begins to unravel. It is however apparently not Kath’s death or the discovery of her body per se that trigger the novel’s main investigation, since the cause of her death is initially kept from the reader, to be disclosed only towards the end of the story. Consequently, the mystery is displaced onto another, related plot: the initial discovery by her husband Glyn of a photograph of Kath holding hands with her brother-in-law Nick, revealing a past adultery that had remained a secret until this dramatic revelation. Laurence Petit notes a correlation between Lively’s plot and crime fiction in her analysis of the novel: ‘the photograph metonymically plays the part of the murdered body in this “detective novel”’ (2010, 223). Indeed, the event, which initially appears to be more cataclysmic than Kath’s own death, sets her ex-husband Glyn on a self-righteous and yet seemingly rational path to the elucidation of a mysterious past. But the photograph also brings a paradoxically material form of presence back to the deceased woman by staging what Roland Barthes calls ‘the return of the dead’ (1980, 23) and prompting the characters’ mourning process.

  • 4 While the characters all share the secret of Kath’s suicide, this piece of information initially re (...)

3It is my contention that in order to re-examine the past, in a story that does revolve around a dead body, Lively resurrects the spectre of Conan Doyle’s investigative genius Sherlock Holmes (a 1887 creation), himself inspired by Edgar Poe’s Auguste Dupin (created in 1841). However, this fictional rebirth, far from being a simple return, integrates the 19th-century detective figure into a contemporary tale of delayed mourning and an exploration of traumatic experience. The internal focalisation that shifts from one perspective to the other allows for a deeper exploration of the protagonists’ emotions as the photograph’s surface gives way to a fleshing out of Kath’s past.4 As Laurence Petit argues, ‘the photograph as matrix generates both the narrative and the “re-incarnation” of the deceased character’ (2010, 211). As a reflection on the nature of this ‘re-incarnation,’ Lively’s take on the myth of the infallible detective is a case not just of literary rebirth but of creative resumption, which is defined by Kierkegaard as ‘a form of forward-thinking recollection which seeks the past in the present, not so as to bemoan its loss, but in order to sense its capacity for renewal and surprise’ (Duplay in Maisonnat et al. 2009, 99). While in classic detective fiction the investigating of the past showcases the enlightening powers of rationality and the unique quality of genius, this paradigm no longer seems to stand in Lively’s ironic revival, which gradually unearths another, ethical approach to uncovering the past. By transposing detection tropes into a study of grief and trauma, Lively foregrounds the contemporary ethical themes of vulnerability and empathy. Therefore, resumption takes place both at a formal and at a diegetic level in this quest story that looks back in order to critically embrace the present. This article thus aims at delineating the interrelations between the revival (or loose adaptation) of the detective fiction genre and a potential rebirth for the grieving protagonists, but also the ways in (and the extent to) which piecing together the story of Kath resurrects her (memory).

‘Professor’ Holmes: Revival or Parody?

4According to Charles Palliser, our enduring fascination with the deductive powers of Sherlock Holmes’s towering figure stems from their reassuring suggestion that there is logic to be found in the world’s chaos: ‘Holmes is the embodiment of a myth: the superiority of logic and science and its infallible power to unveil mysteries’ (in Mellier 1999, 22). Lively explores the hermeneutic underpinnings of rational investigation from the very first chapter of her novel, which focuses on Glyn’s reaction upon discovering the photograph of his late wife. The character’s ‘minute inspection’ (5) intertwines ‘the picture’s detailed ekphrasis’ (15) for the benefit of the reader with an obsessive combing through of details, which highlight the photograph’s status as evidence (or ‘murdered body,’ to use Petit’s expression, 2010, 223). The vocabulary of criminal investigation saturates this opening chapter: ‘a clue, check later’ (9), ‘vital evidence is missing’ (20), ‘I need evidence’ (22). Lively foregrounds the character’s analytical perspective with short, factual sentences and a paratactic style that illustrates both the fragmentation of the clues and the emotionless taxonomic impulse. While the first person sporadically emerges to remind the reader that the scene is perceived through Glyn’s point of view, in those investigative moments, the markers of subjectivity are mostly erased in favour of a more impersonal mode of expression.

  • 5 Porter notes that Conan Doyle ‘was inspired to create a detective hero who was a diagnostic genius (...)

5While Glyn is not a detective per se, he is a researcher, an obsessive landscape historian, whose work often impinges on his private life, as multiple flashback sequences suggest. This element of characterisation ties in with the detection metaphor since, as Lively points out early on in the novel, ‘a landscape in which everything co-exists [requires] expert deconstruction’ (1). In the study of landscape history, the past is to be deciphered in what transpires of the present: it is a story that remains to be told, like the story of the crime in detective fiction. Glyn’s area of expertise thus lends itself to metaphorical interpretation as the mystery of Kath’s past is probed into. When faced with isolated clues, both the detective and the landscape historian look for ‘not a simple description but an explanation’ (Pellegrin in Gallix & Guignery 2004, 74), in order to decipher the past. In Glyn’s case, the photograph’s ekphrasis is meant to reconstitute the circumstances of Kath’s transgression. Lively subtly underlines the links between her narrative and the detective fiction paradigm from the start, since the discovery of the photograph as damning evidence of past crime (or betrayal) occurs while Glyn is looking for work material (‘offprints,’ 1). The similarities between the professor and the detective are underlined by Dennis Porter in The Pursuit of Crime:5

What Doyle’s fictional model celebrates particularly, however, is the heroism inherent in the scholar/researcher’s work. If Holmes is heroic, it is chiefly because he possesses the intellectual’s power to produce coherence. Like the scholar/researcher, Holmes takes the fragments and finds the hidden pattern; he establishes relationships where none had previously appeared (1981, 225).

6Researchers and detectives alike strive to establish meaning, as is shown by Glyn’s attempts to sift through his own memories in The Photograph: ‘Glyn lays those years out for inspection. He places them in order’ (24, emphasis added). By returning to the genesis of detective fiction (the desire to restore coherence and the need for minute inspection), the novel purports to uncover the ‘story of the crime’ (in this case, Kath’s story) beneath the surface of photographic evidence.

7Consequently, such an ostensibly rational frame of investigation leaves little room for emotion, surprisingly so for a story of mourning. In the first pages of the novel, Glyn’s only concern seems to be for getting to the truth of the matter, as in detective fiction, whose main feature is the ‘de-psychologising’ of the characters, according to Uri Eisenzweig (1986, 68). Glyn is turned into a modern-day reincarnation of Holmes, whose most notorious character traits are his staggering intelligence and lack of emotional attachment, leading to his description as a ‘high-functioning sociopath’ in the BBC adaptation of Conan Doyle’s work (the phrase features prominently in the show’s third season, broadcast in 2014). Glyn’s coldness and detachment emphatically seep through every occurrence of direct speech at the beginning of The Photograph: ‘Kath is now my area of study,’ ‘I have to look at this as I would at any other major piece of research,’ ‘I have to take a detached view’ (101). The intrusion of professional work ethics in the private sphere of emotion is expressed by the recurrent use of the modal ‘have to’ and the transformation of Kath from a flesh-and-blood person into a simple research matter. The choice of vocabulary replicates, and slightly exaggerates, Holmes’s attitude as described in The Hound of the Baskervilles: ‘Sherlock Holmes had, in a very remarkable degree, the power of detaching his mind at will’ (in Porter 1981, 46). The revival thus seems to verge on parody, as the detective’s aloofness remains ill-suited to the narrative situation. Lively’s characterisation of Glyn baffled critics such as Sally Vickers, who wrote in her review of the novel: ‘my difficulty with this book was that I found few of the characters sympathetic. . . . I felt that, for the author, the principal dynamic was irritation rather than understanding’ (2003). Instead of celebrating the protagonist’s powers of deduction, Lively exposes the misunderstandings and preconceptions that undermine them.

  • 6 Frye also delineates the genre’s affinity with melodrama: ‘detection begins to merge with the thril (...)
  • 7 As Michel Hanus remarks in Le Deuil: ‘suicide is a recent expression which emerged approximately tw (...)

8Moreover, Glyn’s initial characterisation is reminiscent of the Manichean dichotomy between culprits and victims that lies at the heart of classic detective fiction. Northrop Frye defines the detective story as ‘a ritual drama around a corpse in which a wavering finger of social condemnation passes over a group of “suspects” and finally settles on one’ (1973, 46).6 In The Photograph, Kath is judged posthumously for her unfaithfulness from the start, but as the story later reveals, the accusation of adultery is overshadowed by a more complex apprehension of her suicide. Indeed, the act of taking one’s life bears a social stigma and sometimes remains morally condemned as a crime, in which the victim is also the perpetrator.7 Moreover, the reasons behind suicide, if left unexplained by the deceased, can remain painfully mysterious for the mourners (also called ‘those who remain’ by French sociologist Karine Roudaut, 2012). As philosopher Dolores Angela Castelli Dransart argues, ‘reconstructing the suicidal process is a way for the mourners to try and make intelligible an act that remains mostly impossible to fathom and causes the deceased to become an enigmatic or even alien creature’ (in Rognon 2018, 137, my translation). The representation of suicide thus poses a clear challenge to the story of detection and its suggestion that rationality solves all mysteries. The narrative principles of detective fiction are thus questioned and reworked in Lively’s novel. Even as Glyn is enraged by ‘[Kath’s] guilt, her duplicity’ (178), the polysemous word ‘duplicity,’ meaning both deceit and duality, pinpoints not only Kath’s double status as victim and culprit of her own death, but also the story’s own double nature and repressed history of trauma beneath the (photographic) surface of adultery. Indeed, while the photograph of Kath is viewed univocally at first (as is her story), as W.J.T. Mitchell reminds us, ‘images “proper” are not stable, static or permanent in any metaphysical sense; they are not perceived in the same way by viewers’ (1986, 14), paving the way for a reinterpretation of Kath’s ‘crimes.’

9In this subverted revival of detective fiction, the 19th-century unwavering belief in almighty rationality is therefore replaced with biting irony. It is precisely because of his detached perspective and peremptory morals that a constantly wrongfooted Glyn fails to adequately decipher the clues of Kath’s life and death, thus becoming as ‘deficient’ a narrator as ‘naïve and limited’ Watson in the original Holmes tales (Eisenzweig 1986, 105, 56). When the protagonist goes undercover and pretends to be writing a ‘private memoir of Kath’ (120) to identify her potential former lovers, his interrogation ends abruptly as his belated realisation that his prime suspect Peter Claverdon is gay shatters any illusion of deductive (super)power: ‘how was he to know the guy was gay? His time has been wasted’ (122). Instead of listening to his interlocutor’s potentially revealing stories about Kath, Glyn misses a chance to revive his memory of Kath, and is quick to dismiss the visit as a ‘dead end’ (202, emphasis added). In a story of mourning, this loaded pun is a clue for the reader (the real detective?) to decipher, as the text’s ‘dead end’ stands for the traumatic effect of Kath’s death, which remains dormant in the first sections of the novel. If the revival of detective fiction formulas turns out to be parodic in the adultery subplot, it also unearths a deeper level of investigation, striving to uncover the ‘alternative stories that lurk beyond the narrative’ (TP 23).

From Sherlock to Shock? Investigating Trauma, Regenerating Emotion

10While most of Sherlock Holmes’s adventures are short stories, a revival of the formula in a contemporary novel where interior monologue has pride of place shifts the focus onto a more complex apprehension of character development and foregrounds Glyn’s dual nature as would-be detached investigator and angry widower. Under the guise of cold rationality, the internal focalisation unveils the emotions that simmer beneath the surface as the protagonist attempts to conjure up memories from the past and resurrect the dead: ‘he summons her up, in anger and frustration’ (25). In this conflation of intimate feelings, frustration is as much a reaction to Kath’s absence as to her secrets. The narrative’s withheld truth (or enigma) mostly stems from ‘the silence of the dead’ (20), which leaves questions unanswered. Lively seems to be using detective fiction as a template of a quest narrative whose object remains unreachable, since the story revolves around a narrative void. Anger and frustration also emerge in addresses to the deceased that puncture the third-person surface of the perspective, for instance when Elaine posthumously castigates Kath for her past life (and death) choices: ‘she is angry with Kath: what did you think you were doing?’ (158). The direct question to the deceased incorporates an elegiac tone into the traditional interrogation of the suspect/culprit. As Peter Sacks argues, ‘the convention of questions, sometimes private and gnomic, but more often in a sharply interrogative mode, addressed to a particular auditor, has echoed throughout the history of the elegy’ (1987, 22). In this case, the interrogation, a topos of detective fiction, resonates in the text and becomes an emotional outlet.

  • 8 Although Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s famous identification of five stages of grief (denial, anger, barg (...)

11In order to underline this poignant undertone, Lively uses the linguistic resources of discreet punning. Even when Glyn asserts that ‘[his] concern is purely forensic’ (101) while probing into Kath’s past, the polysemy of the word ‘concern’ (which could be defined both as ‘matter for consideration’ and as ‘worry’) betrays a preoccupation that runs deeper than rational interest. The incorporation of emotion into obsessional investigation contributes to the renewal of detective fiction by opening it up to elegy. In narrative forms of elegy (grief fiction and/or memoirs), the mourner’s lament stems from his or her burning desire to recover what has been lost, as David Kennedy contends in Elegy (2007, 2). Frustration is ingrained in the very core of elegy which, according to Elizabeth Helsinger, ‘responds to the vain desires of the living to see, hear, touch, and grasp [the dead] once again’ (in Weisman 2010, 660) and thus aims to sensorially and memorially resurrect the deceased. By representing Glyn’s restless foray into the past and the inexorable failure of his pretence of rational detachment, Lively gives a fictional twist to psychological theories of mourning and the way they represent the temporality of grief.8 In the third volume of his study Attachment and Loss, entitled Loss: Sadness and Depression, psychoanalyst John Bowlby identifies in the mourning process a phase of ‘yearning,’ which he describes as a time of ‘restless searching, intermittent hope, repeated disappointment, weeping, anger, accusation, . . . to be understood as expressions of the strong urge to find and recover the lost person’ (1980, 92). In The Photograph, the investigation thus appears inseparable from the emotional whirlpool of yearning and expresses the elegy’s quest for consolation.

12Lively’s resumption of the detective fiction genre thus shifts from a detached probing of the past to the urgent desire to recover erased or silenced memories. Kath cannot speak for herself (‘her evidence is irretrievable, wiped, lost,’ 23), and she could be described as the ‘absent narrator’ of detective fiction (Pellegrin in Gallix & Guignery 2004, 75), in which the story of the crime is necessarily pieced together by proxy. By juxtaposing various perspectives (Kath’s husband Glyn, her sister Elaine, her brother-in-law and former lover Nick, her niece Polly and Oliver, a family friend), the novel’s narrative structure seems to aim at a kaleidoscopic reconstruction of the truth, which is reminiscent of modernist techniques. The elegising of detective fiction is thus meant to investigate the absent core of the hidden story but also to produce a collage-like portrait of the deceased in an attempt to resurrect her. Potential links between detective fiction and trauma theory can be identified even at the heart of Todorov’s theory: ‘the crime story is the story of an absence: its most identifiable characteristic is that it cannot be immediately represented’ (1971, 58). The latency inherent to the ‘story of the crime’ also features in narrative representations of trauma. In the novel, the story of Kath’s suicide, though known to all characters, remains hidden and therefore un-representable until the antepenultimate chapter, and puts the reader in an investigative position to look for clues. As Cathy Caruth famously wrote on trauma: ‘central to the very immediacy of this experience is a gap that carries the force of the event and does so precisely at the expense of simple knowledge and memory’ (1995, 7). Kath’s death is indeed first and foremost represented as a narrative gap, since the protagonists cannot bring themselves to discuss it, and the adultery subplot both diverts the attention and reactivates the initial shock of her violent death. The language of ellipsis, aposiopesis and fragmentation inscribes the irrecoverable and unbearable nature of this memory in the text: ‘everything of hers was cleared out. Back then. When she. When.’ (2), ‘Kath . . . Polly could not bear to think of that (214), ‘Kath . . . died’ (72). Despite its multi-perspectival nature, the text is uniformly filled with clipped sentences, incomplete thoughts and figures of reticence, in each of the protagonists’ separate sections. As Cynthia S. Hamilton argues in Detective Fiction as Trauma Literature, ‘in trauma, as in detective fiction, violence ruptures experience, precipitating incomprehension, disorientation, and fragmentation’ (2015, 16). Such experiential violence is represented both visually and linguistically and suicide remains incomprehensible and inexpressible in the novel: the word itself is never uttered by any of the protagonists.

13By shifting the focus of the investigation, Lively gives a new raison d’être to the revival of detective fiction. The shift hinges on the role of the ‘witness,’ a term that moves on from the judicial and criminal sense to the testimonial and traumatic one. While the opening chapters of the novel focus on ‘the list of witnesses’ (116) in Kath’s memory trial, those expressions are gradually replaced with more ethical statements such as ‘[Kath is] forever provoking some new testimony’ (158), in order to try and uncover the reasons that led to her suicide, a much more complex ‘story of crime’ that initially appeared. A new apprehension of memory from multiple angles then turns Glyn’s fake ‘private memoir of Kath’ (120) into a real, metatextual one, in order to reveal the lost negative of the photograph and lead to a memorial rebirth of the deceased (as Denis Mellier argues, one of detective fiction’s goals is to bring to light what used to remain behind the scenes, ‘faire surgir l’envers des choses,’ 1999, 10).

Resurrecting Kath: Towards Empathetic Rebirth?

  • 9 Chapter 3 also brings ‘Elaine and Glyn’ (55) together, and shows how the shock wave caused by the d (...)

14In order to reconstruct the past and get to the root of Kath’s suicide, since the model of solitary ratiocination ultimately proves fallible, Lively foregrounds the need to ‘get things into perspective’ (22), not just by building a kaleidoscope of points of view but by representing the multiplication of those angles as ethical encounters. Consequently, an unexpected side-effect of Glyn’s furious investigation turns out to be an emotional (re)birth or awakening: ‘he is in pursuit of lovers right now, but it is these others who are unsettling his life, stirring up these unaccustomed feelings of . . . of what?’ (132). From ‘lover’ to ‘other,’ the wronged husband learns to take into account dissident stories of Kath’s past. Glyn’s emotionally-detached interrogations engender an acknowledgement of his own and others’ vulnerability, which Jean-Michel Ganteau defines as ‘the capacity to be affected, and equally that of opening to the other’s vulnerability and trauma’ (2015, 74). Indeed, the emotional ‘punctum’ (or ‘wound,’ if one follows Barthes terminology, 1980, 49) caused by the initial photograph leads to a shift in perspective and a reassessment of Kath’s existence that punctures the protagonist’s complacency. The renewal of vision that turns detective fiction tropes into an ethical tool constitutes a form of literary resumption that accommodates both the grieving protagonists’ desire to raise Kath from the dead and their own return to life. The story of investigation thus shifts from criminal evidence to a tentative memorialisation of Kath (as a person and not a research subject anymore): ‘[Glyn] wants to retrieve Kath, as never before’ (197). The confrontational interrogations of suspects turn into encounters with witnesses, which reveal a newfound sense of empathy, considered by many a contemporary British writer as an essential part of fiction-writing. While Ian McEwan describes it as the ‘foundation of our moral sense’ (in Wells 2010, 126), for Graham Swift, ‘[empathy is] an ability to get a flavour, a little sort of vibration of what someone else experiences’ (in Bernard 1997, 224). In the novel’s chapter titles, the initial focalisation on the perspectives of ‘Glyn’ (1) or ‘Elaine’ (chapter 2, 28) is later expanded into ‘Glyn and Kath’ (chapter 8, 113) or ‘Elaine and Kath’ (chapter 10, 144), as if Kath’s ghostly presence in the text forced an ethical opening out onto the other.9 While chapters 5 (‘Elaine and Nick,’ 86) and 6 (‘Glyn and Oliver,’ 99) are antagonistic in nature, the preposition ‘and’ in the chapter titles gradually turns confrontation into a sense of shared perspective. The only way of reaching the truth of Kath’s ‘story of crime’ is to achieve an empathetic understanding of her past and resurrect her perspective.

In her study of Lively’s representation of memory, Dorothea Birke remarks:
The novel [offers a positive outlook] on collective commemoration. It suggests that a fuller understanding of the past is achieved not through a collation of objective records, but a negotiation of subjective witness accounts. The photograph has to be interpreted—a task that can only be achieved by talking to witnesses, people who turn out to have new and sometimes surprising views on Kath. Remembering is thus represented as a never-ending conversation that can itself foster connections. (2018, 206)

  • 10 Birke insists on the impossibility of reconstructing an impartial story of the past/crime: ‘while L (...)

15This argument puts at the heart of the ‘story of investigation’ postmodernism’s claim that there is no ‘objective meaning to reality’ (Moran 1997, 104) and that each of the characters’ perspectives can deconstruct and reconstruct Kath’s memory. Since there can be no authoritative account of the past, the plasticity of shared memory and relational emotion thus replaces the initial rationalisation of inquiry.10

16Indeed, the main character rebirth from the Sherlock Holmes formula is that of the naïve sidekick named Watson, who becomes a crucial character here, both as the photographer whose picture sets the narrative in motion, and as a former friend of Kath and her family. Whereas in the Sherlock stories, Watson’s clumsiness and narrative deficiency are comedic (Eisenzweig 1986, 105), in The Photograph, where his last name is seldom mentioned, Oliver Watson is an agent of truth and a foil to Glyn’s would-be Sherlock, as he emphasises Kath’s humanity and pays tribute to her from his first appearance: ‘“Kath is now my area of study”, “But she’s not an area,” Oliver interrupts, goaded. “She’s a woman. Was”” (101). Oliver’s genuine interest in Kath carves another path for the investigation of the past, and paves the way for a more complete memory of Kath that eschews abstraction and gives her back her identity as a woman. Oliver’s perspective contributes to re-incarnate Kath and go beyond the superficial memories that focus exclusively on her astounding beauty (‘she was so pretty, 138, 173).

  • 11 From the start, Glyn comes upon major clues and leaves them unexplored. For instance, when he disco (...)

17Moreover, the conventional ending of detective fiction is a scene that asserts the detective’s superiority, when he/she assembles all the suspects for a revelatory speech that ‘provides a definitive account of the event, and assigns responsibility’ (Hamilton 2015, 18). Lively twists this convention by devolving this role to Mary Packard, a former friend of Kath’s, who theatrically emerges like a dea ex machina at the end of the story to fully resurrect Kath’s ghost. The rational detective figure is thus replaced with the friendly confidant as the source of narrative authority. Major clues about Kath’s loss of her mother and soul-crushing miscarriages, disseminated in the novel and initially dismissed or ignored by the protagonists, turn out to be crucial to the (re)birthing of the truth and the reconstruction of the past.11 In Mary Packard’s version of events, Kath is no longer simply an object of desire, a staggeringly beautiful woman, but her emotional wounds are exposed and her inability to give birth is underlined as a possible cause of her untimely death. In Mary Packard’s testimony, Kath’s ‘non-babies’ (227) become symbols of the silence that consumed her existence. The negation indicates the absence of birth and flesh, the hole at the centre of Kath’s life, but also her inability to express her own grief. The photographic surface of memory initiates the deceased character’s resurrection by bringing the past into the present, but it is only when the matter is brought into the hands of an artist and sculptor (Mary Packard lives in a studio and works with ‘clay,’ 218) that a more complete and concrete memory of Kath is brought back to life.

18Mary both testifies in the memory trial and repeatedly asks the uncomfortable question ‘didn’t you know?’ (225, 228). Knowledge comes a long way from its scientific and cognitive apprehension at the beginning of the novel to be recast as emotional and intersubjective perceptiveness. Glyn’s status as a wronged victim is complicated by his culpable obliviousness to his wife’s suffering, and the confrontation leaves him ‘uneasy, even chastened’ (178), finally owning up to his past ethical failures. In her study of the novel, Laurence Petit remarks that the photograph’s ekphrasis gives way to an ‘“in-phrasis” of sorts’ (2010, 225), which leads Lively to explore the emotional resonance of this introspective odyssey. In the end, the mystery is (mostly) solved but mourning is not resolved: ‘Glyn knows that he has to find a new way of living with Kath, or rather a way of living with a new Kath. And of living without her, in a fresh sharp deprivation’ (236). The novel closes with the protagonist’s acknowledgement of his wound, which offsets his initial show of callousness.

19The novel’s last scene before the epilogue is a conversation between the two agents of emotional truth, Mary Packard and Oliver Watson, which completes the story of investigation and the story of the crime alike: ‘they bring Kath back to life, passing her to and fro between them. . . . They are also performing a kind of ritual, they are paying tribute. . . . She had an effect, he says. She still is having an effect, says Mary’ (229). The sense of community created by the use of the third person of the plural (‘they’) shows that the final resurrection of Kath through collective memorialising has a healing effect on her mourners. What completes the story of the investigation is not so much the revelation of the ‘story of the crime’ (why Kath killed herself) as the way the protagonists experience an empathetic rebirth in the process of resurrecting the past.

20Lively’s contemporary novel both parodies and elegises 19th-century detective fiction in order to showcase the healing powers of collective memory and mourning. In this ironic take on Renaissance as the matrix of individualism, what is resurrected at the end of the story is not only the hidden plot of Kath’s suicide and its causes but also a regenerative sense of relationality and vulnerability that underlies the characters’ evolution and emotional awakening throughout the novel. As Dennis Porter argues, ‘[detective fiction] is a genre committed to an act of recovery, moving forward in order to move back’ (1981, 29). However, in this tale of delayed grief, the investigation also moves back in order to move forward and pave the way for an ethical view of commemoration. The photograph, the narrative’s ‘murdered body’ or piece of evidence, becomes the instrument of an emotional rebirth for the grievers, but it also leads to a re-incarnation of Kath, which acknowledges her suffering and the harrowing miscarriages that seemed to play a part in her death. The photograph’s inherently elegiac nature has been noted by critics such as Susan Sontag (1976, 16) or Philippe Forest, a French grief memoirist and essay-writer, who states that ‘the image is both a reminder of presence and a reminder of absence: the present sign of an absence’ (2007, 161). The motif of the photograph in the novel thus transforms the ‘narrative vacancy’ at the heart of detective fiction (Eisenzweig 1986, 98) into an elegiac reflection on the liminal status of the dead. Kate’s rebirth remains a spectral phenomenon, an absent presence that shapes a space of ethical opening for the mourners.

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Barthes, Roland, La Chambre claire, Paris: Gallimard, 1980.

Bernard, Catherine, ‘An Interview with Graham Swift,’ Contemporary Literature 38.2 (1997): 217–231.

Birke, Dorothea, ‘Fictions of Personal Memory: The Precarious Character of Remembering and Identity in When We Were Orphans, The Photograph and The Sense of an Ending,’ The British Novel in the Twenty-First Century, eds. Ansgar Nünning and Vera Nünning, Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2018, 201–214.

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1 The latest instalments being the BBC One TV series Sherlock (Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, 2010-present) and the CBS show Elementary (Robert Doherty, 2012–2019), which offer contemporary takes on the famous detective and his sidekick John Watson (who becomes a female character named Joan Watson in the CBS version).

2 Cynthia S. Hamilton’s study of Sara Paretsky’s work (Detective Fiction as Trauma Literature, 2015) offers a detailed analysis of this paradigm shift in its introduction.

3 In the original French text, Todorov provides a more detailed outline of detective fiction’s dual plot: ‘la première [histoire], celle du crime, raconte “ce qui s’est effectivement passé”, alors que la seconde, celle de l’enquête, explique “comment le lecteur (ou le narrateur) en a pris connaissance”’ (1971, 58). In Le Récit impossible, Uri Eisenzweig builds on Todorov’s theory to specify the nature of this duality: the ‘dual narrative structure [opposes] the story of the investigation as told and the story of the crime, which remains to be told’ (1986, 50–51). The temporalities of both stories remain separate (between ‘histoire racontée’ and ‘histoire à raconter,’ 1986, 51).

4 While the characters all share the secret of Kath’s suicide, this piece of information initially remains a blind spot for the reader. In the first chapter, the death is only alluded to, without any clear reference, making it sound like Kath separated from Glyn and might still be alive. This narrative device (which reverses the principle of dramatic irony) therefore showcases the limitations of the characters’ knowledge and understanding.

5 Porter notes that Conan Doyle ‘was inspired to create a detective hero who was a diagnostic genius by the example of a professor of medicine under whom he had studied as an undergraduate’ (1981, 224). In 1929, Marjorie Nicolson published an article entitled ‘The Professor and the Detective,’ in which she studies the similarities between the two professions.

6 Frye also delineates the genre’s affinity with melodrama: ‘detection begins to merge with the thriller as one of the forms of melodrama. In melodrama two themes are important: the triumph of moral virtue over villainy, and the consequent idealising of the moral views assumed to be held by the audience’ (1973, 47). Before verging onto a less clear-cut moral territory, the story opens with Glyn’s black-and-white perspective on Kath’s adultery and secrets.

7 As Michel Hanus remarks in Le Deuil: ‘suicide is a recent expression which emerged approximately two centuries ago; before then, one used the expression “self-murder”’ (1994, 26, my translation). The accusatory undertones of the former expression clearly point to social taboos and stigmatisation of suicide.

8 Although Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s famous identification of five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance), which was expanded on with David Kessler in On Grief and Grieving (2005), is now deemed too systematic, it remains a helpful theoretical model in its attempt to unknot the tangled web of emotions that come with mourning. John Bowlby suggests there are four stages, which can potentially overlap (in his classification, the stages are called ‘numbness,’ ‘yearning,’ ‘disorganisation or despair’ and ‘reorganisation or recovery,’ 1980, 92–93).

9 Chapter 3 also brings ‘Elaine and Glyn’ (55) together, and shows how the shock wave caused by the discovery of the photograph starts to spread into the circle of protagonists.

10 Birke insists on the impossibility of reconstructing an impartial story of the past/crime: ‘while Lively refrains from rendering an authoritative account of the past—there is no chapter that recreates Kath’s own experience—the ending celebrates the careful and empathetic social exchange about the past as a way of approximating it’ (2018, 206).

11 From the start, Glyn comes upon major clues and leaves them unexplored. For instance, when he discovers Kath’s correspondence with her dead mother, he files it all away: ‘Glyn sees no reason to be interested in these and pushes them back into the file unread’ (4). In the penultimate chapter, Mary Packard addresses Elaine and offers a new perspective on those missing pieces of the puzzle: ‘your mother dying when she did. That accounts for much, says Mary. Didn’t you know? There is an edge to her voice; Elaine is uncomfortable’ (228).

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Héloïse Lecomte, « Sherlocking One’s Way into Empathetic and Generic (Re)birth: (In)quests of Mourning in Penelope Lively’s The Photograph (2003) »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 62 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2022, consulté le 19 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Héloïse Lecomte

Héloïse Lecomte is an alumna of the École Normale Supérieure de Lyon, who completed her PhD under the supervision of Vanessa Guignery. Her research focuses on the narrative poetics of mourning and narrative elegies in contemporary British and Irish fiction, and more particularly in the novels of Ian McEwan, Ali Smith, Penelope Lively, Graham Swift, Anne Enright and John Banville. Together with Alice Borrego, she was the co-organiser of an online international conference ‘Invisible Lives, Silent Voices in the British Literature, Arts and Culture of the 20th and 21st Centuries’ in October 2020. She will be spearheading the transdisciplinary seminar ‘Invisible Lives Silent Voices’ with Alice Borrego and philosopher Guillaume le Blanc, starting in October 2021. She has published articles in peer-reviewed journals such as Estudios irlandeses and Études britanniques contemporaines.

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