The Sociality of Crime
This is part of a #FridayFlashback series of rereleased essays. This piece looks at two, sequential novels by Michelle Angharad Pashley, Black Sheep Cottage and The Remains of the Dead. This was first published Oct 12 2018.
Set between 2012 and 2013 in London, Yorkshire and Paris, with events going back to the mid 00s, Michelle Angharad Pashley’s literary thrillerBlack Sheep Cottage gravitates around a crime, circling closer and closer to the the tragic events often through seemingly unrelated occurrences. This calamity, rather than any character, provides the novel’s main focus. Our third person perspective, which avoids internal monologues in favour of rich description and well observed, fast-paced dialogue, flits from Erica to her friend Maggie to Jay-Jay and the detective Joe. It thereby situates its characters as people defined by interrelationships and a single violence that defines those bonds.
Pashley evokes these characters' depths through the shared regards and antipathies they hold for one another, using suggestion to encourage the reader to look beyond surfaces and interact imaginatively with the text. Like many a detective story, Paul Auster’sThe New York Trilogy for example, Pashley also makes use of the parallels between investigation as a subject and the necessary activity of the reader in engaging with the story.
One of the ways we are invited to adopt a critical view of events from the start is the very absence of an authoritative perspective. Well conceived, flawed but often sympathetic people such as Dave, Erica, Maggie, Winton, Jay-Jay, Penny and Joe come in and out of one another’s lives, but we as readers are only attached to the viewpoint that is most relevant to the crime itself—most often, the concerned and clever friend and serious-minded detective.
As the tension mounts, the fact we know these people chiefly through their attachments to one another means that the puzzle and clever foreshadowing gives way to pathos and poignancy, without either being sacrificed to the other.. The novel goes unexpected directions, but it’s greatest accomplishment is that it leaves us as readers more concerned for its cast than just the analytic games that often preoccupy the genre. The proleptic first chapter demonstrates how the switch from analysis to touching social observation is achieved—the in medias res here invites us to work out what is going on, but as we continue, we not only perceive events differently, but crucially it is the people as much as the mystery we regard with more nuance and care.
With her astute eye to characterisation and suspense, Pashley’s The Remains of the Dead picks up from Black Sheep Cottage and develops an even subtler view of the human condition through the genre’s versatile motifs and devices. In keeping with the approach of the prior book, the third person perspective roams as the centrality of the crime demands. However, here it is much more wedded to the detective character, Madeline. Still, Pashley finds two new ways to stress the complex links between characters over a single, static, ‘objective’ view from nowhere. And in doing so, she keeps the series fresh and inventive.
In the first instance, there’s the book’s deft intertextuality. Parallels emerge between Black Sheep Cottage and The Remains of the Dead, such as how Madeline and her junior Rose interact similarly to the dynamics established between Joe and his junior Harry. More substantively, references are made to Madeline’s case in Black Sheep Cottage, which serve as apt foreshadowing; the novels take place simultaneously, which gives a sense of depth to a fictional world in which we always know that something else is happening elsewhere. In Black Sheep Cottage we hear of ‘a tricky child abduction case’ that Madeline ‘was working on back in June.’ Such details are not mere teasers, but reiterate Pashley’s concern with the way people and events are connected and defined by these connections.
Additionally, The Remains of the Dead makes much of the harrowing nature of the rupture implied by its crime, involving infants, emphasising even more the delicate and profound importance that people have for one another, which even the novel’s red herrings and subplots make much of. We witness the limitations of working alone too, the failure to make use of a broader web of people and perspectives available, in the interactions between Madeline and the other main POV character—an investigative journalist, Guy, who adds an epistolary dimension to the novel.
Both of these books are marked not only by the mystery we expect of crime fiction, but a breadth of social observation that is singular. It elevates the series and leaves you thinking about its characters long after finishing.
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