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Sunday, 14 June 2020

The D. Case by Carlo Fruttero and Franco Lucentini (and Charles Dickens)

Together, Carlo Fruttero (1926-2012) and Franco Lucentini (1920-2002) wrote several crime novels, short stories, and collections of criticism from the 1960s until Lucentini’s death. I’m not familiar with their work, but understand that they have a fair following in Italy and that The D. Case, or, the Truth about the Mystery of Edwin Drood (1989) is unusual, even given their trademark humour and strangeness.

In some ways, The D. Case is a work of criticism masquerading as a novel. In others, it’s a parody of detective fiction and the shoe-horning in of social commentary. Mainly, though, it’s just a weird and fascinating read.

There are two narratives here: Charles Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood, famously unfinished at his death, is republished chapter by chapter and interspersed with a ‘contemporary’ narrative in which multiple detectives from the pages of fiction gather together at a conference to try and determine the ending.

I have probably missed some, but these are the fictional detectives I spotted: Sherlock Holmes (and Watson), Hercule Poirot (and Hastings), Dr Thorndyke (and Astley), Nero Wolfe (and Goodwin), Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer who form an amusing double act, basically doing the same thing at all times – with one being famously considered a rip-off of the other, Father Brown, Superintendent Battle, Sergeant Cuff, Hercule Popeau, Toad-in-the-Hole (the anti-hero in Thomas de Quincey’s ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’), Porfiry Petrovich(!), Inspector Bucket, Gideon Fell, Dupin, and Maigret.

The detectives bicker and divide themselves into cliques – including over the question of whether The Mystery of Edwin Drood is a mystery novel or a psychological thriller. Plagiarism is a constant discussion, as character quarrel over whether Dickens plagiarised Wilkie Collins and whether Robert Louis Stevenson plagiarised Dickens. Hercule Poirot is forced at several points to confront the fact that he himself exists as a result of Agatha Christie plagiarising Marie Belloc Lowndes’ Hercule Popeau (there’s no mention of M. Poiret). Yes, the characters are perfectly happy in their own fictionality – including Inspector Bucket, who knows he was created by Dickens. Sherlock Holmes remains oddly silent because he knows that Arthur Conan Doyle contacted Dickens in a séance and asked for the solution. So, he already knows the truth.

Throughout, existing (real-life) theories and proposed solutions to Dicken’s novel are brought up and evaluated before Poirot presents the ‘truth’ – not only about how the novel should end but also why it was never finished. This theory, so outlandish and like something out of a crime novel that it works in a work of fiction and not in a work of literary criticism, is universally accepted and, at the end of the book, universally hushed up. The 'D.' in 'D. Case' turns out to stand for three things: Drood, Dickens, and the fourth solution proposed.

Since plagiarism forms such a lively element of the discourse throughout – including being at the heart of Poirot’s solution – it is interesting that Fruttero and Lucentini seem not to have been too bothered about copyright infringement. Perhaps this can be classed as parody, but I don’t really know enough about copyright law to know how it works. In my English translation (but not, a friend tells me, in the original Italian), Agatha Christie Limited is thanked for permission to use the character of Poirot – but no other author or estate is thanked, and there is no reference to the other Christie characters: Hastings and Battle. Nonetheless, The D Case counts technically as the first authorised Hercule Poirot continuation novel. Mystery upon mystery!

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