Blakespotting: Red John and Blake’s Tyger in The Mentalist

Somewhat belatedly, I have recently been taking an interest in the CBS series The Mentalist, my attention having been drawn to a Blakean allusion in the final episode of season two.

For those who have not had a chance to see it yet, The Mentalist is a police procedural series set in Sacramento, following an independent consultant, Patrick Jane (Simon Baker), who uses his skills as a psychic medium to investigate crimes. This hokum is given a certain pleasant cynicism by being revealed to be a con on Jane’s part, though it lands him in considerable trouble after he claims that those skills helped police profile a serial killer named Red John.

Jane uses talents for hyper-observation in the Dumas-Holmes school of detective work to uncover crimes, but it is Red John, the main antagonist, who is probably of most interest to Blake spotters. Having killed Jane’s wife and daughter, he becomes Jane’s arch-enemy, considering himself a showman and artist who leaves his signature “crying smiley” drawn with the blood of his victims. The connection with Blake comes at the end of season two, in the episode “Red Sky in the Morning”. Rescuing Jane from two copycat killers, but keeping his face hidden behind a mask, he recites the first stanza of “The Tyger” to Jane before leaving. You can see the scene at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vnzc4IyQfag.

There has been a rather persistent connection between Blake and serial killers for some time now, the most famous being Hannibal Lecter (who employs Blakean motifs) and Francis Dolarhyde, the antagonist of the first Lecter novel, Red Dragon. Other examples of this link include Michael Dibdin’s novel Dark Spectre, which deals with a murderous cult built up around Blake’s works, and Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell, in which Jack the Ripper/Sir William Gull cites Blake as an explanation for the esoteric motives behind his murder. The best of these writers understand that to use Blake in such a way is an obvious perversion of Blake’s philosophy, but in popular imagination it sometimes appears that the proverb of hell, “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires”, has been taken as an injunction to commit any atrocity rather than to avoid the cause of such perversity in the first place, the nursing of those unacted desires.

Red John is clearly of that category of intelligent, even artistic, sociopath that is so beloved of fiction, and by citing “The Tyger” we are obviously intended to understand his actions as being beyond normal conceptions of good and evil, a pop-version of the Nietzschean superman. I’ve always been extremely sceptical of this tendency to view Blake as some sort of proto-satanic antihero, and there is a certain melancholy for me in the fact that one of the most pacifist of the Romantic writers has frequently been invoked to support what far too often is the banality of evil. Blake’s radical Christianity is far more of a challenge (particularly for a secular atheist such as myself, though I take a certain wry pleasure in the fact that Blake would have seen many Christians as worshiping the god of this world).

In programs such as The Mentalist, then, Blake is a shorthand cipher, a means of generating instant depth and relative profundity: a dash of mysticism, a splash of obscurity and suddenly the villain becomes much more interesting. Despite my own sarcasm here, I am (as always) immensely pleased to see this particular zoamorph on the screens, demonstrating just why Blake can work as such a cipher because of his popularity, and The Mentalist‘s combination of psychic hokum and rationalist demystification (neither of which is allowed entirely to gain the upper hand over the other) gives the program a particular edge that raises it above plenty of other detective shows. In every series, Jane parades his scepticism over every aspect of paranormal activities, displaying an unorthodox yet still slightly Urizenic rationalism; by asking him the immortal question of who dares frame the tyger’s fearful symmetry, Red John dissolves such certainty and shows some of the fragility of Jane’s reasonable world view.

Alice Thompson – The Existential Detective

The Existential Detective. Alice Thompson
Two Ravens Press, 2010. pp. 166. £9.99. ISBN: 978-1806120511.

This is the fifth novel by Alice Thompson, a writer I have not encountered before (although I did once own The Woodentops debut album – Thompson was keyboard player in that group). The Existential Detective is a crime novel in which private investigator William Blake is hired to find a missing woman. The title of the novel, the fact that the main protagonist is named after Blake, and even the front cover – Giorgio de Chirico’s The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street – led me to expect a very different novel to that provided by Thompson. Instead of the abstract, perhaps surrealistic and philosophical novel that I had anticipated reading, this is a rather grim, more hard-boiled book dealing with prostitution, voyeurism and paedophilia in the Edinburgh seaside resort of Portobello. It’s not as downbeat as, say, Derek Raymond’s I Was Dora Suarez, but it is very far from the magical realist style of novels that normally invoke Blake, or even the slightly academic approach if somewhat grittier approach of Michael Dibdin’s 1995 crime novel, Dark Spectre.

So thoroughly were my expectations trounced that, on first reading, I found this novel extremely dissatisfying – although, aware that this was based on the strong initial bias on my part I reread it almost immediately and was more rewarded by Thompson’s thoughtful and dark explorations of desire in a small Scottish town. The novel begins with Blake called in to investigate the disappearance of a young woman, Louise Verver, an amnesiac who has married into a rich family. Discovering that she had recently begun to recover certain memories before her disappearance, as well as the fact that a local prostitute has attempted to blackmail her husband, Blake’s search takes him through brothels and nightclubs, leading him inevitably to perverse secrets hidden away from daily life in this small resort. At the same time, the investigation brings him once more into contact with his divorced wife, Olivia, and revives his own memories of their missing daughter.

An initial disconnect with me was the relevance of naming the protagonist William Blake. It is not that the name is insignificant – Blake’s “The Sick Rose” is cited at one point, while his ex-wife is writing a paper entitled Innocence and Experience in Eighteenth-Century Paintings of Children. Nonetheless, on my first reading I found myself far too concerned with the notion of whether the character of William Blake was offering some form of critique of the poet Blake (as, for example, in J. G. Ballard’s The Unlimited Dream Company) or operated in ignorance of any possible relation, a mere coincidence of names used to ironic effect (as in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man). Reading a second time, and not paying so much attention to “Will Blake” – as he prefers to define himself – enabled me to concentrate more of the features of the book itself. The final denouement is a little flat after preceding events, and on both occasions I found the intrigues around prostitution dispiriting, but this is precisely the point. Thompson’s spare writing style is elegant and controlled, with the unfolding psychology of Blake (whether Will or William) compelling.

Other reviewers have compared the novel to Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, and in unravelling the disintegration of a marriage following the disappearance of a child the comparison is an apposite one. Claims that it subverts the crime genre through surrealist touches, however, are too slight in my opinion to be sustained. The novel works better when viewed as a more conventional generic crime novel, though one that fits with a generation of crime writers such as Dibdin and Ian Rankin. Where Thompson does allow magical-realist moments to emerge (as in the style of Angela Carter, perhaps), the effect is less satisfying, as when Louise mysteriously turns up in a café with a copy of Songs of Innocence and of Experience which Blake picks up to read:

But as he read, the words kept disappearing until he was left with a blank page. He flicked through the rest of the book; all the pages were now blank. Only the title and author’s name on the front remained. He staggered out of the café, leaving the book on the table, and collapsed onto the pavement outside. (54)

This section can still be read in realist mode (Blake is subject to fits and this records his experiences of the scene), but the tendency in passages such as this was for me to read them as fairly heavy-handed symbolism for the content of the novel, with themes of memory and amnesia.

Where Blake’s presence does come alive in the novel, both as character in its pages and as a reference to the engraver and poet, is in the various sections of The Existential Detective that deal with desire:

There was something about depression, he thought, that if you were lucky enough to come out the other end, made you a kind of visionary – like drugs, it was mind-altering. It seemed to give another dimension to reality, a fuller version of it, as if previously the world had seemed a theatrical stage-show of colour. It forged you.

Desire returned with a vengeance, a ferocity. An abstract desire connected to pornography, rather than feeling. Most people lived life in disguise, concealing their own wants so as not to seem greedy. But we were all greedy in the end, greedy for different things. It was part of our humanity.

He was powerless over his desire. He would drive down to Leith harbour where he would see the prostitutes walking up and down the streets, some looking as young as twelve in the semi-darkness, their faces always turning towards the light of a car like moths towards a flame. (44)

The William (as opposed to Will) Blake invoked here is the author of the verse, “In a wife I would desire / What in whores is always found / The lineaments of Gratified desire” (E474), as well as the observer of the youthful harlots whose curse spread as a plague through London in the 1790s. Assuming that Will Blake is a comment on William, then the figure invoked in The Existential Detective is one both aware of the potential destructiveness as well as brilliance of his desire, a part of humanity that if ignored or controlled leads to the callous inhumanity of the cool, intellectual villain of Thompson’s novel, as well as the neglectful, dreary locale of the pub-cum-brothel, the Milton (a nod, of course, to not dissimilar themes in Blake’s epic poem).

I remain unconvinced by the neatness of the ending of The Existential Detective (though this is a personal foible with many crime novels, and I am far from the perfect audience for them). I did however, enjoy the subtlety with which all-too-male William Blake is supplanted in his investigations by two women who are, ultimately, much more effective than him. Thompson’s prose is also a great pleasure to read and if her visionary flights are not quite visionary enough for me, as a serious-minded contemplation of the routes of desire and how they affect our own perceptions this is a potent and effective novel.

Hardcase Crime – John Blake’s lost innocence

Once in a while I encounter some Blakeana that floors me. Mike Goode, in an article from 2006 entitled “Blakespotting”, remarked on the frequently bizarre places that Blake occurs, whether Donald Trump’s library or cookery books, and the novels of the poorly aliased Richard Aleas are a mixture of joy and terror. Part of the Hardcase Crime series, Aleas has written two novels featuring the hardboiled P.I. John Blake.

Blake brings with him all the clichés of a Raymond Chandler novel – or rather, all the imitations of Chandler that are the stock and trade of Hardcase books.  There is plenty of sex and violence, but I haven’t worked out yet, beyond the detective’s name and titles of the book, what exactly these have to do with William Blake. Should I decide to indulge in the pleasures of Little Girl Lost and Songs of Innocence, then I may be enlightened – though I’m not holding my breath just yet.

The first of the two novels, Little Girl Lost, published in 2004, has Blake on the trail of the murderer of Miranda Sugarman, shot to death on the roof of a strip club when she was meant to be working as an eye doctor. The opening paragraphs are, as they say, a doozy:

Visiting a strip club in the middle of the day is like visiting a well-lit haunted house. The magic, such as it is, is gone. At night, the Sin Factory was probably decked out like a casino, with a flashing marquee and a tuxedoed bouncer checking IDs at the door. Maybe even a velvet rope to make the patrons feel special when they were let in. But at three in the afternoon there was no one at the door, the neon was turned off, and even the beat of the music leaking out into the street sounded sluggish and half-hearted.

Under glass in a frame on the door were photos of this week’s featured performers, Mandy Mountains and Rachel Firestone. In her photo, Mandy was cradling breasts some mad doctor had built for her out of equal measures of silicone and cruelty. Rachel’s photo showed a thin brunette straddling a chair backwards, her bare breasts peeking out between the slats. Judging by their shape, hers had gone under the knife as well, but next to Mandy’s, Rachel’s breasts looked almost modest. Either to keep the cops from complaining or to keep passers-by from getting too much of the show for free, management had stuck tiny silver stars over each woman’s nipples. Along the top of the frame, a printed card announced the dates on which each woman would be appearing. Rachel had more than a week left, but tonight was Mandy’s last night.

In the sequel, Songs of Innocence (2007), Blake is investigating a suicide in New York of Dorothy Louise Burke, an investigation that threatens to blow open the sex trade in New York.

Blake (William, rather than John) is not exactly a new fixture in genre crime writing – indeed, Michael Dibdin’s 1995 novel Dark Spectre has achieved a degree of respect among a few Blake critics, handling as it does some of his literary ideas with considerable aplomb and also dealing with the kind of casual misogyny that appears to exist in Aleas’s novels with much more intelligence. (I say appears because I must be honest and reveal that I’ve only read the sample chapters available from the Hardcase web site.)

While, from the little I’ve seen, Aleas doesn’t exactly give “Chandler a run for his money” as Paramour magazine claims, Kevin Burton Smith’s description of the novel as “classic pulp” is a fair one. Perhaps Quentin Tarantino should convert it into a script and mix it up with some good one liners from The Book of Thel