'If the purpose of detection is the discovery of hidden identity, the effect of the process of detection is the forging of new identities for the characters caught up in it.' Discuss some of the tensions that arise in the treatment of 'identity' in detective and crime fiction in the light of this comment.

The mainstream has lost its way... Crime fiction is an objective, realistic genre because it's about the real world, real bodies really being killed by somebody. And this involves the investigator in trying to understand the society that the person lived in.[1]

As Michael Dibdin states, modern fiction has never been more involved with the attempt to produce accurate representations and discussions of genuine issues within society. These issues include the postmodernist revelation of reality as illusion, identity as a construct of both the subject and of wider society, and way in which meaning drifts and has tended in this era to polarise definitions towards acceptance of multiple alternative identities whilst remaining hostile to true fluidity.

The detective in crime fiction operates by transgressing boundaries of identities to become simultaneously enough a part of society to operate within it, but also far enough removed from it to be an objective observer. Deception is a necessary and constant part of the detective's working routine, and Saz, Zen, Holmes and virtually all others are called upon to often misrepresent their intentions and identities.

There is a need for definable boundaries of identity to exist, in order for the detective to 'pigeonhole' suspects and evidence, but for the detective themselves to operate outside of this: to this the proverb 'sending a thief to catch a thief' finds easy application. If the criminal is problematised for possession of multiple identities, the same can be said of the detective on his or her trail, although this issue may go unacknowledged or concealed by the author. It remains, however, that only the consideration of intent that separates the law-breaking transgressor and the pursuer, as Holmes remarks in The Adventure Of The Bruce-Partington Plans: "It is fortunate for this community that I am not a criminal."[2]

The detective narrative reveals that people are more complex than the pigeonholes they occupy, the work of Michael Dibdin and Stella Duffy especially revealing that people are almost always more than they seem. This universality of concealment gives rise to the problem that, if everyone were duplicitous with their identities moving towards the fluid, no norms would exist in which deception could be uncovered. Fortunately, since fluid identities are usually constrained by various limiting factors (such as the laws of physics and the sanity of the subject) into merely multiple ones, detection, though problematic, may remain possible.

Broadly, the tradition has been for identities to be rigidly constructed from social and economic factors in the life of a subject, making the only chaotic elements the mobile wealthy. Neither Cabal nor Beneath The Blonde do anything particularly to radically challenge this basic situation, perhaps best illustrated by situations in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, in which crimes are perpetrated by those with the economic power to either alter their identity ("A Case Of Identity", "The Man With The Twisted Lip") or otherwise render them able operate with impunity ("The Speckled Band".) Both works manage to be fantastical, in ways of gender politics or corruption, offering reassurance to the reader that crime is in essence unusual and resolvable by detectives who are not entirely of this reality. The common reassurance of detective fiction is that the unusual will 'stay in the books', since the complex red herrings are inextricable from the crime. The everyday deception ("he'd schemed and grafted to grant her the independence she wanted, and then conceal from her that it was all a sham, subsidized by him"[3]) is familiarised and ignored as a problem.

Detective and crime fiction is concerned like no other genre with defining itself by its necessitation of differences and similarities to established writings, and in addition to this, we must consider writing as an offshoot of an author's personal micronarrative of identity. Soon, the question is ultimately arrived at as to how radical any supposedly subversive narrative can be. Taking Beneath The Blonde as an example, in which one of the major plot devices and red herrings is transexualism: having characters change sex is hardly original. I am steadily losing track of the number of instances I can observe this in fiction: Weis & Perrin's 'Knights of The Black Earth' series, Ian Rankin's 'Culture' novels, Coronation Street, to say nothing of a generational diet of the Jerry Springer show. There is very little original left underneath the sun. However, what detective fiction can still reveal to us is the extent to which Western society is unprepared to accept a freeing of identity from the singular or multiple (and ultimately finite) into the infinite and fluid.

The novels themselves require a basic reference point, operating as an extension of the author's own narrative: books usually exhibit frequent reference to an author's personal spectrum of knowledge. "The action of Beneath the Blonde moves eventually to New Zealand, where the author - who comes from that country - is very much on home territory."[4]

The web goes on to quote Stella Duffy as saying "Tart Noir is Miss Marple in the library with a magnum of champagne, a gram of Columbia's finest and Colonel Mustard in handcuffs", something I find incredibly interesting because its premise functions upon the appropriation of pre-existing literary characters, and like detective fiction, actively requires the presence of something to subvert in order to function. It also reveals the necessary connection between narratives that permit the genre, and broadens the scope of the interrelation towards personal narratives of reality. The characters caught up in the specific detection process are but a fraction of the author's reality; which is something Cabal outshines Beneath The Blonde in illustrating—everyone appears to operate his or her own unseen agenda. Therefore, though Beneath The Blonde might be considered more the radically politicised of the two novels I am examining, I would argue that Cabal is by far the more radical herald of fluid identity, especially as since, despite the fact that Duffy seems concerned with dynamically subverting certain particular prejudices (such as presenting lesbianism by example as a stable alternative lifestyle), occasionally she falls into replacing them with new ones: "Girls fucking boys is ordinary."[5]. It may, I venture, be interpreted as a study of what becomes of a society in which all members of society take upon themselves the role of the detective, constantly being on the guard for those who are not what they appear, and concealing themselves in turn from the equally paranoid. It is, however, subtly present in Beneath The Blonde: "Judith foolishly trusted that everyone declared everything as honestly as she did. Except, of course, her sexuality."[6]

Sexuality is a key aspect of personal identity, and it is to this I now wish to turn. There has been a societal trend towards the acceptance of alternate identities, such as homosexual and heterosexual, but the alternatives are still limited — those in-between categories (such as bisexuals or transsexuals like Greg) often find themselves outcast by all. The alternatives still require validation by a group who actively support, express and embody that alternative. It is something that Duffy is highly aware of:

If the world were a different place, I might use the word bisexual to describe my own sexuality ... [but] in common usage the word bisexual implies doing it with both. Not capable of doing it with both but actually, right now, at the same time (or maybe a couple of hours apart) ... We don't use the word bisexual to describe sexual potential; we use it to describe sexual reality ... 'Gay or straight? Quick! Make up your mind and stick to it -forever!'[7]

Her worry is borne out by the portrayal of multiple identities within relationships in other fiction, typically seen as duplicitous and the cause of conflict, no matter how much attempt is made to rationalise it as universal and equal ("If she was making use of him, then he would make use of her. That way they were quits." [8]) Somehow, the past is always nostalgically remembered as containing the possibility of stability, an attachment to fixed identities that never truly existed. What cause Zen's headaches are his resistance to the changes, which movements within identity cause, and his attachment to his preconceptions. That his defensive distrust of everything does not extend to his home life, and ultimately he relies upon appearances, is the source of much disabusing. The stun grenades he purchases "might not look much, but they packed one hell of a punch".[9] More specifically, there is the situation between Zen and Tania, which he has extreme difficulty in rationalising:

"Things notoriously turned out differently from what one had expected, of course, but Zen was so used to them turning out worse, or at any rate less, that he found himself continually disconcerted by what had actually happened. ... She loved him, but she didn't want to live with him. This fact was equally real as the first, yet to Zen they were incompatible. How could you love someone with that passionate intensity, yet still insist on keeping your distance?"[10]

He finds his situation aporiac, feels that there must be a decision between two conflicting positions of identification, and wishes to reduce the multiple aspects of Tania's identity to a single one resolvable by his conservative mind. It is not so much an uncovering of hidden identities as a desire to firmly bury them.

Overwhelmingly, Zen typifies the desire to define ones self and ones world, rather than have the definition of another imposed upon one. This is rather aptly attempted in the TartCity.com introduction and mission statement:

Tart. It's a potent four-letter word. Sweet, sour, sharp, sexy, bad, with a touch of cheesecake. It seemed to sum up the detectives in a certain segment of the crime fiction genre ... These are neofeminist women, half Philip Marlowe, half femme-fatale,...[11]

Redefinition of identity is here attempted through appropriation of vocabulary and predicated upon existing stereotypes, even though Duffy realises that for such an adjustment of identity to function, others have to agree with her redefinition:

'... didn't realise I was gay when he started slagging off queers.' 'I guess he didn't know it was a reclaimed word then either?' 'It's not reclaimed the way he uses it. Nor are nigger, paki, or not—in his mouth—girl.'[12]

People are resistant to notions of fluidity or multiplicity. Immediately following the conservatively childish statement "You can't change the game."[13] Shona decides that she wants to do just that, but she only wants to change it to another singular alternative. She makes the admission that identity is malleable, but only so far, asking: "aren't we all something else really? Underneath?"[14], and desperately clinging to the essentialist belief that internal narrative constitutes an independent self. In her critique of contemporary media, Duffy illustrates more specific examples of unbalanced notions of identity and occupying multiple pigeonholes:

If and when Jerry Seinfeld appears in a new sitcom he will be judged as Jerry Seinfeld. Not as a representative of all men, all comedy men, or even all comedy men who happen to be Jewish. When Ellen Degeneres does the same, her work is judged as a woman, then as a lesbian, finally as a comedian.[15]

On the Dibdin side of things, the Falco sales line (that 'you are what you wear'[16] and that "in the late twentieth century it was ideologically gauche to suggest otherwise"[17]) is highly disruptive to a society of singular and limited identities, yet its precise words strikingly echo the conservative line of those such as Zen's mother[18]. A similar point of view has motivated class revolutions throughout history; the dangerous conception that one could alter ones place in society through ones own agency. As Raimondo identifies: "what people wanted from their clothes was ... They wanted to be able to put on a new personality like putting on a shirt. ... It was a search for metamorphosis, for transcendence."[19] However, rather than simply making clear his state of sought immediately changeable and perpetually self-reinventing identity, he approaches it from the perspective of a division of self into multiple parts: "He was no longer Falcone, but Falco. If Falco were to be revealed as a void, an illusion, then what would become of him?"[20] The Falco identity is both an empowerment and a disempowerment, because Raimondo ultimately considers a fluid personality a negation rather than an infinite. Even duality is abhorrent to him. His acceptance is flawed, as can easily be seen:

He'd been shocked to find himself the object of that kind of attention, just because he'd put on a skirt and blouse. Of course this merely confirmed what he'd claimed all along — fixed categories were an illusion, you were what you appeared to be — but it was one thing to theorize about such things, quite another to see a man eye you up and down in that smug, knowing way.[21]

Something very similar occurs towards the conclusion of Beneath The Blonde, when Saz suffers her own crisis of political correctness:

"It had been easier to know who and what when queer just meant gay and wasn't likely to also include women who loved men who were once women and men who loved women who were going to become men and women who loved women but quite liked men too sometimes and men who didn't care who they loved as long as they were loved back and every other trans-gender permutation that now gathered under the fluttering and expanding rainbow flag."[22]

Even as Siobhan's assumption of an on-stage identity turns her into an easily visible target, she holds onto the belief that off-stage, "even drag queens get to take their heels off at home!"[23], denying that fundamentally it is not what she believes, but what other people see, which makes her easily accessible as a target in whichever identity she wears. In the confusion, new identities may indeed appear to be created; in 'reality', however, it is the changing perceptions of others that dictate identity, defined by the interrelation of personal narratives.

And, as Shona says: "who gave you permission to be reborn?"[24]


Stella Duffy, Fancy a flirt with a bit of skirt? http://www.guardian.co.uk/women/story/0,3604,295850,00.html

Stella Duffy, Beneath The Blonde, Serpent's Tail (London), 2000

Michael Dibdin, Cabal, Faber & Faber (London), 1993

Arthur Conan Doyle, Gutenberg e-texts of the complete Sherlock Holmes,

http://www.gutenberg.net (accessed Feb 2001)

Author unknown, Michael Dibdin, Author Details: (accessed April 2001)


Interview by Nick Wroe, Zen And The Art Of Serial Thrilling: (accessed April 2001)


Author unknown, Zen And The Art Of The Deft Conceit: (accessed April 2001)


Reading on Stella Duffy from tartcity.com & femaledetective.com (accessed April 2001), specifically including but somewhat more extensive than:






Rivkin & Ryan (ed.), Literary Theory: An Anthology, Blackwell, 2000

[1] Quoted at http://books.guardian.co.uk/authors/author/0,5917,-56,00.html (accessed 20th April 2001)

[2] From the Gutenberg e-text, available at http://www.gutenberg.net (accessed 16th Feb 2001)

[3] Dibdin, p16

[4] femaledetective.com

[5] Duffy, tartcity.com

[6] Duffy, p85

[7] Duffy, Fancy A Flirt With A Bit Of Skirt?

[8] Dibdin, p123

[9] Dibdin, p262

[10] Dibdin, p16

[11] Duffy, tartcity.com

[12] Duffy, p5

[13] Duffy, p89

[14] Duffy, p62

[15] Duffy, tartcity.com

[16] Dibdin, p175

[17] Dibdin, p259

[18] Dibdin, p185

[19] Dibdin, p259

[20] Dibdin, p269

[21] Dibdin, p267

[22] Duffy, p221

[23] Duffy, p23

[24] Duffy, p2 (my emphasis)