Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Other House (1896)

In which Henry James takes his turn at murder mystery, based on a play idea for which he never found financing. The murder mystery story at this point in history arguably still barely existed, in terms of what it would become in the 20th century, although Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories were on the scene by this time, and mystery stories in general already had a long history. But I think by most standards The Other House is an unusual version of the type, certainly different from what we'd learn to expect from a Holmes story or, say, Agatha Christie or Raymond Chandler. For example, the murder in this novel does not occur until the end of the second third. For various reasons the whole thing is a grotesque exercise. The comedy of manners, a game of who marries who, is still the main point of the action and informs James's guiding instincts. It's a heartless crime, which nonetheless no one seems much bothered by. And no, this is no send up of British aristocracy, though they populate it almost exclusively. The motive for the crime is to make a marriage possible, the result of a strange deathbed scene and a promise made. It plays more like comedy, and the killer gets away. How droll. James is again using a novel to play with current trends. Previously it has been feminism, Marxism, and bohemianism, and now, at a remove from life itself, it is the murder mystery, originally intended for the stage. I admit I enjoyed it as I enjoy reading all James to an extent, and I admit I was equally exasperated, also more or less as usual, by the strange indeterminacies of the language. Lots of pronoun abuse, elegant turns of phrase rhythmically that obscure their meanings (sometimes fatally) and always require us to do most of the work. He's in a more formally British period now, with fewer Americans and Europeans dominating as types, or even around at all. I guess in some ways I'm reading all this so you don't have to. You're welcome. This is low priority but worth a look for anyone casting a wider James net. He's another American author, like William Faulkner, for whom finding a single definitive masterpiece is tricky business and rarely agreed on beyond pluralities. Regardless, this will never be high on the list for James.

"interlocutor" count = 10 / 340 pages (include "interlocutress")

In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)

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