Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Book Review: Riot Most Uncouth

Riot Most Uncouth: A Lord Byron Mystery
Daniel Friedman

There have, in recent years, been far too many mysteries featuring historical characters as detectives. The subgenre has honorable antecedents, including Lillian de la Torre's "Dr. Sam: Johnson, Detector" series, but the current trend--detectivizing everyone from Jane Austen to Eleanor Roosevelt--is generally mere gimmickry.

So why did I pick this up? Partly because I'd recently been talking about Tim Powers's The Stress of Her Regard. Partly because the incongruity of the idea of a Romantic Poet Detective appealed to me. And partly because badly I needed reading material.

Rather to my surprise, I sort of enjoyed Riot Most Uncouth. It deliberately inverts the philosophical underpinnings of the traditional detective story, but in so doing it manages to be a little bit thought-provoking. It's surprisingly true to its protagonist and its (admittedly unlikely) premise.

It's that Enlightenment-vs.-Romanticism thing going on again. The classical mystery is an Enlightenment artifact. That is, it's grounded in the beliefs that:

  • There is an objective truth.
  • It can be discovered by human reason.
  • Collecting measurable, observable facts is of value in that endeavor. 
  • Doing so matters.
Romanticism tends to deny all of those things. In the Romantic sensibility, human reactions are important. Dead facts are not. 

The inversion shows up in several ways. The characters discuss it in the course of the book, for one thing. The plot itself is an over-the-top Grand Guignol--I lost track of how many murders were actually committed. Nor are these Christiesque I-say-let's-poison-rich-uncle-Alfred-before-he-changes-his-will murders. The phrase "buckets of blood" is not metaphorical here.

More fundamentally, the book's ending is itself ambiguous. There's an apparent solution to the crimes, but the twist is that two other solutions are also presented--both consistent with the facts. One of them is a self-interested (and successful) ploy by the protagonist, thus calling into question the value of "truth". The other is explicitly non-rational, but it explains some things that the "real" solution doesn't ... and it makes sense to Byron himself.

Some philosophers, such as Isaiah Berlin, refer to a "Counter-Enlightenment". By that language, Riot Most Uncouth is sort of a Counter-Mystery. I don't know that I'll necessarily leap upon the inevitable sequels with cries of joy, but it's an unusual and even arresting piece of work.

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