Critical Thought: Armchair

One of the great things Literature can do is take a literary “given” (fairytales, clichés, et al.) and dissect it, isolate it, or move it out of context to explore its further, if any, meanings. “The Armchair Detective,” like Donald Barthelme’s “The Genius,” explores those things in which we’re told God can be found – details – without providing the expected context (a crime). What one person can conclude from a set of random objects could be completely different from another person could conclude. For a few decades in early detective literature, the figure of the armchair detective was a staple: someone who never visited a crime scene but managed to solve a crime by evaluating reports, evidence, and details. Poe was perhaps the earliest to use this figure in “The Mystery of Marie Roget”; later, many authors made their living by creating such brilliant thinkers (Futrelle’s The Thinking Machine, Orczy’s The Old Man in the Corner). “The Armchair Detective” removes the crime from the story, the all-important murder plot and replaces it with random, short accounts of the detective’s eccentric life in the hope that we, as readers, can construct our own conclusions about this figure’s existence and, in turn, allow us to evaluate the banal details of life and find meaning in them for ourselves and, if possible, for the character.

Jon Steinhagen is a Chicago-based writer and actor, Resident Playwright at Chicago Dramatists (www.chicagodramatists.org), a finalist for the first Noël Coward Award (2010), winner of the Julie Harris Playwriting Award in 2009 for his comedy The Analytical Engine, and a nationally produced playwright and composer/lyricist. He wrote the book, music, and lyrics for the musical The Teapot Scandals which received a Jeff Award nomination for Best New Work (and was a featured question on Jeopardy!). His plays include Vexations, Something More Comfortable, Dating Walter Dante, ACES, Ponzi on Sunday, Blizzard ’67, Running With the Pack, and Deb and Debra, as well as the musicals The Arresting Dilemma of Mr. K, Emma & Company, Inferno Beach, and People Like Us. His film essays have been published in Playbills to Photoplays (New England Vintage Film Society) and his short fiction has appeared in kill author, Monkeybicycle, and other publications. He is a member of The Dramatist’s Guild and the Chicago Federation of Musicians, an artistic associate of Porchlight Music Theatre, and a company member of Signal Ensemble Theatre (www.signalensemble.com).

The Armchair Detective

The Armchair Detective is the last person to see the body, but most of the time he doesn’t see the body at all. He prefers to not see the body at all, actually. He likes to be told all about it. He likes the challenge of piecing the scene of the crime together in his mind. “Likes” is not appropriate, come to think of it, nor is “loves.” The Armchair Detective lives for such challenges, for such moments when his keen mind is called upon to solve that which the paid professionals cannot. On those rare occasions when he is called upon to view a victim, he wears evening dress. On those rare occasions when he sees a body, he is overcome by sadness.

When chronicling his cases in fiction, authors give The Armchair Detective ridiculous pseudonyms ranging from the baldly transparent (Herodotus Locke) and badly opaque (H. Poole Coralnacht) to the downright unpronounceable (Cwyllm Szykweskü). His real name is ordinary, easily forgotten. He reads the extraordinarily popular publications in first editions (Bobbs and Merrill, 1922; Plotman Brothers, 1923) and roars with laughter, the line of cocktails at his elbow dwindling at a slower pace than usual.

When asked to explain hismethods, he cannot. When pressed, he resorts to a description of a locomotive pulling an infinite number of sleeping cars into a mountain tunnel of uncertain length that may or may not lead to daylight.

He is an expert at Bezique. He can play the Heckelphone. He takes requests.

The Armchair Detective occasionally misses his mother.

The Armchair Detective makes lists of suspects, over and over again, on strips of ochre cardstock measuring exactly 9.3 inches by 4.7 inches. He rearranges the names over and over again; alphabetically (ascending and descending), by last name, by first name, by number of letters in each name, and segregated by sex. He makes new names for the suspects by rearranging the letters in their names (e.g. Mary Casey becomes Ryma Syace). The names of the suspects scatter and dance, do-si-do-ing until The Armchair Detective forgets who, exactly, is under suspicion.

Some things The Armchair Detective never fails to notice:

Dead flies on windowsills

Toast crumbs on lapels

Chafing

Length of nasal hair

Interior temperature of bathrooms

Fingernail dirt

Quality of liquor and how much is unconsumed

Frequency of jazz records in a gramophone cabinet

Hirsutism

Pencils

Residual lampshade heat

Nickels is a suspect’s pocket

Dimes in a victim’s pocket

Redness of elbows

Roundness of knees

Readiness of answers

He makes a habit of calling the District Attorney at seven minutes past two o’clock in the morning with instructions to have all the suspects gathered in his study in exactly twenty-six minutes. When told that isn’t humanly possible, he becomes furious and threatens to withhold the solution to the crime.

It is rumored that villains wrack their brains over new and complex crimes to commit in order to challenge The Armchair Detective. He hears these rumors but soldiers on, even when the police encourage him to stop showing off.

A twelve-volume edition of Fabrics of the World bound in cream-colored vellum is delivered to his apartment with the cryptic note “You never know when this will come in handy.” He immediately commits the entire treatise to memory. Thus far, it has not come in handy.

The Armchair Detective constantly laments his lack of a consistent Watson. Case after case, he searches for a traditional, credulous sidekick with cow eyes and, preferably, a floppy moustache. This necessity is never found, much to his vexation. He feels he could solve murders ten times faster with a trusting, loyal, dumber companion. He even went so far as to interview a gentleman named Watson, but things didn’t work out for reasons best left to the Silence of History.

The Armchair Detective is wrong once but never confesses his error to anyone.

He predicts the Stock Market Crash of 1929 by examining the frayed edges of the boiled shirt of a murdered banker. He is asked what that has to do with anything, since it’s 1925. He merely smirks, and waits.

Except for the one occasion noted earlier, The Armchair Detective solves everything but proves nothing. He relies on a blurted confession, a wrong move, a falling for a trick. These always happen. He refuses to admit to luck.

The Armchair Detective stands, most evenings, at the windows of his penthouse apartment, looking down upon the dark, vibrant city. He imagines what it must be like to be God. He clasps his manicured hands behind his back and assumes a benevolent and distant attitude. Restaurants serve bountiful dinners to overstuffed businessmen. Speakeasies yawp open to flappers in beaded wraps. The theaters hawk plays and musicals; lines for tickets trail around corners, top hats and furs. Taxicabs careen, double-decker buses swerve. Boys yelling with newspapers. Cops whistling traffic. Steam from the sewers. Lights, low and hooded from tobacconists, bright and blinking from toothpaste ads. Hundreds, thousands, millions bleed from the subways, ooze down the streets. Beer trucks, klaxons, laughter, shouts, screams. No one looks up. The Armchair Detective wonders why God bothered to invent the night, as it is so damn hard to see clearly in all that darkness, a darkness against which great struggles are made. The Armchair Detective knows he could do better, if given half the chance. He stands, looking down, waiting for the telephone to ring, waiting for a new puzzle. Something impossible. Something challenging. Something requiring every ounce of his intellect. He stands and waits, looking down, trying to see, and is bored in ten seconds flat.

by Jon Steinhagen