There are dangers on the streets at night in my sleepy, pretty little town of Knosting. About a month before I started my general research, a man was killed at the corner of Princess and Division Streets and his body was dragged not into a nearby alley (and there is one, about 100 metres from where the murder took place) or to any other secluded area, but a full block west along Princess to the corner of another street whose name escapes me just now. The police were puzzled. Why kill someone nearly in the middle of downtown and then drag the body for what the police estimate would have taken three to five minutes?
I followed the case closely in the Gazette (embarrassingly large type on the front page for days). The police offered three theories: the killer wanted to be caught; he thrived on the risk; his actions were those of a deranged mind. Frankly, I never thought those explanations were very imaginative or accurate. They sound like lines from a book by some pop-psych criminologist. Or worse: some populist with an agenda that includes (to take theory three) designating murderers as crazy monsters so far beyond the bounds of civilized society that the justice system needn’t waste its time finessing any treatment. “Kill the bastards,” “lock him up and throw away the key,” and so on.
Supplementing this simplistic view is the shock that people exhibit when, say, the killer is revealed to be the person next door, a family man with a wife and a dog and two lovely children (a boy and a girl, of course), and who—and this is the “kicker,” as I heard today over my latte—had never demonstrated any previous tendency even towards the most minor aggression, let alone murder. One wonders what exactly people expect: perhaps that he had a bad habit of banging the garbage cans around when he was setting them on the curb after midnight, or he was unkind to insects, or didn’t he shoot a gun at one of his children that time when they disagreed about whether it should be sausage or chicken on barbecue night?
I watch the news and hope that I am not being too ungenerous in saying that the genuine-seeming puzzlement and earnestness on the part of the interviewees simply astound me. “You know, it terrifies me that this could happen right next door.” Of course, I blame the reporters more than the hapless near-victims or acquaintances, who are dazed by the event to begin with and are perhaps taken by surprise by such journalistic inanity. If the dumb questions are not asked in the first place, then people who are not used to being on television anyway will not be put in the awkward position of stating the inaccurately obvious, or scrambling to find something to say about an event that is both too hard and too easy to explain.
There was one other curiosity (if I can use such a frivolous word) about this murder, which distracted people somewhat from the police’s lazy speculations. The man—his name is Douglas Quade—had been stabbed once through the heart (“cleanly,” the Gazette unaccountably called it) but the word BEGIN had been meticulously carved into his chest, neatly, like with a computer set to all caps. His shirt had been unbuttoned, the word was carved, and then the shirt was buttoned again. It was unnerving and disturbing for people, and in the frenzy of details—a man killed downtown, dragged a block, the killer possibly a “madman” (the police again), and the fact of a murder in the first place—in the messy panic of all of this, it was the carving into the victim’s chest that people remembered and focused on.
I arrived in Knosting a year before this murder occurred, pushed out of a cushy associate professorship at Toronto University. The whole affair started with the head of the Department of English disputing the value of my research, and ended with ad hominem attacks on both sides, a few angry emails that I shouldn’t have sent, and finally an agreement between the department and me that if I would just resign they would not fire me and would supply me with a small sum of money for my transition as well as a favourable letter of reference. Such are the dirty, petty politics of academic departments.
I felt then, and still feel, that the basic thrust of my research was valid, even revolutionary. There are certain silos of convention and conservatism in the study of English language and literature, and I freely admit that I am outside of those. Still, that didn’t give the department head the right to disparage my work and to insist that I consider other avenues—or risk a drubbing when it came time for my consideration for tenure. The core of my research is deceptively simple: the relationship between the typewriter (and computer) keyboard and the literary works that have been created with it. How are novels influenced by the fact that they were created using a keyboard? What are the differences between works produced with a keyboard, and those not (either because of the authors’ choice, or the fact that it hadn’t been invented till about the late 19th century)?
Oh, the bleating sounds that emanated from the English department mere weeks after my arrival there. Pseudo-research, some called it, tantamount to the study of astrology or phrenology. Enlightened readers will recognize the small-minded brayings (to mix my animal metaphors) of colleagues who can think of no other way to protect their own dubious scholarship than by trying to invalidate work which they don’t understand or are threatened by. My research has aspects of literary criticism and social history and psychology and the history of technology all combined into one fascinating topic. There’s nothing of the fusty, hoary, tedious old enquiries and methodologies practiced by cranks from Abilene to Zembla.
Still, I’ve changed my focus. Or let’s say expanded it. I will hold steadfastly to my keyboard research even though it will be on hiatus, but the conjunction of my arrival and that first murder (yes, unfortunately, there have been more) have made me interested in mysteries and murders and, well, murder mysteries. I am not yet sure of my “angle,” as the candidates for assistant professor at Toronto U. used to so crudely put it, but I am tending toward something as basic as a book about the local murders. I’ve become something of an amateur sleuth and enthusiast of the cases here in Knosting. My book will not be a tossed-off quickie, taking advantage of the resolution of the case to foist a dumb summary on a relieved public eager to gobble up any slapdash compilation of prurient details. Some days I do imagine a sort of dual vindication, when perhaps I contribute to the bringing of the killer to justice, but also when my former academic colleagues realize how very wrong they were about me, about my research, about the way I was treated. How tedious it was at TU when nervous lecturers and foppish tenured professors would insist on prefacing every speech and every article in the faculty newsletter with quotations from obscure texts from the obscure minor literary figures who were the subjects of their research. Or worse: Shakespeare reduced to only the most obvious lines from Hamlet, or Samuel Johnson quoted on everything requiring a learned curmudgeon.
A word about my current professional and financial situation … The attentive reader will have noticed that I left Toronto U. with “a small sum of money.” Let’s be frank: it was two years’ salary. I did not leave a narrow-minded English department in one city for a more enlightened one in another. Instead, I consider myself an independent or freelance researcher now. The “downside,” as they say in the vernacular, is that I have no salary, but the (ahem) upside is that I have a luxury of free time in which to pursue my interests. I’ve also sworn myself to a spartan lifestyle with a strict regimen of eating and an absolute avoidance of consumeristic purchases. I haven’t been to a restaurant, haven’t bought a book, haven’t outfitted myself with anything but the most basic clothing essentials for months and months. I live in a room in a big old heritage house owned by a lady who appreciates the tenancy of a quiet and dependable scholar, and who is willing to charge me less because of it.
I am a little afraid to sit down and work it out in full mathematical detail, but generally I estimate that I can stretch two years’ salary to at least three. I flatter myself that I can also eventually earn a little income here and there doing other freelance work of various kinds, a feature in the newspaper, perhaps a piece on the radio. However, I won’t worry about it. The long-term plan is to last here for a couple of years, publish a book, and then resume my keyboard research at some other university in Canada or the United States.
There is an obvious terror in many eyes that you catch along Princess Street. “The killer is still out there,” you hear and read, and people seem as perplexed by the fact that the police have not caught him yet as they are by this having happened at all in this town in the first place. Personally, I take a more practical and philosophical approach to the situation. On one hand, I believe that there are “lottery odds” that I will be the next chosen victim—1 in 100,000, I mean, really: how likely is it that it is going to be little old me? On the other hand, though I value my life and generally enjoy it, yet I am ready to shuffle off and shuffle away at any time.
I stop in at my favourite pub, and eventually the raver—about politics, about religion, and lately about murder—sets down his pool cue and comes over to my table.
“So, are they gonna catch this bastard or what?”
I look up from what has been a good glass of Caffrey’s up till now, and just shake my head. “I don’t know. What do you think?”
He looks up at the ceiling for a second. I wonder whether he has heard something or whether this is his method for studied consideration. I can see that his lips are slightly pursed, his face taut. When his head comes down, his gaze is direct and forceful.
“Goddamn fuckin police,” he says. “I don’t know whether I hate those cocksuckers more than the killer, for fuck sake. How long does it take to track down this guy? Tell me that.”
He is looking at me as if, possibly, I might have the answer to this ridiculous troglodyte of a rhetorical question, and I just shake my head and purse my own lips and look down at my beer to signal where my real interests lie. He’s still standing there after I sip, and then sip again, and the silence feels like a challenge, or at least a hole that I am responsible for filling in.
“It makes you wonder,” I say only half logically, and unfortunately it only encourages him.
“You’re goddamn right it makes you wonder. Like, maybe a cop is the killer and they’re just all covering up.”
I truly start to wonder whether I might have to drink up, pay my tab, and leave on some pretence. You know, I might say, you just seem too stupid to talk to. I think I may have to leave now and go home to do my hair or paint the second bedroom or blow my own brains out so that I don’t have to listen to—
I calm myself. “Listen,” I lie, “I thought I read that the police had arrested somebody …” I let it trail off, tantalizingly.
“No shit?” And then to the bartender: “Jimmy, do you have a paper here? Today’s paper?”
He walks off and I feel guilty about my silly little ruse, but at the same time pleased that something simple worked so well. I do drink up, leave a five for Jimmy, and then nod towards the raver, who is not even noticing me now, he’s so busy asking Jimmy to turn on the radio, turn on the TV, he has to see the news.