(Editor’s note: This is the 97th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s selection comes from British crime and historical novelist Andrew Taylor, last year’s winner of the Crime Writers’ Association’s Cartier Diamond Dagger Award for lifetime achievement and the author of The Anatomy of Ghosts, which is due out this coming September from Michael Joseph/Penguin.)
If today’s readers and writers of crime fiction look over their shoulders, who are lurking in the shadows behind Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Wilkie Collins? Edgar Allan Poe, of course, and Charles Dickens. As it happens, those two authors met once, in Philadelphia in March 1842, and by a quirk of fate we know one of the subjects they talked about--a third writer, William Godwin, who had died six years before.
It’s an odd, maybe significant coincidence. Godwin is best known today for his novel Caleb Williams, which stands in the shadows behind the shadows--it’s a book that invisibly underpins the genre, The Rap Sheet, and much else. You can even argue that, with Caleb Williams, Godwin invented crime fiction, and that he was the first noir author.
Noir? It’s a big claim, but it holds up.
A cozy crime story takes place in an ideal world where the detective restores perfection by rooting out the murderer who has briefly imposed a blemish on it.
Noir, on the other hand, has the opposite dynamic. It’s set in a fundamentally corrupt world that’s wall-to-wall blemishes, a place where the investigator, for all his flaws, is the best thing available to a morally upright individual. A noir hero can never make the world a wonderful place. Faced with a crime, he can only do his best, according to his lights, and hope he’ll maybe survive until next time. It’s a job description for Caleb Williams.
William Godwin was remarkable by any standards. He was an English anarchist at the time of the French Revolution (which he naturally supported). His first wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, wrote a seminal feminist text. His daughter Mary married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and wrote Frankenstein (1818). His stepdaughter had an illegitimate child with Lord Byron. Godwin wrote novels partly to make money and partly as vehicles for his philosophical beliefs.
He published Caleb Williams in 1794, five years after the Revolution. It’s not a whodunit, and it’s only a mystery for the first third of the story. But it centers on a crime and murder in Britain, and on the methods and consequences of investigating that murder. It’s a novel of considerable and often uncomfortable psychological penetration. And it’s full of incredibly vivid and realistic snapshots of the world in which its author lived. It’s one of the prototypes of the crime novel not only in the way it concerns a murder but also--as Poe himself noted--in the way it was constructed, from effects back to causes.
The rest of this piece describes the bones of the story. But the bare summary won’t spoil your enjoyment if you read the novel afterwards. It’s the body of this book that counts, not the bones that support it.
Caleb Williams is poor but intelligent. Orphaned at 18, he’s given a job as a secretary by the local squire, Ferdinando Falkland, a man of great refinement who is drawn into a feud with a boorish neighbor. When that neighbor is murdered, Falkland is the chief suspect--but he’s so gentlemanly that his fellow magistrates can’t believe he could commit a sneaky little slaying. Two local farmers are hanged instead.
In the second part of the book, Caleb investigates the murder and, with growing horror, realizes that Falkland not only killed the neighbor but let two innocent men hang for his crime. For many authors, the revelation of the real murderer would be the climax. In fact we’re not even halfway through, and the real climax is yet to come.
At this point, the narrative switches: until now, Caleb has pursued Falkland; but now it’s the other way round. Falkland treats his hapless secretary with increasing hostility: it’s almost as if he transfers the hatred he feels for himself to Caleb, the man who won’t let him forget what he has done.
Caleb’s attempt to expose his master backfires, and he’s flung into jail without trial. His experiences as a prisoner are described in harsh, documentary detail. At last Caleb escapes. But he’s friendless and penniless. The resources of the state and of society are in league against him. And the worst is still on the horizon.
In the last part of Godwin’s novel, Caleb is on the run. Falkland mobilizes the full weight of government authority to hunt down the entirely innocent secretary--and everyone else joins in. There are even broadsheets and ballads that portray him as a master criminal.
Caleb falls in with a gang of thieves living wild in a ruined forest mansion presided over by the landlady from hell. It’s interesting how Godwin describes these dangerous criminals--some are also victims, and deserve a bit of sympathy despite their crimes; but others are essentially corrupt, a sort of lawless mirror image of the sinister authority figures who control the country for their own benefit.
With the world against him, Caleb ranges across England, taking a variety of disguises. He becomes a beggar, a farmer’s son, a watchmaker, and a math teacher, an Orthodox Jew--and he even ekes out a living as a hack writer on Grub Street, which will strike a grimly familiar chord for many of The Rap Sheet’s contributors.
Despite his ingenuity, his perseverance and his abilities, Caleb can never escape the past: sooner or later Falkland or his avenging agents catch up with him. The great irony here is that Caleb, who has investigated and solved a crime, finds that no one will believe him: on the contrary, he’s treated as the criminal.
Finally, Caleb’s story reaches its end. In fact two of them, neither of which is exactly cheery. One of the endings is the standard, published version; but an earlier, gloomier variant was published in the 1960s, and is included in the excellent Penguin edition of this novel.
Neither conclusion makes for easy reading. Caleb is a flawed hero, just as Falkland is a flawed villain. Everyone is guilty. In the end, everyone has to pay for his sins.
William Godwin created a monster he did not entirely understand: Caleb Williams grew in ways he neither planned nor expected, and the result is too powerful, too quirky, to fit neatly inside the philosophical envelope he planned for it.
In other words, Godwin set out to write a philosophical tract and ended up inventing Noir.