Blogging the Caine: Timothy Keegan’s “What Molly Knew”

Week Three of the Caine Prize blogathon gives us Timothy Keegan’s “What Molly Knew” which you can read in .pdf form here, and which is my favorite story thus far. As per usual, read the story, and then read whole Caine Prize blog team’s output: Method to the Madness, The Oncoming HopeAfrica is a Country, The Mumpsimus, Backslash ScottSky, Soil, and Everything in Between, and The Reading Life.

Next week, we’ll be reading Lauri Kubuitsile’s “In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata,” which you can read here. If you want read all the stories in book form, by the way (along with a dozen or so others, written at the Caine Prize Writer’s Workshop), you can support the good people at New Internationalist — a non-profit social justice publishing house, who are one of the supporters of the Caine Prize — by purchasing the annual collection here

“Rollo didn’t like to see her crying. It upset the natural order of things. He didn’t like to think there was unhappiness in the house…implying there was something wrong with the way they led their lives.”

Timothy Keegan’s “What Molly Knew” isn’t really a detective story, though it pretends to be part of that genre at crucial moments, and to great effect. As Saratu puts it, the story “slow-drips on detail,” but it’s the expectations of the genre that trains us react to those details in a particular, inquisitive way: since the story begins with a murder and a murder investigation — and when Investigator Duvenage shows up to solve the crime, he briefly takes over the story’s narrative point of view — we are therefore predisposed, from the beginning, to look at those details as clues, to try to use them to solve the crime, the whodunit. For example:

[Investigator Duvenage] was looking around the room, almost unnaturally clean and tidy, nothing out of place. Modest, but comfortable; old furnishings, pictures on the walls, a few ornaments carefully placed on the mantel. A room used only for entertaining, perhaps. Not that much entertaining went on here, by the looks of her. One of those stay-at-home women, in her fifties, with not much of a life outside these walls. Seemed like a family in which you didn’t expect things to go wrong.

This is description of familiar type, the gaze of the police procedural narrative, by which we join, as readers, with the surveilling force of social regulation: we look through the eyes of the police who seek to anatomize and root out social disorder. And so, as the inspector inspects the home of Molly, the main protagonist, who has just received a call from her daughter’s husband (Tommie) telling her that her daughter has been murdered, we are reassured. He is reassured that she is who he expects her to be, a normal woman whose normal life has been invaded by an unthinkably abnormal horror.

As the inspector puts it, there are two types of crimes:

Those, the everyday ones, where it’s difficult to sympathise with the victims, people for whom life is cheap and death routine. And then there are those where violent death is as far from the victims’ expectations as it can be, normal, good people living normal lives in homes like this one, whose existence is overturned in an instant for reasons that no one can fathom.

The inspector’s brief examination shows him — and us — a woman whose reassuringly dull routine of respectable domesticity speaks to the impossibility of violence coming from such a place. In this house, you see, everything is done as it should be: Molly responds to the news that her daughter is dead by doing what she always does (tea, the cat‘s milk, housekeeping, telly) and reflects to herself  “[w]hy should you change the habits of a lifetime just because your reason for being had come to an end?” and it is precisely this dogged, dull, inevitable conformity to type that confirms for the Inspector that there is nothing to see here. And so he is quick to agree when Molly demands to the Inspector that it was Tommie, her daughter’s husband, who must have done it:

She knew it was Tommie. Who else would kill her? Sarah had no enemies. She had nothing anyone would want to steal. And who could get into a third-floor flat in a secure block in Goodwood?

Note the thrust of the logic: since it could have been no one else, it must have been him. He has been identified as the murderer not by any positive identification, but by a process of exclusion. And the inspector agrees, using the same logic by which the common sense of type demands that a lack of evidence is of no moment compared to the inevitability that murder will out. “It’s always the husband,” he reassures When investigation has stalled, they keep faith; he counsels patience and assures her that even though they could not find any evidence linking him to the crime, and even though Tommie “has a psychology degree from UWC and knows all the tricks,” the Inspector is still “sure they’d nail him sooner or later.” Just because they can’t find any evidence that it was him will not prevent them from knowing that it was him, right? Just because there are no clues doesn’t mean we can’t still have a culprit.

Now, in a normal detective story, there would have been a clue that would — when seen in the correct light — reveal everything, open up the story, a stray detail that our inspector’s eagle eye would scoop up, explain, and then confirm. The mud on the boots! And thus: the murderer! But in this story, the clue is what is missing, the crucial information that has been omitted from our view. Instead of the single clue that sticks out and defies the norm — the thing that is that should not be — the key to the certainty of both the inspector and Molly is to be found in the one thing they both know but do not say explicitly: that Tommie is “coloured,” an illegal immigrant from Mozambique, and a member of the ANC.

This is how they know what they know: instead of moving from observation to deduction — instead of learning what must necessarily be true, in this specific case, through specific observations — both the inspector and Molly move from general expectation to specific belief by a process of inductive reasoning. Since many crimes are committed by his “type,” they think, it must be so in this particular case. This is predictive policing, profiling; instead of all being presumptively innocent and guilt being proven, they start from a presumption requiring confirmation: the coloured interloper did it. And once you’ve learned to expect that confirmation, you have only to wait for it to come.

As I said, this story is not really a detective story. The inspector keeps looking for confirmation, but does not, apparently, find it. At the end of the story, Molly does discover some circumstantial evidence that it was her husband (Rollo) who killed her daughter, and this is consistent with everything we’ve seen in the story: the husband is a violent monster who hates his step-daughter’s choice to marry that type of person. “Thank God they didn’t produce any children, that’s all I can say!” he remarks at one point, and then later declares to his wife the following remarkable sentences:

“I knew there was going to be a bad end to all this from the moment she brought him here to show him off to us. You don’t marry someone like that if you come from a normal home. I know you cared for that girl, but she didn’t deserve you, and if you knew what’s good for you you’d be relieved she’s gone to her maker.”

The psychology that could utter those words is worth lingering on: his belief that a person who comes from a “normal home” would not do such a thing is sufficiently deep that it can survive the manifest fact that she has done exactly that! And the speed by which her transgression — her failure to do the thing which a “normal home” is to have programmed her to do — becomes a thing from which death provides relief is, again, fully consistent with the idea that he killed her, something the end of the story suggests.

But again: this is not a detective story. This is a story about denial, about the things Molly knows and what she is incapable of knowing as a consequence of her socialization (thus, the James reference). And Keegan shows us those limits to her knowledge by implicating us within them, making us see through the eyes of both Molly and the inspector, eyes jaundiced and twisted by a complete failure to adapt to life after apartheid. When the inspector reflects on his job, for instance, we hear him describing the psychic pressure he feels to force social reality to fit the expectations of normality he brings to its inspection, the sense in which his job is precisely not to discover the empirical truth but to find ways to confirm what must be believed to be true.

To go back to the passage I quoted earlier, for instance, when the inspector differentiates between the un-sympathisable “people for whom life is cheap and death routine” and the “normal, good people living normal lives in homes,” he isn’t merely profiling between races and social class, though certainly he is doing this. He is also describing his own process of self-regulation. For him, “it’s difficult to sympathise with the victims” from the former group because violence is, for them, to be expected and is, thus, no scandal. The scandal, the thing that must be defended against, is the violence of mixed race interlopers who seek to upset the status quo — and continues, as such, to represent the ANC’s fundamental rupture of the pre-1994 status quo — is the thing which, as he puts it, causes the existence of “normal” people to be “overturned in an instant for reasons that no one can fathom.” When such an aberration from the expected norms occurs, he is under a very particular kind of psychic pressure:

It’s at times like this that he finds the job a strain, when he feels he has to nail the culprit just to calm the jangling in his nerves that doesn’t go away when he gets home at night. He knows that all citizens are equal in the new South Africa, but he can’t help but feel some people’s pain more than others’. That’s just the way he is, and the newspapers and television people seem to think the same way, to judge by the posse of reporters and cameras outside Sarah Nobrega’s flat in Goodwood when he left.

What we are seeing, in other words, is a process of information regulation, of a social pressure to produce the expected kind of knowledge: normal people expect normal routine, while racially marked people expect and produce violence. They cannot, must not, allow themselves, to sympathise with the wrong people, to fathom truths that don’t fit, for such would disturbe the normality which all the knowledge-devices of bourgeois society — from newspapers to police reports to neighborhood gossip — must work to regulate and reform. And in this sense, the inspector’s logic is precisely the same as which requires Molly’s husband to destroy his step-daughter, from the moment she threatens to reveal the violence that he has done to her, and change “normality” into scandal. That which threatens to reveal the violence of normality must be destroyed, and then credited with its own destruction.