[(essay date summer 1994) In the following essay, Jones traces the diverse ways the conventions of detective fiction and biography converge in Coming through Slaughter, demonstrating the appropriation of both genres by Ondaatje's postmodern narrative strategies.]
[W]hat the structural and philosophical presuppositions of myth and depth psychology were to modernism ... the detective story is to postmodernism. ...--Michael Holquist (150)
Among the silenced heroes celebrated and mourned in Michael Ondaatje's poem "White Dwarfs" is the writer Dashiell Hammett: "And Dashiell Hammett in success / suffered conversation and moved / to the perfect white between the words" (71). According to the prevailing myth, after winning early fame as a novelist, short-story writer, and originator of the character Sam Spade, Hammett fell "creatively silent" for nearly thirty years at the end of his life (Nolan 258). A Pinkerton detective who became a hard-boiled detective-fiction writer, Hammett was also a hard drinker whose habit took on self-destructive proportions. He suffered a nervous breakdown. Hammett is thus, like Buddy Bolden, a figure included among those twentieth-century "extremist artists" Sam Solecki catalogues in his study of Ondaatje's work, artists who create "an aesthetic artifact directly, recklessly, even violently out of [their] own experiences" (247).
Hammett is also an evocative character in relation to Buddy Bolden and Coming through Slaughter because he is known as "the mystery man of mystery fiction" (Nolan xi). His life story seems to thwart the conventions of both traditional literary biography and classical detective fiction, its narrative ironically dis-solved by the various textual reticences that punctuate it. In Coming through Slaughter, Michael Ondaatje subtly appropriates the genre in which Hammett was an innovator, taking on the role of detective as novelist, and investigating the biography of Buddy Bolden, the mystery man of early-twentieth-century jazz, whose famous cornet performances were never captured on records and whose final twenty-odd musically silent years were spent in the East Louisiana State Hospital for the insane. The biographical and detective genres converge in Coming through Slaughter in complex and ambivalent ways. I would like to touch on some of the fictional magnets that attract these genres, since Coming through Slaughter is, it seems to me, a novel that takes the popular form seriously indeed, suggesting how provocative a theoretical model detective fiction can be for the activity of reading and writing the life/text.
Glenn Most has pointed out "the striking proximity, in place and time, of the rise of the detective story and of that of the modern biography: for detective stories are, for many readers, installments in the fragmentary biographies of their heroes" (345). Detective stories might also be considered metabiographical narratives in the sense that they both document and comment on the process of reconstructing traces of (often the last) moments in the life of a missing character (usually the victim of murder), as well as the deliberately concealed story of the agent responsible for that loss. As Tzvetan Todorov perceives, the detective story has reflexivity built into its very structure. Composed...