Friday, February 7, 2014

Joyce Carol Oates: Xavier Kilgarvan’s casebook - Roger Dobson

There are some novels one does not wish would end. Mysteries of Winterthurn (1984) by Joyce Carol Oates is such a one. This is a glorious, almost Dickensian feast of a novel. The principal mystery is why the book isn’t better known to crime fiction addicts in Britain, since it stands head and shoulders above most modern offerings in the genre. Mysteries is a tripartite novel laced with Gothicism, relating the cases of detective Xavier Kilgarvan. It’s written in parodic, genteel Victorian style, with authorial asides to the reader, pious interpolations in italics and forests of exclamation marks.

In the first adventure, ‘The Virgin in the Rose-Bower; or, The Tragedy of Glen Mawr Manor’, we find Xavier (‘our hero’), a callow youth, investigating a locked-room murder in an opulent bedroom at the manor house of his estranged Kilgarvan relations. The tale is enriched with hints of the supernatural: dark angel figures, or ‘angel-demons’, are rumoured to haunt the neighbourhood of Glen Mawr. The ghost of the ‘Blue Nun’, who had poisoned several husbands at Winterthurn in the 1790s, has been seen. Xavier penetrates the cellar and attic of the manor, wins the heart of his young cousin Perdita and discovers the secret curse of the Kilgarvan family, though the truth is so loathsome that he eventually burns his notes, keeping the revelation from the world. The sensitive Xavier never really recovers from the horrors of the case. It’s a story one really has to read at least twice before one can grasp all its twists and subtleties.

The next time we encounter Xavier, just before the end of the 1890s, he is twenty-eight, a veteran of a number of celebrated investigations and acclaimed by the Hearst press as a ‘Detective of Genius’. Like Sherlock Holmes, he is a master of disguise. In ‘Devil’s Half-Acre; or, The Mystery of the “Cruel Suitor”’ five girls are found ritually murdered over a period of months in a desolate rock-bound region south of Winterthurn. An innocent Jewish mill manager is hanged for the crimes but Xavier suspects the decadent dandy Valentine Westergaard. Advances in detection leads Xavier to look forward to the day when evildoing will cease — a forlorn hope, but one which illuminates his noble character.

The final story, ‘The Bloodstained Bridal Gown; or, Xavier Kilgarvan’s Last Case’, is the most intriguing mystery of all. A red-haired spectre, carrying an axe, is seen running away from a rectory where two people have been slaughtered and the rector’s wife, Perdita, Xavier’s great love, has been ravished. Curiously, even before the horror occurs, a telegram is sent to Xavier’s home at 38 Washington Square, New York City, pleading:


Quite a few clues as to the identity of the murderer are planted along the way, and Ms Oates plays fair with her readers. Being a revisionist (and feminist) detective novel, events do not unfold as in a conventional crime story, and the author delights in wrong-footing her readers and mischievously usurping the conventions of the genre. Victorian piety, respectability, hypocrisy and cant are mercilessly ridiculed in Ms Oates’s mock pompous style. The parody and satirical episodes, however, are kept firmly in place and do not injure the novel’s suspense. The jacket blurb refers to the book’s ‘romantic ending’ — and this is one way of putting it. It is enough to say that the book’s climax rivals that of Psycho. Apparently Xavier’s cases echo, in dreamlike fashion, authentic and infamous murders.

Bellefleur (1980) is another splendid Gothic family saga by Ms Oates. A mysterious curse lies on the Bellefleurs — they never die in bed, it is rumoured, or their menfolk perish in absurd ways. However the real ‘curse on the Bellefleurs, it was said, was very simple: they were fated to be Bellefleurs, from womb to grave and beyond’.

Joyce Carol Oates knows the field of supernatural fiction well: she described Lovecraft as ‘bizarre, brilliant, inspired, and original, yet frequently hackneyed, derivative, and repetitive’: a fair summing-up. And she once claimed that Muriel Spark’s ‘The Portobello Road’ and Elizabeth Bowen’s ‘The Demon Lover’ are the most accomplished British ghost stories of the 20th century.


  1. The Mysteries of Winterthurn and Bellefleur are two out of five volumes in what Oates has described as a thematically-linked "Gothic quintet."

    A Bloodsmoor Romance (1982) parodies the Victorian women's novel, complete with fictional author, a delicate spinster who understands the ironic, postmodern plot less well than she believes. A sequence involving spiritualism has supernatural undertones.

    My Heart Laid Bare (1998) was composed around the same time as the three novels already discussed, but withheld from publication due to the poor sales of A Bloodsmoor Romance and particularly The Mysteries of Winterthurn. Oates was inspired to return to and revise it in the late 1990s. The prose style is consequently less ornate, and the narrative material (a family of turn of the century con artists) is less obviously Gothic than in the other volumes, but the novel, like much of Oates' fiction, is pervaded by a grim sense of the unpleasant workings of fate.

    The Accursed (2013) was also withheld from publication and later revised. Despite the resulting stylistic variation, this one is more obviously of a piece with A Bloodsmoor Romance and The Mysteries of Winterthurn; it too has a fictional author, with a fussy possessiveness about events from his family history. Oates described The Accursed as "a saga of Gothic horror with its antecedents in H.P. Lovecraft’s bizarre and riddlesome works of “mythic” fiction," though to my mind the connection to Lovecraft is slim; the reserved, heavily metaphorical/psychological supernaturalism of Henry James seems more relevant, though even that is a misleading comparison.

    Oates has described The Mysteries of Winterthurn as her own personal favorite of the five; her afterwords to two editions of the novel, which discuss her relationship to the Gothic and to genre fiction, can be found here.

  2. Thank you, Brendan, for this further information elaborating on the work by Joyce Carol Oates in this field. Mark

  3. Thanks for mentioning this book which I just ordered from amazon. I've read several novels by Oates but not this one.

    Also I just read "The Demon Lover" by Bowen in THE LISTENER in November 1941. I have a long run of the magazine bound.

  4. Thank you. It's a pity The Listener stopped being published: it often had interesting contents. Mark