Thursday, June 25, 2015

Passage to Benares: a tale of mystery and imagination

I gave eight years of my life to freelancing for Marvel Comics. My efforts manifested themselves primarily through the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe series. While working on books whose purpose is to make sense of a fictional universe, you frequently find yourself running up against gaps - information which was never given or thoroughly explained. As much as I enjoyed occasionally connecting the dots of the Marvel Universe, at times Jeff Christiansen (my usual coordinator) had to force me to resolve old mysteries from the comics in print, rather than leave them open ended.

I certainly agreed with Jeff to an extent, so far as wishing to understand the mysteries of the Marvel Universe, but I preferred to find solutions which the texts themselves offered, rather than imagine one on my own. I think that's typical of my approach to mystery in fiction - I try to obey the rules as they're set out within the fictional reality and try not to impose my own rigid standards of order upon them. For instance, the Fu Manchu novels by Sax Rohmer did not reveal Dr. Petrie's first name. Other works named him "James," but I find myself rejecting that name - according to the "rules" of Rohmer, Petrie's first name is a mystery.

During the 1990s, my interest in old-time radio shows began to peak and I searched bookstores and libraries for all the information on them which I could muster (having no internet in those days). Finally, one trip to the bookstore paid off: a set of four cassette tapes, each one featuring two episodes of Suspense, one of my favourite old-time series! I happily bought the tapes and listened to them many times in the years which followed - I even shared them with friends! And after I shared them, I would ask them about the episode "A Passage to Benares" (September 23, 1942), one of the earliest episodes of the series. What did they think of that episode? And how did they interpret the ending? (listen for yourself by downloading the episode at archive.org)

I did not solicit their opinions because I wanted a genial discussion so much as I was simply confused and baffled by the climax of the story. I remained baffled for many years.

In "A Passage to Benares," psychologist Dr. Henry Poggioli is in Trinidad and sleeps one night in a Hindu temple. The next day, a recently-wed young lady is found dead in the temple. Because of Poggioli's background as a criminal investigator, he is invited to help solve the crime, but each clue seems to point directly at Poggioli, until finally he is arrested. In his cell, Poggioli tries desperately to recall the details of the dream he had that night in the temple, thinking it will solve the murder. When the solution at last arrives, Poggioli summons the prison turnkey and presents his solution to him: the victim was murdered by her husband's uncle, believing that if he were executed for her murder their souls would be reunited in India when they reincarnated. Much to Poggioli's surprise, his solution has already been accepted - the uncle confessed everything and was executed. Poggioli demands to know why he was kept in prison if the real murderer had been caught. The answer: "Old Hira Dass didn't confess until a month and ten days after you were hanged." FINISH.

For the better part of two decades, I have been haunted by the closing words. Did they mean Poggioli had been put to death and the turnkey was speaking to his spirit? Had Poggioli himself been reincarnated into another body? Or did the police simply announce Poggioli's faked execution in order to obtain the confession? And in any event, why was Poggioli unaware of how much time had passed since his arrest?

Eventually I learned "A Passage to Benares" appeared first as a short story by T.S. Stribling in 1926. In fact, it was one of several stories featuring Dr. Poggioli and could be found in the collection Clues of the Caribbees. Over the last week, I read the book. They're certainly unusual detective stories and not only because of their Caribbean settings - despite his psychological insights, Poggioli is a fairly ineffective detective, frequently suspecting the wrong person or unable to comprehend the true meaning of the evidence he finds. In this particular instance, he comes to the solution only after being arrested for the crime! He has little in common with the all-knowing sleuths who were his contemporaries; even today's modern psychological detectives follow the pattern of the genius detective. Poggioli was a clever sleuth, but events were always beyond his ability to master them in time.

Now that I have the original text to "A Passage to Benares" I have finally read the story as the author intended it to appear. And I found that... the ending remains as cryptic as before. Well, moreso - the turnkey's response is followed by: "And the lamp went out." It's still abrupt and mysterious.

Although "A Passage to Benares" closed out the collection, Stribling went on writing Poggioli stories up 'til 1957, so I can extrapolate that Poggioli didn't die - likely the police faked his death, as I supposed. But frankly, I don't need to know the "right" way to interpret the story. For twenty years, I've been able to enjoy the tale's ending because it doesn't explain itself. It leaves room for mystery, for imagination. As I learned from toiling on the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, I don't always want there to be an answer to every question. Sometimes, it's enough to have a good question.

2 comments:

Taylor Jenkins said...

I just heard this episode of Suspense for the first time today and immediately rushed to the Internet to learn more about that surprise ending. Thanks for sharing your findings!

Michael Hoskin said...

I'm glad you enjoyed the episode, Taylor! It's also personally gratifying for me to hear from other people who find the closing dialogue mysterious and compelling!