Caleb Williams by William Godwin: Proto Noir

While I was polishing up the old History of Mystery lecture – and we killed in Canton last night, thank you very much – I ran across a book I’d left out of the precursor group, a great read called Caleb Williams by William Godwin from 1794. It has one of the great feel good beginnings of all time:

My life has for several years been a theater of calamity. I have been a mark for the vigilance of tyranny, and I could not escape. My fairest prospects have been blasted. My enemy has shown himself inaccessible to entreaties and untired in persecution. My fame, as well as my happiness, has become his victim. Everyone, as far as my story has been known, has refused to assist me in my distress.

What follows is basically a fugitive story – a poor man becomes the secretary of a rich man, and through dogged detection discovers his boss was involved in a murder than he pinned on a local. But instead of leading to justice, this knowledge leads to even greater injustice, and the poor guy is framed too, and relentlessly hounded. Godwin was an anarchist and political thinker (not to mention Mary Shelley’s dad), and John Cousin’s Biographical Dictionary of English Literature from 1938 says “many of his views were peculiar and extreme, and even tended, if carried out in practice to subvert morality: but they were propounded and supported by their author with a whole hearted belief in their efficacy for the regeneration of society.” Caleb Williams is meant to illustrate Godwin’s view of the golden rule, i.e., that them that has the gold make the rules. The traditional golden age mystery ends when the bad guy is discovered, but this one only begins there, and the forces of authority are seen as at best only neutral, if not hostile, toward justice. It’s a fascinating point of view, one that wouldn’t be expressed again for about a hundred and forty years with the birth of that funky thang we now call noir.

He also wrote another book that’s worth it for the title alone: Lives of the Necromancers!

About ubu507

memory documentation and manipulation
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