Sherlock Holmes may very well be the world’s most famous detective (Watson would definitely hit the top ten for sidekicks). King of logic and master of sly, where others see only flying pigs and water flowing uphill, the British recluse of Baker Street peers through the slush of misinformation to the jagged line connecting the dots of reality. This latter word significant, the underlying premise to all of Holmes’ cases is that a solution exists—an explanation that satisfies all the questions and parameters of the case in our real world, nothing fantastical about it. Arthur Conan Doyle a brilliant writer, his creations, however, were fiction; in real life not all cases go solved and not all mysteries that life presents are unraveled.
A Scotland Yard case the perfect premise, in 1959 Stanislaw Lem penned The Investigation as a means of digging at the reasons behind this juxtaposition between fiction and reality. A bodysnatching mystery of the most metaphysical, Lem racks up a high score for being a prime student of literature, from detective noir to Dostoevsky, and being incredibly insightful into the uncertainties of perception that dance and drum, hide and manifest themselves in the human brain as it encounters this little thing we call life.
Lieutenant Gregory is brought in to an investigation of a series of mysterious happenings at rural mortuaries in and around greater London. Some corpses outright disappearing and some simply being switched between drawers or coffins as they await burial, something fishy is going on, and little is known. Evidence at the scenes anything but conclusive, the Yard has brought in several experts, including other experienced detectives, doctors, and a statistician to help Gregory. Dreams twisting and turning inside his head at night, the gaunt detective catches a break in the day when an attempted bodysnatch is thwarted by a blizzard and road accident. Fresh tracks in the snow and a handful of other important clues at the scene, Gregory senses he’s close on the trail of the culprit and sets his teeth into the investigation. Trouble is, he bites off much, much more than he ever expected.
Like a satellite slowly orbiting further from the point around which it revolves, Lem weaves a trance of sur-realism in The Investigation. The reader fairly confident the narrative rests on objective ground at the outset, the rug is eased out from underneath their feet by the time the story reaches its conclusion. Floating in a wealth of intriguing ideas, the ground remains visible, yet reverberating with distance—here so close as to touch, and there a thousand miles distant. Fallabilities exposed and beliefs smashed, the investigation uncovers precisely what any good investigation does: key information.
Big portions character study, The Investigation also delves into a couple heads. Gregory perhaps foremost among them, his boss Sheppard and the statistician Sciss, however, undergo something of a session on the therapist’s couch of life. Lem never approaching these “sessions” in overt terms, it would seem the Russian writers, Dostoevsky perhaps foremost among them, set his pen smoldering. Sciss does battle with personal demons only he perceives, while Gregory’s worldview take a hammering as each new bit of information reveals itself, at one point proclaiming “I feel like a cornered rat. I only want to defend myself against the allegedly miraculous character of this case” (124).
In the end, The Investigation is metaphysical detective noir of the mature variety. Lem’s sense of humor subtle and his philosophical aims broad yet focused in presentation, an investigation into a series of crimes proves an effective jumping off point for an inquiry into the larger perception of life. Empiricism leading to a wide variety of views, honing in on “the one” proves tricky business for his detective. The narrative constantly ashift underfoot, Lem does a superb job leading the reader through a series of hoops. But that these hoops are made of material more philosophical than mere entertainment are what makes the novel excel. Lt. Gregory could never topple the monument that Sherlock Holmes built, but what he learns reaches much deeper into the human condition than the delight of Conan Doyle’s imagination ever can.