Immanuel Kant, P.I.
Monday, November 13, 2006
CRITIQUE OF CRIMINAL REASON
By Michael Gregorio
Thomas Dunne. 395 pp. $25.95
Michael Gregorio's first novel, "Critique of Criminal Reason," is one of those literary thrillers that come along every year or two to provide both intellectual and visceral pleasures for readers who neither move their lips nor fear weighty concepts. In it we learn that modern criminal investigation was invented not by Edgar Allan Poe's C. Auguste Dupin in Paris in the 1840s or Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes in London in the 1880s, but in the Prussian city of Königsberg in 1804 by that incomparable genius . . . well, if you paid attention in philosophy class you already will have guessed his name.
A young magistrate named Hanno Stiffeniis is inexplicably summoned by King Frederick Wilhelm III to leave his village and journey to Königsberg to investigate a series of murders. Four people are dead, and panic grips the city. Many think the Devil is the killer. Others suspect French terrorists, sowing unrest before a feared invasion by Napoleon's army. Stiffeniis checks into an inn, where a serving boy offers him information, only to be killed. The magistrate is baffled, both by the crimes and by his role in the case, but then he learns that the king has summoned him at the insistence of his old friend and teacher, that great champion of Reason and Logic, Immanuel Kant.
Kant is almost 80 and frail, but his mind is agile. He seems to regard the murders as an intrusion by Chaos into his beloved city and to believe that he and Stiffeniis can, by the application of Reason, restore order. The philosopher had invited Stiffeniis "to prove that I was the first of a new breed of investigative magistrates, that I was capable of employing a totally revolutionary technique involving methods that had never been used before in the fight against the worst of all crimes." And yet Kant surprises his friend by summoning an "infamous necromancer," who claims to speak to the dead, to examine a corpse. And when the younger man supports a political motive for the killings, Kant offers another: "The sublime pleasure of killing." Or, as he adds, "Logic and Rationality do not guide the human heart, though they may explain its passions."
Soon the reader is swept along not only by additional murders but also by prose that is both richly atmospheric and heavy with dread. The story takes place in February 1804, and the terrible Prussian winter is vividly presented: "Lashing rain by day, biting frost by night. And then, snow. More snow than I had ever seen before." Amid swirling fog and bitter cold, Gregorio paints Königsberg not as a center of enlightenment but as Hell on Earth. One horrid image follows another. A doctor applies massive leeches to a patient who soon dies. Human heads float in bottles. A soldier's face is hideously deformed by smallpox. An army deserter is beaten to death by other soldiers. Criminals are tortured and sent to be slaves in Siberia. Giant rats are pitted against one another like fighting cocks. A man is devoured by wolves. A suicide dies slowly after eating broken glass. We can only agree when Stiffeniis moans, "Everything in Königsberg seemed to be tainted, sick, removed from the normal light of day."
Such lurid scenes may drive away some readers, but the writing is powerful. And when he wants to, Gregorio, a professor of philosophy who lives in Italy, can write quite graceful prose: "Outside, sunbeam shafts filtered weakly through a web of gossamer clouds which extended in flimsy strands to the very rim of the earth. Occasional flakes of snow swirled in the air like autumn leaves on the wings of a piercing cold wind. Spread out below us lay the glistening slate roofs and the soaring church spires of Königsberg. Beyond, the sea stretched to the horizon in thousands of acres of rumpled grey silk." His story, however, is more concerned with madness and murder most foul than with sunbeams and church spires.
Even the great philosopher is shaken to his core. "I mean to say that the further I progress in this experiment, the more I understand that Reason operates on the surface alone. What happens beneath the surface shapes events. The Imponderable overrules us all. For the first time in my life, I can feel the invincible strength of blind Destiny." Poor Stiffeniis, who wants only to return to his wife and children, finds himself thinking the unthinkable: Could the sainted Immanuel Kant somehow have been involved in these murders? In its final pages, this immensely readable book falters with an ending that I found unconvincing. But others may find it just dandy, and either way "Critique of Criminal Reason" (a play, as you surely grasp, on Kant's own "Critique of Pure Reason") is an impressive piece of intellectual mayhem.