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The Cabinet of Light

Telos Publishing

Chaz and Telos Publishing have given permission for this website to publish the foreword which Chaz wrote for The Cabinet of Light by Daniel O'Mahony, one of a series of Doctor Who novellas published by Telos.


At the heart of all good mystery writing, perhaps at the heart of all good writing beats a single driving theme, and that's identity.

At the heart of all good mystery writing, perhaps at the heart of all good writing beats a single driving theme, and that's subversion.

And already we have a paradox, two hearts that cannot possibly beat as one; and that's fine, because this is fiction we're talking about, and in fiction actually they can. Famously, the Doctor has two hearts in any case - but even if he didn't, or even where it's only concerned with us simpler monocores, any story worth its salt dances to this double rhythm. You don't have to go to Bach in search of counterpoint; fiction too can be polyphonic, drawing its edge and its energy from the relentless opposition of equal voices.

At its simplest and least sophisticated, crime fiction has its mystery embodied in its own generic name: whodunit? This is the Agatha Christie end of the market, not so much a novel as a puzzle-book, a jigsaw in story form but still treating with that fundamental question of identity as it sets out to unmask a murderer. The reader either leaps ahead of the detective or is left running to catch up, demanding an explanation at the end with all the clues laid out for examination; either way it doesn't matter, the chase is the point of it, the hunt is all that counts. It's a ritual, an embodiment of tradition, a reassurance: all will be well, and the world can be put back together just as it was, save for these missing pieces.

More subtly, more darkly, the private-eye novel is really more concerned with the identity of its hero. We read Chandler to find out about Philip Marlowe - which is where the subversion starts, but by no means where it ends. We're offered the standard coin of crime, drugs and vice and corruption, but we find ourselves more interested in the narrator than in the story he tells; and all the time the way he tells that story, the language and the rhythms of his voice act as another counterpoint to the plot. The words flow like a river, like a fugue (never forgetting that fugue has another meaning too, as a psychological state, an amnesiac's flight from reality: just ask the girl in pink pyjamas about that, as she opens this story); and like a fugue, like a river the glittering surface hides undercurrents that undercut the solid bank we think we stand on. Nothing is or ever can be that solid, in Marlowe's world; trust all your weight to something - or to someone - and you will fall through.

In an essay published in 1950, Chandler said of that world, "Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean". Daniel O'Mahony borrows that same line here, in The Cabinet of Light; it's an affirmation that to be frank is not really necessary, but it is peculiarly apt. The story's geography may be transposed from the neon spangle of Los Angeles to the physical and psychological ruin of post-war London, the milieu may be transposed from gangsterdom to that borderland where science meets magic, from Mr Big to Dr Who, but we're still treading the same fictional territory here, we're still talking about mystery and subversion. And we're still discussing them in the same rich language, still laying traps for the unwary and playing word-games for the aficionado.

Goya said that the sleep of reason brings forth monsters. Lechasseur's dreams do the same, we're told so very early; and that's appropriate, that's the message here, that Lechasseur (the hunter, of course) is the voice of reason, he's a rational man. But he's loose in a world that lacks rationality; even the Doctor makes better sense in this monstrous post- apocalyptic landscape than our human hero. Lechasseur isn't even comfortably at home in his own body or his life, afflicted by visions and premonitions, curiously healed from a disabling injury, seeking constantly to remake himself from soldier to spiv to investigator. The traditional hunter, the private eye figure is always and necessarily an outsider, an observer, a stranger in a strange land; here that's taken to extremes, making Lechasseur the true alien in this story, for all the Doctor's two hearts and inherent transience.

Two hearts makes for double jeopardy, and it's always seemed to me that we ask a great deal of our writers, a double achievement: clarity of thought and clarity of language, a strong instinct for the story and another for the music, the voice of a poet and a mind like a steel trap. O'Mahony doesn't disappoint, on either side. I'd have stayed with him for the story, simply to find out what happened; I'd have followed him for the telling of it, simply to hear more and never mind its meaning. But that's too clumsy a distinction, for the delicate transactions of English prose; you can't truly shave one from the other. How can we know the dancer from the dance? We only know when one of them is stumbling, and neither one does here, bound up as tight as they are in each other and in the structure of the piece, which is the third part of the divided whole. A novella is a hard thing to shape, too baggy for a short story and far too constraining for a novel; all too easy to let any sense of structure slip. And to cheat, perhaps, to fall back on lazy practice, perhaps to haul in a deus ex machina at the end - why not, when you've been gifted with the perfect excuse, a very literal god-in-a-box, the Doctor with his Tardis at his back? Not here. That perhaps is the final subversion, that the ending is its own business, irresolute and compelling, depending neither on the Doctor nor on the hero-figure Lechasseur forcing a solution to the mystery. It would be unfair to say more, there are some traditions we must still observe, but it's tight, it's true and it is entirely unexpected.

George Pelecanos writes some of the most interesting crime thrillers coming out of America at the moment; he has said that all his work is about what it means to be a man (with the subtext in contemporary urban US society understood). Perhaps it's not too flippant to suggest that all Dr Who fiction is about what it means to be a Time Lord. With the subtext understood that it is written by humans, and actually we haven't yet figured out quite what it means to be us. The title itself poses a question of identity, and in so far as it has an answer at all, it's always shifted with the seasons. In the end, what it comes back to is the mystery. Welcome to the Cabinet of Light.

Anyone got the key...?

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