07 March 2011

Fictional index

Truman Capote introduced the term of the ‘non-fiction novel’ with his book In Cold Blood. In truth, the genre of ‘faction’ had been around for a long time beforehand.
The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale is a non-fiction novel. The author has researched the details of a Victorian murder — the written documents such as police records which are preserved in the Public Records Office at Kew. She has created a fictional reconstruction of the events around the ‘Road Murder’, and related this to contemporary events, both in real life and in fiction. She discusses the influences between the real detective, Mr Whicher, and the detectives in contemporaneous fiction, such as Sergeant Cuff in The Moonstone.
What is unusual about Mr Whicher, however, is the extensive list of references at the back; and there is a select bibliography and an index. Since when did a novel have an index? 
It was Martin Amis, I think, who said that Umberto Eco’s vast and dense novel Foucault’s Pendulum needed an index, and he did have a point. There is so much information in it that finding anything is next to impossible — and I’ve no idea how much is real and how much is invention (if any). Of course, you could say that Eco’s novels are more than works of fiction; he uses them to illuminate his semiotics and philosophy. The novel, again, as teaching resource?
Back to Mr Whicher; how many readers need the references, how many are going to check up, how many are going to go to Kew? The book is a novelisation, not a textbook or even a thesis — or is it? References are common in non-fiction books, and the lack of them and an index in them is adversely commented on.
But an index in a novel?

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