Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Lolita Man

Bill James, The Lolita Man (New York: Foul Play Press, 1998). 158 pp. $10.00.

Last Saturday the British writer and editor Mary Jackson put up a disturbing little essay at Pajamas Media, arguing that it has become suspicious and even dangerous for men to show concern for children not their own—they risk being treated as perverts. She quotes Boris Johnson, now the mayor of London, who complained two years ago in the Telegraph about a “system of presuming guilt in the entire male population just because of the tendencies of a tiny minority.”

This system, which one of Jackson’s commentators describes as Every Man a Perv, has had terrible effects, not just upon men who must check their normal impulse to help children, but upon children who need other men in their lives beside their fathers. When I was a high-school sophomore, hired as a “stringer” by the local paper to cover sporting events that a reporter couldn’t get to, I was befriended and tutored in the art of sports writing by a bachelor columnist who lived alone, in a beautiful stone cottage, around the corner from me. I spent hours in his company, going over my copy, debating the merits of baseball versus football, discussing the books he had put into my hands (he introduced me to A. J. Liebling). Now of course such a relationship would be impossible. Any parent who allowed it would be called negligent.

The denigration of normal men is not the only consequence of the general dirty-mindedness. When all men are potential perverts, actual perverts disappear into the crowd, losing their special brand of evil. They can no longer be distinguished from other men. Reading Jackson’s little essay, I couldn’t help thinking of Bill James’s novel The Lolita Man, probably the best portrait of a pedophile in the English language.

Originally published in 1986, The Lolita Man was the second of James’s long-running series of “Harper & Iles mysteries” which now numbers twenty-five titles. A 79-year-old Welshman and former newspaperman whose real name is James Tucker (under which name he published a study of Anthony Powell), James is nothing like his contemporaries P. D. James and Ruth Rendell. He is not absorbed with motive nor does he have a young girl’s murder serve as a pretext for an investigation of something more interesting. His prose is not elegant but angular and unadorned, and his Britain has less in common with Adam Dalgliesh’s than with Theodore Dalrymple’s. Crime is not an isolated incident there, but a rising tide that the police are nearly powerless to hold back. “The detective is dead,” Iles explains in the novel by that title. “Which detective?” Harpur replies. “I hadn’t heard.”

Jerk. The detective as species. . . . Courts won’t hear confessions, they throw out informant cases, still give every career villain the right to silence, disbelieve police evidence as a matter of course. Judges disallow material recorded in trap situations—alleging we’re provocateurs. Juries are threatened and bribed. Villains keep special insurance funds for nobbling them. Where’s detection?The best the police can hope for is gunplay, so they can shoot too; they plant evidence where necessary; they do whatever they can to avoid going to trial. Not likely to please the civil libertarians, as Iles acknowledges, but there is something more important than approved procedure. Quoting Halifax’s Character of a Trimmer, he insists that the law must be “in good hands”—his and Harpur’s, not the lawyers’. The point is not, as cliché has it, that a thin line separates law enforcement from “crookedness”; but rather that the line separating them is not procedural.

James’s best novel is Roses, Roses, the tenth in the Harpur & Iles series, which opens with the murder of Harpur’s wife and then in alternating chapters leads her up to the stabbing, at least as Harpur imagines it must have gone, and then shows him in a race to solve the crime. In The Lolita Man, James was still experimenting, still searching for the right approach. The technique of alternating chapters is already in place—Harpur’s investigation alternates with diary entries by a fourteen-year-old girl who is being stalked by the Lolita Man—but he also tries something daring. Starting with the fifth chapter, he lets the pedophile speak for himself. Commences then a complex and suspenseful three-way dance in which the Lolita Man stalks the girl, who knows she is being watched by the man she calls Mr Dark Eyes, but who is also (unbeknownst to her) being watched by Harpur, who suspects that she may be the next victim, and who is known and watched by the Lolita Man, whom Harpur does not know.

The story begins when Detective Chief Superintendent Colin Harpur is summoned to the King Richard Hotel where a thirteen-year-old girl has been raped and strangled. She is the fifth girl to die in the same way. Even in the presence of the corpse, Harpur is elated that the murderer might have been seen in the busy hotel. “Christ,” he reflects, “the Lolita Man had started acting like that first Lolita man in the book, visiting hotels with his little bird.” It will not be, alas, that easy. When Assistant Chief Constable Desmond Iles arrives, he too is elated, but for a different reason. He says,
This guy is unique, isn’t he? All the sexologists tell us rapists hardly even kill. Oh, I know there’s the Boston Strangler and that joker who got among the Chicago nurses, but it’s rare and especially in the rapists of kids. We’ll be in the textbooks.Thus James gets his two disclaimers out of the way early on. His pedophile is no Humbert Humbert, who was an “artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy.” Nor is he a typical child-abuser, who is statistically more likely to be a woman or (if a man) then a family member.

James’s Lolita Man is a patient watchful stranger in need of love, not help (“love, only love, love from a girl, a girl not too old, a girl really young, a gentle and kind girl from a nice private school with high class navy and red uniform, a girl who has not been playing around with boys, letting them close to her, using foul language”). He lives in a “tomb alone” until he finds the “right girl,” but when he does he is properly thankful:Tonight in my prayers I gave thanks that I have been able to find her among so many. Please God let it be that I do not lose her. Do not send me back to that black pit. Prayer is such a help in my life.The voice is much creepier than “that first Lolita man.” Humbert Humbert is aware of the “cesspool of rotting monsters behind his slow boyish smile.” A part of him knows in advance that “nothing but pain and horror would result from the expected rapture” with his Lolita. Nor is he totally cut off from the human nexus. “Imagine me,” he beseeches his readers; “I shall not exist if you do not imagine me. . . .” Nabokov’s Lolita, as I’ve suggested elsewhere on this blog, is dedicated to the proposition that imagination might be redemptive, recreating time backwards, transfiguring a monster, giving a dead girl eternal life in a book bearing her name.

James’s vision is entirely different. In his world, imagination cannot make the monstrous wonderful again; to believe otherwise is, as Iles puts it, “eyewash”; the truth about human society—the “dark pressures” of experience—are stronger and more lasting.

And James’s Lolita Man is the greater monster, because he does not think of himself as a monster. He believes, in fact, that he is “the only one who can save [the girl he is stalking].” He finally moves to snatch her when he reflects that “I haven’t done enough for her, only watching.” He must protect her from Harpur, whom he suspects—faithful to the system of Every Man a Perv—of wanting “dirty sex” with her. He breaks into her room, thrilling her (“I could smell some strong tobacco in my room like they use in those French cigarettes”) but leaving himself distraught at not finding her there.

At this point the alternating chapters suddenly stop and Harpur is left alone with the sound of his own voice, unable to locate the girl he has been tailing. For some thirty-five pages, nothing is heard from either of them—the girl or Mr Dark Eyes. The effect is chilling. How will it end? Not in any way calculated to satisfy expectations. James’s novels never do. But the ending does establish something worth knowing. The impulse to protect a child does not unmask a normal man as a Lolita man, and to worry that it might is to give up on a far more troubling problem. Namely: how much to redeem with imagination, and how much to let the truth have.