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Guest reviews


 The Driver's Seat: Muriel Spark's reworking of the Detective Genre


The Driver’s Seat is a piece of literature that seeks to evolve and subvert the conventions of the detective genre and famously ask the question ‘whydunnit?’ rather than whodunit. It was described on release as ‘a metaphysical shocker’ and was one of six novels to be shortlisted for the Lost Man Booker Prize. It is a novel that is particularly hard to define, and in a sense this is the very thing that makes it a successful and fascinating psychological narrative.

A character driven plot
The protagonist, Lise, leaves her job of sixteen years to go abroad where she reinvents herself as a maniacal flirt, complete with a gaudy wardrobe and a penchant for dangerously strange men. Hell-bent on having new adventures, Lise’s journey ultimately leads to self-destruction and Spark makes no secret of this during the beginning section wherein we are told Lise will die of stab wounds. The circumstances of Lise’s death must then be reconciled with the curious nature of this woman’s character.

Postmodern aesthetic suspense
The Driver’s Seat is often noted for being stark in detail as we are not given the usual identifying marks of character. Here Spark’s work is marked out in contrast to other famous Edinburgh based authors such as Irvine Welsh, whose work is synonymous with Scotland and most notably in his representations of drug users at various stages of heroin addiction and recovery in Trainspotting; a standout novel that is pretty hard to forget, not least for its use of conversational regional dialect. Scottish born author Spark elected to omit idiosyncrasy and provided only the bare bones of her tale. This allows us to witness our familiarity with a cultured explanation that could potentially inform a protagonist’s intentions and make meaning. We are aware that Lise is at an airport for example, but we are not given name of the city or her destination. Spark makes clear the ways in which we attempt to figure out motive, and how that contributes to our idea of a satisfactory conclusion. This aspect is further complicated, however, as Lise is also creating a new identity; she comments that her clothes make her look ‘curiously of the street-prostitute class’ and that in her deliberate selection of this attire she was laying a ‘trail’ for the police to interpret later.

This is a novel that asks the reader to become the detective. In an unlikely twist Spark delivers a character-driven, rather than plot-driven crime novel, yet it is the very instability of Lise that makes it a compelling read.

Review by Jenni Chadwick, Scotland, April 2014


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Copyright © 2014 by Gerhard K. Heilig. All Rights Reserved.