The Biographer as Detective

by Nina Ellis

I’m a biographer but I feel like a detective. I’ve spent the past four years researching the American short story writer Lucia Berlin — first for my Master’s and now for my PhD — and I’m now adapting my thesis into a biography called Looking for Lucia. My quest has involved reading everything Berlin ever published, but also tracking down her family, friends, letters, unpublished manuscripts and 200-plus homes. Before the pandemic, I flew to California to meet two of her sons, Jeff and David, and they took me on what they called ‘The Lucia Berlin Broken Homes Tour’, driving me to all of the places she’d lived in the Bay Area during the 1970s and 1980s, and showing me her local laundromats, gas stations and liquor stores. By the end of the day, I felt like Berlin had materialised beside me in the back seat of David’s car, the ghost of the woman who’d haunted these streets and my dreams.

My obsession with Berlin is matched only by my passion for thrillers. My favourites don’t always feature professional detectives: for instance, in Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects and Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, the protagonists are ‘ordinary’ people forced to step into gumshoes to solve murder mysteries against the clock. That’s what my PhD feels like, minus the risk of being murdered myself. My funding runs out in two years, and I must find out everything that happened to Berlin — someone I never met, someone who is no longer alive — before that happens.

I’m not the first person to think of the biographer as a sort of detective. Google turns up four articles with the same title as this column. In one, Walter Lippmann biographer Ronald Steel writes that ‘what had begun as an exercise in exposition became a detective story with the subject both my client and my quarry.’ In another, Henri Matisse biographer Hilary Spurling addresses the French lack of interest in biography: they ‘see it as grubby and Anglo-Saxon’, she says, like ‘being a private detective or a nosy parker.’ The third assesses how various biographers have ‘distorted the evidence’ of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s adulteries, and the fourth proposes that Carlos Castaneda biographer Robert Marshall moved ‘beyond being a literary detective’ and became ‘something of a real one, as he tried to find clues about the disappearance of five women who had been part of Castaneda’s inner circle.’ Marshall’s research involved recruiting an actual private detective and several specially trained dogs.

Fiction writers, too, have spotted the overlap between the biographer and the detective. My favourite example is Eric Ambler’s pre-war spy thriller The Mask of Dimitrios, in which the protagonist, Charles Latimer, is a detective novelist who becomes intrigued by a murderer after he stumbles on his corpse in a morgue in Istanbul. Latimer retraces Dimitrios’ steps across Europe, trying to construct a narrative that will make meaning of his crimes and scattered life. ‘I told myself that if, for once, I tried doing some detecting myself rather than writing about other people doing it, I might get some interesting results,’ he explains to a friend. But he soon realises that that is an excuse. ‘I see now that my curiosity about Dimitrios was that of the biographer rather than of the detective. There was an emotional element in it, too. I wanted to explain Dimitrios, to account for him, to understand his mind’ — and yet this is a trick by Ambler, because Dimitrios is fictional and his novel remains a novel, not a biography.

The Mask of Dimitrios proposes an important difference between the detective and the biographer: whereas the detective ought to remain objective, there can be ‘an emotional element’ to biography, which draws the researcher to their subject. Latimer recognises this in himself. Being a detective is just a job, whereas being a biographer is more like a vocation. The detective prioritises the outcome over the process, whereas the biographer constructs a narrative to ‘explain’ their subject — ‘to account for’ them, as Ambler puts it — and this often requires transparency about their own process and bias. The Mask of Dimitrios is as much the story of Latimer as it is of Dimitrios, and in this sense it is perhaps more like a biography than a detective story, even though it is a work of fiction.

Despite this distinction, detective work remains a useful touchstone for many biographers trying to make sense of their craft. Some allude to the detective-like aspects of their research in their titles — like A.J.A. Symons’ The Quest for Corvo and Ian Hamilton’s In Search of J.D. Salinger. Recent examples of self-declared detective-biographies include Judith Freeman’s The Long Embrace (‘I had become haunted by Chandler’) and Lili Anolik’s Hollywood’s Eve, which she describes as ‘a noir-style mystery’ (among other things) in her first chapter. Contemporary biography has become increasingly elastic, comprising forms as diverse as Sarah Laing’s graphic memoir Mansfield and Me, Nina Mingya Powles’s verse biography ‘If Katherine Mansfield Were My Best Friend’, and Jenn Shapland’s My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, in which self-discovery and literary discovery are intertwined. What all of these texts share is their investigative spirit.

What kind of biography of Lucia Berlin am I writing? Will I have to hire sniffer dogs and my own private detective? I doubt it: Berlin was not a cult leader, and I’m grateful for that. What I know is that there is certainly ‘an emotional element’ to my attachment to her, and that my narrative must tell that truth in order to tell the truth about her life. In narrating Berlin, I must acknowledge my own presence.