Charlie Chan – T. Michael Roberts

Think of several billion individuals as distinct hairs on one head spontaneously falling into a perfect beehive hairdo and staying that way over time without spraying or combing and you get the big picture Charlie sees when he tries to imagine what Sheriff Joe Bob Stone of Pickens County, South Carolina would call “life its own self.” Charlie worked with Sheriff Stone on the case of a serial killer who started with cattle mutilations and then moved up the food chain. Stone had been elected and re-elected Sheriff of Pickens County numerous times since 1969, based mostly on a talent for solving serious crimes without noticing any of the aspects of “life its own self” that the citizens of Pickens County who elected him did not want noticed. Charlie always wondered how much Sheriff Stone knew about what really went on in Pickens County and when he knew it. Was Stone corrupt when he was first elected, or had he been corrupted by a career built on dealing with the deadly serious while denying the painfully obvious? Was he corrupt, or just locked up inside a militant innocence better defended than any fortress in America? Charlie did not know. Stone was as inscrutable as anyone Charlie had met in as many years of noticing the missing bicycle seat in faces presented to the world as Stone had spent doing dirty laundry without acknowledging the existence of the load.

Charlie has always been torn. He knows that a signifier is just something that represents a signified to another signifier. This informs his response to what he would never call out loud “the Chinese thing.” Charlie wonders if Sheriff Stone ever wonders about the “good ole boy” thing. He wonders even more if the cause of true justice would be much advanced in Pickens County if he did. Charlie once attributed the saying “Bitter is wisdom that brings no comfort to the wise” to Confucius as a kind of joke on himself. The Holy Roller he was arresting at the time for the murder of her daughter’s boyfriend, the one that got her hooked on “hillbilly heroin” and talk radio, did not bat an eyelash.

The daughter was a licensed pharmacist, and this made her the one in the family who had made it. The daughter knew all about Oxycontin in theory long before the blue-eyed handsome devil tempted her and she did eat. If you know all about something in theory but not in practice, does that make you a whore and a virgin all at once? Did the blue-eyed handsome devil pick his mark, dowsing, with a wicked sense of humor? Charlie would never have put those particular words in the mouth of Confucius if he had not been absolutely certain that the Holy Roller was not enough of a reader of life and books to catch the joke. Charlie is not a cruel man. “Confucius say” is often the way Charlie laughs at himself by speaking a bitter wisdom in jest; a bitter wisdom he knows his audience will never hear. Maybe being inscrutable just means living your whole life as an inside joke you know no one will ever get.

The first thing every detective must know is that he is Oedipus and the Fates are laughing at him. His last case will be, beyond doubt, a pie thrown in the face of the detective by the Fates, a.k.a., for the best of reasons, the Furies. In all the really great detective stories, the ones you can’t see unfolding all the way without stabbing your eyes while screaming, “More Light! More Light!” in response, the butler did not do it. The detective did it, whether he knows it or not, and blaming it all on the hired help is, finally, just a sad evasion, just an example of rounding up the usual suspects. How does an honest cop go about not mixing business with pleasure while still swimming in the same water as everyone else — that is to say, in the only ocean we got? The Shadow knows, and Charlie knows just as well that, someday, he will find out also. And it will not, I repeat, not be pretty. This wisdom is fitting and even necessary to a man in Charlie’s line of work, but still it brings no comfort.

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