Following the publication of Mumbo Jumbo in 1972, Ishmael Reed proclaimed it "the best mystery novel of the year" (Shrovetide 132). Reed's statement, of course, seems out of place given that Mumbo Jumbo looks nothing like a conventional detective novel. A "composite narrative composed of subtexts, pre-texts, post-texts, and narratives-within-narratives" (Gates 220), Mumbo Jumbo even includes such oddities as pictures, footnotes, and a bibliography. But despite its unique appearance, the central narrative, among the novel's various intra-texts, does, in fact, include both a detective, PaPa LaBas, and his classic search for both a murderer as well as a missing text, reminiscent of Poe's "Purloined Letter." As Mumbo Jumbo opens, a "a psychic epidemic" known as Jes Grew is "creeping" across 1920s' America. Although Reed takes the term Jes Grew from James Weldon Johnson (who wrote that "'the earliest Ragtime songs, like Topsy, 'jes' grew' " (qtd. in Mumbo 11), (1) he traces it as far back as an ancient Egyptian da nce craze that reemerges in New Orleans in the 1890s, a "flair-up" which authorities thought they had neutralized by fumigating the Place Congo. But they misunderstood the nature of Jes Grew--which Western science cannot even "bring into focus or categorize" (40)--and now it is back again, sparking the Harlem Renaissance, and has its carriers, or J.G.C.s, literally dancing in the streets. Alarmed by these developments, Jes Grew's enemies the Atonists call out their military wing the Wallflower Order to "defend the cherished traditions of the West" (15). Jes Grew is spreading for a reason: "Jes Grew is seeking its words. Its text" (6). "It must find its Speaking or strangle on its own ineloquence" (34); however, where and what exactly this text is remains a mystery, the central mystery of the novel.
Ironically, the text Jes Grew seeks has come to America in the hands of an Atonist, Hinckle Von Vampton, or H.V.V.--a caricature of Harlem Renaissance patron Carl Van Vechten--who decides to send "it out as a chain book" to "14 J.G.C. individuals scattered throughout Harlem" (69). Unknown to H.V.V., one of the 14 J.G.C.s collects and gives the anthology to the black Muslim Egyptologist Abdul Hamid to translate. Anticipating the completion of Abdul's work, Jes Grew is on its way to New York, where it will "cohabit" with its text-unless the Atonists get to the Text first; as the Atonists see it, the only way to stop J.G. is to destroy the Text that it seeks. Consequently, H.V.V. and his partner Hubert Safecracker Gould pay a visit to Abdul, demanding he surrender the Text, and when Abdul refuses, they murder him. As fate, or convention, would have it, LaBas discovers the body along with a clue, a cryptic note from Abdul. LaBas has "the nagging suspicion...[the note] has something to do with the missing antholo gy" (131). It reads: "Stringy lumpy; Bales dancing / Beneath this center / Lies the Bird" (98). Clue in hand, LaBas, thus, begins his classic search for both the murderers as well as the location of the missing text.
But while Mumbo Jumbo has all the makings, Reed's novel is no conventional piece of detective fiction. It is, rather, a metaphysical detective story which evokes the "impulse to 'detect' ... in order to violently frustrate it" (Spanos 171). Nor is Reed's detective a conventional sleuth. (2) Unlike his literary forerunners, who relied on ratiocination and science, LaBas is "a jack-legged detective of the metaphysical" (212), "a private eye practicing. . . NeoHooDoo therapy" (211). In an obvious transgression of the Western detective genre, LaBas does not depend solely on scientific reason or concrete evidence to explain away mystery; to the contrary, he preaches turning "to mystery, to wonderment," or in the Voodoo tradition, to the loas. (3) LaBas's very name, in fact, is taken from the African deity Legba and his Haitian incarnation PaPa Legba, a trickster figure who mediates between the spiritual and material worlds. (4) Moreover, Reed's novel never offers a solution in the traditional sense. Although we do learn who the guilty parties are, this knowledge does not have the cumulative effect it does in a classic work of detection, in which the solution repairs the social fabric, for more threatening forces than an isolated murderer are pressing in on Western culture.
In considering Reed's appropriation of the detective genre, we need to recognize that the classic detective novel does more than merely solve the "affront to reason" that emerges within its pages; it also functions as a site of ideological containment, reinscribing Western science's belief in our ability to solve our world. As previous Reed criticism has noted, it is the detective's, and by extension Western science's, adherence to ratiocination that Reed wishes to call into question. (5) But what has not been mentioned with regard to Mumbo Jumbo is its interrogation of the way in which the detective novel as well as Western metaphysics more generally has imagined and produced social space to accommodate a positivist world view. I intend to show how Reed's novel questions and re-envisions Western conceptions of space, conceptions the detective figure has both guarded and perpetuated.
We should keep in mind here Foucault's suggestion that "space is fundamental in any exercise of power" (252; my emphasis), meaning spatial configurations participate in or are mutually constitutive of other cultural forms: aesthetic, political, and economic. Furthermore, space is mutually constitutive of individual subjectivity, including racial identity. As Henri Lefebvre contends, "All 'subjects' are situated in a space in which they must either recognize themselves or lose themselves" (35); that is, becoming a subject involves accepting "a role and a function," which "implies a location, a place in society, a position" (182-83).
It has for some time now been recognized that, as a genre, detective fiction is inherently preoccupied with both its own textual space-at the close of which all mystery must be explained away--as well as the space(s) its characters confront and inhabit, which as a fundamental rule must be strictly limited. (5) The murder generally occurs within an isolated or sealed environment--a hotel, a train, or even a locked room--which both makes it possible for its detective, and its reader, to narrow the number of potential suspects in order to solve the crime and also accomplishes another, ideological purpose in that such strict bounding suggests that social space can be rationally ordered and contained. Interestingly, a common device employed by the detective novel involves making space first appear decidedly irrational. I am speaking here of the classic locked-room mystery, in which the detective must explain or repair a breach to what was assumed to be a closed system. Ultimately, the success of the detective in a locked-room mystery is predicated on his ability to reestablish spatial parameters that adhere to the tenets of Western science; that is, by the close of the story the irrational space of the ruptured environment must appear rational once again. It is also worth noting that the classic detective has served a further ideological function by maintaining the separation of ghetto, or criminal space, and bourgeois space. (6) As in the case of such master sleuths as Holmes, the detective possesses the rare ability to traverse both worlds, with the sole purpose of protecting the latter-the decriminalized, sanitized space of the middle class.
The detective story's attention to space reflects a larger preoccupation with spatial matters on the part of the Enlightenment-based cultural Logic out of which the detective story was born. As David Harvey argues, along with the Enlightenment consciousness's impulse to solve, "the conquest and rational ordering of space" were "an integral part of the modernizing project," which created a "new organization of space dedicated to the techniques of social control, surveillance, and repression of the self and the world of desire" (249, 213). These are, of course, the very "techniques" employed by the detective in his efforts to maintain the social fabric, meaning the detective both relies upon what Deleuze and Guattari term the striating logic of Western science and also--particularly in his surveillance of the city--perpetuates that logic by rationally ordering the spaces he observes. In light of Lefebvre's comments regarding the link between space and subjectivity, the classic detective can, in fact, be seen as the spatialized subject par excellence in that his primary function is to restore order, to put every thing and every one back in its ideologically designated place or space.
Again, though, Mumbo Jumbo is no conventional work of detection, but a metaphysical detective novel that defies Western logic and refuses closure. Furthermore, Reed's novel not only exhibits all the traits of a metaphysical detective novel, but as Helen Lock suggests, it also belongs to what she defines as "Afrocentric" detective fiction. By "Afrocentric" Lock means those works that "derive from and incorporate... 'African culture and behaviour.'" She clarifies that it "is not that the 'American' in African-American is being rejected but that the 'African' is being revitalized, and a new and energetic dialectic re-established between the two" (ix). With its inclusion of African tales and Voodoo ceremonies, Reed's novel certainly participates in the "revitalization" of African heritage. But as Lock's comments would indicate, Reed's novel does not simply replace the Western detective story with an Afrocentric version; rather, Mumbo Jumbo concentrates on the space in-between, or the cultural boundary between Afr ican--or other non-Western cultures--and Euro-American "civilization." This explains why Reed chooses as his detective LaBas (Legba), a mediating figure who presides over the crossroads, for the space he wishes to interrogate is that of the cultural crossroads. As we will see, however, while Reed places the two cultures in opposition, his work is not so much interested in overturning binary hierarchies as it is in interrogating and making use, artistic or otherwise, of the ways in which these …