Getting under the Skin to Read the Signs:

The Call of Classical Myths and Mysteries in Leigh Redhead’s Peepshow


Marguerite Johnson and Alistair Rolls

University of Newcastle



While much of the debate as to the origins of crime fiction focuses on whether or not Edgar Allan Poe can be considered the first exponent of the genre, Sophocles’s Theban plays, and especially those in which Oedipus is cast as the eponymous detective-murderer, are also often singled out as a powerful Ur-text (Knight 2015).[1] In studies of analytic detective fiction, the critical school of choice for those interested in the study of Poe’s Dupin stories, Freudian and Lacanian psychology and twentieth-century theories of textual analysis intensify this focus on Oedipus’s tale (Irwin 1994; Bayard 1998).[2] Arguably always absent-present in crime fiction, as the unconscious other to the diegesis consciously recounted to the reader, the ancient world is too powerful a source (of stories and mythology) to be overlooked by the contemporary reader, author or scholar of crime fiction. It is precisely the interconnection of ancient myth and contemporary crime fiction that is the focus of this article. For its part, Classical Reception Studies has substantially challenged, subverted and (perhaps) partially demolished the once seemingly entrenched philological fetishes and class-bound exclusivity that have traditionally characterised the study of antiquity. From the tentative steps in the 1940s that paved the way to the Classical Tradition, to the embryonic forays into Classical Reception Studies in the 60s and 70s and its blossoming in the 80s and 90s, scholars engaged in this somewhat renegade (‘sub’)-discipline have pushed, and continue to challenge, the boundaries of what is acceptable areas of engagement with the ancient world.

Gilbert Highet’s influential text, The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature (1949) rightfully sits as important a work in the field of Classical Reception as Charles Martindale’s Redeeming the Text: Latin poetry and the hermeneutics of reception (1993) – not only because it acknowledged the significance of ‘debt’ but, more disloyally, because it ignored philological obsessions and included translations (not bad for the 1940s). It does, however, stick to the canon; a common and respectable safety net that marked the work of such early scholars. And the canon continued as the bulwark of Reception well into the 90s, until classical comparisons, debts and discussions took a plebeian turn with research and courses on Classics and Film, Classics and Television Studies and Classics and Comics. Television and comics, especially, but also Hollywood ‘Sword and Sandal’ spectaculars had, until the advent of post-modernism, languished within the diaspora of para- or sub-Arts genres, too low-brow to warrant serious scholarship. Slowly but surely, then, the low-brow has crept into the canon and scholars of Classical Reception have welcomed it and indeed encouraged it. But Crime Fiction has remained a largely unconquered territory with only nascent consideration of works with overtly classical themes (most prominently, the plethora of detective novels based in ancient Rome). Less self-conscious references to antiquity, particularly its mythologisings, catechisms and neuroses, in Crime Fiction have not, as yet, been scrutinised. Of course, Crime Fiction too has been embroiled, since its beginnings (and the location of these, in time and space, is itself one of the genre’s founding myths) in this question of its place in, and/or in opposition to, the canon. While it is indeed true that, in addition to being one of the most popular genres read today, Crime Fiction is now a more than respectable area of scholarly endeavour, the seemingly ubiquitous insistence on beginning articles (such as this) with a reminder of this fact serves the dual purpose of dispelling but also maintaining the myth of vulgarity. Indeed, Australian Crime Fiction writer, Leigh Redhead, refers to this distinction between crime and ‘literary’ fiction. But Redhead is at all times a consummate, and self-conscious, performer of Crime Fiction, always blurring the lines between the stage and the ‘real world,’ between Simone the detective – the hero of her first novel, Peepshow – and Simone’s alter-ego, Vivien, the (fictional) stripper; between Redhead the author and Simone the (real-life) stripper. It is this liminality, these intersections that interest us here, and especially the double movement that sees the classical vulgarised and the vulgar canonised.

Leigh Redhead and Peepshow:

On her website, Redhead describes the heroine of her Simone Kirsch series as “an ex-stripper turned private detective who lives in St Kilda, Melbourne. She has dark hair, blue eyes, modest sized boobs and an unhealthy obsession with cheese singles, guitar players, and cheap wine (not necessarily in that order)” (Redhead 2014). In the first of the novels, Peepshow, Simone investigates the murder of Frank (Francesco) Parisi, owner of the table dancing club called the Red Room. As someone with the requisite experience, Simone finds no difficulty in going undercover and working as one of the ‘girls.’ When Frank’s brother, Sal discovers that Simone is on the case, he kidnaps her best friend and fellow stripper, Chloe, threatening to kill her unless Simone finds some answers.

In keeping with the genre of gritty, detective novels, Peepshow is a realistic, colloquial read, complete with lots of sleaze, sex, drugs and thugs. Interestingly, it also has its fair share of classical references and allusions, some overt and thus clearly intentional, others less so and perhaps a product of the reader’s imagination or the author’s unconscious.

What’s on the Page for the Classically-educated Reader?

Mythology is written on the page of Peepshow, marking its surface like, but also in the form of, tattoos. Indeed, Redhead plays with various stories and allegories from antiquity: characters are called Aurora and Chloe, bodies are inscribed with tattoos of the Erinyes and the prosaic sound of harbour sirens lure people into the ocean like the songs of their mythical equivalents. While such classicising is surface-level stuff, it nevertheless requires the reader, and the heroine, to decode it in much the same way Agatha Christie obliges her protagonists and audience to read the signs and catch the killer. These classicising examples are overt but deceptive. It’s not enough to smugly note the references, for the real challenge lays in their decipherment. In this sense, readings and misreadings of the references guide the surface as well as the ‘deeper meanings’ of the novel.

In relation to the names Aurora and Chloe, Redhead’s classicism, particularly regarding the former is overt if somewhat marred; when Simone asks fellow stripper Aurora why she chose that name, she replies: “I love Greek mythology, it was my favourite subject at uni. Aurora’s the Greek goddess of dawn. I actually wanted Persephone but didn’t think anyone would be able to pronounce it” (2004/2007, p. 112). The answer illustrates the tension between high culture and literary vulgarisation, as Aurora is the Roman god of the dawn (her Greek equivalent being Eos). Is this a slip on behalf of Redhead, unintentional literary vulgarisation or a conscious slight on Aurora’s pretentiousness? As for Chloe, Simone’s best friend and fellow worker at the Shaft Cinema, her name inextricably links her to her role in the plot: Chloe is the blond, somewhat naive beauty who is kidnapped by underworld thugs and kept hostage on a boat (read Longus’ heroine and pirates, respectively).[3] Other casual references include Anais, another stripper, who wears a Cleopatra wig (over a buzz-cut) and who thinks Simone looks like Xena (p. 37), while a young cop on the case is called Alexander Christakos (Alexander the Great meets a god-following Spartiate?),[4] and Simone muses as she gazes up at the Victorian State Library: “I didn’t know much about architecture but with its towering stone columns and marble floors the building could have belonged in ancient Greece.” (p. 94)

The three characters responsible for Frank’s murder, Aurora (Simone’s co-worker), Betty (Aurora’s friend) and Mick (Simone’s lover) are linked by the same tattoo of the Erinyes. Slowly, but surely, Simone discovers the tattoos on each of them, which helps her solve the mystery. Each has a reason based on vengeance, which makes the choice of the bodily branding an apt one. Because it takes Simone some time to decipher the tattoo (requiring the consultation of a Classicist), her quest to solve the murder is delayed. Like Aurora’s fluffing the origins of her name, there is also vulgarisation implicit in some of the references to the Erinyes; Simone, for example, asks Mick why he and Aurora have the same tattoo of “Medusa” (p. 258) and when she asks a tattooist, he replies: “Fucked if I know. Looks a bit like Medusa though, from those ancient Greek legends.” (p. 261).[5] When the design is decoded it is done so with heavy-handed explication: “The tattoo is a picture of one of the Erinyes, or Furies as the Romans called them. In Greek mythology there were three, and they were the underworld goddess of vengeance and retribution.” (p. 272) Degrading the whole metaphor further, we are told that, on the night of the killing, the Furies wore “those awful junkie tracksuits” (p. 277), which is a far-cry from the formidable attire of their divine role-models.

In Peepshow, then, classical mythology seems to be a slippery subject, perhaps best left for the cognoscenti. More important than the clueless tattooist, however, is that Aurora, Betty and Mick are in no doubt as to why they chose the design and its exact meaning. Redhead plays with the (mythological) topos of the hunter becoming the hunted – so prevalent in Greek tragedies such as Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers and, more powerfully, his Eumenides, as well as Euripides’ Bacchae – by turning poor Betty mad: “and now the fucking Erinyes are coming after me” (p. 284) – a truly tragic moment, accentuated by her stabbing herself in the chest in true Greek style (p. 285).  

Finally, in relation to the overt classicising, is the play on the word ‘siren.’ While perhaps less strident a metaphor compared to the previous two, the pun is suitably pertinent and therefore most likely intentional. Given that the novel’s landscape is set in the Port of Melbourne, the sea plays a prominent role: it hosts Chloe’s sequestration (in the hull of a boat) and its siren sounds lure characters into its waters. Simone, as she heads to the port on the trail of Chloe, is herself subject to the sea’s call: “In the distance a siren wailed, faint at first then growing louder.” (p. 222), their man-made songs increasing as the pages turn towards the dénouement: “More sirens wailed in the distance” (p. 223), only to return, once Chloe is rescued, to serenade Betty’s dramatic, Fury-driven act of self-punishment: “Sirens wailed in the distance” (p. 286). Again, as with the dicey vulgarity that imbues Redhead’s other classicisms, be they conscious or not, the use of the siren’s song is bowdlerised; the reduction of myth to a utilitarian mechanism in the de-capitalised ‘siren’ song continues the reworking of classicism in a decidedly earth-bound (read low-brow?) series of references.

What Lies Beneath for a Playful Reader?

Redhead herself seems to point (reflexively, consciously) to the unconscious in explaining the classical threads that are woven into the text,[6] and this more primal approach of the authorial process – and the reader-based response – extends, indeed liberates, the classical possibilities within the novel. As examples of the ways in which the concrete references to classical myths free the reader to write their own version of Peepshow as a personalised form of reader-response inspired by Classical Reception, we offer the case of an extended interpretation based on the themes of the Mysteries versus the Bacchanalia and Light and Dark / Aurora and Hades.

The Mysteries and the Bacchanalia: Simone wants to join the Victorian Police Force but is rejected, partly because of her previous and ongoing-casual work as a stripper and peep-show performer. She is sullied. As such, she is too impure to be initiated. Thus all knowledge of the crime (which the police are also handling) is closed to the uninitiated Simone who is relegated to the status of the general public – the secular.[7]    

Instead of gaining entry to the Mysteries, Simone remains within the realm of the Bacchanalia, itself a Mystery cult but less fussy about membership. In view of the clearly established references to ancient mythology, deeper readings, such as the interpretation based on the Mysteries and the Bacchanalia, don’t seem too far-fetched as a means of reader-based elucidations. In this sense, Simone’s occupation of the world of strip clubs and peepshows, and her partaking of the drugs and alcohol that fuel them and fortify their inhabitants, may be read as her emersion in a seemingly never-ending Bacchanalia.

Light and Dark / Aurora and Hades: In addition to the possibilities of the Mysteries and the Bacchanalia, Redhead may well – unconsciously – be playing with themes of classically-informed light and dark. If the revelry and unguarded indulgences offered by the sleazy venues suggest a Bacchanalian world, so too may they imply descent into darkness. As Dionysus / or Bacchus descends into Hades’ realm in his mythologies, so too does Simone. This is not as farfetched as it first appears, and may well be a deliberate, rather than an unconscious narrative metaphor on Redhead’s part in view of the role of the U/underworld that occupies so much of the plot. As the Parisi brothers preside over the night-time enclave of strip joints and peepshows, the entry-points to which involve literal descents to underground locales, the world of Hades is evoked. And like both Dionysus and Hades, Frank and Sal rule their world with unjust power and their women through rape and kidnapping. This is why Aurora’s casual reference to Persephone is so interesting – “I actually wanted Persephone but didn’t think anyone would be able to pronounce it” (p. 112) – a seemingly glib comment that, like her tattoo of the Erinyes, points the reader (and Simone) in the direction of decoding. Like Hades’ kidnapped bride, Persephone; the lost Chloe aboard the pirates’ boat and the one trapped in Sal’s vessel (evoking the Persephone myth); even Dionysus’ own capture by pirates, Frank and Sal’s world is one of omnipotence, abduction and continual descent into Hades. Indeed, this thematic scenario materialises in the form of Frank’s permanent journey to the Land of the Dead, orchestrated by the three Furies, Aurora, Betty and Mick, when they wreak their revenge on him.    

This experimental exercise is not only a means by which the reader can write the novel, but also a means by which the rewrites can then by ‘tested’ textually. In this instance, the Mysteries versus the Bacchanalia are not as textually sustained as the reading based on Light and Dark / Aurora and Hades. This is partly because of the overt classicising in the use of the name ‘Aurora’, the reference to Persephone, the naming of Chloe and the possibilities suggested in the underworld/Underworld conceit. These recognised signifiers enrich the text but the less persuasive readings of the Mysteries and the Bacchanalia do also. For example, by placing Simone as a character outside the Mysteries and inside the Bacchanalia, while simultaneously recognising her desire to leave the latter and enter the former, the reader embraces her more empathetically because they recognise her unwanted liminality.

What Else is Signed?

As is emerging, the classical myths woven into Peepshow are, like Simone’s performance(s), titillating hints of a bigger picture; they operate, like the artistic conceits and frills of the striptease, as suggestions that there may be one myth to be grasped by the reader that is more important, more significant for cracking the case, than the others. But there are also other voices and their myths and canons in Peepshow, which coalesce with antiquity, interacting with the ancient world, sometimes as a result of their own classical debts.

An example of Redhead’s technique of postmodern mythic eclecticism is the case of Simone’s erotic dancing and Freud’s myth of the phallic woman (that predicates all striptease) (Rolls and Johnston 2016). This tendency for these myths to merge into one another accentuates their importance as Myth, their existence in the text as signs received and (only) inchoately readable that takes precedence over their potential specificity as myths.

This is further suggested in the de-capitalisation of the Psyche myth in the following exchange between Simone and her mother:

"[And] apart from your physical safety I worry about your psyche."

"My psyche?" I would have killed for a cigarette. And something a bit stronger than wine. I leaned back in the canvas director’s chair and put my bare feet up on the balcony railing.

"It’s got to affect you, pandering to men, reinforcing ridiculous stereotypes about women, buying into the whole madonna/whore thing—"

"I don’t buy into—"

"I know you don’t but by working in that industry you perpetuate the myth. And to think I named you after Simone de Beauvoir" (p. 13).

Here we see a combination of the classical myth and Freud’s structural model of the psyche. While on the surface this exchange appears metonymic of a tawdry and overtly vulgarising use of classical mythology and psychoanalysis, in which the word ‘psyche’ is bandied about as pseudo-psychological jargon, closer inspection reveals Redhead’s control of what is a reflexive discussion of vulgarisation itself. Simone’s mother, after all, worries about her daughter’s psyche; both the use of the lower-case initial and Simone’s possession, or reception, of the myth, questioned but simultaneously reiterated by Simone herself, indicate an acute awareness of the downgrading of classical mythology (and Freud) that is at stake in this appropriation. But this damage, this legitimate cause for concern, is opposed to and balanced out by a perpetuation of myth. This perpetuation, this nurturing of myth, albeit inside another literary industry, is also an example of the appropriation of myth for generic elevation. Thus the earthly plane of the world of the striptease is elevated to mythic proportions and crime fiction to the elitism of canonical text. In this way, the classical influence on the crime text is both important and subtle, structurally.

The "whole madonna/whore thing" is a case in point. Redhead’s slash (madonna/whore) is ambiguous: Madonna, left again de-capitalised, is simultaneously opposed to and synthesised with her other, the whore. The word "thing" is also noteworthy. "Thing" both downplays the significance of the allusion by its prosaicisation of mythos, as typified by Madonna/madonna’s status, across the abstract-concrete divide, as goddess, pop-star and base object. Ironically, it also functions as reification in terms of the genre (the author again dabbling with markers of intellectualism, albeit in colloquial form).

This referencing of an intellectual world-view and artistic practice that sees abstract values and real-world existents juxtaposed impossibly, and under extreme tension, has a precedent in the oxymoronic prose-poetics of Charles Baudelaire. The lament of Simone’s mother – “And to think I named you after Simone de Beauvoir.” – adds a Parisian canon to the mix, further complicating ancient myth like the previous case study of Freud and permitting a French connection. In the face of the massive urbanisation that radically transformed Paris in the mid-nineteenth century, Baudelaire’s poetics morphed reflexively into self-parody. The pain of the poet’s lot, expressed in The Flowers of the Evil, was paralleled by the defamiliarisation of his Parisian locale: his verse poetry was misunderstood, undervalued, and Paris, while remaining Paris, was at the same time other than itself. His new prose poetics captured this dual loss under the title Les Petits Poèmes en prose : Le Spleen parisien (The Little Prose Poems: Paris Spleen, officially translated simply into English as Paris Spleen).[8] In addition to functioning as an exploration of Parisian non-self-coincidence (or self-alterity), namely the way in which Paris coincides with the mythologies of itself while at the same time eschewing them (even as its actualises them) by virtue of its very existence as urban space, the prose poems stood as poetic self-reception. ‘Poetry’ (with a capital ‘P’), the form that used spatial distancing and temporal belatedness to transform the object of poetic contemplation into poetic verse, was brought down to street level, vulgarised in both the literal and more figurative senses of the term. On the other hand, the objects of the everyday urban experience were elevated to the status of poetry and a poetics of neutrality – egalitarianism – emerged. Thus, Venus found herself one urban object among many, one more prose poetic element. The overvaluation (of objects) that is discussed in relation to the critical gaze of modernity, and which will go on to drive the art of, inter alia, the Surrealists, is always already accompanied by its Other, the undervaluation of abstract values. Baudelaire called this the satanic pull of the streets.

To return to the ‘madonna/whore’ conversation between Simone and her mother in light of the above discussion of Baudelaire’s prose poetics and his upper-and-lower-cases, it is interesting to recall David Harvey’s debunking of the myth of modernity; for Harvey modernity is precisely not to be defined in terms of distance from the past; rather, it is a continual referencing of the ancient, or mythical, world (Harvey 2003). A space is open here therefore for considering Peepshow’s deployment of the armoury of Classical Reception within the framework of critical modernity and thus for rereading Simone/Redhead’s perpetuation of myth in her treatment of the “madonna/whore thing”. Madonna, be she mother of Jesus Christ, who is regularly appealed to in the novel (but only ever as the expletive ‘Jesus’ or ‘Christ’, and never both), or the contemporary performer,[9] is not only brought down to earth and thus received in Redhead’s text in the form of Simone’s opening striptease, which opens the diegesis proper via an intertextual recreation of Madonna’s Open Your Heart video of 1986, but she is also tensely juxtaposed with the idea of the whore (much of the text, of course, is designed to justify or rehabilitate the figure of the stripper, endowing her with genuine agency). Redhead’s ambiguous use of the slash between her two terms captures the double motion of prose poetics by ensuring that the opposition of the two terms (to which we might assume that Simone’s mother refers, that is to say the binary casting of women as one or the other) is always already accompanied by a will to synthesise. The impossibility of this synthesis and its inevitability as a foundational drive are metonymic of the urban poetic frame that overarches Redhead’s (will to write) literary/crime fiction. For our more specific purpose here, however, it is also symptomatic of Classical Reception. In this way, appeals to classical myths in Peepshow have an equally metonymic and paradoxical function: they stand as echoes of themselves, received into a modern context; and they also elevate their receiving genre, in this case to the status of classic literature.[10]

In Redhead’s text, an appeal to Parisian prose poetics grounds her use of the classics and in so doing allows us to understand Classical Reception in terms of a paradoxical tension. Reception (as suggested above) must to some degree pervert and ‘bring down’ the source text (form or genre) but only to the same degree that it enriches and upgrades the receiving text (form or genre). The venue that is the centre of Simone’s investigation, the Red Room, with its emphatic and abstract capitalisation, recalls the oxymoronic “universal ecstasy of things” and “orgy of silence”[11] that is the stuff of Baudelaire’s prose poems and his metonyms for Paris. The Red Room is located in a stately bluestone building (Redhead 2004/2007, p. 25) and while not mutually exclusive, the red and the blue are the colours of Paris, again indicative of a reader’s imaginative flight inspired by the myths and the canons. But this fancy is given foundations – again in myth – in the figure of Chloe, our pastoral intertext (above) and also a metonym for Melbourne in the guise of the painting Chloé, by Parisian artist Jules Joseph Lefebvre. It is perhaps for this reason that she chooses Paris as her stage name.

Simone is also associated with Frenchness: passively upgraded by her mother’s pretentious and vicarious existentialist, feminist aspirations in the name she bears and actively downgraded by going on stage to strip – betraying her namesake, de Beauvoir, and preferring to strip by the name of Vivien. And yet, Paris evokes classical myth, too; and thus, before the investigation in and of the Red Room, there was the pull of The Crazyhorse, which despite its Parisian ring is for Simone more redolent of katabasis than Baudelairean poetics: “every time I walked past I was fascinated by the place […] the stairs going down below street level, like they led to some mysterious subterranean underworld. It drew me in” (p. 138).

Wielding the Classical Sign:

As both a venue (non-italicised, non-capitalised) and a novel (italicised, capitalised), peepshow/Peepshow embodies movement across liminal spaces. Structurally, the prologue, with its overt, wilfully heavy-handed, referencing of mythology, stands as a caricature of the classical source text, which the diegesis proper, or logos, cast in its light as receiving text, then cross-references and redeploys throughout the novel. (The interdependence of the two sides of the novel is reinforced by the use of apocopic, and thus literally de-capitalising, references to that other word that is Jesus Christ: ‘Christ’ is the first word of the tripper who wakens into the harsh light of the prologue (Redhead 2004/2007, p. 1), while this is complemented by Simone’s own "Jesus" as she wakens into the first day of the investigation within the diegesis (p. 62).[12]

For the purposes of the present analysis, however, the most interesting instance of Classical Reception arguably occurs in a chapter that takes the form of a dream within a dream (p. 219-24). To the extent that this chapter (26) is predicated on various elements of the prologue, and as such brings together and goes beyond the ostensibly ludic use of classical referencing found elsewhere in the diegesis, it can be said to operate both inside and outside Peepshow’s (the peepshow’s) narrative economy and thus as something of an internalised limen or (sub-dermal fold).[13] As a dream it is self-consciously symbolic, and its symbolism points towards movement across thresholds and classical text.

Following Simone’s discovery via Alex Christakos that there is sufficient proof to pin Frank Parisi’s murder on another cop, Richard (Dick) Farquhar, and an argument with Mick, during which he breaches Simone’s one clear line in the sand (he hits a woman), she falls asleep regretting and fantasising. The chapter that follows serves to clear Simone’s mind much in the way that a dream catalogues our memories. Indeed, the revelation that “Frank’s eye had been eaten by an unidentified sea creature” (p. 213) is renarrativised as an identification of Frank’s killer through the (symbolic) naming of (mythological) sea creatures. It is unsurprising therefore that the chapter opens with Simone still asleep, dreaming about a doctor looking like Sigmund Freud (p. 218).[14] As is typical of the liminal structure deployed at the outset of the chapter, and which the chapter will embody (as a mise en abyme of the framing device—both prologue and, as we shall see, epilogue—that opens and closes the novel in bilateral movement), Simone is not deeply asleep; rather, she is waking into the doctor’s embrace. Her escape from her needle-wielding assailant, who is none other than her suspect Farquhar, crystallises the fight-flight-or-sleep response that sees Simone cast as a hero in the classical mould: “It was a toss-up between running for my life and curling up on the footpath and having a little nap” (p. 221). If she is driven on, it is because water, as throughout the novel, is at hand and mythical sea creatures are there, albeit decapitalised as worldly objects, to call her across: “A row of flat palms provided shadows and cover and I slipped behind one. In the distance a siren wailed, faint at first then growing louder” (p. 221-22).

For their part, as discussed above, the Sirens are vulgarised throughout the text as their existential derivatives; and while they operate as common generic markers of urban crime fiction, and thus stand as themselves, their continual presence makes their mythical significance impossible to miss. The symbolism of the palm tree, on the other hand, is more subtly indicative of this chapter’s structural importance:

Palm trees are phallic but also rich in fruit, and thus symbols of fertility and androgyny; in the Tarot, they demonstrate the intent of the Priestess to amalgamate the realms of the seen and the unseen, and victory over the conflict of dualities and also over death itself; in dream symbolism, they represent the ability to rise above conflict and disillusionment, and the resurrection of (a whole) self (Venefica nd).

Symbolically, the palms join with the sirens in pulling Simone from one side (of her predicament and her dream) to the other; they also allow us readers to glimpse truths among the novel’s red herrings. Furthermore, they suggest Simone’s progress from victim to victor, a resurrection as both a real woman and another myth, this time the Freudian myth of the phallic woman; and indeed, in the following chapter the freshly (re-)empowered Simone will make the following bold, but also tongue-in-cheek, claim in regard to her possession of a shotgun: “Well I had a big dick of my own now and I wasn’t afraid to use it” (p. 233), which she follows with the hope that her guide over troubled waters, Reg, will not look up to see that she is not wearing any undies (p. 235), which can be interpreted as Freudian language for wishing for the truth of her genital lack to remain unseen by the male gaze and thus for her to remain phallic (and mythic).[15] In addition, the role of palm tree nectar in Assyrian and Egyptian mythology was “to keep the dead in a semi-animated state while they awaited their fate in the Underworld,” (Venefica nd) which is clearly apposite insofar as Simone’s ability to negotiate the parallel spaces of the dream and the waking moment is crucial to an investigation whose goal is to liberate Chloe from her own limbo across water (as it will turn out) in the hands of powerful underworld figures.

The feel of the rough bark of a palm tree against her head prompts Simone to desire sleep (p. 222). While there is a clear need for Simone, within the mise en abyme, to stay awake and thus to survive, it seems equally clear that her ability to keep dreaming this scene will be crucial to a reading of the clues in this case. (While conscious Simone has been unable to read her friend’s clues: Chloe has vainly cited films set on or to do with water whenever she has been allowed to speak with Simone in an attempt to convey where she is being held captive.[16]) This urge to sleep (within the dream) also has the effect of prompting the reader to read against the grain and to move from this liminal space back to the initial limen of the prologue (the rough bark of the palm tree standing for the outer dermal layer of the novel itself). For the first person to rest his head against the rough bark of a palm tree is Simone’s apocopic other, the tripper.[17] In his bid to adjust to the stark light of dawn he unzips his pants to reveal another level of symbolic castration in the form of his drug-withered penis. Endowed with her initial ‘s’ (both in lower-case, in ‘stripper’, and upper-case, in her name) and soon to be endowed with a classic crime-fiction phallic substitute, Simone is shown to be in fact diametrically opposed to the tripper: his waking fantasy will be for her a waking experience in appearance only and what she sees will be symbols in their own right but also clues to decoding signs in the diegesis proper.[18]

A paragraph break marks a passage from a dream state (signalled as a brief dream within the dream, or a reflexive dream designed to point up the oneiric status of the chapter as a whole) back into action (and back to the language of signs); and, accordingly, the language used is significant: “I came to suddenly. Jesus, how long had I been out?” (p. 222). The logos is again spoken on the crossing of the threshold between the dream and consciousness; and importantly, it is only half spoken (‘Jesus’ again, as opposed to the ‘Christ’ of the prologue), indicating the oscillation of the text between its diegetic reality and its mythical origin. The result of Simone’s fumbling search for a stick with which to defend herself appears miraculous, but its symbolism is telling in this liminal context: “[M]y hand came to rest on a small sign staked into the earth. They were all along the canal, giving the common and Latin names of the plants” (p. 222). For Saussure, of course, the arbitrary nature of the sign is axiomatic; he notes, however, that “it is often easier to discover a truth than to assign it its rightful place.” (Saussure cited in Culler 1976/1990, p. 19) So, as well as a combination of the signifier and the signified, the sign, especially here where it is reflexively signed as a ‘sign’ (albeit with a lower-case s), also stands for disconnection, or a problematic journey towards the discovery of meaning. Here, the use of the sign, by a female protagonist (or heroine), as a weapon elevates this will to understand, to negotiate the divide between conscious and unconscious understanding, to the level of a classical heroic quest.[19] And structurally, of course, the sign points metaphorically to the novel’s reflexive use of Classical Reception. The role of the sign is poignantly double: it provides the plant’s Latin title but also its vulgarisation, its common name. This is reinforced by Simone’s instant awareness of an increase in the volume of the sirens’ wailing, which is immediately followed by its complete cessation.

Thus, while it is Farquhar that Simone stabs in the chest with the sign in the context of the diegesis, the clear status of this chapter as mise en abyme, and portal back to the prologue, the double (classical and vulgar) signing of her act suggests a replay of Frank Parisi’s murder. Why else would Farquhar’s skin have “stretched and popped” under the sign (p. 224), if the body had not been long awaiting Simone’s reception in its watery grave? When she kicks the body back into the water, she does so armed with the unconscious knowledge of the identity of Frank’s killer.[20] But, as Saussure points out, and as the non-synthetic juxtaposition/interpenetration/disconnection of the classical and the modern suggests, the discovery of truth and the assignation of its rightful place are not one and the same.

As we have already suggested, glimpses of the truth in the Freudian sense are never clear-cut: freshly endowed with the phallus of her shotgun (following her unconscious discovery of the truth), Simone herself notices her absence of undies in the presence of a male (who does not appear to see); this is therefore a case of self-awareness, of a realisation of the fluctuating relationship between her reality (stripper, private detective, in Simone’s case, crime author in Redhead’s) and myth (Law and Justice in Simone’s case, Literature in Redhead’s). The realisation of the truth of Frank’s murder comes vicariously, via Chloe’s gazing at Aurora’s genitals. Through a chain of female detection worthy of Bacchic revelries, which sees Chloe’s vision of a sign reported by Simone to her mother to the Classics department at Sydney University and back to Simone via mother, the meaning of Aurora’s tattoo is understood. The sign that Aurora, Mick and, it will turn out, Betty all share is a tattoo of a Fury. Simone’s quest has led her to read the truth: in this case, of three Furies who avenge the death of Aurora’s sister, who committed suicide after being raped by Frank. The problem with the sign, however, is that its truth is only skin-deep. As we have already noted, Aurora (aka Hermione) chose her name under the (apparently) mistaken belief that it was the name of the Greek Goddess of dawn whereas in fact this was her Latin name. And yet, that this is no idle error on Redhead’s (and thus potentially Aurora’s) part is revealed by the sign that comes to Simone in the chapter en abyme, which gives both the common and the Latin names. On the surface, then, the novel’s conclusion is enacted under the sign of a misreading, a breakdown in the assignation of truth to its rightful place. As we shall see, this misinterpretation by Aurora signals, but only in the depths of the unconscious (text), a misinterpretation of Aurora.

The truth that Simone has registered unconsciously comes out in anger; it is a visceral truth, one felt within rather than derived from conscious ratiocination: “‘I know you killed Frank,’ I said, ‘and I know why’” (p. 271). The second person pronoun is, of course, numerically ambiguous, especially given the singular-plural identity of our modern Erinyes, but this statement is made directly to and meant solely for Aurora. The scene that follows, however, privileges a skin-deep explanation of the facts of Frank’s murder, which is received by Simone on the basis of a connection between the two women that was itself, by Aurora’s admission, skin-deep, and which strikes some interesting parallels with the tripper’s (now seemingly oracular) experiences in the prologue, or Peepshow’s own initial dermal layer. Aurora notes that the three Furies had worn “those awful junkie tracksuits” in a bid to terrify Frank, who presumed he was at the crime scene of his own murder, and that, as a result, he had a “shrivelled little thing” (p. 277). Aurora’s tale references the tripper, vulgarising him as a junkie whereas he himself in fact sported sunglasses that made him look “incredibly cool” (1), much as Simone reveres, or poeticises, sex, violence and, of course, the underworld; it also echoes the drug-induced withering of his penis, which is translated onto Frank’s body, which the tripper himself initially found. Aurora apparently left the crime scene before Frank’s death, to sit on the beach, which again recalls the tripper’s departure from the Palace nightclub. And when the Furies have disposed of Frank’s body, “Betty scored some Es” (p. 278), before they had a threesome and went to get tattoos. Threesome aside, these actions sum up the dreams of the tripper, for whom the mythological pull to cross water is also the pull that takes the reader into the diegesis. What for him were dreams and promise of adventure to come have morphed by the end of Aurora’s account into vengeance wreaked and mission accomplished. The story of Frank Parisi’s death has come full circle, and the effect on Aurora is of catharsis: she feels “unencumbered” after her confession, as if she, too, has been ritually purified.

The loudspeaker at the airport that calls Aurora away from Simone to her flight is another siren song. The idea of a framing device is further served by Aurora’s conjoining of her disparate selves: her imminent flight across the sky is, of course, her mythological role as bringer of dawn, and her destination can only be that bright light of the prologue. As goddess and stripper, Aurora is a prose poetic hero, and Simone is left to reflect that both aspects of her persona are the real her (p. 279). And yet, while Aurora’s tale of shared vengeance and tattoos completes the picture, there is still the sense that the surface has only been scratched; Aurora has filled in the details, completed the prophecies of the tripper’s prologue and hermetically sealed the novel’s diegesis.[21] But this is very much a ‘cover story;’ its truths are only skin-deep. And Simone, who has been inoculated against such facile reception of mythology by a needle that went far deeper than those that marked the three Furies, is still left with itches needing to be scratched.

The Circular Novel Pierced:

If Simone is left in doubt as to which of the three Furies killed Frank and whether or not Aurora was lying (p. 280), and if Redhead is open to unconscious allusions, solutions beyond her control, then we readers can legitimately, like the fat businessman confronted with the parting kiss of Dawn, do “a double take” (p. 279). Because, despite Aurora’s resumption of her orbit, her line of flight leads Simone and the reader onwards on a linear course away from the airport and back to Melbourne. Aurora’s closed circle has in fact, by failing to offer a clear murderer to a detective and reader keen for retribution, left itself open. Not only is there an epilogue to come (p. 287-91), which instead of balancing the prologue and closing the circular reading, as it might have been expected to do, extends Simone’s own flight, along a linear trajectory, through a solution and onto her next case. And indeed, between Aurora’s flight and the epilogue there is a final chapter of the diegesis proper and, within it, the revelation of another text in the form of Betty’s diary.

Aurora’s departing reflections on stripping—“It’s art, power, self expression” (p. 279)—announce her return to her new chosen profession and the performance that opened the diegesis proper. Stripping therefore, like crime fiction and detection, is the artistic equal of Literature; and Aurora’s, Simone’s and Redhead’s dual ambitions are all held successfully in balance. And yet, these words are also proleptic, oracular even, since they seem to justify Betty’s claims that the Furies are now after her. Betty, who looks quite literally furious (“like a witch”, p. 282) when confronted by Simone is an artist’s impression, an anthropomorphised tattoo. Her self-expression lies in self-immolation; she does to herself what was done to Frank Parisi and what Simone did (if not figuratively, then at least en abyme) to Dick Farquhar. The wailing of sirens in the distance seals the comparison. Betty’s guilt is also sealed through self-expression, this time in the form of her diarised confession, which Simone takes away and dismisses cursorily in the epilogue: “She admitted stabbing Frank and confirmed everything Aurora had told me. I burnt the diary in my kitchen sink and set off the smoke alarm” (p. 288).

It is in this final wailing that the novel performs its last turn. For, while Simone dismisses it, the smoke alarm is another siren, and as such it opens alternative trajectories and other, unconscious, lines of flight. It is here that Redhead’s “self expression” negotiates space for weighing Peepshow against the classics. In his search for a definition of the classic work of literature Italo Calvino (2009) suggests (point 4) that “[a] classic is a book which with each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading” and which, in a related point (number 6), “has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers”. (p. 5) Calvino’s conception of the ‘reread’, it seems, goes beyond the ever-repeating circle of reading the same story again and again, which, while suggesting pleasure and the wish to repeat a familiar experience, does not match the jouissif edge present in the idea that the novel’s meaning can never be entirely captured. Indeed, in addition to failing Calvino’s test, the circular text offered by Aurora, which appears open-ended but which is ultimately closed by the evidence of Betty’s diary, is the unsatisfying model of ‘reading again’ that Roland Barthes warns against in S/Z (1974). Famously, to fail to reread critically, which is to say, to negotiate and actualise new meaning each time the virtual space between the reader’s consciousness and the pages of the literary work is crossed, is to be condemned to read the same text everywhere; the reader who effectively becomes the writer of the text (responsible for what Barthes calls le texte scriptible, or writerly text), on the other hand, sees newness even, and especially insofar as rereading encourages critical engagement, in the reread. The classic text, which Barthes sets out ironically as referring to literature or the readerly text (le texte lisible, or that which is transparently meaningful and thus self-coinciding), is in fact that which escapes itself and lends itself to blissful and eternal recreation.

The text’s escape from the authorial strictures of self-coincidence has helped define an important trend in crime-fiction scholarship in the last decade. Pierre Bayard, for example, has used psychoanalytic criticism to reopen a number of old cases, including classics of the genre such as Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles; in each case, he has reassigned the truth (1998; 2008). In Peepshow the possibility of non-self-coincidence lies in Aurora’s reverence of “self expression”. It is curious that the word is not hyphenated; the non-union of the two parts of the word is suggestive here: perhaps she does not intend us to understand this as the expression of oneself but of the facilitation of expression in another self. The reread to which this points is potentially that Barthesian type, which one might be tempted to hyphenate as a re-read in order to demarcate it from the pleasurable stability of its other. According to the re-reading that we shall offer here as our conclusion, Aurora presents us with two powerful expressions of her artistry: the first is Betty’s suicide, to which by her own admission she is driven by the pursuit of the Furies, which is to say, by Aurora; the second is the discovery of a diary that coincides exactly with Aurora’s account. These are, then, Aurora’s final performance—two expressions of her self through another, a translation of her own non-self-coincidence onto Betty’s self.[22]

As for Simone, she receives an official endorsement, a recall to the Mysteries, of the Victorian police force, which she rejects in favour of her continued non-self-coincidence as stripper-detective. As she notes when rejecting the advances of a male guitarist with the final words of the novel, “[y]ou guys are trouble […] [w]ith a capital T” (p. 291). Abstract, poetic values and patriarchal authority are thus spurned as she and crime fiction accept their urban condition. Redhead, too, has cause to celebrate. By offering a circular novel and a convincing authorial solution at the same time as a linear novel with ample cause to re-open the case, she has written a crime novel and a classic. To use the slash that perpetuates and challenges the myth of the "madonna/whore thing", ’Redhead’s Peepshow is a deployment and critique of Classical Reception, whose sirens forever call us on to re/read.



Barthes, R 1974, S/Z, trans. Richard Miller, Hill and Wang, New York.

Bayard, P 1998, Qui a tué Roger Ackroyd ?, Les Editions de Minuit, Paris.

Bayard, P 2008, L’Affaire du chien des Baskerville, Les Editions de Minuit, Paris.

Calvino, I 2009, Why Read the Classics?, trans. Martin McLaughlin, Penguin, London, p. 5.

Knight, S 2015,  Classics Secrets of Crime Fiction Classics: Detecting the Delights of 21 Enduring Stories, McFarland, Jefferson, NC.

Harvey D, 2003, Paris, Capital of Modernity, Routledge, New York/London, p. 1.

Redhead, L 2004/2007, Peepshow, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW.

Redhead, L 2014, 'About Simone', Accessed 12 February 2014

Rolls, A and Johnson, M 2016, 'The Stripper Castrated, Or How Leigh Redhead’s Peepshow Stages the Art of "Being Both"', Clues: A Journal of Detection, Forthcoming.

Culler, J 1976/1990, Saussure, Fontana, London, p. 19.

Venefica, Avia nd, 'Palm Tree Symbolism', Accessed 3 February 2014



[1] In French Studies, for example, largely perhaps because of the famous and influential translation of his tales by Charles Baudelaire and the importance of the mid-nineteenth century (in terms of art, poetry and urban architectural reform in Paris) in the development of what can be termed today a new critical modernity, in which the ancient and the modern are seen to interact, Poe is typically taken as the key originator of crime fiction. See, for example, Gorrara’s introduction and David Platten’s chapter 'Origins and Beginnings: The Emergence of Detective Fiction in France' in Claire Gorrara (ed), French Crime Fiction (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2009), pp. 1-13 and 14-35, respectively. More recently, and from the perspective of Anglo-Saxon crime fiction studies, Stephen Knight has been active in his correction of the scholarship. In Secrets of Crime Fiction he notes that the genre already had its exponents before Poe’s famous Dupin stories were written. See Stephen Knight, Classics Secrets of Crime Fiction Classics: Detecting the Delights of 21 Enduring Stories (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015).

[2] See John T. Irwin, The Mystery to a Solution: Poe, Borges, and the Analytic Detective Story (Baltimore; London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1994) and Pierre Bayard’s famous essay on Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Qui a tué Roger Ackroyd ? (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1998), in both of which some doubt is cast as to Oedipus’s guilt in the murder of his father Laius.

[3] Chloe is also, of course, the famous nude (Chloé) by Jules Joseph Lefebvre (1875) that hangs in Melbourne’s Young & Jackson Hotel; she is an iconic symbol of the city, evocative of its sensual and provocative past (and present).

[4] Christakos – Khristos (Christ-follower) + akos (suffix linked to the Mani peninsula in s-w Peloponnese). For another pun, consider the corpse, Francesco (Italian from the Latin = ‘French’) + Parisi (Italian denoting ‘Parisian;’ reference to the Sicilian region).

[5] Further explication reads: “[The]he Erinyes didn’t necessarily kill their victims, they pursued them relentlessly” (Redhead 2004/2007, p. 277).

[6] Personal correspondence between Leigh Redhead and the authors, dated 14 January 2014.

[7] Except for what Alex chooses to tell her, incidentally breaking the code of silence.

[8] For a chiastic analysis of the oxymoron at the heart of this title and the prose poems themselves, see Alistair Rolls, Paris and the Fetish: Primal Crime Scenes (Amsterdam; New York: Rodopi, 2014), pp. 25-28.

[9] Even as we write this article in February 2014 Madonna has just repackaged the song Open Your Heart, performing it dressed (fully) in white as part of a benefit/awareness raiser for same-sex marriage.

[10] If by the use of ‘classic’ we follow Samuel Johnson’s lead in conflating this term with the writings of ancient authors.

[11] See Charles Baudelaire, 'Venus and the Motley Fool', in Paris Spleen, trans. Louise Varène (New York: New Directions, 1970), p. 10.

[12] Her next wakening provokes the exclamation “[i]t was a miracle” (p. 76). The apocopic reduction of the word ‘stripper’ to form the ‘tripper’ figure of the prologue is dealt with in detail in Rolls and Johnson (forthcoming 2016).

[13] For a more detailed analysis of the dermal folding of text in light of Gérard Genette’s explanations of the paratext, see Alistair Rolls and Marie-Laure Vuaille-Barcan, 'Paratextuality, Self-Alterity and the Becoming-Text', in Alistair Rolls and Marie-Laure Vuaille-Barcan (eds), Masking Strategies: Unwrapping the French Paratext (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2011), pp. 159-85.

[14] Although the link is tenuous, Simone’s dream of a doctor who looks like Sigmund Freud has a curious precedent in the canon of French existentialist literature. In Jean-Paul Sartre’s La Nausée (Nausea, 1938) Roquentin dreams of a doctor with a beard brandishing a whip across a number of naked rumps. He wakes from this dream only to be propelled into a scene at a railway station that is itself highly oneiric and which is also predicated on a song (Some of These Days). Simone/Redhead’s musical reference at this point is Black Eyed Man.

[15] In this way Simone’s secret (and secretly undressed) vagina is fetishised (both veiled and symbolised) by her public dick. This is just one of many encrypted plays on the ‘Simone PI’ that occur throughout Redhead’s Simone Kirsch series, including in the title of her third novel, Cherry Pie (2007), which, in addition to referencing her own (phallic) mother, stands for Kirsch PI.

[16] While Chloe uses film to signal her place of incarceration, her stage name, Paris, is itself perhaps an oblique allusion to a film. As Simone notes on meeting Dakota, Montana and Carolina, “[e]very second stripper you met was named after an American state” (p. 37). In this light, Chloe’s stage name constitutes half the title of Wim Wenders’s 1984 film Paris, Texas, in which Natassja Kinski’s character Jane plays an iconic role in a peep show.

[17] The ‘tripper’ is the ‘stripper’ with the initial ‘s’ removed. He appears in the initial section of the novel but is himself always already de-capitalised. For a more detailed reading of apocope in the novel, see Rolls and Johnson (forthcoming 2016).

[18] While the tripper’s fantasy is fuelled by a powerful dose of Ecstasy (reduced, appropriately, the single capital letter, E), it is unclear just how much of the ‘hot shot’ of Heroine Farquhar has been able to administer. Sufficient, it appears, to move Simone to heroism in the text, although Chloe will later point out that she thinks that Simone must have been on E rather than “smack” (p. 240).

[19] For the purposes of the present reading, we are dismissing the use of the word ‘stake’ and the reference to vampires, which is not isolated to this scene, as red herrings, mythological references designed to fetishise mythology and thus to hide the truth beneath a more ludic revelation of it.

[20] That she is afterwards knocked to the ground by a police officer in a simulation of arrest also suggests a communion between Simone and the killer, both of whom are cast in various ways as avenging angels.

[21] This framing device may leave the reader having trouble focusing. This is in part because of the prose poetic structure that keeps either side of the binary opposition in play, with continual oscillation across liminal points. Depending on the lens adopted, the tripper’s fantasy appears proleptic of the novel’s use of classical referencing but also, at a more structural level, of the dénouement; on the other hand, Aurora’s confession draws on and exploits this mythical account. While here this tension speaks to the power of classical reception, elsewhere Baudelaire prose poetry is also analysed in terms of a focus that is increasingly sharpened until it becomes lost without clarity, which would equate to the impossible synthesis of poetry and prose, ever being completely achieved. See, for example, Michel Covin, L’Homme de la rue: Essai sur la poétique baudelairienne (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2000).

[22] This is redolent of the fear of the Other and notably the Other’s tendency to freeze our ‘true identity’ (as it appears, objectively, beyond the control of our consciousness) inherent in Sartrean existentialism, according to which non-self-coincidence is the truth of the human condition (the being for-itself). Aurora’s control of Betty, while unfortunately sadistic, is arguably an expression of self as will to freedom in this Parisian philosophical context.


Marguerite Johnson is Associate Professor of Ancient History and Classical Languages at The University of Newcastle. Her research is primarily on Greek and Latin literature (particularly representations of gender, the body and sexualities) and Classical Receptions Studies (particularly the influences of ancient Mediterranean cultures on Australia from colonial times to the present).

Alistair Rolls is Associate Professor of French Studies at the University of Newcastle, Australia. He is currently President of the Australian Society for French Studies and co-leader, with Jesper Gulddal, of Detective Fiction on the Move, a University of Newcastle strategic research network. His recent publications include Paris and the Fetish: Primal Crime Scenes (Rodopi, 2014) and If I Say If: The Poems and Short Stories of Boris Vian (University of Adelaide Press, 2014), which he co-edited with Jean Fornasiero and John West-Sooby. With Rachel Franks, he is currently co-editing Crime Uncovered: The Private Investigator, which will be published by Intellect in 2016.


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The Australian Journal of Crime Fiction
Vol 1 No 2 2015
Editors: Rachel Franks and Wendy J. Dunn