Holding Death Hostage: Human Enigma in 'The Order of Death'

Hugh Fleetwood's story of murder and guilt evades the clear resolutions of mystery-narratives, opting for a disturbing disquisition on human enigma.

The Order of Death

Publisher: Faber & Faber
Author: Hugh Fleetwood
Publication date: 2013-08

Order of Death

Director: Roberto Faenza
Cast: Harvey Keitel, John Lydon, Nicole Garcia
Year: 1983

Disorderly Conduct

With the bribe money he has accrued over the years working on the force, Lieutenant Fred O’Connor acquires a space where nothing from the outside world of noise, chaos and unwanted liaisons can touch him. It so happens that this unobstructed space is a rather plain, barely furnished apartment in Central Park West. Jaded and morally conflicted, the officer spends his free days in his apartment, convalescing from the daily traumas of working in the precinct and trying to forget that his failed marriage to his far more emotionally adjusted wife ever existed.

Fred has the burdensome responsibility of managing his apartment with Bob, a fellow cop who has a share in the apartment, as well. The apartment isn’t exactly home to either Fred or Bob. Rather, it’s a spacious, secret getaway where both men can come and go as they please. Fred would rather Bob just leave, so he may be left alone in peace. After all, Bob is rather careless and messy -- always leaving his dishes unwashed, the bathroom untidy and never being careful enough to make sure that the apartment is a closely guarded secret not to be shared with anyone outside of Fred and himself. Fred dreams of a day when he has the place all to himself; when the world outside can just rot and go to hell without any of his help. He’ll sit back and watch life carelessly go by.

But when a mysterious stranger appears in the building one day asking for Fred, that dream of tranquility and peace becomes an impossible nightmare of dramatic proportions.

The Order of Death, author Hugh Fleetwood’s 1976 novel of psychological destruction, mines every faction of the human condition, from the public projection of social relationships to the deeply private and guarded desires of alienated men. It’s a thriller of systematic design, working a continuum through the anxieties of both aging men and injudicious youth. New York City, during the frigid winter months, serves as the cold and unfeeling backdrop and, here, in this quarter of concrete infrastructure, the introductions to the mindless servitude of industry and order are plainly made.

Fred, who has comes to despise his job as an officer of the law, is an anxiety-prone neat-freak who pines for the moment in his life when the problems of the outside world will become eviscerated from his simple and humble preferred way of life. Working in the narcotics division, Fred has come to believe that most of society’s problems are the result of laws that have made recreational drugs illegal; he sees drug addiction as a simple and effective way to weed out the weaker members of society who tarnish the social culture with laziness and ineptitude. Though he is careful never to allow these personal musings become known amongst his colleagues, he does make an acknowledged slip with Bob, a fellow officer on the force who also admits to taking bribes.

When Bob decides to sell his share of the apartment for reasons of personal guilt (the apartment was paid for with bribe money), Fred happily accepts. Now alone with the apartment all to himself, Fred soon realizes a new dimension of loneliness, which Fleetwood explores and essays through the ideas of surrogacy and co-dependency.

A new dynamic is introduced into the fold with Leo Smith, a strange young man claiming to be responsible for the murders of police officers that have been plaguing the city for months. Because Fred is something of a magnet for destructive behaviours, it isn’t before long that Leo positions himself within the officer’s target range of irrational fears and violence. Insinuating himself into Fred’s home and life, Leo indoctrinates a certain edict of male relationships which tests everything from the accepted masculine behaviours of middle-aged men to repressed sexual desires articulated subtly in controlled environments.

Upon their first meeting, Fred and Leo establish the sadomasochistic lines of communications which form the basis of a dangerous symbiotic relationship. Leo curiously longs for a punishment of which he feels Fred is qualified to carry out in full. Meanwhile, Fred, bemused with the absurd predicament of having Leo confess to the police murders, considers the matter with deliberation and care.

Fleetwood, having outlined Fred’s unfortunate affairs with the women in his life, now carves out a peculiar space of sexual inquisition where Fred will be both captor and prisoner in his own home. Leo plays subjugation as a children’s game, challenging false diplomacies that exist within ethical codes of legal systems. The fact that Fred doesn’t react to Leo’s manipulation with incredulousness, that he accepts the matters as though they were natural and to be expected, illustrates a submission to the systematic breakdown of reason. Thus, a presentiment of death which hangs over the apartment provides the two men with a strange sense of fulfillment.

Fleetwood further complicates the guilt complex of crime and punishment with the teething troubles of attraction, desire, mental illness and the fears of alienation. The apartment, drawn here as a private sanctum of released inner fears, offers a space of encouragement and acceptance; Fred and Leo can entertain the most outlandish and heinous forms of retribution in which both parties may be relieved of their suppressed desires and guilt. Bob, who learns of Leo’s presence in the apartment, serves as a nagging conscience of sorts, which must be done away with if Fred and Leo are to exorcise their demons of longing and guilt.

A curious extrapolation presented in the text has Leo’s and Fred’s personal and family histories entwining in such ways to suggest a paternal surrogacy built upon violence and need. Fred is childless; Leo is orphaned. Space in Fleetwood’s narrative means communication and human contact. The violence which ensues anytime a personal and physical space is violated is yet another constituent in the development of male ego; at one point Fred ponders on the necessity of violence – how abuse works to refine the male confidence to exemplary levels. Leo and Fred’s destructive alliance within the apartment (they are bonded by their respective and joint crimes) activates a cycle of sadomasochistic aggression. Fred, who is holding Leo hostage inside the apartment, keeps the young man handcuffed and gagged in the bathtub and forces him to eat gruel from a dog bowl. Leo circumvents this power and dominance by simply enjoying the degradation.

Later, Leo’s grandmother, whom Fred meets in his mission to eradicate any evidence of Leo’s whereabouts, offers the hypothesis that fears and desires shape moral choices, obliquely suggesting the futility of Fred and Leo’s situation; Fred, captor and aggressor, is enslaved by Leo’s lust for pain and punishment. Death, seen as the option of both enlightenment and escape, seems an obvious choice, an easy way out of the panic and confusion that Fred and Leo have produced between each other. Neither man, however, seems too eager to give up the chase.

Filmed in both Italy and New York City, the film adaptation follows the trajectory of the novel with many of the variables of the story retuned to a somewhat different emotional schema. Starring Harvey Keitel and the Sex Pistols’ John Lydon in his one and only film role, Order of Death (also known by the alternate titles, Copkiller and Corrupt) was shot in 1981, with its release delayed by about two years. Fleetwood came on board to help adapt his novel, co-penning the script with writer Ennio de Concini and the film’s director, Roberto Faenza.

In Faenza’s offbeat conception of Fleetwood’s novel, New York becomes a shuffling series of settings – Fred’s apartment, the police precinct, Lenore’s and Leo’s homes – in which the enigma of these characters recedes further into the ethers of inexplicable and strange desires. Excising much of the psychological conundrums of internal dialogue in Fleetwood’s text, the film reduces the characters to enigmatic vessels nearly emptied of motive. Here, the ideas of guilt are explored more freely; they are not entirely tied down to personal motive and longing but presented simply as an abstraction within the narrative that forces a restructuring of the conventional mystery-plot.

Keitel re-imagines Fred as a destructively stubborn and belligerent man, artlessly manoeuvring his way through scenes of emotional collapse. With rage and confusion as prime navigational sentiments, Keitel’s Fred earmarks his warpath for the perversely odd and insidious Leo to follow. Lydon’s Leo is simply a reactionary projection to the hostility on display -- a silent and complicit co-conspirator dangerously submitting to the violence on hand. Here, passive-aggressive behaviours are deployed with economical division, like two sides of a coin of emotional depravity, either side of which each man represents. The viewer, forced into a cinematic narrative that refuses an explanation of motive or action, is left at a curious and removed distance. Fleetwood’s inner psychological musings are, in turn, replaced with far more impressionistic versions of his characters found in both Keitel and Lydon, whose designs are intensely emotional; here, celluloid takes to a clear jar in which two warring species are confined and subjected to a kind of scientific judgement of reasoning.

Both novel and film tactically evade the clear resolutions of traditional mystery-narratives, opting for a winding and composite disquisition on human enigma. If Fleetwood, a writer of probing psychological depths on the matters of crime, has anything to say regarding the notions of poisonous compunction presented in his novel, it is that the resultant guilt is an equally perturbing mystery as are the crimes which induce such emotional complexes.

In the end, there are a multitude of questions raised in The Order of Death that beg for tenable explanations of crimes which both cause and affect the matters of guilt. And here, in the literary depths of dark and repressed truths, the answers to such questions simply refuse to surface.

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