Short Cuts

Thomas Jones

Who killed Princess Diana? It’s pretty much a case of choose your own conspiracy theory, unless you’re Michael Burgess, Coroner of the Queen’s Household, whose tedious task it now is to ascertain the manner of Diana’s death. Entirely by coincidence, Burgess will also preside over the inquest into the death of Dodi Fayed, because Fayed is buried on the family estate at Oxted, in Surrey, and Burgess is the Surrey Coroner as well as the Coroner of the Queen’s Household. It’s not his job to lay blame, however, even in the unlikely event of his delivering a verdict of murder. Mohamed Al Fayed, Dodi’s father and the owner of, among other things, Harrods and the Paris Ritz, is vociferously convinced that there was foul play involved in his son’s death, as are 85.1 per cent of the people who responded to a Daily Express poll in October last year. With the exhumation of the case, rumour is clashing with counter-rumour: Diana was pregnant; she wasn’t; she’d had an abortion; she was desperate for a baby girl she would call Allegra. It strikes me that this is a case for FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper.

I realise that I think this partly (oh all right, only) because I was given Twin Peaks Season One on DVD for Christmas. For those who’ve never seen David Lynch and Mark Frost’s pioneering TV series of the early 1990s, Twin Peaks is a small town in Washington, five miles south of the Canadian border, 12 miles west of the state line. Laura Palmer, the high school homecoming queen, has been murdered. Agent Cooper – effortlessly dapper, crisply handsome, intimidatingly smart – is called in to investigate. He is assisted by the local sheriff, Harry S. Truman (as Cooper tells his Dictaphone, ‘shouldn’t be too hard to remember that’). It doesn’t take long for the scab of small-town wholesomeness to be picked off, revealing the perversity festering underneath. (The show’s credits are a minor ironic masterpiece. The stirring theme music soars over images of an American robin, the exterior of a sawmill, the machinery inside the mill, snowflakes billowing over a waterfall, fir trees rising majestically behind the town sign: ‘Welcome to Twin Peaks, Population 51,201’. That prominent ‘1’ denoting dead Laura Palmer.) Suspicion at first falls on Laura’s boyfriend, Bobby Briggs, captain of the football team and rebel without a cause.

That the stereotypes of jock and bad boy are merged in a single character is an indication of one of the things that makes Twin Peaks so good. It isn’t so much that the fleshy perversity lurks beneath a distinct carapace of clean living; rather that the wholesomeness is a skin made of the same substance as the softer stuff that it conceals – a bit like custard. The corruption of some of the characters isn’t so unsurprising: that of Benjamin Horne, for example, the father of crazy Audrey and the owner of, among other things, Horne’s department store, the Great Northern Hotel, and One-Eyed Jacks, a casino-cum-brothel just over the Canadian border. But then there’s Laura’s other, secret boyfriend, James Hurley, a motorbike-riding loner, but also one of the Bookhouse Boys, a vigilante outfit whose members include Sheriff Truman. Agent Cooper is not only a paragon of rational deduction with a weakness for damn fine black coffee and fresh cherry pie: he’s also a New Age crank who three years ago had a dream about Tibet which left him ‘deeply moved by the plight of the Tibetan people’ and having ‘subconsciously gained knowledge of a deductive technique involving mind-body co-ordination operating hand-in-hand with the deepest level of intuition’. (He explains all this to Truman and his deputies in a clearing in the woods. They have taken along with them a blackboard, a bottle and a bucket of stones. Truman reads out the name of a suspect, then Cooper repeats it and throws a stone at the bottle, which has been placed on a tree stump a precisely measured distance away. Only when the last name is read out, in keeping with dramatic convention, is the bottle smashed, and we have a prime suspect.) Laura herself was an all-American beauty queen who did lots of charity work and lots of cocaine. Pretty much everyone in town – maybe not all 51,200, but certainly those whose lives the show takes an interest in – is sleeping with someone they shouldn’t be. This makes it sound like there’s too much going on in too small a space, and indeed there is. It is in part a matter of pushing the conventions of soap opera to their absurd and macabre limits, and the results are both hilarious and chilling.

Cooper, immediately seduced by the surface of Twin Peaks (the pines, the doughnuts, the coffee, the folksiness), is soon embroiled in its murk. Joining in with the Bookhouse Boys, flirting with teenage girls, and eventually losing himself in the town altogether. It’s a tragic fall. As the various subplots develop, the question of who killed Laura Palmer becomes increasingly irrelevant, a subplot itself. But what’s all this got to do with Diana, late Princess of Wales?

One conspiracy theory that probably doesn’t have many subscribers, but which I happen to like, was put forward by the comedian Alexei Sayle in the title story of his first collection, Barcelona Plates (2000). Remember the white Fiat Uno said to have pranged the doomed Mercedes in the underpass, the white Fiat Uno with a dog on the back seat, which police were unable to trace? In Sayle’s story, a man called Barnaby goes on holiday to Barcelona after breaking up with his girlfriend. Bored, he spends all day driving around in his hire car – a white Fiat Uno, as it happens. At a service station he buys ‘a large straw donkey wearing a sombrero which he stuck on the back seat’ before deciding to take the car back to London, where he has a rare old time and swiftly loses all sense of who he is: an Englishman who’s meant to be on holiday in Catalonia pretending to be a Catalan on holiday in England. Eventually he realises he has to get the car back to the hire firm in Barcelona. Driving through Paris, he encounters a black Mercedes:

Barnaby pulled ahead of the Merc, then with a flick of the steering wheel changed lanes without warning, clipping the front bumper of the bigger car. Its lethargic balance upset, the Mercedes wobbled then ploughed into the 13th stanchion of the underpass and span round losing speed and bits and pieces of itself; as Barnaby tore up the other side and out into the Paris night. He didn’t give a fuck.

He’s probably not the only one.