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Tag Archives: detective stories

The Light Shines in a Trenchcoat

Reading 150I’ve recently come to appreciate the singular pleasure of a good detective story. I’ve been on a bit of a run with them of late, and I think it started with the broken-down post-millennial duo of True Detective‘s Hart and Cohle. It took Nic Pizzolatto’s spitshine of the detective story to really get me to sink my teeth into it, to understand the very interesting places it could take you. Since then I’ve been reading them in various genre mash-ups almost exclusively.

First stop: Harry Dresden and the modern-fantastic world of the Dresden Files. I’m mostly familiar with the setting through the excellent RPG, but I read the first book (Storm Front) and found it pretty OK. The second — Fool Moon — features the wizard Harry battling a host of different werewolf factions, each with their different abilities and goals. I’m a sucker for modern fantasy and especially werewolves, so this story was right up my alley. It’s also a notable improvement on the first novel in the series, so I’m excited to get to the rest of them. There are fifteen(!!) volumes so far; I have a lot of catching up to do.

After that I read two books in the Last Policeman trilogy by Ben H. Winters. The first book is about a New Hampshire detective named Hank Palace solving a murder set up to look like a suicide, six months before an asteroid plows into the planet — likely destroying all life on Earth. The second, Countdown City, picks up a mere two and a half months from impact. Winters takes great pains to imagine what America would look like when civilization has essentially laid down to die; individuals abandon their lot in life to do the things they’ve always wanted and society grinds to a halt. People who stick to their posts are suddenly the crazy ones, so Detective Palace cuts a really unusual figure in the world of the novel. He’s fascinating, and the book tackles head-on one of the things that most fascinates me about pre-apocalyptic literature — the way people behave when the pretense of civilization is stripped away completely.

In many ways, the pulp-novel detective is a lone figure of morality standing out in the background of a complicated and semi-lawless world. In almost all of the detective stories I’ve read so far (admittedly, a small sample size), the protagonist is of a type: tall but not physically threatening, with a single-minded focus on solving the case, an eye towards clothes or accessories that have deep personal symbolism for them and a knack for getting the crap kicked out of them. Before the current run of detective stories I read (and reviewed) Forests of the Night by S.A. Swann, another sci-fi detective story featuring an eight-foot-tall anthropomorphic tiger named Nohar Rajasthan. Harry, Hank and Nohar are thematic brothers of a sort, all idealists with a pragmatic view of the world.

I have a massive soft spot for characters who give themselves over to an ideal, even though they’re painfully aware of their limitations. None of these guys are the paragon of law and order, but they believe in the ideals of justice, fair play and morality. The fantastic backdrops of their settings make the world that much more wild and dangerous, but they stick it out just the same. Morality is different when you’re sharing the world with a host of species who are, in effect, alien. How do you tell a vampire that killing is wrong, especially when it probably looks at human beings the way we look at cattle? How do you deal with the Jekyll-and-Hyde scenario of a werewolf, where a sentient being really isn’t in control of themselves in certain situations? Do you still punish a good man just because he turns into a monster under circumstances not under his control?

The Last Policemen trilogy takes this devotion to law and order to an existential extreme. Everyone knows that there is an end date to our civilization, so what’s the point of keeping it going until then? The idea shows us just how fragile the agreements we make for one another are, and the value of keeping them anyway. There was a really striking passage in Countdown City that perfectly encapsulates this:

Because a promise is a promise…and civilization is just a bunch of promises, that’s all it is. A mortgage, a wedding vow, a promise to obey the law, a pledge to enforce it. And now the world is falling apart, the whole rickety world, and every broken promise is a small rock tossed at the wooden side of its tumbling form.

The detectives in these stories have made promises to help people however they can, and they will not let themselves off the hook on that. Even if they get it wrong, even if they put themselves in physical danger, even if helping people puts them at cross-purposes with the law at times. In many ways, these guys are superheroes without the “super”; all they have is the rugged determination that they have to do the right thing because if they don’t, who will?

There’s something tremendously engaging about that to me; the deeply-flawed man, shoring up the doubts and weaknesses in his mind with the symbols of moral authority he feels attached to, fighting his own character as well as the darker forces in the world to serve this ideal that may never be attained. It’s so hard to engage with the world that flies so consistently in the face of that ideal; it’s one of the reasons why fundamentalists create echo chambers for themselves. But here is our noble detective, well aware of the weakness and wickedness of men, striving to be something more while accepting the world just as it is.

I’ll be moving away from detective novels for a little while — the third book in the Liveship Traders trilogy has been calling my name for some time now — but it’s nice to know that Harry and Hank (and even Nohan) have new tests waiting for them in future books. I’ll be cheering them on again soon.

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: Chinatown (#19)

Entertainment 150Chinatown (1974)
Starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and John Huston
Written by Robert Towne
Directed by Roman Polanski

Chinatown is a hell of a noir film. Set in the Los Angeles of the 1930s, it uses the acquisition of water by land barons to explore deeper themes of moral bankruptcy and how one man’s remorseless lust for power can override a system set up for the public good. The villain’s relentless drive for control creates victims of the near and dear as well as complete strangers. Everyone’s powerless against one person willing to exploit the system as much as possible.

Like most detective stories, this one starts simple. Jake Gittes (Nicholson) is approached by a woman to investigate her husband, Hollis Mulwray. Jake tails him, finds him protesting the creation of a new reservoir in town and then cheating on his wife. He takes pictures, gives them to Mrs. Mulwray, and finds them plastered all over the front pages of every newspaper in town the next morning. When he gets back to his office, he meets a woman (Dunaway) who insists on asking if they’ve ever met before. When Jake denies ever seeing her, she tells him that she’s actually Mrs. Mulwray and he can expect a lawsuit.

It gets more and more twisted from there. Jake, realizing he’s been set up, resolves to see the case through to the end. Every new clue leads him to another turn in the case, and every turn takes him away from the personal and towards the political. It isn’t long before Jake finds himself uncovering a massive plot to control the land and water for a great part of Los Angeles. Worse than that, the person at the head of this plot has ruined the life of the femme fatale he’s become entangled with. I won’t say any more about the plot here; if you don’t know what happens, it’s best if you find out along with Jake.

The ending, though, is a sucker-punch that leaves an indelible mark and — frankly — makes the movie great. Jake is left shaken by the ordeal he’s just been through, and I can only imagine that he’d struggle with where to go from there. What’s the point in trying to do anything in a world that allows the events in Chinatown to happen the way they do? What good could you possibly do when you’re working within a system that allows evil men to flourish?

His dilemma becomes ours, and we’re forced to confront a really basic question through this twisting little narrative. There are so many different ways to be “evil”, to visit harm onto your fellow man, and everywhere you turn you seem to find people who are connoisseurs of the practice. The society you live in makes it so difficult to be “good,” and often you find yourself swimming upstream if you try to do the right thing. There’s little reward or recognition; in fact, if you make too big of a splash you’ll likely be trampled down by the system. What makes the fight worth it? How do you recover from a setback or loss?

Jake Gittes doesn’t have an answer for it, and neither do any of his associates. “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.” He might as well be talking about the world, our whole experience. It feels like the movie leads you to the door of an existential void and simply drops you there at the end of it. What do you see when you look in?

It’s incredible that a noir could lead us here, starting from the titillating possibility of marital infidelity all the way to the question about why we even bother with morality in a cold, unfair universe. The writing of the story encourages us to think more and more broadly through the way it opens, each clue exposing a wider expanse of mystery until we’re left with the grandest one of all.

I suppose that’s one of the things that makes the noir detective such a crisp and engaging figure. He’s been hardened by the world but otherwise unchanged by it, constantly trying to do the right thing the best way he knows how. He’s a modern-day Sisyphus rolling a rock up a hill, only to watch it falling down again. The effort takes something out of him every time. But we imagine him returning to his office, taking other cases, going back down the hill and starting all over again. And depending on your outlook, that’s sad or inspiring. Or both.

Jack Nicholson is surprisingly great at playing Gittes, the private detective who’s competent but out of his depth here. He’s smart, wily and snarky, but there’s a severe power disbalance between the gumshoe and the ultimate target of his investigation. Nicholson seems to be the guy with all the power in the room whenever you see him most times, and there’s none of that here. It’s really intriguing to watch him struggle, be confused, try to get a handle on things.

Polanski does a great job as well, making sure every scene crackles with the energy it needs to, staying true to the noirish tropes of long shadows and stifling heat while making everything look distinctly southern Californian. For some reason, the sunny locale makes the darkness of the characters’ secrets that much more stark. He encourages Nicholson, Dunaway and Huston to be subsumed by their characters, and every bit of subtext he includes is understated, suggested by the performance. I imagine Chinatown would hold up well to repeat viewings for just that reason; there’s bound to be all sorts of stuff you missed the first time.

This movie is as good as film noir gets. It’s a great example of its genre, but it extends beyond it to play around with some really big ideas. Other movies might be a bit more entertaining, but none are as rich as Chinatown.

Rating: 9/10.

 
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Posted by on October 23, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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