(A version of this appeared in a recent SCRAPINGS ETC email newsletter issue by me).
It smells unique.
The first Kinky Friedman novel I ever got was Roadkill. It sat on my bookshelf, unread for years, as a kid, a gift from my dad. After I read it though and got hooked, Elvis, Jesus, and Coca-Cola was the one that I got obsessed with. It’s one of my favorite mystery novels and it’s one of the books I can always go back to.
The size is terrific for hands. The cover, bright red and blue with a women’s eyes and lips but separate, two different women, makes perfect garish sense. It even smells right, the edition I’ve had for years, the pages just-so slightly-yellowed, smelling like pulp, fulfilling a cliche about how good “real” physical books are.
The fetishism of books isn’t the point though.
Again and again, references in my head and my own critical work and teaching to go back to Chandler and “The Simple Art of Murder,” which sits, a yellowed edition, a creased cover, on my bookshelf.
How did I get here? This was supposed to be a review of one of my favorite books…so much for that.
“But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him.” – Chandler
I heard Adam Savage and Alton Brown talking about Chandler and his creation Marlowe in relation to Scott’s film “Blade Runner,” and how Deckard is, for all intents and purposes, Marlowe. They were right of course, and it’s a brilliant talk to listen to and go back to (which I have, a few times) because it helps define and encapsulate noir PI characters. They are honest men whose honesty gets them nothing but trouble.
I had an idea at one point, that my PhD work would focus on the evolution of noir and the PI character as a reflection of the growth of the middle class in post-war America, the middle ground between the untouchable upper classes and the helpless cogs of the bottom social rungs.
There’s some post-its in my sketchbook. “Good horror writing makes you question yourself on every level…” and “Good crime fiction makes you question everything about a bad situation…”
I think the second one is true as an encapsulation of noir, where even the winners are left either holding the bag, or wondering what they had to sacrifice to end up “winning.” It gives us a level of sad but satisfying realism, and it definitely helps in fiction in creating a lesson of what the impact of things can do. We go through fiction so often and neat and tight endings are the norm, closing the book, wrapping up the story. But life isn’t like that at all. It’s messy and there are lost ends that float around you forget about or just can’t resolve and so they’re dropped. Someone is inevitably happy or jealous or shitty and the victories revolving around violence are almost always short-lived.
Good noir, good detective fiction, it embraces that. It takes us away from the fetishization of the linear narrative and replaces it with the study masquerading as a narrative, which is perhaps the most genius of literary tactics.
Anyway, maybe I just like a good dirty mystery.