Archive

Issue No. 2 – October 2010

The second issue of Global Graffiti is devoted to detective fiction and noir.  Though interest in “mystery” literature and film has remained consistently strong over time, it seems that lately this genre has garnered an exceptional amount of popular and critical buzz.  This summer, for instance, the big mystery bestseller was Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium trilogy.”  Just as David Sharp notes about the contemporary Italian giallo in his essay on Simone Sarasso’s Confine di stato, Larsson’s novels allow the author to move beyond a juicy mystery toward commentary on social and political issues of the day.  (See Nicholas Kristof’s NY Times article on the connection between Larsson’s novels and current attention to sex trafficking in the United States.)  Scholarly attention to this popular genre (along with others like science fiction) has also continued to grow, as evidenced by the critical articles included in this issue of GG.  Here’s the line-up:

We are especially excited to feature an excerpt of Erik Raschke’s new novel, The Death of Fiction.  In this piece, we meet Detectives Francisco Alcantara and Lionel Matos as they investigate a particularly bloody murder in New York’s Washington Heights.  Detective Alcantara, an aspiring writer who possesses an especially acute sense of smell, muses on the murder of Mr. Bobbins (a writer and English teacher who wears clown make-up to class) and the literary world, as well as questions of race and gentrification.

In “Untraditionally Traditional,” David Sharp analyzes Simone Sarasso’s 2007 crime fiction novel.  David argues that Confine di stato, which incorporates the tropes of the traditional giallo and film noir, uses the mystery genre to tackle difficult events in Italian history, especially those occurring during the Anni di piombo.

Leah Anderst’s essay explores the reasons for the failure of the film noir Lady in the Lake. Leah looks at the “subjective” camera used in the 1947 film and how it fails to induce a sense of identification or “recognition” in the viewer.

George Fragopoulos also takes on film noir in his piece entitled “Kubrick’s Noir Men: An Essay on Ontology.” George focuses on issues of masculinity as embodied by the “Noir Men” in Stanley Kubrick’s films Killer’s Kiss (1954)  and The Killing (1956).

Finally, we have Lauren Villa’s engaging discussion of noir with Los Angeles-based poet Suzanne Lummis along with a noir poem by Amy Schulz, one of Lummis’s students.

We hope that you enjoy these pieces.  Please leave comments and/or contact us by e-mail at globalgraffmag@gmail.com with suggestions.  We look forward to seeing you back on the site in February 2011 for Issue #3, which will be dedicated to the subject of Migration.

Advertisements

An excerpt from Erik Raschke’s forthcoming second novel, The Death of Fiction.


If Detective Francisco Alcantara and Detective Lionel Matos had arrived an hour earlier, the studio apartment would have smelled of birth. They would have experienced the sweet and tangy odor of life-sustaining secretions. Marmalade and iron and rehydrated cod. A merlot stain. Cantaloupe-innards. Aloe. But the time had passed and the still air of the apartment had now absorbed and eventually unified the various smells into a thick pungency that overpowered the senses in one solid, graceless rush.

Aside from the smell, the studio apartment was, thought Detective Francisco Alcantara as he entered, simply too small for human habitation. While in parts of Manhattan, such living spaces were all too common, small closets that could run $3000 or more a month, here, in Washington Heights, it would be unimaginable to rent a space such as this to junkies much less to tenants, who, judging from the hundreds of books that lined the walls in this particular apartment, were educated or at least well-read. The detective had been on investigations that took him to the Lower East Side, in Alphabet City, where he met highly-paid creative directors or financial consultants, living in former rat-holes that were now outfitted with LED floor lighting and Swedish-design furniture. Francisco and his partner spent countless coffee breaks speculating on what had brought about this peculiar shift in civilization; where the top-tier of professionals paid unimaginable amounts to live in high-design tenements. He had grown up with a million kids who had made one promise to themselves: that they would someday have a backyard. So what made New Jersey and the rest of America, with its spacious homes, three-car garages, expansive green lawns, and five-lane highways, just that distasteful to certain white people?

Paradoxes of gentrification aside, the two detectives were not so interested in the vast amounts of blood which seemed to cover almost every inch of the studio apartment (for truly it seemed that every drop had been wringed from the victim’s body), but instead were intrigued by the aroma, not one entirely unfamiliar, but nonetheless curious in its potency. Alcantara and Matos almost closed their eyes as they concentrated, nostrils stretched almost comically, and while neither detective spoke of what they were experiencing, for they had worked far too long together to chat casually over something purely sensorial, they quietly understood that such stenches were generally the result of extraordinary violence.

Erik Raschke

Francisco tucked his nose under his loose cotton shirt, just under the second button, clearing the stench much in the way wine is spit out during a tasting. After a minute he returned his olfactory factory to the air of the studio apartment. What he found, aside from the previous offerings was warmed, slightly rotted orange peels, synthetic mink fur, dung (while growing up, many of the poorer kids had received summer passes and he was free to spend each and every day lying on the benches, staring at his favorite, graceless animals: the elephants, rhinos, and giraffes), creamer, rain-soaked brick, rhubarb-cobbler, a freshly cleaned fishbowl, blown circuitry, a deflated balloon, solidified bacon fat.

The two police officers who had first arrived on the scene were becoming visibly agitated by what they were suffering through here in this empty studio apartment. They had forced themselves to become accustomed to the smell, their minds adapting to the gut-twisting insidiousness of what surrounded them, but the detectives, fresh from the street, brought with them their own cologne and the interior of their sedan, and somehow that became too much. The genesis of this violence, the origination of the act, had been rationalized by the two officers into a shadow, but had, with the appearance of these two seemingly fastidious detectives, become a hulking apparition.

Detective Lionel Matos started pulling blood-covered books from the shelf and studying the spines.

“How long you been here?” he asked the two officers.

“About twenty minutes,” the tallest officer, a J. Sanchez, said somewhat sharply. “It was just a regular dispatch. The only heads-up we got was because it was the super calling.”

“Anything else?”

“This was what we got.”

“Nobody hanging around outside?”

“Nope.”

“Witnesses?”

They shook their heads.

“You guys security guards or something? Come on.”

“There was really nothing.”

“You get paid what you earn. Next time pull your head out and take a look around.”

Officer J. Sanchez started to speak, but his partner, B. Waters stopped him with a shake of the head.

“It’s like…” Detective Lionel Matos raised a finger. “You ever see that Monty Python? You know, where the fat guy can’t eat anymore, but he asks for a mint. And then Pop!”

“My brother watches all those,” Officer B. Waters said.

“He does? That’s great.”

“There ain’t no body parts,” J. Sanchez pointed out with all seriousness.

Lionel eyed them both with a frown and suddenly his top lip curled while his eyebrows arched sky-high. “What I’m saying here is that this is a typical case of internal combustion. You see it more and more nowadays. ‘I think therefore I am.’ Heard that have you? The stink of individualism. That’s how you know. Burning flesh. But ain’t like normal burning flesh from outside in? That’s phosphorous. In the old days napalm. No, here the explosion is internal, the blood cooks first. The organs dissolve. Nothing hardly happens to the skin. By the time of combustion the guy’s insides are nothing but broth.”

“Serious?”

“Who’s to say that there was much there inside to begin with. We all know that guy. The one who thinks he’s everything, but ain’t nothing. These shelves are our first clue right? The guy’s got hardly any space, but what’s he decorate with? That’s the problem with individualism nowadays. It used to mean you used your own damn hands. You went out and cleared your plot of land. Raised your family on your own sweat. Took yourself out to pasture when you couldn’t do no more ‘cause you had proved yourself see. But this. What is this? Books? That only proves what? You got time to read while the rest of us try and make a living?”

The two officers chuckled nervously, distrustfully.

B. Waters started, “If the guy had exploded wouldn’t there be skin or clothes or…”

“We see this kind of combustion all the time. Once a week wouldn’t you say Francisco?”

Francisco held a dish sponge up to his nose, holding it there for almost a minute. The two officers studied Lionel then Francisco. Then J. Sanchez said: “We ain’t never seen anything like this.”

“Never?”

They shook their heads simultaneously.

“Geez, I wonder why?” Lionel hissed and looked over at Francisco. “What’d I say? I told you we was back in the Dark Ages. It’s that little guy in Tibet who’s going to come out of this millennium the better. Everything going faster, but no one able to stop and analyze nothing. Smart-phones. Intelligent software. And these two here guys. They believe me when I talk about internal combustion. Technology. You tell me what good it is? All I see is everyone getting stupider.”

The two officers let their faces sag.

“Why you doing this?” Francisco asked, tossing the sponge back in the sink. Lionel just waved them all off bitterly with one hand and went outside to smoke a cigarette.

Francisco went to the bathroom to relieve himself. The victim had a stack of magazines next to the toilet, Publisher’s Weekly, Narrative Magazine, Poets & Writers. Each issue had a face of someone noble, wise, who had published poetry or a novel or a memoir. These people were decidedly white and even the ones who weren’t, the true Latino and African-American voices as they were declared, had a decidedly Anglo appearance too, perhaps just in the way they had posed like the white authors, with gazes of contemptuous intellectual authority. Francisco didn’t recognize any of the authors, hadn’t even heard of their names, but there was something wholly clubby about these magazines, something, perhaps in the combined anonymity of the featured authors with patronizing titles like How One Author Forever Changed Our World, that suggested a short-sighted, manufactured exclusivity.

Francisco opened one of the magazines and discovered several pages of writing workshops in places like Aruba, Morocco, and the Maldives. There were advertisements for trips costing thousands of dollars, where participants were treated to massages, catered dinners, and poolside drink service. Francisco himself paid a good portion of his salary for his own evening writing classes at the YMCA and Hunter College Continuing Education, but nothing like the fees involved here. Who were these aspiring writers who had $7000 for a ten-day retreat in Costa Rica and what did they write about? Long expositions on their gourmet dinners with other workshop participants?

Francisco finished in the bathroom and returned to the blood-covered studio. The two officers hadn’t moved from their spot, but were now leaning toward one another, sharing a business card and discussing carpet cleaning rates. Lionel walked in at almost the same moment, refreshed and jittery from nicotine.

“So all kidding aside,” Officer B. Waters, asked the two detectives, “and internal combustion and that sort of thing, you guys seen this before?”

Francisco had long relinquished verbal authority to Lionel, because in the end, it didn’t really matter who said what. What mattered was the outcome. And in those terms, Francisco’s silence was a considerable theory in itself.

“You’ll see it.” Lionel grunted.

“But have you guys seen it?” B. Waters pressed.

“They’ll work it out in the bathroom. In the bathtub. Trying to dispose of the body in pieces. Usually when business is good. Don’t ask me why. We’re looking for something else and we find Jackson Pollock’s bathroom. Ain’t never seen a case where they didn’t pull the curtain around either. Minimizing the mess is stuck in all our pea-brains.”

Lionel yanked out another book and ran his finger through the congealed blood.  “But this here. This ain’t nothing like that. This is art. What do you think the rent on this place is?”

“The tenant was the only white guy in the building,” J. Sanchez pointed out.

“You know they got brokers around here now?” B. Waters said. “The Heights. Believe that?”

“Two blocks down from me. Completely renovated. Every damn building on the block.”

“Around Columbia,” Lionel continued. “No one outside anymore. At six everyone inside, checking e-mail.”

“It’s all circular,” Lionel said. “These neighborhoods. Sometimes they’re filled with trash. Sometimes bonbons. You ever see those guys? The ones who toss buckets of paint onto canvas. They listen to Jimi Hendrix and Def Leppard. I saw it out at the Meadowlands, must have been seven, eight years ago because my kid made me go. Skateboarding. Motocross. And this guy tossing buckets of paint onto a two-story canvas.”

“I seen it on TV,” B. Waters nodded. “Sure. On the Oprah channel. Yeah? You tell me you don’t watch it with your wife sometimes?”

Lionel waved his hands. “Naw, television ain’t the same. See, you’re standing there and you can feel the beat ‘cause they have these speakers stacked, like they do at concerts right? And I ain’t one for art, but this guy. With all the colors.” A quick shake of his head. And then to Francisco. “Yeah, you Mr. Writer. What’s a better word for ‘sublime?’”

“Truth?”

“Get your head out of your ass. What about all them writing classes?”

“We don’t study adjectives.”

The two officers now looked from one detective to another. Judging from Francisco’s impassiveness, he seemed to possess the regality in their relationship, yet Lionel’s muscles and physique and confidence hinted at another kind of power, a will that couldn’t be stopped.

“The body has what, twelve quarts blood?”

“We’re eighty percent water or something like that.”

“There’s got to be at least twenty quarts on them walls.”

“What’s a quart? One of them milk cartons?”

“I’d say five gallons.”

“I don’t know. Ten?”

“This,” Detective Matos holding his arms wide and throwing his head back, “my grandma would say is ‘special.’ Look at all this blood.” Then to the two officers, he said. “Who’s buying coffee? Me? Milk with sugar. Actually, today, I’m going with two sugars!” Then to Francisco, “Let’s get some people down here howaboutit? CSU?”

“You’re calling the Lieutenant.”

“Not my turn. If he asks tell him I’m busy searching for a sack of skin.”

Francisco shook his head and Lionel looked through the top of his eyelashes at his partner. “What? What’d I say? We got a room full of blood here. Anybody got a sense of perspective for my partner?”

***

The studio apartment was on the ground floor and through the rusted window grates all Francisco really saw were bits and splashes of asphalt as well as the heavy buildings that had looked old, even when he was a boy, and therefore had never really aged. He could see the Eastern corner of the once grand theater on the corner of Broadway and the two officers walking toward Amsterdam Avenue for coffee, most likely debating where Lionel and Francisco’s divergent personalities converged.

Even though a homicide (if that’s what this macabre spectacle could be called) had recently occurred, there was nothing remarkable about the street on this morning; no frantic witnesses, no bullet shells, no bodies; just the perpetual threat, like on so many of these streets in Washington Heights, of spontaneous violence. And perhaps that is why Francisco suddenly had a flash of the victim, looking out this exact same window, just before the end, and recognizing a world whose intense volatility was, in its essence, the sublimity of the human condition.

Francisco had an aunt who had once lived on this street. As a boy she was a cacophonous marvel of bracelets, hoop earrings, stiletto heels, fluorescent nails, musk oils, flower perfume, strawberry soap. When she walked down the street her personal failures steamed away in glorious ostentation and the unavoidable snickering was, for her, a less painful confrontation than the chronic disappointments in her life. Francisco’s mother would plead with her sister to dress more conservatively, but her requests were futile. It was apparent, even to young Francisco, that the negative attention his aunt’s appearance drew on the street was a kind of desperate affirmation of how she viewed her place in life. When she moved to Los Angeles where she was confined behind steel and metal for so much of the time, she seemed to whither. She dreamed of buying a convertible, but even then, anguished over the fact that California traffic never gave her the exposure of upper-Manhattan.

Francisco began to circle then pace then circle. It wasn’t the shining parquet floor that creaked with every step, but the supporting beams far underneath. He pressed his foot against the noisier spots, creating his own repetitive creaking, assuming that the victim had once done the same. He sat in the only chair in the room, resting his elbows upon the cracked vinyl arms. There was the hum of the victim’s small white refrigerator and the clicking of a brushed aluminum wall clock. An ambulance siren began, stopped, and then began again.

Francisco heard Lionel come into the hallway, just past the door, speaking in a low, concerned tone, maintaining a terse monologue.

“Back foot. Adidas. Twist-stop. On-ball. Right. Right. Right. Nine o’clock. Linoleum. Back to door? No. Side-movement. Unknown. Give for Mark. Print jam.”

Gradually, his partner’s voice faded, but just when Francisco was sure he was alone, he would hear one or two more disconnected words.

“Radial. Tip-trigger…”

He received a text message from his commander: “Confirmed w/ Concerned. In Rout.” Lionel’s phone, out in the hallway, beeped with the same misspelled message. Errors replicated infinitely until they became fact. That was what Lionel had forgotten to say in his tirade against technology.

He felt the complicated satisfaction of having arranged an investigation. There would soon be so many voices and opinions from experts, witnesses, journalists, and politicians. They would look to him. Defer in their own way. Now, however, there was a deeply satisfying stillness; no clues, no one to give useless information, no clear motives. Everything was speculation.

Francisco placed his phone inside his jacket, moved away from the chair, and knelt down. From his low position he could scan every corner of the room, hoping something obvious would immediately appear. The blood in the studio apartment had been consciously distributed. So, while the apartment had a two-person sofa, a footstool, a narrow closet, and a small kitchen, the blood hadn’t strayed farther than the bookcases. The artist had started with the A authors and then splashed the corners where the walls met the curled ceiling trim. Since the blood had only rolled to about the middle of the bookcase, the assailant had reapplied a fresh coat and thus the top and the bottom were separated by incongruent thicknesses. Strangely however, it all worked together, the book-bindings, the sour smell, the heinousness. There was a gentle harmony to the bombast, much in the way Beethoven balanced a fugue with a timpani and a flute.

From the application of the blood onto the bookcases, Francisco was able to trace the assailant’s footsteps, where he or she had dipped his or her brush and then touched the wall before painting the blood in a clockwise direction. The brush itself was wide, the hairs coarse, and provided little maneuverability. It was the kind of brush one might use to paint fences or a wooden deck. And since blood had less consistency than, say, latex, it ran quicker and therefore Francisco was able to determine from the drips where each stroke ended and the next one began.

The book spines themselves had absorbed differing amounts of blood depending on whether they were sheathed, had a plastic jacket, were hardback, cloth, or paperback. The strokes were continuous, level, and when it came to avoiding the electrical sockets, conscientious. The painter had not necessarily paused at any particular book or section of the shelves. There seemed to be only one exception, another detail that Francisco had immediately noticed when he entered; Your Native Land, Your Life was pulled slightly farther out than the other books and while many of the pages had been ripped out, there was no blood upon its spine.

Toward the small kitchen, which was really not much more than a stove and a sink, Francisco found the classics. The bookshelf stepped up over the cabinets and the top of the books met the ceiling. The classics here were all hardbound books, most of them tattered and worn and some still with discounted price tags. There were only a couple that Francisco recognized from years ago: Hamlet, Beowulf, The Jungle Book, and Lord of the Flies. The rest were strange, three-word titles that at first meant nothing, but eventually aroused a flash of recognition.

“Everybody is writing,” his writing workshop teacher, a large, self-irritated man who buried his sensitivity in cynicism, once said. “But no one reads anymore. Not even the classics. And that’s why no one sees the grand metaphor in our current human communication breakdown.”

Metaphors feed on ambiguity like whales sifting the oceans for plankton, his teacher added, staring at no one, yet, in a way, raging against them all. Ambiguity only provides more ambiguity, more questions which in turn feed the inquisitive mind. Don’t you see it? This absurd, magnificent eco-system of contemplation.

To a detective, ambiguity is contrary to the investigative role and metaphor is simply a distraction. But to a writer, the right metaphor lifts the novel into the skies with the lyric of Homer and Virgil. Francisco’s inner-narrative was caught somewhere in between, married to the practical, but seduced by the possibilities of fiction’s similitudes. Strangely, there was no one Francisco could confide in about his metaphysical dilemma. Most people in his direct circle were either lost to academia or were so tied to the corporeal that even Fantasy Football was a demanding abstraction.

Francisco exhaled and then inhaled much less than he had just exhaled. He exhaled again, but less than he inhaled. He could allow the murder to creep into his system, the crime to attach itself to his blood cells. Most detectives were so philosophically wrapped up in the meta that they overlooked the turgid micro symbiosis that occurred every day in cities, the touching of subway poles, door handles, being coughed on. Even the air sucked in through the air-conditioner. It wasn’t politics or films or religion that connected us, it was colds, bacteria, carbon dioxide. Fingerprints, DNA, and police files were besides the point. Every day we inhaled second hand smoke from a killer.

To the right of Francisco, a green scrapbook lay on the small coffee table, a table that also looked as if it were often used as the dining room table. The scrapbook was the kind commonly found on the bottom shelves of magazine stores next to manila envelopes and printer paper. There was nothing written on the outside and no attempt to beautify the plain cover.

On the first few pages of the scrapbook were reviews for a book entitled The Death of Fiction: A Memoir. Most of the reviews were denoted by either stars or thumbs up and, from what Francisco could gather, The Death of Fiction: A Memoir had been received by critics with neither excitement nor disparagement. Three stars, one thumb up. That was the average.

There were also a few cancelled royalty checks glued to the tops of the pages. Francisco’s heart sank when he read the paltry amounts printed on these checks. Surely published writers didn’t make so little? That was never how the movies made it seem. And besides, he had seen the house of that great vampire writer on MTV with its four-car garage and mini-golf course.

But these numbers. These numbers were something. They were low enough to make Francisco reconsider. Hell, they weren’t even half of what he paid for his writing workshops.

Next to the checks were printed and alphabetized e-mails from friends and family who had contacted the author and shared their enjoyment over his work. They were often encouraging more in their love for the author than of the work itself. Most of Francisco’s friends were like Lionel and barely managed through a newspaper. But he did have two cousins living near Cornell and a step-sister in Seattle who read. They were always saying, “You’re getting so much better. Send me more…” but their compliments often lacked the warming touch of specifics.

The rest of the scrapbook was devoted to some spectacular scandal involving the “The Death of Fiction’s” author. One headline asked: Fiction Over Fact? while another was simply: Memoir? Francisco scanned through the articles and realized that the writer had been featured on a few television shows, both national and international. However, he had done something disgraceful, something traitorous and deceitful and had been banished from the large publishing world forever.

While Francisco was hardly one to follow the trends of publishing, conversations about these false memoirs did often arise amongst his fellow workshoppers. Some would feel betrayed that an author had spiced his or her life story with half-truths. Others would, quite disingenuously, question the motivations of the scandal’s participants. And only a few agreed that lying was the natural state of human thought. His professor, with his unflappable opinions, was oddly silent on the matter.

Francisco set the scrapbook down and closed his eyes again. He needed to focus now, to pull out from the bottomless traps of analysis. Philosophizing is luxury. Introspection is sloth. First impressions of a crime scene were what always helped him in the end, when the final pieces were put in place for a district attorney and the finer details were needed for immediate recollection. His impressions darkened the gray between the gaps in the facts. He could always be called to account for what the forensic technicians missed. It was indeed what had helped him get promoted to detective in only a few years on the force.

And now, as soon as he placed the relativities of language and meaning to the side, he found what he was looking for. There was a familiar scent, the faint smell of narcissism, a smell of cement and semen and rhododendrons, a smell that had plagued so many cases recently, a smell that gave no clues, but nonetheless suggested a well of motives. Francisco breathed as deep as he could. He took in the room. Yes, if his suspicion was right the narcissism wasn’t only limited to the victim and the killer, but a whole host of supporting characters. With this clue, he could begin to connect each contact point where the crime, like a mist, had been carried by the perpetrator’s movement.

***

When Detective Francisco Alcantara’s mother had been on her deathbed, her bedroom had also smelled like the empty studio apartment in which he now stood. The one-month anniversary of her death had just passed, but the sensations of those final moments were as affecting as a perfect cappuccino, served in an empty café, in a foreign country, on a blustery day.

Her death had not been so unexpected, but the end was sudden. She had clenched her son’s hand and feverishly trembled from what felt like muscles located inside her bones. Her eyes remained mostly closed, although here and there, she blinked rapidly. Even though Francisco knew what was happening, he kept asking; “What’s wrong mamá? Mamá?”

“Nothing’s wrong,” she assured her son in the same soothing manner in which she had for thirty-five years.

Then, a subtle, creeping violence snowballed upward from her spine, debilitating the nerves, squeezing the muscles one last time. These last few seconds were a climax of his mother’s resolved, internal fight against a force that had always seemed to work against her. The shuddering, the shivering, the tongue swallowing. And even when her body went limp and a grayish bile seeped from her mouth…after Francisco’s mother was ascending (for she certainly knew this to be the case) her heart still pumped three or four times, her chest heaved irregularly, her last breaths gave off the odor of pickled pork’s feet, and she elbowed her nightstand, as if alerting it to some spectacular scene in a movie that was being missed.

He held her hand while her blood stilled, continuing to ask her if everything was alright, but no longer expecting an answer. The facial muscles slackened and her lips darkened. What a wretched stare she had had, her mouth stuck open and her eyes fancying the stubborn crack on the ceiling that had frustrated her through several contractors.

How naïve he had been to believe those movies where death was graceful, almost agreeable. That, my God, there was even time for last words. What fantasy! And while he had seen corpses in all forms — whether they had been decapitated or, in the case of a vengeful restaurateur, minced — he had never, in his thirty-five years, witnessed the slow ending of a life, the shaky deceleration of the body’s organs. And he had never held the hand of a loved one as they passed.

Not knowing what else to do, where to go, Francisco sat on the floor, next to her bed, and cried. A single child, raised by a devoted mother, he had lost the one person who could look evenly through his being. For only she had witnessed the development of his two personalities, two raging sides, forged from two different fathers. She who had always been so eccentric, so outspoken, so vivid in life, who had always been his conscience, his guide… she was now perpetually still while he was more alive, more aware than ever before.

Francisco had remained in his mother’s bedroom for hours after her death. His emotions were intimately tied with the memories playing out in his head and his memories were intimately tied to the smells of that room; even a window, opened an inch, would have disrupted a decade. For it was not her body in the bed or the pictures on the wall or even the regular pile of detective novels by her bedside that brought him back to who he was when he still wanted to be someone other than who he’d become. It was, indeed, the complex variation of smells that triggered memories of who she was, how she had raised him, and the way she had held him, when he was still very young, until the nightmares faded and sleep overcame him gently.

***

When the studio apartment filled with people from different labs, Francisco could no longer think amongst the chatter and hum. There was little for him to do except hypothesize with technicians into futility, so he stepped out into the hallway, and almost ran into a hunched man standing in a doorway, a man whom he deduced was the superintendent because, at this early hour, he wore faded work clothes and had that close to broken expression, of a man determined to maintain a quiet order in the face of disrespectful tenants.

“¿Hablas español?” the man asked.

“Some.”

Francisco explained to the man, like he had so many times over the years of his life that, while his parents had come from the Dominican Republic, they had forbidden Spanish in the home. They were in America now.

“Ah, there are two types of Dominicans, aren’t there?”

“You know anything about what happened here?”

“I was about to ask you,” the super moved his eyes to and fro. “None of your friends seem that interested in asking me and I’m the one who called you.”

“I appreciate it.”

“Do you?”

At this moment, a young boy, hiding the thin tone of youth under a wide, gray Yankees tee, appeared in the doorway. He had aqua-blue eyes so unnatural that his very irises set Francisco on edge. His smile gave away the family’s financial situation, incisors jumbled, canines in need of direction. The super motioned, as if from the dugout, for the boy to approach.

“This is my son.”

“Rafael.”

“Pleasure.”

The boy’s hand was as soft as a basketball used for years on asphalt, his handshake reluctantly submissive, and his blue, blue eye contact awkward and deferential. Francisco had spent his whole life interpreting personalities through a simple introduction and he deduced that this boy here, Rafael, was, albeit resentfully, at the mercy of his domineering father.

Just beyond the boy, Francisco could see inside the superintendent’s apartment where a young man, no older than twenty-one or -two, was resting on a golden couch, wrapped in a worn earth-colored terrycloth robe, surrounded by pink and lavender velvet curtains, the light from the television reflecting from the white tile floor and turning his eyes green, red, and burgundy. The young man seemed defeated, permanently muted, for something had got him early out of bed and something had driven him into the living room where he now gazed passively at CNN. But his slouch was submissive in that he had retreated into the thick cushions of the couch and away from the images of car bombs and mangled children. He had retreated in a way that suggested he was too afraid to turn off the television, to go back to bed, and was now caught somewhere between this howling medium and the growls of solitude.

There was such an intense desperation playing out in the superintendent’s living room, mostly on the part of the interior decorator, as if they hoped lavishness would be an effective talisman against the insidiousness of the city that lay beyond the windows. The young man, so absolutely removed from what was happening in the hallway, probably had never noticed the plastic ivy looping the framed watercolor of Playa Sosua at sunset. He had never noticed the small American flag propped on top of the trophy case nor his own photo, in Marine blues, set out front and center on the glass shelves. In fact, he hardly noticed the steaming cup of coffee that sat before him.

“Him?” Francisco asked, nodding toward the young man.

The super shook his head.

“He looks like he’s been up for a while.”

“He’s been looking like that for the last three months. He’s my other son. Ricardo. He was north of Mosul. About ten miles from the Syrian border.”

“His tour over?”

“That wasn’t a tour.” Then the super glanced at Francisco’s empty hands. “You want to take notes or something?”

Francisco half-nodded, but made no effort to retrieve his notebook.

“He was my teacher,” the boy said.

“Who?”

He glanced toward a technician who was using electrostatic on a doorway. “The guy who lived there.”

“Math? Science?”

“English.”

“I don’t know how that principal got away putting them thugs all together,” the super said. “No one checks these things? You know I called her once. To ask her about my son’s class. To tell her it wasn’t right. But she couldn’t even call me back. Why? Because she’s a principal?”

“Can you give me some names?” Francisco asked the boy.

“Lucinda Filipondo,” the father said.

“I’m talking to the boy.”

“And I’m talking to you.”

“I know who Lucinda Filipondo is,” Francisco said. “I went to school there.”

“You going to take my name down on this sir?” the boy asked. “Please don’t.”

“Your call.”

The boy’s face tensed and he exhaled through pursed lips as if playing a clarinet. “Raheem Espinal, Cesar Devlin, Jeriel Salazar, Franklin Ortega, Ritchie Alcantara, Salvador Ronzon.”

Francisco took his time writing. “More?”

“What do you…”

“These names?”

“Those are the boys who did it.”

“O.K. So what exactly are you giving me here?”

“Everyone knows.”

“Well, that’s great. I don’t.”

“They said they was gonna do it. In class. They said they was going to do all sorts of things. Torture and murder. Mr. Bobbins told them that if they ever got off welfare or stopped selling drugs and lifted a hand to do anything, he would consider his job as a teacher complete.’”

“You see,” the super said. “That’s Filipondo. She running a school where teachers talk like that?”

Francisco took the boy aside. “You saying, he was encouraging his own murder? That right?”

“He said good books, books that made us angry about life, you know as people and not races, those was the kind that ‘sharpened teeth.’ But sometimes he said other things. Things that he knew about our family. Things that we wanted to hide. He say it right there in class. He didn’t stop with Raheem and Cesar and the rest. He said things to all of us. Real things. That’s why some people were mad.”

“I don’t get it.”

“He made us feel bad for being poor.”

“So?”

“Every day he said stuff.”

“You must have heard something else. Something more direct, like Raheem or one of the boys actually threatening him.”

“Never.”

“Never?”

A shake of the head.

“You spend a lot of time with your teacher?”

“Never.”

“What’s your problem? We’re talking here. Me and you. Your story is that you heard your classmates plotting to kill your teacher. Nothing else?”

The boy shook his head. He hated how easily these kids could hold back vital information. They were born resisting authority

“You ever seen Mr. Bobbins before?” the boy asked.

“How could I?”

“No one ever seen him really, you know. He wore make-up every day. Clown make-up. And a top-hat. He didn’t care about nobody. He was that crazy.”

Francisco saw this boy, years from now, as a super, just like his father, fixing leaks, cementing over holes. It wasn’t pretty, but it wasn’t hopeless. The sadness was the time stretched in between now and then.

“I might be back again,” Francisco said. “To ask you questions. I want you to really start thinking through your answers. Can you do that?”

The boy nodded and Francisco watched as he went back to his father.

Afterward, Francisco found Matos outside, combing the front of the building. His partner seemed, in this world, only to have patience for details.

“Cesar Devlin and Salvador Ronzon.”

Matos looked up. Blinked.

“The super’s boy gave me the names. The victim was their teacher.”

Matos looked over the ground discouragingly and exhaled like the breath of God. Then he pointed at Francisco, squinted, and shook his finger as if to say: “I told you this would happen.”

***

They were at the back of Gloria’s restaurant and the regular customers, generally the older men who were just beginning to while away the day, would either wave or ignore Francisco and Lionel, depending on how they recognized the law. Lonnie Guzman, whose son Manny was serving ten years in Rikers for armed robbery, and who had seemed relieved when the police had arrested the boy, but also bitter over the harsh sentence, gave a quick nod and a wan smile to the two detectives, but made no further attempt at conversation. Ricky Ortega, who was addicted to selling all kinds of illicit merchandise, and had been arrested by so many undercover detectives that they had to start recently bringing in fresh-faced guys from Newark just to catch him, was now standing at the far end of the counter, burying his nose in his sweet coffee, making direct eye contact with the No Smoking sign.

And it was Lionel, not Francisco, who was always analyzing the reactions of the men and women they met on a daily basis, looking for a clue to whatever mischief their children might be up to. A half-smile, a too-eager nod, a loose shake of the hand. Lionel’s suspicions often haunted him for days and at first Francisco thought that Lionel had perceptive abilities that he lacked, but now, after almost a decade, he realized that suspicions were just suspicions and rarely amounted to anything more than a complex interaction of misinterpretations, insecurities, and paranoia.

“I grew up the same as you,” Lionel said, watching, with disgust, as Francisco ate fried salami, fried cheese, fried eggs, and fried plantains. “But man, sometimes I can’t stand being your partner. Filling yourself up with grease like that.”

“You’ve forgotten your roots.”

“You gonna bring up the fact my wife is white again?”

“I’ve never brought that up.”

“Or that my bastard father was Polish?”

“Never brought that up either.”

“You saying I’m the only one here who brings up race?”

“I’m saying that I never said anything about your father or your wife unless you asked me.”

“You know what your problem is? Self-righteousness. You’re above all this. Above me. You should come down here sometime. To my level. It ain’t so bad.”

“I never said you was short either.”

Lionel waved his fork like a sword and grinned. “You meet the super?”

“I didn’t think I had to since you was talking to him.”

“We need to go back there. You and me.”

“Fine.”

“I need your nose.”

“You got it.”

“The older son. He’s decorated.”

“Army?”

“Marines.”

“Good for him.”

“He’s long gone.” Francisco twirled his finger.

“Man. They’re coming in waves. You hear about that kid over on 168th? Blew a hole through his grandma. The slug made it into the neighbor’s television. Right over a crib.”

“That Richards and Lucos?”

“Yeah. Said it took eight guys to cuff the kid. Believe that? The Rangers was begging for the kid to come back a few months ago, but now that things is coming to an end, they’re looking the other way. We might as well join forces with the sanitation department since we’re doing the same job.”

Francisco swirled the coffee at the bottom of his cup. “I’m out of milk.”

“Lonnie Guzman over there. Don’t he live a couple apartments down from the Ronzons?”

Francisco raised his eyebrows and turned around while Lionel waved the man over. Lonnie Guzman promptly broke off conversation with Gloria and walked to the back of the restaurant. Gloria also, as if sensing Francisco’s need, trailed behind with a fresh cup of coffee.

Like so many Dominicans in Washington Heights, Lonnie Guzman had quickly lost the softness of the Caribbean. He had once been honest and caring, but his honesty had been turned against him one too many times so now he tried to conceal his thoughts the best way his sincere personality would allow: by squinting.

“Gentlemen.”

“How’s the boy?”

“They’re turning him into a real criminal out there on Rikers. You’ll have your work cut out for you when he gets out.”

“God bless America, eh? And God bless your boy. You look good. I seen you out running along the Hudson. That’s good for you. I ought to start doing that more. How long you out for? An hour or so? That’s really good for you. And listen, this ain’t got nothing to do with you, but your neighbor Salvador Ronzon. You see him lately?”

Lonnie gazed at the two detectives as if they were leading him into a trap. He rolled his shoulders, but only so slightly. “He broke the washers in the basement. The city put them in three weeks ago after five years of nothing.”

“O.K. Yeah, but you seen him?”

“You guys don’t care? I’ll tell you this. It’ll be another ten years before they put new ones in and by that time we’ll all be living in electronic clothes.”

“I like that,” Francisco said, mopping up egg yolk with a piece of fried bread. “Plug in your sweater and you’re good to go.”

Lionel offered his palms. “We discussing the future of domesticity?”

“This city,” Lonnie said. “If we can’t even get new washers what’s that say about…I’m barking up the wrong tree. Ah, my boys. I’ve been lucky. Except for Manny. But the ones that go the way we don’t want ‘em to, well those are the ones that you thank everyday you don’t see. Everyone just praying that they’ll disappear. But it usually takes years and by the time they do, we moved on to wanting to get rid of someone else.”

“You think Sherlock Holmes had to go through this kind of nonsense?” Lionel said to Francisco. “I ask a question and I get a list of stuff I could care less about. It’s them search engines? Everyone posting their ideas and believing that millions, billions of people are reading them just because Google lists ‘em.”

Lonnie frowned, but appreciated something in Lionel’s rant. He knocked once on the table.

“I’ll tell you this. Last week I heard Salazar throw something at his father. Then he left. That man ain’t nothing, but a shell. He used to be just like his damn son, but now he ain’t nothing. Some kids, you know, they’ll suck the life out of anyone. Even their fathers. Rico Ronzon. You know what he used to be like? He was his own army. Nobody who care ‘bout their life look at him except with a smile. In the old days he would of seriously messed up someone like Salazar Ronzon. But I guess that’s the difference between fathers and sons eh? Like my Manny. If he had been anyone else we would have sparred.”

“Maybe Rico’s the way he is because of his wife?” Francisco said. “She wasn’t the sweetest woman.”

“That? You guys all say that it was suicide, but no one just jump from them buildings onto the highway like that. I got friends in them two buildings. 179th got a reputation. Some of them–whoa–they have reasons to jump. But you’re up so high and them cars is going so fast. The brain. It don’t register. You can’t imagine what your death will be like and that stops you from jumping.”

Francisco shifted his weight. “We proved Salvador didn’t kill his mother.”

Lonnie displayed his right palm. “You and I. All of us. We got different sides. You stand up for that boy. His father can’t. The court made the decision…the same as yours. But now Salvador breaks our washers. He and his crazy friends. Two buildings have to go back to scrubbing stains in bathtubs. You arrest my boy. Not that he didn’t do it. But Salvador? Come on. Like I said, we all got different sides. What’s fair and what’s not, well, that all hangs on all our heads.”

“What the hell are you saying?” Francisco asked.

“Nothing. Really, nothing.”

“I wasn’t gonna let your boy go.”

“A decade gone. How can you say…”

Francisco got up from the table and met Lonnie’s eyes. Lonnie’s bitterness over the loss of his son would never permit a sympathetic space for Salvador Ronzon. He put on his jacket, made his way to the front, set the tab on the table, and waited for Gloria to add up the total. The men around him abruptly cut off conversation and in the back of the restaurant they could all hear Lionel reminding Lonnie, in sharp words, that his son had executed two Thai delivery boys over sixty-three dollars.

***

As the two detectives stepped out into the pointed sunlight and stretched, they simultaneously glanced up 175th. Most of the vans from forensics were still parked haphazardly. In most cases, the technicians could pull a sample in only a few minutes. Francisco checked his voice-mail messages.

“They got a room full of blood,” Lionel said assuredly.

“That’s exactly why I’m worried.”

“Them techs love their coffee and cigarettes.”

Francisco hung up his phone, stared at it as he might a whining child, and said: “They hate being up here.”

“I don’t care for it so much either. That’s why I’m heading down to Chelsea to see some of the galleries.” He hesitated and then nudged Francisco. “Heineken and prime-rib.”

“Yuh. In the Meatpacking District?”

“Hey, snippy. I didn’t film Sex and the City down there. Look. I’m me. Lionel. I’m barely a detective. A grunt. A workingman. You want more self-deprecation?” He threw out his palms. “You were the one who wanted to talk to Lonnie. He ain’t worth nothing. He’s old and beaten. Listen. Listen to me. Are you listening? O.K. Chelsea. A few galleries. Tartar and a martini.”

“Tartar. That’s about right.”

“Hey, once again, I’m your friend here.”

Francisco sneered and raised his shoulder into his ear.

“Alright, you want this debate, you got it. This is real,” Lionel jabbed into the air, motioning at the buildings across the street, “that’s real,” then at the ones toward the south, “and that,” toward a Subway store across the street, “well, maybe not that, but down there, it changes. We all know it ain’t real. Who cares? Nothing in Manhattan is real no more. Says something about you that you always got to bring it up. Put a camera lens and a coke mirror up to a whole city and…? Just cause it got buildings don’t make it no different than what’s her name…Lindsay Lohan. You just like all them people who say that New York has changed, well, you can’t disagree with that. But who’s saying it huh? Who’s saying New York’s lost its soul. Not me. I don’t care. I think tartar is delicious. But there’s always someone complaining. Probably the same guy since Manhattan was all forest, moaning and groaning about no more trees. But you see, it’s the people complaining who were responsible once for affecting and now they’re seeing their change and they’re getting uppity.”

“This was your argument last time. Verbatim.”

“My high-caloric friend…you’re going to look back some day, when you’re old and gray and unsatisfied with your overweight life and you’re shooting insulin and have nothing to talk about except this job here, and then you’ll think back and say, ‘Lionel was right. About everything.’”

“I already do say that.”

“Manhattan, Brooklyn, Bronx, they all got rooms full of blood. See that? Every damn case. Blood. Here and blood there. This whole city is filled with ‘em. And the blood is getting thinner with each rent adjustment. Get it? Everything is coming to a point where everything else is just a wax statue of itself. Thank God we got the culture of the dispossessed. That’s our heartbeat bro. Negligence and dispossession surrounded by decadence and opulence. If I’m wrong then being Puerto Rican’s right.”

Francisco smirked and Lionel caught his eyes and whistled between his top teeth.

“I know you loved the canned food out of bodegas. That dusty, over-the-expiration-date crap. We all grew up with that. But I’m asking you to relax a little and have some tartar with me. Hell, I’ll pay. Why? Because I can afford to.”

A block or so down Amsterdam, a blue BMW M3 pulled over in front of an electronics store. Two young boys got out and the passenger went up to the store, knocked, and was let in while the driver leaned against his car and texted. They wore the kind of designer clothes that read like billboards, with each stitch of clothing covered in logos. Lionel and Francisco’s eyes moved in their direction automatically.

“Those boys start a dot-com business?”

Francisco reached inside, took out a leather case, and put on his bifocals.

“The way you move. It’s like watching my grandma.”

“Jose Devlin,” Francisco said, still having to squint.

“I’ll find out where his brother Cesar is,” Lionel immediately marched off.

Francisco removed his glasses, folded them, placed them back in the case, covered them with a cleaning towel, and snapped everything up tight. Then he slowly placed the case back in the top inside coat pocket. By the time he began walking, Lionel was already a block away.

In the few times Francisco had followed Lionel into an art gallery or a museum, his partner had never failed to point out that some of the best pieces were by artists who had a destination in their mind and broke every rule in order to get there. Lionel had always believed that good police work meant breaking the rules. And now, living up to his mantra, Lionel picked up his pace, bound across Amsterdam, came at the blind side of Jose Devlin, pushed him so hard that his cell-phone went hurtling into the street, and leapt on top of the boy. Francisco jogged over to hear Jose saying.

“Get off me bitch!”

“Say one more word that would offend my grandma and I’ll knock you out.”

The boy let out a string of curses. Lionel raised a fist. Francisco told him to relax.

“Yeah, relax man. Like your partner said, you cock….”

Lionel slammed the boy’s head on the ground. The dull thump made Francisco wince.

“Say it…Finish your sentence. Curse one more time and see what happens. My grandma in Heaven can hear every word. Now, I got two questions. How’d you get the car and where’s your brother?”

“Which one?”

“Cesar,” Francisco said, from his distance.

The boy exhaled. “Cesar?”

“His teacher’s dead.”

“So.”

“Your brother has a history.”

“So.”

“I got to repeat myself?”

“Teachers ain’t nothing.”

“Teachers aren’t…”

“I got the car because of my teacher. “Pushed me over a desk. And cracked something in my back. Now I got a car none of ya’ll could ever afford. Once I sue your ass over this I’ll buy myself an …”

Lionel pounded the boy’s head into the asphalt again, this time harder. Francisco stepped back. His eyes broke character and he searched Lionel for a half-second.

”I told you to stop cursing.”

“Ass ain’t cursing.”

“What is it then?”

“What’d you do to the teacher?” Francisco asked.

“Nothing.”

“He just pushed you?”

“Naw.”

“My grandma didn’t like liars either.”

“I busted his nose.”

“And you got suspended. Bust a teacher’s nose. He gets sued and you only get suspended. Man, that grates on me. What’s this say about civil rights? Where d’you go to school?”

“I don’t need school no more,” Jose replied.

Then a look of hatred came across Lionel’s face. “That’s right. You got Mr. Andrews fired. Oh yeah. That’s right. Two years ago. He was my teacher, you know? He taught me all about the history of the world. Romans. Queen Elizabeth. Trujillo. I remember reading about him getting fired and why, I said to myself, Jose Devlin, Jose Devlin, Jose Devlin, I wonder if he’s from the same worthless family as Cesar. Some scum like you getting a lawyer. Taking away a teacher like that. Then driving around in a car like this. That ain’t equal rights. That ain’t constitutional nothing!”

“Where’s Cesar?” Francisco asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Think.”

“He do his own thing.”

“You aren’t in a position to play with us.”

“You know my brother. He changed back after that one night. You was all there. I don’t need to explain. He’s his own person now.”

“One more chance to tell me where your brother is.”

“He go to Inwood Hill Park. Fishing or whatever with his teacher. That faggot who wear all the make-up.”

“That’s it? ‘Cause that’s not enough.”

“Man, you can’t threaten me. I’ll get my lawyer, you mother…”

And with that, Lionel’s fist silenced Jose.

***

In their car, Francisco strummed his fingers on his thighs while Lionel started the engine.

“You turn us into criminals.”

“Why’s that? I’m all ears.”

“The head. I can handle that. But knocking him out.”

“I didn’t knock him out,” Lionel shook his head violently. “That’s just your story.”

“Really? Bull…”

“My grandma’s listening.”

“Don’t try to civilize me when you go attacking someone for no reason.”

Lionel exhaled and glared with hatred at Francisco, threatening straight from the eyes.

“What’s my story then?” Francisco said.

Lionel pulled out onto Amsterdam and made a full U-turn, heading north. His face was bright red.

“That kid offended me. I acted. You were offended by my actions? So what? You should have acted too.”

“That a threat?”

“Cool down.

“That a threat?”

“You know, it’s a little silly to get huffy now. You really think any of this matters in the big scheme of things. I mean look who’s driving the BMW? Not us, that’s for sure. We’re just sitting here arguing. No. No. It’s a boy who sues a teacher. He gets an M3 and I’ll bet you my salary his lawyer is driving a 7 series. Think. Really analyze the situation. Get your brain a little dirty for once. The brother parks across the street. I knock him out, according to you, cause my story is totally different…but I do find out where our number one suspect most likely is. In fact,” Lionel held up a finger as they waited at a red light. “We’ll catch Cesar and you know what, I’ll probably rough him up too. And he’ll admit what he’s done and get a lawyer who will bring up his mother’s death and your role in his mother’s death, Mr. Alcantara, and they might even bring up that I roughed up a juvenile. Probably not though, because by that point the boy’ll already be acquitted in the jury’s thick heads. We’ll stand there and show pictures, big pictures, and have all sorts of damning testimony. We’ll even show them the room full of blood and you know what? They’ll say, ‘A room full of blood? Come on, that’s ridiculous. There can’t be a room full of blood.’ You know as well as me they’re going to be skeptical of authority, of minority authority.”

“Don’t bring race into this.”

“O.K. so they’ll look at Cesar Devlin and his older brother Jose and then look at us and think that we are the Oreo cops and that Cesar is just being framed, because, once again, you simply can’t believe that there is such a thing as a room full of blood. It’s unfathomable. Absurd. Out of proportion. I mean Cesar could have eight, nine previous felonies and adding those up don’t amount to a room full of blood. I bet two homicides on his record, still… And then, poof, he’ll be off. I mean poof! Poof! Poof!”

“I get it.”

“Hours and hours of salaried work will be down the drain. Then, here’s the best part, you’ll write a novel about this someday and no one will publish it, because it simply won’t be believable. You’ll get these little, pale white people saying, ‘I just don’t believe this’ or ‘it’s too cliché.’ Crazy, huh? I mean the irony of it all. You, a guy on the street busting his balls and you get your work called cliché by someone who’s still getting an allowance. But hey, there’s one consolation. You still with me Francisco? In the end, nothing will really change except you. You’ll be disappointed in the system, in the government, in me, in white people, but really, it was ultimately because you believed in a certain way of doing things that let you down. Me, at least I got a couple good punches in.”

Lionel stopped in front of the park and cut the engine. He called in help for a search of the park: mountain bike cops, the Hudson patrol, etc. They’d be rushing over. Every cop liked searching parks on a nice day.

Then, Lionel reached into his pocket, took out a packet of gum and offered a stick to Francisco. But the last thing Francisco wanted after a conversation like this was the sting of artificial peppermint.

***

Anyone who has read Lord of the Flies, knows that the group of six boys, Raheem Espinal, Cesar Devlin, Jeriel Devlin Alcantara, Franklin Ortega, Ritchie Salazar, Salvador Ronzon, would eventually turn on each other. They had known each other for most of their lives, had been to all the same birthday parties, kissed the same girls, shared each other’s fried chicken and fries, knew who wore what shoes, knew what was hidden under each other’s bed. They had always tested the same in the statewide tests and therefore had always been in the same class except for fifth grade when they reorganized the school into four mini-schools and everyone wore slightly different uniforms. But that had only lasted one year, because there hadn’t been an immediate improvement from the year before and the Board of Ed. was forever anxious. Three of the four principals had been fired and new principals, fresh from the mayor’s “Principals Academy,” were hired, but they tried too hard, yelled too much, and burned out by November and spent the rest of the year locked in their offices. That was the year the kids walked from classroom to classroom with no one stopping them.  The boys were always together in this stairwell or that hallway. There was a smoke bomb going off almost every day and together they were blamed and together they were expelled which meant long afternoons in Ft. Tryon avoiding bangers and whistling at girls. The following year Mr. Bobbins was hired and while they were all tossed into his classroom, everything changed. It was lockdown from the first day. Kids still roamed the halls, but no one ever came or left Mr. Bobbins’s room without permission. If you tried, Mr. Bobbins could say things that left you more humiliated than you’ve ever been in your life.

All six boys had read Lord of the Flies with Mr. Bobbins, but only two had really enjoyed it, Ritchie Salazar and Raheem Espinal. The other boys had, however, savored every last sentence of Of Mice And Men. For them, Lord of the Flies was tedious and rambling, mean white kids with no sense of street etiquette. “We’d eat them up here in the Heights,” Jeriel had written in a personal response. “White suckas showing what white people do to each other if they living on an island. Man, we got more pride than that.” Mr. Bobbins had read that essay aloud and, with his usual condescending, yet comradely smirk, had even given Jeriel a gold star. Even though Jeriel made enough money with deliveries to buy himself a real gold star, if not a dozen, Raheem saw him cut out Mr. Bobbins’s plastic gold star and pinch it into his engraved cell-phone case.

Now, as they sat in the golden forest on Inwood Hill park, the Hudson below a gray mass of sludge that was still somehow capable of reflecting the gray sky above, the boys could look at each other’s backs and know what the other was thinking. Cesar was thinking about his mom. He always was. Salvador was thinking about his uncle’s tricked out Civic and what it felt like to ride in the back with cylinders of liquid fuel right under your ass. Raheem and Franklin were probably thinking about books. They were the only ones that read outside of class or just read. And Jeriel, well, Jeriel was thinking about the year his grandmother sent him back to the D.R. to shape him up, but he had just returned even worse than he had left. Murders, hookers, smoking weed on cigarette boats. Some sucka had even tried to pop him right in downtown Santiago by all the tourists and vendors, but the bullet hit his straw hat instead, just like in the old westerns. In the D.R. Jeriel had fallen in love with a woman who had a three-year old. When the family found out about that, they shipped him back to NYC.

But there was something beautiful and grand about all of them sitting there, together, in an old-growth forest, next to Indian burial grounds, in one of the most densely populated cities in America. It was a moment that they knew they would never forget, that would change them, like the day they all tried hang-gliding off that building on 176th or when they stole a Lincoln town car and drove it to that State Park in New Jersey and ate homemade ice-cream named after presidents and swam in a real lake. Those were the memories they savored for when there wasn’t no money for dinner or the cable was cut-off.

This moment however was different. They were with a body. The body of someone whom they hated and loved and who had, at one time, had some terrific power over them.

Franklin Ortega, who always got nervous when things got too quiet, said: “You remember that story Mr. Bobbins told us about Osama Bin Laden?”

He checked faces. There was no immediate reaction, but he knew they were listening.

“And that teacher that he taught with in Saudi Arabia. Osama Bin Laden was in his class? Remember? And Osama said that he thought it was good that in Of Mice And Men Lenny died in the end because he was big and fat and stupid and made life difficult for everyone else.”

“’Simple life,’” Salvador said.

“What?”

“’Made it difficult for everyone to have a simple life.’”

“What difference it make?” Raheem scraped a stick against a tree. “Serious.”

“Osama want a simple life for everyone. Like them niggas from Harlem that always come around trying to turn us into Muslims. They always saying that Islam is this and that. Always saying it give you a simple life.”

Ritchie said: “Remember when Bobbins made you spell ‘stupid’ and you spelled it with two ‘OO’s.’”

“So? He call you Ritchie Retardo.”

The boys all laughed, some, who weren’t afraid of Ritchie, laughed harder.

“But that a crazy story about Osama,” Franklin tried again. “I mean, in class we all think it kind of messed up that Lenny gets shot.”

“I didn’t think it was messed up,” Jeriel said.

“Whatever. You don’t think period. But I’m saying, it make sense that Osama thought Lenny should die. He have no heart.”

“Maybe he all heart.”

“You can’t want someone to die and have heart,” Cesar shook his head like he was having a seizure.

“When people in the way, they need to go,” Jeriel half-groaned.

“That true, but who decide who in the way? You? You a dumb ass!”

Jeriel glared at Cesar, but didn’t do nothing. They had been in three fights and each time Cesar made Jeriel bleed. People from as far as 168th had come to see those fights and even though it was free, they got their money’s worth.

Now, all the boys sat on a granite outcropping, some with their backs together, some facing each other, but not staring, all gazing out over the Hudson. The Bronx street bridge overhead was still, but every so often a van would roll overhead, rattling and grumbling. The sounds of the cars and traffic were comforting because the sounds of nature were, of course, suspicious.

An Amtrak came along, slow and cautious, crossing over a narrow bridge that floated over the lagoon. They could see the passengers inside, some reading papers and others looking out the window. A collection of self-contained thoughts and concerns. To the passengers in the train, the boys were a blur, their puffy black jackets and brown work boots making them, from the distance of the Amtrak, indistinguishable.

“Something smell,” Salvador said.

“It’s Bobbins for sure,” Jeriel confirmed.

“Why dead bodies got to smell?”

“It’s biology.”

The boys had already unwrapped the body and covered it with dried leaves. They had each, over the years, seen dead bodies, neighbors who had been shot by gangs or friends who had stepped into traffic or parents who had committed suicide, but none of the kids had actually attended to a body. Lifting the heavy flesh of the dead; the flimsy appendages, the limp back muscles, the neck no longer supporting eight pounds of skull and brain. They had never learned to hold back the urge to gag or wretch or tremble especially when the smell of putrefaction assaulted their senses.

As they had carried the body they thought of that stupid book by Faulkner which wasn’t so much stupid as boring and not so much boring as pointless and perhaps not even pointless, because the point pounded on you through the whole book. No, As I Lay Dying, was a big stupid metaphor with all those fancy sentences. The only reason they had liked it was precisely because Mr. Bobbins had read it with such passion. They loved Mr. Bobbins’s voice when he swam carefully through the words and tied each sentence with his own emphasis. His voice became intimately tied with the author’s; his inflections, tone, the way he rounded off the sentence of every chapter so that he might as well be throwing it into the ocean tied down with a weight. When Mr. Bobbins became the story, it was impossible to do anything other than love it. And Mr. Bobbins had loved both books, even if the boys hadn’t, and both books had at very least stuck with them and especially with Franklin who carried on now: “Osama said that if Curley’s wife had been wearing a burqa, Lenny never would have done nothing bad.”

“Man, shut up with that already.”

“Seriously yo.”

“But that’s what Bobbins said!

“Who care? Osama a faggot. If I was in the army, I’d get that motherfucker. Blam!”

“You is stoooopid.”

“You are stupid.”

“Shut-up.”

“You shut-up.”

“I liked As I Lay Dying,” Jeriel said.

It had been impossible to escape to Faulkner as they pushed a shopping cart first through Ft. Tryon, across Dyckman, and into Inwood Hill Park. People had indeed looked, because what were six boys doing pushing a shopping cart full of trash? But no one asked them, no one questioned their motives and they prayed that they wouldn’t see a policeman, which they didn’t, but they did have to lift the cart over gutters and up a few steps here and there.

Then in the park, the road quickly disintegrated into stone. It took five of them to push and pull and the sixth, which was usually Jeriel, to point out the best path. The cart had groaned and screeched and the wheels had turned this way and that, but never in the way they wanted, and several times the cart had almost tipped. They had deposited the bags of trash into the forest so that it was only the wrapped body in the cart and once again, they each prayed, silently and to themselves, that they wouldn’t see a policeman or a jogger or anyone who might be suspicious.

And perhaps their prayers were answered because they saw no one.

So they pushed the cart up the first hill and past a hollowed bunker that George Washington used when they bombed the British coming up the Hudson. And since it was fall, the leaves twirled downward leaving a trail of color through the air. They sweated the cold sweat of panic and fear and the October chill that seeped into their polyester jackets clung between their shoulder blades.

It took them nearly two hours to get through Inwood and to the Hudson. The worst was on the last little stretch, from the path down to the river. There was no path so they couldn’t push the cart and therefore they all had to carry the body. They tripped and fell and yelled at each other, but finally made it. And as they were all standing there a Circle Line Cruise went by with a banner that said “Happy 400th Henry Hudson!” And none of the boys knew what this meant and didn’t really care. They were just happy that they had made it without being seen.

Franklin Ortega had been the first to cry, his pupils lost behind steamed glasses. Salvador Ronzon, while he tried to comfort Franklin with quick a rub of his palm on his friend’s scalp, had held back tears himself. These tears encompassed everything they had witnessed; the room full of blood, the pin-holed corpse that had once been their teacher, the shadow of the murderer, breathing heavily in the darkness of the stairway, unmoving, unafraid of the boys who were too afraid to confront him.

But what had really shook the boys was how purple and stiff Mr. Bobbins body had become and how, when they had unrolled it out from the blankets, the arms had twisted and turned so awkwardly that the boys thought for a second that they might be causing Mr. Bobbins’s pain. And what had been so strange, was that in life Mr. Bobbins, while joking and listening, had always kept a certain distance, as if the boys might breath some contagion upon them. But here, they could sit as close as they wanted while his milky eyes no longer had the capacity to stare back.

Jeriel Devlin, big and stupid and so quietly perceptive, poked at Mr. Bobbins’s ear with his index finger. When he spoke, even those who hated him considered his words with a special weight because while his words were thick and monosyllabic, the observation was always valuable.

“He got two pierced ears.”

“’Cause he was in a band,” Cesar replied.

“But why two? That’s faggot.”

“Lot’s of ‘em got two pierced ears. Ja Rule.”

“He homo.”

“Fat Joe.”

“He a homo too.”

“Jay-Z”

“He ain’t got two pierced ears,” Franklin broke in, “and he with Beyonce.”

Salvador stood abruptly, lifted a large stick and smacked it against the base of a tree. The sound was thin, piercing and the vibration that it must have left in Salvador’s arm, painful. But Salvador’s dark blue eyes and his darker than most Dominican skin, had a fiery strength in the subdued winter gray day.

“Who care?”

The boys all shrugged and shivered, mostly inwardly, staring out at the Hudson and the billions of oily ripples. The wind was racing across the Hudson from New Jersey sounding perpetually threatening, but never really delivering much except wind-born dust.

Salvador went walking down to the edge of the water, standing on a smooth granite rock and peering out. Franklin thought about how he and Mr. Bobbins and the class had been walking here only a few months ago. He had asked Mr. Bobbins why, out of all the parks in New York, he enjoyed this particular park where there were no open fields or basketball courts. Bobbins had replied that Inwood Hill Park could let him imagine what it had been like, a little over a hundred years before, when the Algonquian used this very place as a burial ground.

Jeriel said something, almost inaudible, but the surprise was enough to get the rest of them to watch what he was doing. He had knelt down close to the body and the dew from the trees and the blanket had rubbed off much of the make-up on his face.

“Mr. Bobbins have a tattoo?” Jeriel said, inspecting the wrist of the corpse, where a small symbol of a star lay just under the palm.

“I said he was in a band.”

“Lots of people who ain’t in bands have tattoos.”

“Mr. Bobbins was a writer.”

“That stupid hat.”

“What his hat have to do with him being in a band?”

“Or having a tattoo?”

“Or being a homo?”

Jeriel stood straight up and gazed down at them. “You alls is faggots.”

“Man, sit down,” Salvador said all tough.

Franklin moved over and looked at Bobbins’s wrist. “I never seen this before.”

“You looked at his wrist closely?” Cesar asked.

“He didn’t have a tattoo on his wrist,” Salvador said. “I would have seen it.”

All the other boys responded in the affirmative.

Jeriel spit on his hand and began to rub the make-up on Bobbins’s face away. The boys crowded and knelt down next to the body. Their faces shadowed. They didn’t know what they were looking for.

The make-up started to come off slowly, but surely, thick white clown make-up that revealed blotchy, dying skin. Their breathing formed and collected clouds that instantly dissipated. Jeriel spit again and again, but the make-up seemed to be oil-based and his saliva formed droplets upon the white skin. Jeriel became impatient with the process, the boys repulsed, time sped by.

“It’s not Bobbins,” Salvador said at some point, but everyone hushed him, as if his words would contaminate the verdict.

They were shocked, confused. This was the body of someone else. It had to be.

Suddenly Cesar was hitting them all on their backs, pointing at the inlet of water only yards away. A police boat had spotted them for they had made little effort to hide. There were shouts. The boys knew how to run from cops on their blocks, but this was a forest. They scattered quickly, scrambling up the hill. They could hear the police yelling. They all kept looking back at the body and then racing ahead and then looking back at the body. They all wanted to say goodbye, but they weren’t even sure now who they would be saying goodbye to.

____________________________________________________________

Erik Raschke grew up in Denver, Colorado and received a Masters in Creative Writing from The City College of New York.  He taught in Washington Heights, Manhattan, for many years.  His first novel, The Book of Samuel, was published by St. Martin’s Press in the fall of 2009. He lives with his family in Amsterdam where he is currently finishing up his second novel, The Death of Fiction.

Leah Anderst

The trailer for Robert Montgomery’s 1947 adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake tells its viewers that the film stars Montgomery and, “mysteriously,” them.

A few minutes into the film, Montgomery himself, playing private detective Philip Marlowe, echoes this: “You’ll see it just as I saw it. You’ll meet the people. You’ll find the clues. And maybe you’ll solve it quick and maybe you won’t. You think you will, eh? Ok. You’re smart. But let me give you a tip. You’ve got to watch ‘em. You’ve got to watch ‘em all the time because things happen when you least expect them.”

“You’ll see it just as I saw it.”

The film opens with Marlowe seated at a desk in his office facing the camera as it slowly approaches him while he speaks. He tells us of the case we are about to “see just as [he] saw it,” introducing us to its main players. This opening scene is one of only three or four very short moments in the film in which the viewer looks upon the protagonist “objectively,” that is to say with the camera facing him so that the viewer sees him from an external position. Lady in the Lake “mysteriously” stars the viewer as well because the film is shot with a “subjective” camera.

The film begins with an account of Philip Marlowe’s attempt at authorship. A seasoned but frustrated private detective, Marlowe writes a short, autobiographical story and submits it to a local magazine publisher, Derrace Kingsby. When he arrives at Kingsby’s offices on Christmas Eve to discuss the story, Marlowe is engaged by an assistant, Adrienne Fromsett, to locate Kingsby’s missing wife. Chrystal Kingsby has been missing for some time, and Kingsby recently received a Western Union wire from Chrystal telling him that she was on her way to Mexico to get a quick divorce and to marry Chris Lavery. Adrienne bumps into Lavery in Los Angeles shortly thereafter, and he claims to know nothing of Chrystal’s whereabouts or the wire she apparently sent from Texas. It is at this point that Marlowe enters the narrative.

Adrienne wishes to keep this search a secret from her boss and so insists on secrecy from the detective. Without telling Kingsby, Marlowe questions Chris Lavery, travels to Kingsby’s lake cabin where Chrystal was last seen, and gets mixed up with a corrupt police officer, Lieutenant DeGarmot, who, with his former mistress, plays an important role in the narrative. The mystery turns on the identity of a lady found drowned in Kingsby’s lake while Marlowe visits looking for clues pertaining to Chrystal’s disappearance. This lady is found wearing clothing belonging to Muriel Chess, the wife of Kingsby’s lake caretaker, and the missing Chrystal Kingsby becomes the primary murder suspect. Things are not as clear as they seem, though. Muriel goes by another name, Mildred Haviland, and before meeting her husband, she was DeGarmot’s mistress as well as the chief suspect in another murder case. By the film’s end, Marlowe single-handedly solves the mystery of the lady in the lake, forcing the true criminals to reveal themselves. In the film’s opening credits the “actress” listed as playing the role of Chrystal Kingsby is “Ellay Mort,” a name that, when pronounced, sounds like “Elle est morte,” French for “she is dead.” The lady in the lake is Chrystal Kingsby.

Montgomery’s film is chiefly remembered as an experiment in the continuous usage of the “point of view” shot. The camera stands in for Marlowe for much of the film’s duration. It moves about the film’s spaces in Marlowe’s place, his voice emerges from somewhere behind it when he speaks, smoke issues from just below the screen when he smokes, we glimpse his hands when they momentarily enter his frame of view on the peripheries of the image, and the film’s other characters look directly into the camera when they speak to him. Point of view shots and other “subjective” cinematic techniques typically draw the viewer into proximity, sympathy, and identification with a film’s principal character. The more a viewer is exposed to a character’s motivations, fears, and desires, the more she tends to identify with him whether a villain or a good guy. Lady in the Lake, however, famously resists just this viewer identification.

Adrienne Fromsett offers a drink.

Upon the film’s release, many reviewers bemoaned the heavy-handedness of the technique and focused on the failure of the film to produce a real sense of involvedness in its viewers. We don’t actually feel as though we are “in” the film as its trailer promises. A reviewer for the New York Times complained, “the principal character has to talk too much in this film. Indeed, he does most of the talking which is wrong in this technique. To be entirely ‘subjective,’ the camera character should not talk at all because that destroys the illusion of complete participation by the audience. What is said by this character – this un-seen, off-stage voice – may not be at all what the people in the audience are thinking or what they would say. As a consequence it takes on a sort of third-personality; it comes from another observer who is apparently standing right alongside of you.” [i] Later, film critics and theorists express similar concerns with the disconnect between the film’s apparent goals and its achievement. Jean Mitry writes, “the camera is leading me, guiding me; it conveys impressions not generated by me. Moreover, the feet climbing the stairs I can see in the frame of the image are not mine; the hand holding the banister is not mine. At no point am I able to recognize the image of my own body.” [ii] Lady in the Lake certainly fails to draw the viewer so completely into the drama as to produce the vertiginous virtual reality that this goal would seem to imply. Putting this impossibility aside, though, the film still fails to achieve what so many other narrative films do with ease: viewer identification with the protagonist.

Confronting Adrienne with a clue.

Marlowe rings a doorbell.

A detective thriller, this exemplar of post-WWII Hollywood film noir resists certain important features of the genre. Noir tends to convey a “mood of cynicism, darkness, and despair,” and “the protagonists are frequently unsympathetic antiheroes who pursue their base designs or simply drift aimlessly through sinister night worlds of the urban American jungle.” [iii] Cynicism is strong in Lady in the Lake. Besides our protagonist-detective, nearly every character with more than a few speaking lines nurses dark hidden motives. Mirroring this darkness, most of the film’s scenes take place at night in Los Angeles and its small fictional neighbor, Bay City. Marlowe indeed pursues his charge in “the urban American jungle.” In strong distinction from the film’s other characters, though, Marlowe himself is, remarkably, a good guy.  No “antihero,” Marlowe is one of only a few fictional private detectives who do not cheat their clients and who care for the truth for its own sake. That he is a writer in addition to being a private detective also creates sympathy for him. Marlowe is “hardboiled,” but he is also creative, sensitive, and morally upright.

Unlike Sam Spade, Marlowe’s counterpart in a few of Dashiell Hammett’s novels that include The Maltese Falcon, Marlowe’s goodness runs through the series of stories and novels that Chandler penned about him. Montgomery altered Chandler’s novel quite a bit, giving Adrienne a starring role whereas Chandler’s Kingsby hires Marlowe without any help from an assistant, but Montgomery retains the basic positive characteristics of Chandler’s character. Montgomery’s Marlowe even manages to reform the film’s “femme fatale.” Adrienne’s plan in hiring Marlowe to locate her boss’s missing wife is to marry the boss (and his wealth) after she forces his divorce. By the film’s end, Adrienne has fallen hopelessly in love with Marlowe and cares nothing for wealth if she can only be with her man. A cold and calculating working girl at the film’s beginning, by the end she is a warm, feminine homebody. Marlowe’s characteristics, his honesty and loyalty in particular, would seem to recommend him as a sympathetic character, a character with whom the viewer would readily identify. The film’s experiment in point of view, however, ends by confusing the viewer’s sympathy and identification. Why should this be? Where does the film err?

Murray Smith’s Engaging Characters presents a handy mechanism for the analysis of viewer identification with cinematic characters. Smith’s three-part “structure of sympathy” allows us to pinpoint where this film elicits and repels viewer identification.  Smith’s aim is to explore what we mean when we say that we “identify” with a film’s character(s). What exactly is happening when we use this imprecise term. In the introduction to his book he writes, “what are the various senses of the term ‘identification’, and how can they be developed into a systematic explanation of emotional response to fictional characters? I argue that we need to break the notion down into a number of more precisely defined concepts: recognition, alignment, and allegiance … together constituting what I term the structure of sympathy.” [iv] With Smith’s three concepts in mind, we can attempt to locate where Lady in the Lake goes afoul in its efforts to draw the viewer into identification with its protagonist detective.

“Recognition describes the spectator’s construction of character: the perception of a set of textual elements, in film typically cohering around the image of a body, as an individuated and continuous human agent.” [v] Though he is “off screen” physically, viewer “recognition” of Marlowe is certain. The film provides many “textual” clues of this character: his shadow, his hands, his cigarette smoke, and, of course, his voice. However, from these textual clues, can his physical presence be one of a “continuous human agent”? Throughout much of the film, Marlowe’s person is presented piecemeal. We see his hands, but not his arms or his shoulders. We see smoke, but not his mouth puffing on a cigarette. We hear his words, but we don’t see his face as he speaks. The film only allows us very few and very short views of Marlowe’s complete person. “As a living, active human being,” Mitry writes, “he does not exist for us. We are therefore incapable of objectifying the sensations we feel and know we feel entirely through an intermediary. What we are supposed to accept as a ‘subjective experience’ thereby dissolves into a vague and indistinct ‘nonself.’” [vi] Like the mystery he will eventually solve, Marlowe’s person is, for much of the film, a small collection of “clues,” pieces that do not create a satisfying whole.

“Recognition”: Marlowe’s shadow at left.

“Recognition”: Marlowe’s hands.

Related to Smith’s “recognition” is Laura Mulvey’s much cited essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Mulvey describes “…two contradictory aspects of the pleasurable structures of looking in the conventional cinematic situation. The first, scopophilic, arises from pleasure in using another person as an object of sexual stimulation through sight. The second, developed through narcissism and the constitution of the ego, comes from identification with the image seen. Thus, in film terms, one implies a separation of the erotic identity of the subject from the object on the screen (active scopophilia), the other demands identification of the ego with the object on the screen through the spectator’s fascination with and recognition of his like.” [vii] Smith’s “recognition” bears similarities to Mulvey’s “fascination with and recognition of his like.” Both depend upon the viewer’s frequent and generally complete apprehension of a film’s character. Montgomery’s film provides us with ample opportunity to gaze upon Adrienne, the film’s object of “scopophilic” pleasure, but it provides very limited occasion for the viewer’s “identification … [with] his like,” with the person of Philip Marlowe. Indeed, this viewer “recognized” the persons of Adrienne and DeGarmot, the film’s corrupt cop, to a much greater extent than the protagonist, even to the point of “identifying” with them.

Although rare, there are a few key scenes in this film that show Marlowe’s full person, scenes where we “recognize” him and watch him interact with Adrienne. These scenes rely on mirrors positioned prominently in the film’s mise-en-scene, and they allow the viewer to catch glimpses of Marlowe’s physiognomy. Something of a visual novelty, Marlowe’s face and body immediately draw our attention in these scenes. The film’s formal peculiarity, however, causes our gaze to alternate confusedly between Marlowe and Adrienne.

Marlowe meets Adrienne for the first time when he comes to Kingsby’s offices in response to her letter. She wishes to speak with him about the story he submitted for publication. During their conversation, Marlowe quickly realizes that she hopes to employ his detective skills while leaving his writing as an afterthought, and he begins to take her down from the position of power she occupies. Late in their verbal altercation, he says, “Your lipstick’s on crooked,” and, with a look of dismayed humiliation, she walks to the mirror on the wall of her office. We suddenly see Marlowe who looks at Adrienne while she looks at him. Her lipstick is perfect.

Marlowe’s person, in a mirror.

Followed by a return to looking at Adrienne.

We are meant to understand that over the eight seconds or so of this shot (above left), these two characters look at each other. Because she looks into the camera, however, it appears that only he looks at her as he says, “Vain female, aren’t you.” With their two visions “pointing” in different directions, the viewer is at a loss here, and, strangely, Marlowe’s (and the camera’s) turn away from the mirror back to Adrienne (above right) is a comforting return to the film’s unusual normalcy. Through mirrors we will look upon Marlowe’s person a few more times over the course of the film, and the effect remains quite similar. Rather than hardening viewer “recognition” of the film’s protagonist, these scenes tend to upset the gaze. Of Smith’s “structure of sympathy,” then, “recognition” is partially unfulfilled in Montgomery’s film.

“Alignment describes the process by which spectators are placed in relation to characters in terms of access to their actions, and to what they know and feel. The concept is akin to the literary notion of ‘focalization’, Gerard Genette’s term for the way in which narratives may feed story information to the reader through the ‘lens’ of a particular character, though ‘identification’ is more commonly appealed to (…) I propose two interlocking functions, spatio-temporal attachment and subjective access, cognate with the concepts of narrational range and depth…” [viii] We find an important hitch in viewer identification with Marlowe within Smith’s “alignment.” The viewer’s “spatio-temporal alignment” with Marlowe is constant and extreme. On the other hand, the viewer’s “subjective access” to Marlowe’s psyche, the second, and arguably the more important, aspect of “alignment,” is curiously missing in this film. Though we hear all of Marlowe’s words, and though many of his words are indicative of his thinking, we do not know Marlowe’s mind. We do not have access to his unvoiced judgments, desires, suspicions, or regrets. It is just this information that would allow us to form an emotional bond with this character. For this viewer at least, Marlowe’s affection for Adrienne Fromsett came as a surprise. His words and his behavior toward her gave little sense of his predilection. Even his cryptic response to her very early statement, “you would be a fool to fall in love with me, Marlowe,” didn’t clue me in. [ix] Marlowe’s nascent sense of the mystery’s end also eludes the first-time viewer. We see the film’s events and scenes through his eyes, but unlike him, we are unable to fit the clues together into the whole that they will become in the film’s final few minutes.

“AF” at the crime scene.

Falling in love with Adrienne.

“Allegiance pertains to the moral evaluation of characters by the spectator. Here we are perhaps closest to what is meant by ‘identification’ in everyday usage.” [x] Trickier to pinpoint than “recognition” and “alignment,” we can nonetheless see where this film attempts to bring the viewer into “moral” sympathy with Marlowe. Just two examples: Marlowe writes a story about his experience, and Adrienne describes this story as “emotional” and “full of heart.” This aspect of Marlowe’s character – an aspect added to Chandler’s novel by Montgomery – reveals a level of introspection that conflicts with the typical noir detective. Marlowe’s suspicion of Adrienne’s motives also draws the viewer into “allegiance” with him. When he suspects her of double-dealing and of being cold and calculating, he bases his suspicions on evidence that we see through his eyes, so that she appears as such to the viewer also. Perhaps even more compelling than these two examples is the contrast Marlowe presents with DeGarmot, the thuggish, corrupt cop whom he strives to capture in the act. The film asks for the viewer’s “allegiance” to Marlowe very early on. In the opening scene, he explains his motivations for writing his short story, and he draws on his experiences with unseemly characters of whom he disapproves. After this scene, we watch the film, and we feel that Marlowe, out of all of these sneaky characters, is right. He is the good guy, the one to emulate. However, saying this does not capture the experience of watching this film.  This does not guarantee “identification” with Marlowe.

In terms of “allegiance,” many noir narratives resist viewer identification with characters. If, in addition to the main actors in a mystery, a film’s detective is also a bad guy, an “anti-hero,” a double-crossing private dick who seeks to exploit the trouble in which his underworld clients find themselves, there will likely be few with whom to “identify.”

Lady in the Lake, however, gives its viewer Philip Marlowe, the likeable if sometimes rough-around-the-edges detective who would rather be a writer. He convinces Adrienne to value love and truth over money and power, and he is more trustworthy than the police. The film places the viewer in the situation of seeing the story world as the protagonist sees it, but this stylistic experiment in point of view systematically excludes Marlowe’s person from the screen and his thoughts from the soundtrack. We may see the story world through his eyes, but we do not perceive it with Marlowe’s judgments or intuitions. With only very rare glimpses of his person and without “subjective access” to his mind, Philip Marlowe, though largely a sympathetic “nice guy,” remains an opaque character who resists our identification.

___________________________________________________________________________________________________

Leah Anderst is a Visiting Instructor of Writing at Marymount Manhattan College. She received a PhD in Comparative Literature from the CUNY Graduate Center in 2010, and she is currently a fellow at the Graduate Center’s Writers’ Institute.

NOTES

[i] Bosley Crowther – New York Times, Feb, 9, 1947.

[ii] Mitry, Jean. The Aesthetics and Psychology of the Cinema. Translated by Christopher King. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000. (p. 210)

[iii] Cook, David. A History of Narrative Cinema. 3rd Ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996. (pp. 449-450).

[iv] Smith, Murray. Engaging Characters: Fiction Emotion and the Cinema (1995) quotations and page numbers are taken from The Philosophy of Film, Wartenberg and Curran, eds. (p. 160)

[v] Ibid. 161.

[vi]Mitry, 210-211.

[vii] Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” In Film Theory and Criticism, 7th ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, Editors. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. (p. 712)

[viii] Ibid. p. 162.

[ix] Marlowe’s response to Adrienne: “Let me get this straight, I’m not to visit Chris Lavery, and I’m not to fall in love with you.”

[x] Smith, p. 162.

David Sharp

In 1929, the Milanese Mondadori publishing house launched a line of books in yellow covers to promote tales of mystery and detection. Since then, the “giallo”, or the detective novel, has found a vast and receptive audience throughout Italy.  The detective or mystery genre ensures a pleasurable participatory and hermeneutic experience; as the narrative unfolds, the process of uncovering clues and attempting to resolve the mystery at hand becomes the active work of both the protagonist and reader. Because of the genre’s popularity and the innately interpretive mode of reading involved therein, many Italian writers have identified it as a readymade platform to present their ideas to a broad and eager audience.

Indeed, Italian authors such as Carlo Emilio Gadda, Leonardo Sciascia, Antonio Tabucchi, Andrea Camilleri, and Dacia Maraini, have employed and reconfigured the original features of the detective form to generate awareness about social and political issues. Their works have even initiated vital dialogs about events and predicaments that may otherwise have only been broached with trepidation.  In exploring the most troubling quandaries of Italian history and society, these writers elected to eschew the tangible and immediate inquiries of the conventional giallo -a murder, a theft, a disappearance- in favor of more abstract and charged pursuits.  By refocusing the detective’s magnifying glass, they have capitalized on the probative nature of detective literature, frequently using it as a pointed tool to systematically investigate and critique the most enigmatic events of history, as well as their lingering effects and the forces operating behind them.  While securing their own enduring literary renown, these authors’ adaptations and transformations of the genre attest to the value they ascribe to literature as a serious field of inquiry.  They also set a precedent for successive stylistic and formal innovations within this genre.

The mystery genre is again the vogue in Italy, and accordingly, interesting and fresh embodiments are at the fore of the media.  From Giancarlo De Cataldo’s acclaimed 2002 novel Romanzo Criminale, to Carlo Lucarelli’s popular RAI television series Blu Notte to the controversial investigative reporting of Roberto Saviano’s Gomorra, crime fiction in Italy continues to captivate the public’s interest as it evolves beyond its traditional embodiments and audiences. Though rather varied, these modern exemplars are nonetheless linked by an overarching problematic: each delves deeply into both past and recent historical and political events in Italy in order to suggest that institutionalized explanations of them are inadequate or unsatisfactory.  The mystery genre is here outstanding in that it readily frames prolonged intellectual inquisitions and offers a compelling structure for protracted analysis and evaluation of events and eras in order to shed some light on the past and the effects it continues to wield on the present.

Simone Sarasso began writing noir fiction for television, film and comics in 2004.[i] His 2007 novel Confine di stato, roughly translatable as “State Limits,” is a particularly noteworthy example of an innovative and contemporary embodiment of the mystery form.  The narrative begins as a conventional giallo. Yet it quickly loses its purely detective filament and then evolves into a political thriller, depicting espionage and intricate conspiracies operating within the ranks of Italy’s government.  Pivoting around national enigmas that have not been adequately resolved, Confine di stato presents an alternate and rather unsettling version of seminal events in modern Italian history.  Focusing on the violent years of the Anni di piombo in Italy, Confine di stato primarily seeks to discredit facile or official solutions to the 1969 Piazza di Fontana bombings in Milan. The novel aims to reexamine the forces which deliberately produced this national tragedy, and to concurrently awaken a new generation’s interest in investigating the country’s perplexing and dubious history in the wake of World War II up to the present.  Sarasso’s novel suggests that these affairs must not be relegated to historical oblivion or dismissed with the passing of time.

While the novel derives from an actual historical donnée, the plotline of Confine di stato toggles back and forth between the last five decades to narratize an intricate and extensive right-wing conspiracy to seize power of the nation. Sarasso has incorporated and liberally fictionalized certain dimensions of four momentous events in Italian history in order to eventually concatenate the series of events.  Some directly invoke an actual occurrence, while others are thinly- veneered allegories or analogies which the reader must decipher and identify.  The novel thus commences with the actual Piazza Fontana bombings on December 12, 1969 in Milan, a reference which is cited unequivocally: the place, the time, the date and the information about the bombings unambiguously correspond to extra-textual realities.  Other episodes are presented obliquely: consequently, the narrative immediately dives into the controversial 1953 Wilma Montesi affair as detective Giorgio Valenti investigates the mysterious drowning of the fictional Ester Conti in Ostia.  Likewise, a private plane later crashes, killing an American journalist and the fictitious Fabio Riviera, the public administrator who actively seeks to dismantle the oil oligopoly of the “seven sisters” and to negotiate oil concessions that do not benefit these corporations.  Indeed, this fictionalizes the fate of AGIP commissary Enrico Mattei in 1962.  Finally, a prominent publisher and left-wing activist simply called “L’editore” (“the Editor”) is killed during an explosion in a clandestine operative placing him in combat with neo-fascist agents.  An invested and astute reader here recognizes the figure of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli in the attempt to locate extratextual correlatives corresponding to the incidents giving substance to the novel.

While the substance of the novel converts facts into fiction, Sarasso subtitles Confine di stato as “an Insane Sketch”.  This designation takes on a double meaning throughout the work:  after abandoning the detective filament a quarter of the way into the text, the novel proceeds to unfold through the actions of Andrea Sterling, a formerly institutionalized patient in a mental asylum moving amongst clandestine segments of society.  Significant portions of the text thoroughly document and follow his institutionalization.  Upon his subsequent release from an asylum, Sterling is seen operating within the ranks of the government, mingling with members of the Democrazia Cristiana, and is occasionally brought into direct contact with the highest ranks of the Cosa Nostra. Sterling is oblivious to the actual influence of the nefarious rings he represents, yet he willingly executes the work of a hired bravo. Sarasso suggests Sterling’s lack of conscience, a blind hatred of socialists and his unquenchable thirst for blood is clearly hallmark of a sociopath.  Moreover, the reader inevitably draws a parallel between the insane individual’s actions and the maniacal will to power of the neo-fascists that he unreflectively supports in their quest to subvert the influence of the political left from the national terrain.  Sarasso’s “insane sketch” thus takes aim at an enduring legacy of corruption and outrageous political machinations, all which have resulted in instances of extreme violence against individuals and an inexcusable and irrational lack of progress in Italy.

In addition to the subject matter, the style of Confine di stato is of particular interest in this discussion of unique manifestations of the giallo. Confine di Stato incorporates some of the most salient features of the noir or hardboiled form, but does not sustain them as the narrative progresses.  Whereas Sarasso initially introduces a detective in his novel honing in on the investigation of Ester Conti’s drowning, the investigator’s presence is fleeting.  At this point, the novel becomes a protracted exploration of a larger conspiracy and evolves into a political thriller or a spy novel and becomes less of a traditional giallo. As a result, perfunctory attempts to definitively locate Confine di stato within the parameters of a singular genre are fruitless.  The novel resists such confines and defies a definitive taxonomy, and even presents useful questions about the relevance of such classifications. Incorporating elements of cinema, graphic novels, comics and invented documentation, Sarasso operates at the interstices of genre. He robustly intermingles various media in his literary form, attesting to a hybridity that fashions something completely unorthodox from the familiar and conventional.

Confine di stato is constructed on two distinct levels which render it stylistically unique: the literal, and the visual.  The reliance on visual narrative as another modus operandi is apparent throughout the text, and immediately structures the reader’s entrance into the work.


The very cover of Confine di stato quickly prefigures the extent to which an unconventionally cinematic dimension lurks within this text.  Replicating elements associated with the conventions of cinema noir, the cover depicts a man wearing a fedora hat.  Silhouetted in black and white, enveloped in shadows, it is a particularly nuanced aesthetic, immediately associated with the style of private detectives, gangsters, or other ruffians in Hollywood films during the 1940s and 1950s.  Moreover, the cover presents the author, illustrators, the publishing house, and a cast of the work’s characters through a billing of opening credits; the “Insane Sketch” is not merely written, but instead “written and directed by Simone Sarasso.”  Applied to a literary work, such cinematic conventions are decontextualized, unexpected and appear to be quite innovative.  Indeed, a reliance on the conventions of film permeates the content of the text itself.  The initial bombing of Piazza Fontana is conveyed textually by invoking the visual and technical elements of a film, stating: “La camera è a volo d’uccello sulla città […] La camera è ad altezza uomo […] Ruota di 180 º […] Allarga sulla facciata del palazzo.  Zooma sull’insegna: ‘Rinascente.’” (“The camera gives a bird’s eye view of the city […] The camera is at eye level […] It rotates 180º […] It moves in on the building’s facade.  Zoom to the sign: ‘Rinascente.’”) This shot-by-shot analysis initiates the narrative, indicating both the novel’s symbiotic reliance on the conventions of film as well as a presumed familiarity with cinematic direction and screenplays on the reader’s behalf.  Meanwhile, this technique depersonalizes and objectifies the scene being staged. In a view ascribed to no character or personage involved, the reader is placed at Piazza Fontana without any sentimentality or emotions.  It is an impartial and detached introduction to the disturbing world which will immediately unfold in the pages of the text.[ii]

This technique then reappears throughout various episodes of the work, but Sarasso “directs” this novel with other visual components as well.  In addition to the cinematic element, Confine di stato also incorporates highly-stylized graphics and illustrations within the novel which visually supplement or retell the substance of the plot.

Consequently, there is a “titoli di testa” or opening credits segment, and a “trailer” which frame the main story arc.  In these visual sequences, the reader is presented with black and white drawings, reminiscent of comics or the signature features of a graphic narrative. The sequences present various characters and events that either will later be or were already introduced throughout the novel.  Additionally, one memorable scene in the novel unfolds between Mago, a Cosa Nostra boss, and Andrea Sterling, in which a parable of American ruthlessness and power is presented as a comic strip involving Superman and a young boy. Yet even this is juxtaposed: the customary visual medium of comic strips is translated into text and narrated only through language, completely forsaking any illustrations.

Such references to popular culture, as well as the inclusion of sketches, comics and other similar pixilated graphics, are further indications that Sarasso may be appealing to a young and contemporary audience, one that is largely unacquainted with the remote and past events of their national history.  Unlike previous generations, this audience may not necessarily be attracted to literature, but instead drawn to the intimacies of television and film.  The somewhat recognizable form and style of the narrative may thus serve to further attract and foment their interest in literature. This is a compelling hypothesis, given the unconventional method of advertising the book prior to its publication; a cinematic book trailer diffused via the internet announced the work’s 2007 “release,” suggesting that visual media might better attract Sarasso’s intended audience as he himself sought to move beyond traditional literary forms.

The insertion of graphics in the novel, however, performs another crucial function: it deliberately fractures the narrative and thwarts a linear development. Confine di stato frequently interrupts narrative progression by creating intermittent breaks between story sequences and the frequent presentation of other media.  This is particularly evident in the recourse to “documentation” as a way to create a different perspective of events.  Such documentation includes interpersonal and institutional correspondence describing conditions in a mental asylum, fictitious newspaper clippings reporting events, lengthy reports from police investigations, and transcripts of televised news reports.  While there is a caveat at the onset of the novel stating that all pieces of documentation are invented, Sarasso has explicitly stated elsewhere that his own research for the novel was almost entirely based on archival documentation.  Yet by interspersing these various invented “documents” amidst scenes, Sarasso breathes life into what he has deemed the static and dispassionate “language of bureaucracy”[iii] that formed his research.  By altering and providing these documents with a subjective narrative, Sarasso has translated facts into fiction.  They are now imbued with a context and supply the reader with an interpretative principle for digesting the facts contained therein.

In tandem with the formal language of these invented documents, Confine di stato unfolds through decidedly colloquial and nonliterary language. Trafficking in popular culture references, vulgarities, vernacular and slang from both the present and eras past, Sarasso’s prose sharply contrasts with the often erudite works of other Italian mystery writers like Sciascia, Gadda, Maraini and Tabucchi. His work is decidedly devoid of literary allusions, metaphysical concerns or philosophical meditations.   Nonetheless, the text is complex as it employs a range of dialects and registers to a very crucial purpose.  Language in Confine di stato vividly depicts distinct classes and social strata in Italy, and it evokes particular historical periods as well. The various linguistic ranges and the language of his characters often create atmosphere in the novel.  From the brusque and vibrant Romanesco of the urban dweller, the parolacce of the Mafiosi and drug lords,  to the clinical and institutional language of doctors and politicians, Sarasso conveys language as a unique schematization and understanding of the world, and the ability to employ one code over another quickly positions characters within or outside of communities.  As Sarasso himself states with regards to this aspect of the novel, “language [is used] to stigmatize characters [and to] render them as bidimensional as much as possible.”[iv] Sarasso thus manipulates different linguistic registers to establish a clear and simple dichotomy between the “good” and “bad” characters appearing in the story.  Sarasso concedes that it is an “unreal” language, one which exists only in cinema.[v] Yet in this “insane sketch”, the polarized use of language also enables the reader to quickly identify and classify the sort of character presented within a narrative that deliberately and constantly flutters from one protagonist to another.   While this shift from one character to another provides narrative valence,[vi] it also has a profoundly destabilizing effect on the reader.  Yet it is only one way that Sarasso has elected to propel forth his narrative.

Ultimately, any absence of reference points[vii] caused by the narrative shift and intentional breaks in its progression are unified when the polarized languages, invented documents, visual narrative, and distinct episodic divisions are viewed holistically.  The reader synthesizes them, and recognizes that the pastiche of divergent and fragmented components blends into a cohesive and wholly original narrative. While writing within the confines of the giallo, Simone Sarasso simultaneously innovates and reconfigures the genre to reflect his unique aesthetic sensibilities. Confine di stato boldly tackles the elusive mysteries of Italy’s past, expands the scope of readership, and ultimately rouses an interest in history for a new generation of Italian readers.



[i] Sarasso discusses his development and sensibilities as a writer in an interview available at Liquid Magazine at http://magazine.liquida.it/2009/03/26/intervista-a-simone-sarasso-di-confine-di-statocom.

[ii] Sarasso considers this and other aspects of his novel Confine di stato in detail in an interview available at Blackmailmag at http://www.blackmailmag.com/Intervista_a_Simone_Sarasso.htm.

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Ibid

[v] Ibid

[vi] Ibid

[vii] Ibid

George Fragopoulos

From Blank to Blank—

A Threadless Way

I pushed Mechanic feet—

To stop—or perish—or advance—

Alike indifferent—

If end I gained

It ends beyond

Indefinite disclosed—

I shut my eyes—and groped as well

‘Twas lighter—to be Blind—

To partake in Dickinsonian language: Kubrick’s noir men often have a feeling of Blank about them.  Even when fully present on the screen they are somehow never there there.  Perhaps this is because they are almost always shuffling their mechanical feet to the “indifferent” drumbeat of contingency, always drawn to fates and ends they can never fully control.  Apparitions, ethereal creatures, these masculine Blanks literalize the word Noir, leaving it ringing woefully hollow, empty: it becomes a flaccid, drained term after their habitation in it.  Kubrick’s Noir Men take their ontological nothingness very seriously.  With apologizes to Hegel: Noir men live in the dark night of the world in which all men are Blanks.

Image from Killer’s Kiss (1954)

Davy’s Face: man of good faith, pugilist—soon to be former pugilist—, fish lover, and weak-jawed hero.  Let us focus on his profession: what is a boxer if not an athlete whose Face-to-Face encounters with an Other define his very sport, his very being, and all this within the confines of the ring?  Is there a better sport as metaphor for life itself? Zizek speaks of smashing the neighbor’s face; is this not precisely the goal of boxing?  The boxer, therefore, is perhaps the most ethical of athletes for he is always aware of the power that the Face holds, and of the harrowing nature of truly confronting the Other.  The pugilist knows of the Face as both metaphor and as corporeal reality.  Davy’s awareness of the ethical dimensions of the Face is made tangible in one of the very first shots Kubrick shows us of him in his apartment: sitting before his mirror, fingering the curves and contours of his battered face, all in anticipation of the beating he is certain he will receive in the ring.  The fish-bowl distortion anticipates the violence of the ring; it also anticipates the violence that Davy’s double, Vince, is so often willing to traffic in.  Vince enacts this violence in a variety of ways, most tellingly with the smashing of a mirror that contains his image, a moment of doubt and self-loathing.

Image from The Killing (1956)

Johnny Clay— the very name itself suggesting a malleability that denies him any real sense of being, the Noir Man always on the cusp of becoming a something other than what he currently is­ as inky jet of nothingness, an aporia in the middle of the screen, shrouded by cigarette smoke and hazy robbery plans, plans which will fail.  (Intelligence never helps Kubrick’s men.)  As Levinas has suggested, an ethical relationship can only be consummated through the Face.  What to do with Kubrick’s Noir Men, those who often lack any semblance of a Face to begin with?  Are we meant to take this as commentary on the idea that we, as members of the audience, are not meant to partake or relate with those on the screen?  Can we relate?  Should we not?   Levinas: “The way in which the other presents himself, exceeding the idea of the other in me, we here name face.  This mode does not consist in figuring as a theme under my gaze, in spreading itself forth as a set of qualities forming an image.  The face of the Other at each moment destroys and overflows the plastic image it leaves me, the idea existing to my own measure and to the measure of its ideatum—the adequate idea . . . the face brings a notion of truth …”  Kubrick’s Noir Men are this very surplus, this overflow, the irreducible remainder of the ethical encounter.  They are the stuff of ethics, but not necessarily ethical beings.

Violence and jouissance.  The exaggerated, ejaculatory spray of sweat echoes not so much the actual violence of the blow but reveals the hidden sexual tension behind the sport of boxing, making vivid homoerotics often cloaked and hidden in a caul of violence and fury.

Another note: the mechanical precision of the strike is impressive—an attack brought about by a body that appears robotic, cyborgian.  The boxing ring as arena of mechanized violence.  Is the ring not simply an extension of the violence inherit in the modern world?  Thesis: we are all machines capable of extreme violence.

Confrontation in the mannequin warehouse.  What becomes of a boxer once he stops using his hands?  A metaphor for castration and the finitude of the body, the dismembered mannequin hands, the partial objects which make present that which is absent, are not threatening symbols—no sword of Damocles here—as much as a marker for past trauma and violence.  The hands mock Davy’s status as Noir Man, caught as he is between pluralities of being; Davy’s past life as boxer has come to an end: what is he now?  The surreal battle Davy will enact with Vince in the warehouse suggests—as does Davy’s former career as boxer— the body as Protean clay, something that contains an almost infinite amount of possibilities, the multiple possibilities of being.  Noir Men, in other words, are always on the cusp of radical transformation and change.


Noir Men make interesting bed-fellows.  Planning, execution, meeting, conniving: Noir Men operate through homosocial bonds that almost always exclude women.  This is what makes Sherry’s intrusion into Clay’s plans so catastrophic: she overthrows the phallocentric order of things, and why her murder by her emasculated and cuckolded husband is a forgone conclusion.  The world of Noir Men brings to mind Rousseau’s thoughts on masturbation: “It allows them to dispose, so to speak, of the whole female sex at their will and to make any beauty who tempts them serve their pleasure without the need of first obtaining her consent.”

_____________________________________________________________

George Fragopoulos is a PhD candidate in English and American Literature at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.  He has published reviews, essays and translations with The Quarterly Conversation, Words Without Borders and The Critical Flame.

Lauren Villa

One very lovely evening a few weeks ago, I had the privilege of sitting down with L.A.’s very own Noir Poet, Suzanne Lummis, over dinner to discuss film noir and poetry.  Honestly, I had very little knowledge of film noir and its sensibilities however, with the help of Suzanne’s guidance and some delicious peach cobbler a la mode, we discussed its importance in society, and how it has transformed film and its influence on poetry.

Suzanne Lummis

“I have ‘noir cred.’ I lived in a tenement located in the non-trendy area on Vermont below Sunset,” says Suzanne. She described her old neighborhood where she saw the mean streets of Los Angeles unfold in front of her. She has invited noir into her life and in her writing by creating a class at UCLA Extension called “Poetry and the Movies: The Poem Noir.” During our conversation, I got a great look into the class and how its set up. “Students who take my class write poems they normally wouldn’t write. It’s darker and less sentimental” she says sipping her wine, coolly.

Film noir is a term normally used without consideration of its truest form. According to Suzanne’s “Noir Corridor” section on LAPoetryFestival.com, film noir is a “term coined by French film critics in the 40’s to describe a new, uncharacteristically gritty export from Hollywood, low budget black-and-white movies whose stories revolved around crime, human fallibility and the darker passions.” Noir films were normally the “B” features for the bigger, more accessible “A” features, normally cheery Technicolor musicals or comedies with happy endings. American filmgoers and critics dismissed noir films, but the French welcomed these complicated and sordid plots.

Popular pulp noir stories in mystery magazines gained popularity in the 1930s and 1940s. The best stories of urban violence, crimes and rogue detectives were published in Black Mask. Mystery writers began focusing more on the darker human sensibilities in these crime stories, rather than the deductive form of crime solving that was popular in the late Victorian era. Sherlock Holmes never carried a gun, and I doubt you would find Detective Poirot drinking gin at a local bar. These detectives and crimes were dandified.

Suzanne confidently stands by the idea that the French gave America three very important cultural cornerstones: “The Statue of Liberty, chocolate éclairs and the term film noir.”  After the Second World War, the French began watching American cinema after a hiatus. They noticed the contrast of earlier romantic themed musicals and how these moodier, sexier films were capturing the collective unconsciousness of post World War II America. They noticed that, as much as America could hold it’s cheery, optimistic façade, there was a complementary cynical side ready. These movies highlighted “human nature, people’s darker capabilities and their obsessions with money, lust or revenge.”

As we continued our discussion, we moved on from film noir and its beginnings to the main character in each of the movies and stories that embodies noir, the Detective. Suzanne cites a passage of Raymond Chandler’s “The Simple Art of Murder” delving deep into the psyche of the detective and sets the moral code for these men; “he talks as the man of his age talks [… with] rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham and a contempt for pettiness.”  The noir detective is a very complex man that who mirrors human sensibilities and the gray area we all inhabit. The lone detective finds his inspiration in the mythos of the Great American West, as loner cowboys always protected small towns from greedy bandits. After their work is done, cowboys ride off into the sunset, while the noir detective walks into the mist.

Poetry noir, in its purest form, has witty allusions to the noir subject matter. It can also be poetry that invokes the urban landscapes, that alludes to crime and the knowledge of this territory. It allows for a cool, removed view of reality, completely immune of to the sentimentality in poetry that can take away from the real emotional epicenter of the poem, found in the description of the surrounding environment. Instead of allowing an outpour of uncontrolled emotion, there is distance between the reader, poet and subject, much like the distance the detective keeps when solving his crimes. There is a fine combination of detachment and engagement.

In the poem “Femme Fatale,” from her book In Danger, Suzanne explores the archetype of the noir femme in a contemporary setting attempting to solve her own “crime story she’s in/ betrayal and larceny, few clues”. Women in noir are mysterious, unpredictable and invasive. At the end “she’s innocent so far, but someone/ will disappoint her. Even now you’re beginning to/ even now you’re in danger.”  There is no room for wallowing or pity, just the ability to “show yourself, as a poet, no mercy in your writing,” says Suzanne. That is the core of  poetry noir.

Driving away from dinner that night, bright full moon shone, exposed shadows on buildings I would not have otherwise seen. Noir does the same. It casts shadows on the unexpected, the dangerous and the violent, putting vulnerability and humanity on display, to find the quality of redemption in those situations without melodrama.

Suzanne Lummis’ poetry does that and much like the detective, cool, detached, her vulnerability is blurred like the fogged street lamps and cigarette smoke, not completely visible but it still lingers.

[Click here to read Amy Schulz’s Noir Poem.]

______________________________________________________________

Lauren Villa was born and raised in Los Angeles, where she proudly resides. Once an aspiring astronaut, Lauren found her calling with words when she could not reconcile the torrid relationship she had with Physics. She loves penguins, the Dodgers and vodka.

Gun Crazy

I’ll bet you called them your little family,

set them up in your dollhouse, took them

to tea, fed them cake, swept little silver bodies

under your pillow at night,

I’ll bet you played with bullets as a child.

What do you dream about?

Furs, pearls, a meal ticket, a smokeless Colt—

rimless with a pearl handle? You found yourself

hitched in the desert under a quarter moon

to a nice boy who loves guns, but not killing.

Do you hook your trigger finger around his wrist?

Do you slide the barrel of your handgun

along his jaw line?  Do you sleep well?

Does he fill up the spaces between your ribs,

the spaces where the want has settled?

But, it’s easy come, easy go—mostly go

and you want more than he can give you

with an honest job, a house, kids.

You want to feel that gun in your hand—

the call of easy money.

When you run into the mountains dogs nipping

at your high black heels, you want a glass of water,

a hot meal, a shower, a convertible, plane tickets.

You want that gun in your tight fist—

you want to fire your way out.

___________________________________________________________________________________

Amy Schulz has taken eleven consecutive poetry classes with Suzanne Lummis through UCLA Extension, but does not hold the record.  She lives in the Los Angeles area.