Reading too deeply into these things since 1981

What is Detective Fiction?

August 31st, 2013 | Posted by Philip J Reed in personal | writing - (3 Comments)

Detective Fiction, Philip J Reed

Here’s something some of you don’t know about me: a few years ago, I finished a novel. It was called Afterbirth: The Comedy of Miscarriage, and it was around seven years in the making. That was a long time to spend with one project, and, as you might expect, I was substantially invested in it. I still am.

It was — and I guess is — the autobiography of a sperm. Our single-celled hero narrates the circumstances around him, the generations of couplings and false-starts and abandonments that culminate in his fertilizing off an egg…and eventual miscarriage. Needless to say he’s rather bitter, and much of the fun of writing this book had to do with the narrative perspective. What would have been, on its own, a story of a young man who does something foolish with a younger girl, suddenly became this massive, epic sprawl…simply because that moment, that night, that one bad decision — and the bad decisions that led up to it, and the bad decisions that followed from it — formed, for this narrator, his entire experience of life. The smallest thing was now the only thing. Everything was reconfigured and filtered through a unique and cynical perspective.

It was literary, it was jarring, it was dark. It was also unmarketable.

Because here’s something you do know about me: I’m a nobody.

Getting agents and publishers interested in this deliberately shifty, chronological scramble of loss and dissolution — hinging (though not explicitly so) on an act of statutory rape — was a tough sell. If I had a name…a name that people recognized…a name that people cared about or wanted to care about…it would have been another story. At least potentially. As it stood, it wasn’t the kind of gamble any agent or publisher in their right mind would have made.

I believe in the book. I’ve spent enough time with it and gotten enough glowing feedback on it that I know it’s very good, and that a certain type of reader would absolutely love it. But I don’t begrude anyone for not wanting to publish it. Why would they?

So I decided about three years ago on a course of action: I would write something that was marketable.

Why? So that I could market it. And hopefully get it published. And even more helpfully develop myself as a name people recognized, cared about, or wanted to care about. I’m not surprised at all that a literary mindscrew by a literal nobody faced nothing but rejection. But what if that literary mindscrew had some pedigree behind it?

I decided to write a pastiche of the detective fiction genre. This wasn’t for any particular reason except that “pastiche of the detective fiction genre,” as vague as that description is, still lights up some very clear expectations. It’s more marketable simply because there’s so much I don’t have to market. You hear that description and you immediately know the kinds of things to expect. You may not know the particular melody, but you sure as hell know the key it’ll be played in. And you, phantom agent, phantom publisher, will know from that alone whether it’s something that would interest you at all.

I felt a little cheap when I started writing it, because I wasn’t writing from the heart. I was writing something to sell…I wasn’t writing to express myself. I was writing something good, or at least I hoped I was, but it was a very different feeling from Afterbirth, which came from the heart in all kinds of ways. Afterbirth was born of my love of deep and confounding literature, of my darkest social and romantic and emotional fears, of my fascination with fate and circularity and patterning. Detective Fiction was born of my desire to be a published author. It was a very different thing.

And so I wrote, and I read. I researched the genre enough — just enough — to become familiar with how this type of story had to work. I read James M. Cain. I read Dashiell Hammet. I read Raymond Chandler. And I was amazed at just how good these books were. As much as we look back on hard-boiled detective fiction as a sort of ropey escapism, there’s actually a good amount of poetry in there…particularly in the case of Chandler, whose conflicted love for his own hero Philip Marlowe bleeds through the characterization in such unexpected and beautiful ways. I was impressed…but I was just writing a parody. I didn’t want that. I didn’t want it to get too good…that’s what ruined Afterbirth.

Detective Fiction was the story of Billy Passwater, who in the summer of his 29th year decides to become a private detective. Billy has no certification, no training, and no desire to take any of this seriously. But he has a pretty sweet fedora, and that’s a good enough start.

It was fun to write that much. I set it in south Florida, because I was familiar with the area and I thought the overtly tourist-friendly facade would make for a nice contrast to the noir-inspired elements of the book. It was a fun and immediate contrast that, I think, ended up informing the book in lots of ways I didn’t expect.

But at about the halfway point, something happened. A chapter more or less wrote itself without me. I had slid the pieces into place — as the author I kind of had to, but beyond that I can’t take any conscious credit — and the next thing I knew, we were off in a whole other direction. This happened at what is now the midpoint of the book…central in so many senses of that word.

And that’s when I realized who Billy was. Or, rather, when he showed me who he was. That, yes, he may have started as a sort of blank character I could force through the meat-grinder of familiar tropes and hallmarks so that we could all have a good laugh…but once I saw who he was I had an entirely different book on my hands, and most of the time I’ve spent writing Detective Fiction has been re-writing Detective Fiction. Because from that moment on, I knew things about him that I didn’t know before. He was an ugly character. These elements of the genre that I carried over shaped a very different type of hero in this new context. I was writing for a clown…but the moment I saw him without his makeup on, I recognized him as a criminal. It would still be a comedy, but with a different kind of punchline.

Despite my resistance, I had written a good book after all.

What I have now is a 258 page novel that’s still a pastiche of the detective fiction genre. However it’s also the story of delusion, of stubborn refusal, of accountability and passive cruelty and make believe and the refusal to grow up.

And I love it.

And it’s still — dare I speak so soon? — marketable.

It’s in the hands of my trusty group of proofreaders now. They’ll read it and they’ll give me feedback and I’ll take that into account and I’ll give it another rewrite bearing their comments in mind.

And after that I’m going to solicit agents again…and this time I’ll have something of much greater interest to them.

It’s a straight-forward narrative. It’s full of clues and cues and red-herrings. It starts in one place, and ends up somewhere else. It has a single protagonist with a clear objective.

It’s also got blackmail. And comedy. And murder. And sex. And palm trees. And a baseball bat covered in blood and fur. And some more sex. And karaoke.

Oh, and he solves a mystery at some point. Doesn’t he? He tries to anyway. And I sure hope he does, because otherwise I don’t know who will…

It’s something I can sell. And while I’m still ashamed of the fact that that was my primary objective in writing it, creating a great work of straight-forward genre fiction was my objective in re-writing it.

I hope I’ve succeeded. Because I really like it. And I think you will too.

With any luck, you’ll get to read it one day.

Keep your fingers crossed. Even the best manuscript needs a lot of luck.

And after my proofreaders get through with it, I will have the best manuscript.

We can do this.

Music For Air Hostesses

August 28th, 2013 | Posted by Philip J Reed in books | music | writing - (2 Comments)

Music For Air Hostesses

Just a little something in celebration of my completing Detective Fiction. It’s currently in the hands of a small army of very capable proofreaders / critics / curmudgeons, and if all goes well I’ll be soliciting agents before very long.

Download Music For Air Hostesses.

It’s as good as reading the book. Or maybe better.

…but hopefully not too much better.

Anyway, grab it now. It might be gone when you wish you had it.

1) I’ll Come Running — Brian Eno
2) I Can Help — Billy Swan
3) Reminiscing — Little River Band
4) Hold On, I’m Comin’ — Sam & Dave
5) Tighter, Tighter — Alive ‘N Kickin’
6) Lemon Tree — Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass
7) I Second That Emotion — Smokey Robinson & The Miracles
8) The Same Love That Made Me Laugh — Bill Withers
9) Expressway to Your Heart — Soul Survivors
10) Tusk — Fleetwood Mac
11) Save It For Later — The Beat
12) Rubberband Man — The Spinners
13) Fire — The Pointer Sisters
14) Time Passes Slowly — Bob Dylan
15) Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me) — The Temptations

16) San Franciscan Nights — Eric Burden & The Animals
17) Tempted — Squeeze
18) Drive-In Saturday — David Bowie
19) A Million Miles Away — David Byrne
20) Bring It On Home to Me — Billy Preston
21) Sloop John B — The Beach Boys
22) No No Song — Ringo Starr
23) The Moonbeam Song — Harry Nilsson
24) It Just Might Be a One-Shot Deal — Frank Zappa
25) When the Night — Paul McCartney & Wings
26) Moonlight Mile — The Rolling Stones
27) Someday We’ll Be Together — Diana Ross & The Supremes
28) Someday Never Comes — Creedence Clearwater Revival
29) Everything Merges With the Night — Brian Eno
30) The Only Living Boy in New York — Simon and Garfunkel

Breaking Bad, Buried
I can review this episode using only five words: “Now that’s more like it.”

Or, wait. Maybe I’ll go with “I fucking love you, Marie.”

Either of those I think would say it all…but, for old time’s sake, let’s pretend I have more to say BECAUSE OF COURSE I DO.

My issue with “Blood Money” was mainly down to pacing…but really the problem was that I didn’t put enough trust in Vince Gilligan and his writing staff. I’m sure I can count on one hand how many times a perceived flaw in a television episode was actually down to me watching it completely and totally wrong but…I confess…that’s exactly what happened here.

It’s not entirely my fault…Gilligan set the trap. I was just dumb enough to walk into it.

The first half of season five ended with Hank finding Walt’s incriminating copy of Leaves of Grass, which seemed like it would set the mad scramble toward the finish line into motion. I expected, more or less, that the first episode of the back half would be the metaphorical starter’s pistol. Then it didn’t come. As I felt unfulfilled.

My bad, y’all.

Because it came. I was just listening for the wrong sound.

When “Blood Money” ended with Walt’s “tread lightly” admonition to Hank, I felt almost cheated. It seemed like such an artificial move by the writers…a desperate attempt to give us one memorable late-game play in the style of “I am the one who knocks,” or even “I’m in the empire business.” It was a hollow gesture, and I sensed that.

…but I sensed that it was hollow on the part of the writing staff. No no…it was hollow on the part of Walter White.

It was indeed a desperate attempt to mimic more powerful times. It was Walter’s desperate attempt. He remembers his glory days as well as we do. He emptily tried to stir up some of that old mojo…but it didn’t quite get there. Yes, as I mentioned in my review of that episode, it felt like a lot of work to shift us back into neutral. But it wasn’t the writing staff shifting back. It was the character.

And that’s, pardon my French, effing brilliant.

“Buried” sees Walter leaving the garage right after that clumsy attempt at bad-assery…and he falls apart instantly. He peels out in his car only to pull over still in sight of Hank’s house, and place a panicked — and unsuccessful — call to his wife. Walter’s made his power play, and already the wheels have come off. He’s a deeply idiotic man.

This episode works a lot better in isolation, I feel, than its predecessor…right down to its breaking point, which won’t rely on a post-episode tonal shift the way “Blood Money” did. Nope. Hank has Jesse. And Jesse…well, Jesse’s broken. Things can go either way. Skyler might have chosen not to turn on Walt — more on that to come, of course — but Jesse just might.

Which is something that…well, I can’t put it into words very easily, so I’ll just have to say that it’s showing me something I’ve been appreciating about Breaking Bad without even realizing it: it’s made me, gradually, want Walter dead.

When the show started, it was easy to be on his side. Yes, of course, he was doing something very stupid. But was there anybody out there who didn’t want him to triumph in some way? Even if that triumph was something as small as realizing the idiocy of his plan and getting out alive?

There was an initial humanity to Walter White, which we could see even as he did terrible things. But, slowly, the balance shifted, and it was the terribleness we were seeing primarily, with the humanity only rarely glimpsed. I don’t know exactly when it “turned” completely for me, but I’ve gone from rooting for the man to rooting for his death. And that’s the fruit of fantastic storytelling.

Getting back to the episode, Hank’s case — as many have suspected — still hinges on conjecture. He knows it was Walt…and that’s great. But he still can’t prove it. Skyler, Hank correctly supposes, can fill in the blanks he needs, and that scene between the two of them in the diner is a fucking masterpiece of selfish tension. Each of them has so much invested in the outcome of this case, and each of them even has the same end goal in mind (that the rest of the family is kept safe). Yet they are each driven by their pride to not help the other. Skyler won’t fill in the blanks…Hank won’t let her get a lawyer. Two people want the same thing for the same reason…but are each madly protective about it in conflicting ways. It’s moments like that that I’m going to miss most of all, because I can’t think of any other shows on the air that could pull that off believably.

I also loved the mirrored moment of Marie slapping Skyler, because hot damn Marie!

Sorry, I’ll try that again.

I also loved the mirrored moment of Marie slapping Skyler, which dovetails nicely with her husband slugging Skyler’s husband in the previous episode. The difference, I think, is that in “Blood Money” I was all but screaming for Hank to hit him…which he then did. Here, the slap was totally unexpected…but not at all unearned. Poor Marie having to recount the events of the past year in reverse to figure out how long Skyler’s known…getting as far as Hank getting shot…it was heartbreaking, and while I wouldn’t have said it before that scene I’m absolutely able to say it now: Skyler deserved that crack every bit as much as Walt did.

Oh, and I just thought of a joke:
Breaking Bad, Buried
Looks like Walt’s got a case of Schrader-Brow.

Wocka wocka.

Anyway, I like that moment, mainly because Marie’s obliviousness has always been played for comedy, whereas Hank’s has largely been played for drama and suspense. This isn’t a problem…this is A Good Thing. Because it gives the audience a moment like this…when the rug is pulled out, and you realize that all of this so-called comedy was really, through the clever switching-out of a lens, the slow-motion dismantling of this woman’s life. Marie had and has every bit as much invested in this tragedy as anybody else. She might have come off as a TV ditz…but beneath it she was a real person, with a real husband, and came really close to losing the man she loved most.

Retroactive character-work ahoy.

Elsewhere Lydia and Todd and Todd’s Nazi uncle go apeshit. I’m not quite sure what to make of this scene yet — though I have my suspicions — but I would absolutely hold it up as evidence of just how richly composed this world is. Even when we don’t quite know what’s going on, we have the sense that we’re in capable hands. And I can’t say enough good about what Laura Fraser does with this late-coming character.

Seriously, rewatch that scene. Every little gesture and detail and line reading suggests more about Lydia than we’ve actually yet seen. The way she fixes her hair in the rear view mirror after her blindfold is removed. The way she arrives over-dressed to a bloodbath. The way her heels sink into the sand but she doesn’t take off her shoes. This is great stuff.

I don’t know. Details like that are probably what I’m going to remember when all’s said and done. For good reason most will think back on Gus’s demise, on Mike’s “half-measures” speech, on Skyler in the pool.

But I’m going to remember things like Lydia’s heels sinking in the sand.

Because any show can do the big moments.

Not every show can make you look for the little ones.

Say My Name, Breaking Bad
When critics want to convince their audience that a certain television show — or television event — rises above its peers, one word that gets tossed around is “cinematic.”

I understand what they’re saying…or what they mean to say. They are suggesting that television, even good television, is one thing. But movies? Man…that’s a whole other ballpark, and here is a show that can run with the big boys.

I guess I never really saw that distinction for myself. I don’t think of film as being an inherently “higher” artform than television. Both movies and TV shows have left me cold, and both movies and TV shows have moved me to tears. It’s all in the hands of the actors, and the writers, and the directors, and the composers, and everyone else involved. I wouldn’t say it’s a particular compliment to call a television show “cinematic.” Or, at least, it’s no more a compliment than it would be to call a great movie “so good it would make for a fantastic episode of television.”

Here’s where I’ll show my bias: I think a true complement to a television show would be to call it “literary.”

Breaking Bad is literary.

I say that because of its approach. Not its content, or its acting (though I’d have very nice things to say about those as well), but because of the way it layers and progresses its narrative. The way its details unfold in a way that actually feels like one sentence following the next.

Long, quiet stretches and deceptively brutal montages feel dense…like we’re watching a text play out but aren’t allowed to read it. There’s always a sense that even in its wordless moments, we’re being enveloped by narrative, by atmosphere…that we’re in the hands not of a writer or a storyteller, but an artist and a wordsmith.

I think this is because Vince Gilligan and his crew have managed to tell a story that functions exactly the way a great novel could. While episodes might have self-contained little narratives of their own (Walt chasing a fly, Jesse protecting a child, Hank being transferred to El Paso), they all function the way chapters would. They have their rising and falling action, their punctuations and their punchlines…but they layer. They reveal. They inform our readings of the other chapters, and they feel — for all their long, quiet stretches and moments of false relief — like important pieces of a greater whole.

It’s not a show you can parcel out. There’s no episode that truly stands on its own. A show described as “cinematic” might be easily broken into its spectacular component parts, but one that’s “literary?” No. No no no. That needs to stay together.

I’ve only recently caught up on the first half of the final season. The second half — the final chapters — will play out later this month, and I intend to review them. Why? Because this television show feels like the longest novel I’ve ever read, and it’s still one I don’t want to put down. But I know I must…because art is a statement, and statements end. And when it’s over: a long, quiet stretch. We can take as long as we like to think about what we’ve just seen. I get the feeling Walter White will not have the same luxury.

Breaking Bad feels literary because it’s unfailingly true to its own logic. While I wouldn’t describe the show as realistic, per se, I would describe it as relentlessly logical. Even now, as we tumble through these final moments, the characters are still dealing with repercussions of the very first episode. Nothing goes away. Consequences linger. The dead make their presences known. Details once so rigidly attended to now bubble to the surface, unseen.

I like that, because it provides a brilliant, ongoing tension that’s entirely earned by the show, and also because we never know when we’re going to see the same idea in a different light. In the article I linked to above — a discussion of the excellent “Peekaboo” — I talk about how Walter’s decision to cook meth gradually loses its own rationale: he needs the money to pay for his cancer treatment, but some old friends are willing to pay for it out of pocket. He needs the money to provide for his family, but he doesn’t stop when they have more than enough. His motives blur, almost visibly, but it’s only in this most recent batch of episodes that he explains why: he’s in the empire business.

It’s not about money, or drugs, or family, or cancer, or anything. It’s about pride, wounded decades ago, and what he sees as his first opportunity to earn it back. Walter is a broken man — there’s no surprise about that — but we’re still plumbing the depths of just how broken, and in what ways. And the fact that they can still pull this off, without re-treading ground or re-writing histories, is phenomenal.

I remember watching the first season and thinking that I didn’t like Cranston’s performance. Or, rather, I didn’t like one aspect of his performance: he seemed a bit too obviously broken. I saw a good man who was making some bad decisions, so I wondered why Cranston played him like a bad man making bad decisions. That was my first lesson to trust Vince Gilligan, and I haven’t stopped since.

And even now, toward the end, we’re not drawing limply toward a finish line. Breaking Bad is a story, a literary tale, and it continues to evolve right up to and through its final point. By his own hand Walter has lost Jesse and Mike…replacing them with Todd and Lydia, who are just competent enough for him to justify his decisions but flawed enough that we know what’s coming. It’s a ramshackle arrangement he’s built up around himself…and however tall he manages to get it, it’s only a matter of time before it all comes crashing down.

It’s a simple concept, and nothing particularly clever, but the way in which Gilligan and his crew pulled it off was just perfect. Jesse managed to be not only superior to Walter morally, but also intellectually as he’s the one who suggests the magnets and the train robbery while Walter is too upset to think straight. He blossomed into a more valuable member of the team than Walter could ever appreciate…and as soon as he did, he was replaced with Todd, who murdered a child in cold blood, and whose chief recommendation is that…well…he’s there.

And the cool, collected, calculating Mike…the one man who knows how both sides of the game must be played…is killed by Walter’s own hand. The moment that gun went off was an incredible one, played perfectly, Cranston’s face betraying the most genuine, “Oh shit,” he’s ever given this show, and for the first time he’s thinking it for the same reason as the audience. Now, with the last man who could have possibly navigated him to safety dead by the riverbank, Walter must turn to Lydia, another newcomer, easily shaken and prone to letting details slip unintentionally.

Walter had one world. He built another.

The madness of that small success encouraged him to knock out those supports and build another still.

His tower grows higher, but he’s using the wrong materials.

Just because he shot Jesse James…that doesn’t make him Jesse James.

It’s a warped tale of hubris and fate…both self-manufactured and the kind that is thrust upon you. It’s the story of a man who could have a gentle associate killed just to make a point, and then chuckle fondly when he finds a reminder of that person.

And then, of course, leave it on the toilet.

Just in time for his DEA brother in law to find.

Right after swearing the life off forever.

It’s a novel. It’s a work of literary fiction.

Just because you finished the chapter…that doesn’t mean the chapter is finished with you.

All you can ask is that somebody shuts up…and lets you die in peace.

Fuck I love Breaking Bad.

Paul Simon

I’ve written about this before (on a different blog; don’t bother looking for it…it’s not there anymore) but I’m still kind of intrigued by the question: is there any other individual musician who has had as large an impact on the way we speak and express ourselves verbally as Paul Simon?

It sounds hyperbolic, I know, but what I’m referring to are the specific turns of phrase he’s injected into our every day speech…little verbal flourishes that meant little or absolutely nothing before he gave them meaning, and gave them to us.

Just look at this list of song titles (just the titles, mind you) and ask yourself how many times you’ve seen exactly these, or some very close variation somewhere, used in a headline, a caption, an anecdote, or anything else:

50 Ways to Leave Your Lover
Feelin’ Groovy
Bridge Over Troubled Water
The Sound of Silence
Loves Me Like a Rock
Homeward Bound
Something So Right
Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes
Slip Slidin’ Away
A Hazy Shade of Winter
I Am a Rock
Mother and Child Reunion
Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard
Still Crazy After All These Years
You Can Call Me Al
Somewhere They Can’t Find Me
The Only Living Boy in New York

That’s a lot. And I’m not sure any other single musician or lyricist can chalk up that much influence on the cultural vernacular. I’ll even let you combine all four Beatles…I still don’t think we get a list of anywhere near that length.

No deep, probing observations here…just something I thought was interesting. And by all means, please do give me other examples in the comments of musicians I’m obviously overlooking.

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