What is Detective Fiction?

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

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

Review: “Confessions,” Breaking Bad season 5, episode 11

Confessions, Breaking Bad
A man speeds through a red light in order to save somebody’s life. Another stops at a red light on his way to ruin someone else’s.

One is doing the right thing. The other is doing a just thing.

The distinction between “right” and “just” isn’t all that hazy; it’s the distinction of intention that matters. Or, at least, it should.

But I’m speaking from a very unique perspective here: my own. In my world. With my experiences. My expectations. My hopes for everyone around me.

In the world of Breaking Bad, the simple distinction between “right” and “just” seems to be driving the course of these final episodes. We know which is which; that’s not the issue. In a just outcome, Walter would go to prison. In a right outcome, his family would be spared from harm. They’re not even mutually exclusive. It sounds easy. But I’m glad it’s not, because it’s making for stellar television.

On the side of the just we have Hank, obviously. He’s not worried about how Walt’s children will respond to their father being locked away, and he’s not content to know either that his crimes are behind him or that he will be dead shortly anyway. In Hank’s eyes, Walt needs to be punished. And he needs to be punished in a very specific way: by this country’s legal system.

On the side of the right, we have Walt. Don’t we? …not really, no. So let’s shelve him for a moment.

No, on the side of the right we have both Skylar and Marie. They’re working at odds, but they’re working at odds for the same reason. Neither Marie’s intended abductions of the White children nor Skyler’s perjury and her ongoing complicity are just, but they are — if you were to ask those characters to explain their motives — right. Marie is willing to break the law to protect the children. Skyler is also willing to break it, and tarnish the name of an innocent man, in order to protect the children. They’re each doing despicable things*, but their intentions are the same.

So where does that leave Walt?

I want to say “in the middle,” but I’m not sure I can. Off to the side, maybe. Without a doubt what he’s done is illegal, and our criminal justice system wouldn’t be (and shouldn’t be) satisfied by the fact that, hey dude, he’s like totally done cooking meth forever and he’s super sorry. On top of that, it’s hard to argue that he’s trying to do the “right” thing after a full episode of his selfish manipulations.

And that’s Walt’s situation right now. In my hypothetical example that opened this review, you could defend the actions of either motorist: one is selflessly putting himself in danger in order to help somebody else (right), but the other is following the traffic laws that have been put in place to protect us (just). Conversely, you could condemn either of them: one is endangering the lives of others by not obeying the rules (unjust), and the other is on his way to deliberately do harm to another human being (wrong).

Walt is both unjust and wrong. We’re beyond the point that we can defend him at all. It’s not a matter of finding a place on the just / right continuum; it’s a matter of acknowledging that his data point is on a different chart altogether.

Hank rightly calls Walt on this during a (brilliantly) tense dinner at a Mexican restaurant. Who is Walt to talk about right and wrong? The cosmic editors who structured the world of “Confessions” must be on Hank’s side, because every time we see Walt turning on the charm in this episode, it’s in order to bend somebody else to his own ends.

Whether it’s using his own son’s devastation against him, delivering a heartfelt “confession” to the camera that frames Hank as the criminal mastermind, or finally returning Jesse’s affection in the desert so that he can get the boy out of his life, Walt is neither doing the just thing nor the right thing. He’s doing the selfish thing. This is his world now, and you’re going to do what he says. We’ve seen him use anger and brute force to further his ends in the past…now we’re seeing him work the emotional angles as well.

“Confessions” is a great episode. A great. Great. Great episode, and while it pivots in some unexpected directions, it always does so on sturdy ground.

For starters, the episode’s centerpiece — Walt’s “confession” video — was an absolutely brilliant way to reinforce the Walt / Hank stalemate. Earlier in the episode Marie was upset because Hank waited and didn’t rat Walt out to his DEA colleagues. She then intimates that it may already be too late…and she’s right.

First Hank tried to get Skyler to fill in the blanks that would connect Walt to Heisenberg. Then he tried to get Jesse to fill in those blanks. Neither would, so good ol’ Walter steps up to fill them in himself.

And, yes, it certainly would be ridiculous for anyone to believe that Hank was the drug lord…but no more ridiculous than it would be for them to believe that it was a dying chemistry teacher with no criminal history. In fact, Walt’s story would have the edge over Hank’s, simply because he knows more of what actually happened. He’d be able to connect dots that Hank didn’t even know existed. That’s leverage, and it’s significant.

But the truly crowning moment took place in the desert, in what’s probably the single most emotional scene the show has ever done. After allowing Walter yet another long manipulation, Jesse calls him on it. “Would you just, for once, stop working me?” Jesse asks, short of breath and overcome with conflicting emotions. “For like ten seconds straight?”

Jesse’s not on the verge of a breakdown…he’s at the lowest point of an ongoing one. We’ve seen Walter manipulate him in the past (many, many times), but this is the only time we’ve seen Jesse seriously stand up to him. It was a well-earned moment, one five seasons in the making, and Aaron Paul’s hesitating, breathy delivery gives us a Jesse dizzy with internal conflict. He knows he should tell Walter to go fuck himself…and yet he doesn’t want to. He wants to be wrong about all of this.

But he’s not. As much as we’ve seen Jesse look up to Walter as a surrogate father in the past, we never got anywhere near an equal balance of Walter seeing Jesse as a surrogate son. Flashes, yes…glimpses…but he was always quick to tear his partner down rather than support him. Walter was only a father to him in the sense that he was able to emotionally manipulate and strongarm him as a son.

And Jesse calls him out on it. Jesse, heartbroken, does tell him to go fuck himself.

At which point Walter, seeing exactly what the audience sees, hugs him. Now is the time, he knows, to finally support the boy.

And it works. Because the one time Walter supports him, it’s so that Walter can get what he wants.

Of course it doesn’t end there. (Though the hug would have made for a perfect EXECUTIVE PRODUCER VINCE GILLIGAN moment.) Nope. Because Jesse is being manipulated even as he rails against being manipulated, and once he realizes** that, the betrayal is felt a thousand times more sharply.

We end with Jesse attempting to burn down the White residence, and Walter rushing after him with a loaded gun. And yet that’s still probably the least thrilling moment of the episode; I was held much more rapt by Bryan Cranston speaking slowly and carefully to the people whose lives he’s destroyed.

Such is the power of Walt’s manipulations.

* Honest question: can the case be made that what Marie did (or wanted to do) was just as bad as what Skyler did? To me, Marie is pretty clearly ahead of her sister, morally-speaking, despite the fact that they both have criminal solutions to the problem. Is that just me? I’d love to hear somebody equate the two…either by tearing down Marie’s or building up Skyler’s.

** Jesse also “realizes” that Walt poisoned Brock. That felt to me like a bit of a jump, as finding out that Huell lifted the ricin cigarette is still three or four logical leaps, at best, from concluding that Walter poisoned his girlfriend’s son. I’m not complaining, but I think it was jarring because one scene ends with Jesse looking at a packet of cigarettes, and the next begins with him instantly aware of what happened. I’m willing to believe that’s down to the quickness of the edit, though…it works a lot better if we believe that Jesse had a long walk back to Saul’s office, during which he angrily worked his way through every detail. Personally…I think I would have preferred to see that.

Go Read: Full House Reviewed

Full House Reviewed
So lest anyone fears this is turning into a Breaking Bad fan blog…I’ll write about another show.

LOL JK. But I’ll write about someone else who is writing about another show: the guy over at Full House Reviewed.

Go check it out. Because it’s incredibly funny.

I used to love Full House when I was a kid. Looking back I have no idea why…even then there was far better stuff on television. But, whatever, I liked it. I thought Jesse was cool, I thought Joey was funny, and I even thought Kimmie Gibbler was attractive. (Was I really the only one??) I guess I was all kindsa fucked up as a kid.

But rewatching this show now? Jesus.

Some shows and films and songs age a bit poorly, and you might feel a bit silly for having enjoyed them unironically at some point, but man oh man was Full House just total and utter garbage. A lot of these ongoing review blogs end up reaching for jokes to make and downplaying something’s effectiveness, because they kind of have to. The stopped clock ends up being right at a certain time of day but the blog must go on.

Not so here; Full House never gets anything right. It’s an absolute perfect target, and I end up feeling ludicrously proud when he points out some of the same issues I’ve had when I happen to catch a re-run as an adult. (And seriously…why is that show re-run at all?)

Anyway, yeah. Go enjoy that, while things are relatively quiet here.

I’m working pretty hard on Detective Fiction right now, and I couldn’t be happier to report that. For those of you who don’t stalk me, that’s my novel, and it’s around three or four years in the writing now. I’ve got a good draft complete…and now I’m at the point in the process that sees me getting it into some kind of shape that I wouldn’t be ashamed to send to an agent or a publisher.

Needless to say, it’ll take another four years.

But I’m excited. I’m very happy with how it came out…so while it still needs a lot of work, I can’t wait to get it out there and see how folks react to it. That’s going to be the really fun part.

I’ll talk more about it some other time, for sure, but I have a little story about Full House.

I stopped watching it in fifth grade or so…whatever year that would have been for me. And in sixth grade, my friend Lucas Monaco (which is a name I wish I invented) mentioned some new episode over the weekend or something. I said, “You still watch Full House?”

I was a huge bully back then, as I am today. I always beat people up and make fun of them for the things they enjoy, and then I give them a purple nurple. So he was terrified!

…no. It wasn’t meant to be confrontational at all. I was just surprised. But he sort of hesitated and said, “Yeah. But it’s not as good now that Jesse owns the Smash Club.”

I don’t know what happened to Lucas Monaco.

He’s probably a successful television critic.