Upon seeing the Coen brothers The Man Who Wasn’t There, Michel Ciment (The famous French critic) lamented, “A 90-minute film that plays for 2 hours.” If you have seen the film, you know he was not complaining about its length.
The Man Who Wasn’t There is 90 minutes of plot and a full 30 minutes of style and mood — two things that old Hollywood ingrained within the plot without much difficulty. This is the result of imitation. TMWWT is about Film Noir (with capital letters) and not much else. That barber pole sure is pretty, but it didn’t need its own close-up. (Two close-ups if I remember correctly!)
The film is an example of that awful murderer of purpose, a labor of love. Modern film noir is particularly susceptible to this disease. In the 40’s, film noir was still interested in the mechanics of plot. All the anxiety about the war, brewing ideologies, and the specter of the depression existed between the shadows and the wall. The majority of noir after 1970 is simply interested in calling attention to itself by (A.) digging up these themes and putting them on the surface and (B.) dressing itself in technologically up-to-date equivalent clothing and screaming, “Don’t I look like the real thing?” Body Heat is about the idea of a femme fatale more than a story about a femme fatale. None of it is authentic. (To be fair, Kathleen Turner can be quite persuasive.)
The risk factors of this disease are high in my novels. If a doctor heard me describe them, he’d do that little death-sentence head shake.
My influences were published anywhere from sixty to a hundred and fifty years ago, I include literary devices that were pronounced DOA the day after they were invented, and, to top it all off, I set my stories in the early part of the last century. How could I possibly write a story that doesn’t read as if Cliff got out of the note business and became a disreputable author?
This is the kind of stuff I think about when I’m home alone and the power goes out.
I have a practical reason for setting my stories in the past. It has nothing to do with imitation. Without modern forensics, there’s much more leeway in making the impossible crime possible. We’ve all seen that awful cliche in modern horror films—One functioning cell phone will solve everything so there must be a scene of each character complaining about the lack of a signal or lamenting the fact that they left the extra battery at home. I’m not writing that fucking scene. Ever.
There are authors who specialize in forensic investigation, who have the expertise or at least are willing to research it. God bless them. I’m glad they have their own version of the game to play. I’d rather not stretch out a half-hour CSI episode to 250 pages. The deductions must be psychological because fingerprints and DNA evidence are boring.
Purpose helps. I’ve got a job to do. I have to fool the reader. I have to plot anywhere from 3-7 different schemes which (when brought together) form a baffling bullshit narrative and then deconstruct that narrative one peel at time until it’s laid bare. I’m not trying to write an essay about detective fiction—I wouldn’t be the person to do it.
My goal is to make you feel the same way you felt when you read the GAD novelists. I don’t want my books to sound like theirs, I want them to function the same way.
I read The Case of the Constant Suicides again yesterday. There was a funny moment when I eliminated all the details in my head and translated it to simple mechanisms. “Carr presents a narrative that makes no sense unless you know the hidden narrative which doesn’t exist because it was never pulled off. He does the same trick I do…I mean, I do the same trick he does.” I felt dumb.