I’ve written a ‘femme fatale’ into my new illustrated story, ‘Deep Water’. It wasn’t a conscious decision, I only tumbled to it as the first episodes neared completion. The work made it happen! Maybe it’s inherent in the the genre- ‘noir’.
This ’revelation’ lead me to reread and look more closely at the mechanics of the American detective stories of the ‘30s and 40s which after all started off the whole ‘noir’ thing as we now know it- and which I’m sure embedded themselves in my ‘composing’ imagination a long time ago.
The best known line in Raymond Chandler’s classic analysis of the detective story, ‘The Simple Art of Murder’ is of course: ‘But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.’
In this masterly and unflinching survey of the detective story how could Chandler do other than confirm his arch rival and immediate precursor, Dashiell Hammett as a key figure?
You have to wait till well over halfway through before Chandler gets to confront Hammett’s work. At first, he sidles up to it quoting praise by the eminent and the respected. Then, introducing criticism of Hammett as ‘lacking heart’, Chandler counterpunches that ‘The Glass Key’- Hammett’s favourite of his own tales- is actually ‘the record of a man’s devotion to a friend’. Chandler follows up with a flurry of decisive jabs bringing Hammett’s detractors crashing to the canvas- Hammett as an innovator of ‘authentic’ prose and who ’ wrote scenes that seem never to have been written before’.
‘After all this’ Hammett is ‘not quite enough’. Not enough?
Chandler is unequivocal in his view that both the real world and the one the fictional detective (should) inhabit is ‘not very fragrant’. That too was one of Hammett’s innovations- he ‘took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley’, writing ‘ for people with a sharp, aggressive attitude to life’. Yet –and here’s the crux of it- what is lacking for Chandler is ‘the quality of redemption’
Chandlers addition of ‘the quality of redemption’ to the detective story genre pioneered by Hammett threw up some strange and intriguing comparisons between the ‘codes’ followed by Hammett’s various investigators- the ‘Continental Op’, Sam Spade- and Chandler’s Philip Marlowe.
To the unnamed and overweight ‘Op’, being a detective is a job, albeit a professional one carried out with skill and attention like concluding a business deal. No temperament, no involvement, just the pride in a job well done. It’s thrilling, ‘spare and hard-boiled’ but it’s an almost morally neutral process of determining and delivering the culpable.
Marlowe’s work is his vocation. He is a detective because of who he is and he is who he is because he is a detective. He positions himself and his honour against the grain of the disreputable world around him in defence of those he considers oppressed by and at the mercy of that world- even if they don’t appear to want him to.
How does this distinction manifest itself in dealing with that staple of this kind of detective fiction, the ‘femme fatale’?
For the ‘Op’ women are like all the other characters in Hammett’s stories, either an ally or an obstacle on the road to justice. The exception is Gabrielle Leggatt in ‘The Dain Curse’. This strange (deformed?) and unstable young woman rouses the Op’s sympathy. He nurses her out of drug addiction in an uncharacteristically gentle way. This could be rationalised either as simply a necessary extension of a professional ethic or as her ‘disadvantages’ in life making her a plausible ‘erotic’ target for the unprepossessing detective.
Marlowe’s encounters with the principal women in Chandlers’ stories take place almost entirely within the narrow space between the romantic and the erotic. He is a man who attracts women first by his physical presence, a perception then reinforced by his uncompromisingly masculine/heroic attitude to life – an irresistible double whammy. From the highly charged sexuality of his one night stand with gorgeous Miss Vermilyea to the extended rise and fall of the foreplay with elusive Betty Mayfield, both in ‘Playback’, Marlowe gets his gal.
Only in ‘The Maltese Falcon’ does Hammett provide any kind of precedent for this- with the incomparable Sam Spade. Sam starts with his partner’s wife, Iva, virtually flinging herself at him (the implication being that Sam has just ended their affair), continues with the bantering dalliance with his long-suffering PA, Effie, and then runs headlong into the almost-love-of-his life, Brigid O’Shaughnessy. Bedding her, forcing a strip search on her, and blatantly using her as a pawn in his game with the slippery ‘fatman’, Guttman, Sam flirts at the very edge of becoming Brigid’s partner in crime. Then he abandons her to justice. Above everything, even love, Sam has to find truth in the tangled ‘Falcon’ affair. Moving beyond Brigid’s increasingly desperate (and captivating) pleas, evasions, lies, and manouevres, Sam finally declares his play, his position, his stake in the game : ‘I won’t play the sap for you’.
Marlowe’s own compulsive ‘seeking’ in the humid shadow of a desirable woman- whatever the consequences- is on clear display in ‘The Long Goodbye’. In the denouement, in front of an anxious, sweaty and reluctant witness, Marlowe uses the full force of his deductive powers to cruel effect. Eileen Wade, the pale English beauty, is shown to be a ruthless, vengeful and sadistic killer. At the same time Marlowe’s exposition can’t help but demonstrate that she had good reason to become one, and that those reasons almost certainly made her deranged and rendered her ‘unfit’ in the judicial sense. Marlowe presses all of this on her in an almost pathological pursuit of the truth. In the end he leaves this broken woman to the equivalent of the ‘pistol in the study’. Perhaps Chandler recognised the sadistic element in all this which is why the witness is there- as us, the reader, and to signal and acknowledge how uncomfortable this has become.
‘The Long Goodbye’ to me goes beyond the morally redemptive and becomes morally ambiguous with its linking of that single-minded pursuit of justice with jarring sentimentality. Marlowe’s strange devotion to the useless and self-absorbed wreck that is Terry Lennox and their ritual drinking of gimlets is the uneasy flipside to the coin of Eileen’s tragedy.
I’d like to think that Chandler’s move away from his own guidelines was an anticipation of the shift the creative world generally was about to make- a shift to a realisation that there were not just white hats and black hats and that ‘finding out’ was a complex and uncertain affair. Even if the ‘femme fatale’ still bloomed in ever greater numbers and with much less inhibition about showing it than before.
Here’s my entry to the Observer/Random House/Comica 2009 competition:
see previous 2 posts below for all I have to say about this for now.
To see more of the complete field of entries click here
A great call for ‘unsuccessful’ entries:
go to brokenkode.com read the post and add your own comments and participate, I certainly am.
see also previous post ‘Starcross’d’
We’re all on the alert for paying opportunities these days and I clearly wasn’t the only one to spot the Observer/Random House/ Comica Graphic Short Story competition.
I had a fledgling story that I thought could fly. An ageing ‘loner’ goes back to the village where he grew up and where the inhabitants have good reason to resent and fear his return. Told in first- person narrative, the picture panels initially show just the shadow cast by the protagonist onto the inhabitants and scene of the village. Only at the close is he actually shown, and then in the crucial landscape that made him what he is. These panels (hand rendered watercolours) were assembled into page compositions with text all in Photoshop.
Having seen the competition prize-winners posted this week it occurs to me that by comparison my entry must have appeared to the genteel judges as jarring, unpleasant, sexist and latently violent. And there I was thinking I had come up with quite a striking little number, a little bleak perhaps, but laced with some bitter chuckles.
What was happening here? Aren’t comics supposed to be jarring, unpleasant, violent and funny all at the same time? Here in the UK I’m thinking Beano (before emasculation), 2000AD, Viz, the If Chronicles…… And that’s just in my lifetime- the English tradition has always embraced the garish, the ribald, the gruesome, the grotesque, and been totally ‘upfront’ about it.
So I had clearly made a mistake, made a wrong call. These well-mannered winners are part of a new ‘form’ – they are this thing called ‘graphic short stories’. Looking at both this and last year’s winners there are clear characteristics to the form.
First and most obviously is the childlike ‘naif’ drawing and colouring that is complemented by the ‘teenage’ looped handwriting for lettering. I’m not sure whether this is a ‘style’ as such, maybe an affectation to distance the works from the accomplishments of cgi enhanced graphics (and all their values and associations) or an open acknowledgement of a limitation in technical skills that are no longer studied or taught in their traditional ‘hand-made’ manner? It could also be seen as charming, tactile, and, paradoxically for a shared style, individually expressive- clearly the judges all think so.
This ‘look’ entirely suits and draws out (sorry) the best in the subject matter. Parents and children (the getting of ‘golden’ moments), husbands and wives (eternal misunderstandings), pets and humans (sometime talking cats).
So I’ve learnt something but unless I undergo a change of heart both in inspiration and style I won’t be returning to this competition next year. It’s no place for my kind of stuff.
This is a ‘Baffledman’ feature for more go to Homepage and click on ‘strips and stories’
I’ve been sending out review copies of my ‘Baffledman’ comics. Though a lifelong devourer of comics, I’m new to the world of creating, publishing and publicising them. With no inside contacts and with no track record, I felt I couldn’t just send out the copies cold and urge ’ review this’! So I had to stop and think about the USP of my work.
What I came up with was:
‘They’re not Teenage, not Fantasy, not even ‘Adult’ in the explicit-sex sense despite what’s on the cover.
They’re Baby-Boomer, that huge market of long-time comic fans with money in their pockets but nothing much (in the comics world)addressing their interests, concerns and lives-lived.’
I should have done a search before I used that phrase ‘Baby-boomer’. It seems to have been hi-jacked by the ‘nostalgia’ ward of the comics industry for reprints of titles largely from the 60’s. In other words those old mags read by the baby-boomers in their youth. So up against revisiting the adolescent fantasies of ‘Thor’, ‘Fantastic Four’, Hulk’, ‘Green Lantern’, et al, I’m pitting my (Baffled)man, a ‘boomer’, reviewing the world now:
‘Baffledman and I first met a while ago when he showed up off to one side in the mirror. We’re both crackin’ on a bit but he’s the taller, slimmer, better looking one.
We’re mostly silent and stare out at the sea. Every now and then he’ll turn and lean in to me and come out with some story, maybe a recollection, something on his mind, or something that’s just happened. I’ll come back here and put it down into word and pictures. But he never looks at these.
He’s already seen a lot- sometimes too much. Agreeing that we understand little of it all and that we’ve certainly never known the ‘score’, it’s a matter of laying things out, a putting in order. Like smoothing out a letter crumpled into a ball. There’s a certain comfort in that. And there are times when it has to be done.’