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See You in the Darkness

Barbara Stanywck and Fred MacMurray - Double Indemnity 1944One chilly February evening back in 2008, mystery writer Alan Gordon drove me home from a book launch for Queens Noir (Akashic, 2008), an anthology of dark tales set in my home borough. Both Alan and I live in Forest Hills, a pretty serene neighborhood set deep into Queens. As we approached the police precinct at the corner of Yellowstone and Austin that night, we noticed a burst of activity out front, including TV cameras and roving reporters. The next day, Alan e-mailed me: “So, all those camera crews at the precinct last night were about the arrest of the orthodontist’s wife for contracting his murder. My wife said, ‘I always knew she was crooked.’ ”

I knew the case vaguely. Back in October 2007, Daniel Malakov, a local man the newspapers described as a “prominent member” of Forest Hills’s Bukharian Jewish community, had been shot and killed in a nearby playground in full view of his four-year-old daughter. Ultimately, his estranged doctor-wife, Mazoltuv Borukhova, was convicted of first-degree murder and conspiring with a distant cousin to kill Malakov, with whom she was embroiled in a fierce custody battle. The key piece of evidence: a homemade silencer discarded at the scene. The silencer was traced to Borukhova’s cousin, whose fingerprints were on file for evading a subway fare. Shortly thereafter, police found that an astounding ninety-one calls had been made between the cousin and Dr. Borukhova during the three weeks preceding the murder. The jig was up.

In my reply to Alan’s e-mail, I remember noting that the whole story was in fact the classic noir tale — wife hires man to kill husband, only to find herself trapped in her own web of deception. Double Indemnity come to life. But, of course, beneath the genre staples, the case speaks to something far more elemental about the enduring attraction of crime fiction — particularly noir, with its emphasis on the fickle finger of fate. There is a tendency to dismiss crime novels as lurid, as trivial, as escapist. These dismissals always strike me as anxious attempts to diminish the genre’s actual, visceral lure. That, instead of being disposable yarns to be consumed quickly and tossed aside, crime novels speak to our very essence, to the often painfully compelling (impelling) emotions that, for all the layers of “civilization” and modernity that lay atop us, still can’t be soothed. Desire. Greed. Wrath. Envy. Revenge. These are timeless drives. Universal ones.

When we read about the orthodontist and his wife, the feelings we have are inevitably complicated, and they can reflect all kinds of biases that speak to our personal experiences of loss, marriages gone wrong, the particular intensities of maternal or paternal love. They draw forward just the kind of tangle of primal feelings that crime novels do — the sense that despite  all our attempts to contain chaos, most of all the chaos inside of us, sometimes we can’t. Sometimes things just go terribly wrong.

In a much-discussed piece in The New Yorker (“Iphigenia in Forest Hills,” May 3, 2010), Janet Malcolm wrestles for nearly thirty pages not just with the Malakov case but with her response it — most interestingly her admitted difficulty in believing, due to a “sisterly bias,” that the doe-eyed, refined, hypereducated Dr. Borukhova could be guilty of such a crime. Further, she cannot conceal, even in her language, the sympathy she feels for the doctor’s custody plight — her “journey out of the merciless messiness of private life into the pitiless orderliness of the legal system,” a legal system that resulted in custody of her daughter being taken away for seemingly arbitrary reasons. Piece by piece, Malcolm sifts through an increasingly complex story replete with accusations of sexual abuse and domestic violence. It becomes a labyrinth she can’t quite find her way out of — and that labyrinth becomes the focus of the article itself.

When we read crime novels that speak to us, we can feel like we’re entering a labyrinth, a labyrinth that eventually leads back to ourselves. For me, it happens when I’m reading James Ellroy or Ken Bruen or George Pelecanos or Raymond Chandler, whose detective-hero experiences just the kind of discomfort with himself, with his own complex sympathies, that Janet Malcolm offers us. It’s the kind of moral grayness that makes us shift in our bones when we read it, but we somehow see ourselves in it, and can’t turn away.

I guess I’m suggesting this: When we read these books, it’s a journey inward to all our best and worst qualities and impulses. There can, of course, be a lot of judgment when we read or when we watch a crime show on television. Some stories are designed to facilitate that judgment. Law and Order, for instance, is structured to almost make it impossible to be uncomfortable or unsure. The moral questions have long been decided, and we sit from a confident perch of certainty. And there’s a supreme pleasure in that. In the Malakov case, I remember savoring the New York Post headline “MURDER MOM IS ICE COLD RIGHT UP TO JURY’S ‘GUILTY!” I still savor that headline. But many crime tales don’t permit us such a comfortable distance. We inevitably start identifying with all the “wrong” characters, the more troubling urges, the darker motivations. And so a dance begins: How closely will we waltz to the edge, to the abyss? How much will we permit ourselves to look inward, to indulge conflicting feelings, to consider our own shadow selves?

This is not to suggest we are all potential murderers, that, given certain conditions, we would all be moved to desperate acts of violence. Rather, that crime novels lay bare what we know on some deeper register: that our hearts are mysteries even to ourselves. And that, when we read crime fiction, we are permitted a clandestine tour into our own most-secret chambers. And, when we close the final page, there is some relief in knowing that we can, for the time being, stop looking. We can feel more comfortable with ourselves again. We can put the book down and start pretending again.

Megan Abbott is the Edgar Award–winning author of the novels Queenpin, The Song Is You, Die a Little, and Bury Me Deep, which has been nominated for the Edgar and Hammett Awards and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Her stories have appeared in Phoenix Noir, Best Crime and Mystery Stories of the Year, Wall Street Noir, Storyglossia, Detroit Noir, and Queens Noir. She is also the author of a nonfiction book, The Street Was Mine: White Masculinity in Hardboiled Fiction and Film Noir, and the editor of A Hell of a Woman: An Anthology of Female Noir. Her new book, The End of Everything (Reagan Arthur Books), comes out in spring 2011.