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The Dark in Zero Dark Thirty

Spoiler alert: DO NOT read this blog post if you haven’t yet seen Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal’s new film; this post most likely goes into enough detail that you’ll probably come away feeling a little bit like someone ruined the surprise for you. At least, as much as one can feel that way about a film where you already know how it ends.

Whether you’ve seen the film or not, you’ve probably caught wind of at least some of the controversy surrounding the release of the ZERO DARK THIRTY. Some members of the intelligence community assert the film misrepresents the role torture played in the trail of evidence that led to the discovery of Osama Bin Laden’s whereabouts. Critics have alternately claimed that the film’s portrayal of brutal interrogation methods either works either as a tacit endorsement thereof, or the film’s objective, journalistic approach is morally reprehensible in the face of what some would consider amorality of the events it portrays.

Maybe it’s an effect of my reading habits, or maybe I had Scott Montgomery’s essay on my mind—but I can’t help but feel there’s another interpretation of the film that hasn’t been fully explored in the criticism I’ve read: ZERO DARK THIRTY as noir cinema.

Most noir stories (or at least the genre’s most traditional strain) operate as negative example—a playing out of the it-never-gets-better series of events that lies in wait, should one make the same kind of choices as the story’s protagonist. This strand of noir is intensely, almost puritanically moral, despite the immorality it depicts; any portrayal of violence or criminality within the confines of this strand of storytelling is anything but an endorsement. Its message is simple: bad things happen to people who make bad choices–so choose wisely, or be prepared to face the music.

Montgomery argues that noir begins with a crime and only gets worse from there— certainly, ZERO DARK THIRTY has this angle down pat. An eerie series of voiceovers that alludes to the most infamous crime of the century, 9/11, opens the film, which then transitioning directly to another act of violence much more intimate in scope, yet just as central to the story at hand–the harrowing interrogations that took place in CIA black sites, where we first meet Maya, Jessica Chastain’s then-junior operative.

Maya’s first on-screen moments are performed with a thick, oversized ski mask that obscures both her features and gender—both to engineer a dramatic reveal and also, it would seem, to signify that without an active role in the brutal methods shown, she’s not yet fully accountable for the brutal violence to which the film depicts, more witness than active participant.

This all changes when Maya returns to the locked room, having this time left the mask at the door. Dan, the senior agent leading the interrogation, asks Maya to fill him a bucket of water that will be used to  torture the detainee under question. Maya hesitates, if only for a moment. And while, as with much of Chastain’s understated performance, much has to be inferred, her reluctance in this crucial moment speaks volumes. This is it, you can almost sense Maya thinking. Here is the point of no return.

From then on, Maya is complicit in the acts of violence depicted, at times even signaling to other participants when a prisoner is to be physically assaulted—even if Maya never quite inflicts these acts without the buffer of an enforcer. Even Dan, who seems so totally unflinching in the film’s opening scene, turns aside from this dastardly mission before Maya, who continues to take part in the torture of detainees right up to the minute the President puts an end to these brutal methods that give Maya her first piece of key intel, and many others that follow.

While the facts of Maya’s story necessitate there’s not quite the relentless, downward spiral of classic noir in ZERO DARK THIRTY—no pursuit by the authorities follows a government-sanctioned act of violence such as Maya’s—there is certainly a certain noirness in the overall trajectory of the plot. Director Bigelow and screenwriter Boal go out of their way to make note of every major act of terrorism in the past ten years while Maya continues her hunt, as if to challenge the validity the narrow focus of Maya’s relentless quest—more subtle and yet more effective than the in-tandem occasional insistence of Maya’s superiors that she consider broadening her focus.

The film’s conclusion carries this trajectory through to the bitter end. As we all know, Maya does, of course, get her man. And yet we never see Maya truly celebrate the completion of the task to which she’s devoted a full decade of her life—just more flat affect, a few choice tears, and a sense of loss in the final plateau, of Maya, alone, given anywhere in the world to go and nowhere in particular she seems to want to be. That may not be quite the sort of severe moral reckoning that traditional noir requires—but if so, it’s only another, more nihilistic strain of noir coming into play in the film’s final moments. In an unjust world with few moral absolutes, ZERO DARK THIRTY argues, sometimes the good guys aren’t quite so guilt-free—and sometimes the guilty go free.

Wes Miller is Mulholland Books’ Associate Editor and Marketing Associate. If Mulholland were a crime novel instead of an imprint that publishes them, Wes would be its PI—the stalwart presence resolving its issues, making sure at the end of the day, justice gets served and good prevails—at least until tomorrow comes. Reach him through the Mulholland Books twitter account (@mulhollandbooks), on Tumblr (mulhollandbooks.tumblr.com) or right here on the Mulholland Books website.

Grabbing At Shadows

NoirWhat is noir?

A question that has been debated in every film school and bar at Bouchercon. Many an article and anthology introduction has made the attempt to define it. There is even the thought that it is more style than genre.

Czar of Noir Eddie Mueller cleanly describes it as stories about attempts to take the shortcut to the American dream. Author Anthony Neil Smith once said, “Noir is Italian Opera sung by Delta bluesmen.”  Then there is the old standard: It starts out fucked and then gets worse.

There are certain tropes that most believe go along with it. A crime committed, usually from obsession, that leads a downward spiral where the only hope is found in death. There is also the style, the terseness on the page, the shadows on the screen.

The beauty of noir, though, is that there is no hard, fast definition. Its originators didn’t even know they were crating a genre. There are no set rules. It is as elusive as the shadows it’s identified with. It has the ability to be malleable, able to fit different times and perceptions. Noir plays by few rules. Continue reading “Grabbing At Shadows”

Year End Review: A Few Thoughts on Jim Thompson and The Grifters

With 2013 just around the corner, it’s the perfect time to sit back and reflect on another year of great content and great books. Check back twice daily in the last days of 2012 for a selection of our favorite MulhollandBooks.com posts from the past year!

There are those moments in life so powerful and disturbing that they defy definition.  For me, Jim Thompson’s novels provide such moments.  Or maybe it’s more fair to say they knock me into them backwards—ass over applecart.

Apparently, I’m not alone in that.  Read what’s been said about Thompson, and you see that everyone is grasping: “If Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Cornell Woolrich could have joined together in some ungodly union and produced a literary offspring, Jim Thompson would be it….His work…casts a dazzling light upon the human condition.”

This is the first quote about Thompson’s work that many readers encounter, the Washington Post blurb splashed on the back of the Vintage Crime/Black Lizard editions that came out in the 1990s, after years when it was hard to find Thompson’s novels.  It’s evocative, and for fans of hard-boiled it has a dreamlike feel.  But ultimately it’s not very helpful.

Why?  Well, the problem with any definition that works by comparison is that it can only sketch around a thing: a chalk mark on a sidewalk, it misses the heart of the matter entirely—the heart that is so raw, so terribly visible, it forces you to work through analogy in the first place. “What does Hammett have to do with anything?” you might argue.  “There is none of his carefully-controlled and sleekly-styled disillusion here.  Surely the reviewer should have said Chandler, Cain, and Woolrich.  Or better, Cain, Woolrich and Chandler, in that order.”  In no time, what is Thompson’s is lost.

Yet such an approach is understandable, for to look at the heart of Thompson’s work… Well, it’s a hard place to look.  But in the end, the only way to get at it is to read, and then live with the consequences for a while. Continue reading “Year End Review: A Few Thoughts on Jim Thompson and The Grifters”

Jim Thompson: An Appreciation

The e-book Jim Thompson’s THE KILLER INSIDE ME, the novel Stanley Kubrick deemed “probably the most chilling and believable first-person story of a criminally warped mind I have ever encountered,” is on sale for just $2.99 for the Nook, Kindle, and the iBookstore. Now is the perfect time to introduce yourself to one of the great classics of twentieth century crime fiction–at a bargain price, and including an intro from Stephen King.

Looking for even more of an introduction? Check out the below essay on Thompson from our very own Joe R. Lansdale.

Jim Thompson has been called a dime store Dostoevsky, but an oil field Faulkner might be more accurate. He wrote not only about the common man, he wrote like the common man, with words full of raw truth mixed with sweet and sticky lies; wicked stories written with a glass of whisky at his elbow.

I had never heard of Jim Thompson growing up. And this surprises me. I read all manner of novels by all manner of writers, and a writer like Thompson was just my meat, but it wasn’t until Stephen King commented on him, that he hit my radar.

Not long after that, I saw Thompson’s work everywhere, and I dove in. As a fellow Texan, same as a I had with the work of Robert E. Howard, another Texan, I recognized people I knew. Howard gussied them up in loin cloths and gave them swords, made them melancholy heroes, but Thompson’s characters were contemporary, and though melancholy for the most part, were considerably short on heroics. They were the dregs of society; little people with dreams too large for them to hold; dreams they drove all over the highways of their ambitions like a drunk at the wheel of a muscle car with bad tires.

There is no one quite like Thompson in low or high literature. He was his own man, and stories like THE KILLER INSIDE ME, THE GRIFTERS, and, well pretty much everything he ever wrote, are as unique as the pattern of a snow flake. They are his snow flakes, and they are soiled and stink of cheap liquor, but you will find no other like him. Many have tried to imitate him, but have only brought the literary equivalent of loud horns and dirty laundry to the game.

Thompson was his own man. Sad and dark, oozing rotten sex and rotten dreams, all of it touched with a kind cheap carnival atmosphere; the kind where the bolts on the rides shake and it‘s best to keep your hand on your wallet. A writer primarily confined to the literary back alleys of cheap paperbacks written in bursts as dynamic as the spewing of an oil gusher.

He was, for better or worse, the great and unique, Jim Thompson.

Joe R. Lansdale

Nacogdoches, Texas

Joe R. Lansdale is the author of more than a dozen novels, including THE BOTTOMS, A FINE DARK LINE, and LEATHER MAIDEN. He has received the British Fantasy Award, the American Mystery Award, the Edgar Award, the Grinzane Cavour Prize for Literature, and eight Bram Stoker Awards. He lives with his family in Nacogdoches, Texas. Mulholland Books will publish his next novel, EDGE OF DARK WATER, in March 2012.

Over the next year, Mulholland Books will be publishing Jim Thompson’s entire body of work in e-book format for the first time. THE KILLER INSIDE ME, THE GRIFTERS, AFTER DARK, MY SWEET, A SWELL-LOOKING BABE and THE NOTHING MAN are now available–look for the next batch on Christmas Day.

Dark Valentine

Rose Macro: Fractalius - IMG_8032-fraEnjoy this twisted slice of fiction from the brilliant mind behind Prison Break and Breakout Kings, and the novels  FIFTEEN DIGITS and SLIP AND FALL, coming from Mulholland Books in April 2012.

“This is called Candy Cane,” the sales girl said, handing me the small bottle.

I unscrewed the top and sniffed it.

“It doesn’t smell like candy canes; it’s just candy cane red,” she pointed out.

“Yeah … I know,” I said, playing it off. “I’ll take it – with all the other stuff too.”

The girl rang up the order, placing eye shadow, rouge (I called it rouge, the sales girl called it blush), Berry Juicy lipstick and Candy Cane nail polish into a CVS bag. I gave her a twenty.

“It’s $63.17,” she said, embarrassed for me.

“What for?”

“Um … the make-up.”

“Man,” I said, digging into my pocket. “When I was a kid, my mom could do a whole week’s grocery for sixty bucks.”

Sales Girl said nothing, just stared through me. She could care less. When I was a kid she was 20 years from being born.

I shoved some more bills at her and left before she could give me my change. I didn’t have time to wait for some seventeen-year-old to count out $1.83 … because it was Valentine’s Day and my sweetheart was waiting for me. Continue reading “Dark Valentine”

The Past, Present and Future of Tartan Noir

Edinburgh“Too much black for the white.” That was the assessment of the Ayrshire novelist George Douglas Brown when asked what he thought of his novel, The House with the Green Shutters, over a century ago. It’s also, perhaps surprisingly, a very apt summary of a modern phenomenon known as Tartan Noir.

In both tone and theme, Shutters bares close familiarity to Scotland’s newest ‘Black’ novels. It’s a safe bet that this branch of the crime writing family tree is closer to Brown’s offspring than Agatha Christie’s cosy, drawing-room mysteries. Add Robert Louis Stevenson’s psychological explorations of seedy society, and the odds on a unique Tartan lineage become a racing certainty.

It’s no secret that Scottish crime fiction has undergone a boom in recent years, spearheaded by the soar-away success of the UK’s leading seller in the genre, Ian Rankin. So, perhaps a convenient marketing term was needed; but does Tartan Noir do it justice?

The man many regard as the Godfather of Tartan Noir, William McIlvanney has called the term ”ersatz” and distanced himself from the hype. But it was the Whitbread-winner who was first on the scene, with Laidlaw in 1977, clearly chalking a line around the corpse of familiarity.

“I’m a hung jury about the phrase,” says McIlvanney. “I suppose it works as an adman’s slogan. Certainly, for the American market, say, it probably gives the most succinct signal of Scottishness they would recognise. But simultaneously, it suggests an old-fashioned view of the place, as if modern Scotland were being observed through a lorgnette rather than the 20-20 vision of people like Ian Rankin and Tony Black.”
Continue reading “The Past, Present and Future of Tartan Noir”

How L.A. Noire Changes Everything (Just Not in the Way They Thought it Would)

The Game

There’s some kind of irony to be found in the fact that one of the main pursuits of L.A. Noire is to reconstruct, in exact detail, a few square miles of 1947 Los Angeles, because everything else about the game is so modern. Ahead of its time, even.

Produced by Team Bondi and Rockstar Games and intended to be part radical reinvention of the point-and-click adventure games of yore, part tech-demonstration for new performance capture breakthroughs, the game also winds up having something that nobody expected: an unprecedented amount of intelligence. I would imagine that the game’s intelligence presented one of Rockstar’s biggest problems when it comes to selling the game to a wide audience. The company’s name has become synonymous with violent, open-world action games. Games that may have grand, sweeping narratives, but also have lots of blood, guts and other “exploitable elements” to keep the more reptilian-brained of their audience satiated.

The bulk of the gameplay is comprised of searching crime scenes for evidence and then interviewing persons of interest. The intimate nature of the interviews is where the game’s performance capture is employed to its fullest extent, as the player is asked to judge the validity of a P.O.I’s statement based on their facial tics and tells. It’s not terribly hard to discern when a character isn’t telling the truth (there’s lots of eye rolling, furrowed brows, etc.) but a player does have to use their deductive skills when it comes to determining whether they have sufficient evidence to prove if a perp is lying or not. Because all the characters a player meets are motion captured by real world actors, expect to be staring down many a familiar face over the course of the game. Either the producers got some kind of package deal or they wanted to capitalize on the warm post-war period connotations of Mad Men, because it seems like the entire cast shows up in L.A. Noire.

Continue reading “How L.A. Noire Changes Everything (Just Not in the Way They Thought it Would)”

Canarsie and Westlake, Parker and Stark (and Me)

[The below first appears as an introduction to Butcher’s Moon, republished in April 2011 by the University of Chicago Press, and is reprinted with the gracious permission of Lawrence Block. You can read his other intros for Backflash and Comeback here and here.]

One night around the end of 1960 or the beginning of 1961, I was in a second-floor flat in Canarsie, an unglamorous part of Brooklyn, located at the very end of the Canarsie Line, a part of the subway system which ran east across Fourteenth Street from Eighth Avenue, then crossed the river, and wound up running on elevated tracks all the way to Rockaway Parkway.  (The train was subsequently designated the LL, until years later they took one of its letters away and it became the L.  No one knows why, but I’ve always figured it was a cost-cutting move.  Of such small economies are great savings made.)

I lived in Manhattan at the time, on Central Park West at 104th Street, so I had to take two subway trains and walk several blocks to get to that flat, but I did it often and without complaint because that’s where Don Westlake lived.  We’d been best friends since we met in our mutual agent’s office in July of 1959, where we introduced ourselves before walking a few blocks to his flat in Hell’s Kitchen.  We sat around there and had a few beers and talked and talked and talked, and that was the pattern that prevailed over the months.  I moved home to Buffalo, met somebody, got married.  Don and his then-wife moved from an unsafe neighborhood to an inaccessible one.  My then-wife and I set up housekeeping in New York, first on West 69th Street, then on Central Park West.  And Don and I got together often, and had a few beers, and talked and talked and talked. Continue reading “Canarsie and Westlake, Parker and Stark (and Me)”

Noir in the Sunshine

IMG_8815So some years ago I was writing this series of P.I. novels about a detective in St. Louis. He wasn’t exactly your classic shamus but he did have Sam Spade DNA and he did walk some pretty mean streets in a gritty industrial city. But what I wanted to do was a second series, something different from what I’d been writing. More of a classic P.I. instead of my St. Louis guy who, while having some of the classic P.I. characteristics, was also a star-crossed schlemiel with a nervous stomach and a suicidal girlfriend. He also had his office over a doughnut shop, and smelled like a doughnut. This turned some women on, some off. Not classic. But the book market being what it was (is), I was going to write another series more in the classic vein, yet in some ways different.

Immediately I thought of California. I’d always enjoyed the California P.I. novel and its great practitioners, Hammett, Chandler, Lyons, Pronzini, Macdonald.

Wait a sec.

Continue reading “Noir in the Sunshine”

Continue Reading Duane Swierczynski’s FUN AND GAMES

In just ten short days, we’ll be publishing FUN AND GAMES, the kick-a$$ first book in the kick-a$$ Charlie Hardie series. Continue reading the novel Josh Bazell called “insanely entertaining,” and which Booklist called “so bloody satisfying.”

Missed Chapter 1? Read it here.

2

“California is a beautiful fraud.”—Marc Reisner

WHEELS WERE supposed to be up at 5:30 a.m., but by 5:55 it became clear that wasn’t gonna happen.

The captain told everyone it was just a little trouble with a valve. Once that was fixed and the paperwork was filed, they’d be taking off and headed to LAX. Fifteen minutes, tops. Half hour later, the captain more or less said he’d been full of shit, but really, honest, folks, now it was fixed, and they’d be taking off by 6:45. Thirty minutes later, the captain admitted he was pretty much yanking off / finger-fucking everyone in the airplane, and the likely departure time would be 8 a.m.—something about a sensor needing replacing. Nothing serious.

No, of course not. Continue reading “Continue Reading Duane Swierczynski’s FUN AND GAMES”