Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Usual Suspects

A fictional detective tracks down a suspect in a murder investigation, then asks the suspect to provide an alibi for the estimated time of death of the victim.  Without hesitation, the suspect names two or three corroborative witnesses, which the detective notes.  He hands the suspect his card. You a;ready know what the detective is going to say next.

The detective is going to tell the suspect, "If you can think of anything else that might be of interest, call me."  You have seen this in so many novels and film dramas that you suspect it is something detectives are taught to tell suspects well they have become detectives--when they are fresh out of the academy, still moist with the dew of idealism and public service.

Leaving the suspect and returning with his partner to their car, the partner asks the detective if he believed the suspect's alibi.  You know what happens next because the payoff has become a part of the dramatic genome for this type of story, which happens to be among your favorite types of story, in no small measure because of what comes next.  "She's lying,"  the detective says.

In more recent times, the detective's partner is a woman.  "You old guard guys,"  she says, because this is her way of letting us know the price she has paid for rising up among the ranks of you old guard guys.  A formula is executed before our eyes.  We are cynical because, like the detective, we have been lied to, perhaps betrayed, perhaps been in some way used or manipulated.  And now, the detective's partner delivers her required line.  "I saw the way she was looking at you."

This last bit of information is to suggest that the detective may be cynical, but there is a distinct possibility of vulnerability in him,  "And how,"  he asks, "was the way she was looking at me?"

The magic of story is in the air now.  "I know you're still hurting."  the partner says, laying the groundwork for the implication that the detective's romantic life has hit a snag.  Someone grew tired of waiting for him to come home or remember their dates or consider her a peer in the reefs and shoals of the romantic life..

Story is fraught with these coded exchanges, where, for moments on end, we are given opportunities to empathize with individuals who are so focused on their jobs that their personal life is in a continuous state of being shunted off to a side track, where it waits, with a growing loss of patience and understanding.

In some detective stories, such as The Maltese Falcon, we see the protagonist, Sam Spade, walking a tenuous line on the verge between morality and expediency.  There is a telling moment when his partner, Miles Archer, is left for dead, in fact murdered.  The telling moment comes when Archer's wife, with whom Spade has been having an affair, confronts Spade with the suspicion that he couldn't take the situation as it was, that he killed Miles Archer so he could be with her.  Not long afterward, as things go, Spade confronts another character with a combination punch warning and disclaimer.  "Don't be too quick to think I'd sell out."  In other words, don't be too quick to judge me as a moral chameleon. 

You're impressed when Faulkner speaks of story as the anguish of moral choice, more so impressed when you see the potentials for shades of gray shimmering among characters who set great store by their choices for property on the moral high ground, complete with visions of life in Valhalla or some other place where the gods live.

The mystery gives you choices of blurring borders, reversing roles, playing on the similarities rather than the differences between the cops and the robbers.  You love one of the other required scenes, where the person or persons who push the boundaries the farthest say to the cops, "You know, there's no real difference between us," because the cop will often reply with the greater irony.  "At least,"  the cop says, "I can sleep at night."

But we already know this is not true.  We've seen the cop, unable to sleep even with the proverbial snootful of booze, aching with the loneliness of having to sleep alone to the point where he goes to and is often accepted for the night by the person least good for him, a person who has her own difficulties with matters of sleep.

There is in fact a jungle out there in the crime world, where the house and the bad guys always seem to be in the winning position, where justice has to be championed by an individual, working on her or his own as a debt to someone he or she once let down, betrayed, bent the rules for.  You join mystery fans in thinking the medium is a remarkable one for its potentials of portraying the detours, back alleyways, and short cuts of conscience and the ever throbbing temptations related to desire.

This is a world of the lonely, those who are afraid to let anyone else see where they have hidden their hope, lest it, too, be discovered, and borrowed by someone without that someone leaving an IOU, a world where the choice is made on occasion to sleep with a complete stranger in hopes of forging a connection rather than an ongoing stranger with whom the occasional connection is problematic.

This is a world that often seems dark, noir at its roots, but each character has a cache of hope hidden somewhere.

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