Noirvember: Suspects

So far this Noirvember, we’ve looked at an incredibly dark noir novel masquerading as a domestic drama centered around a dance contest, and a non-fiction noir that frames a series of historical mass murderers as perfect little short stories.  And today, having moved from crypto-noir to non-fiction noir, we’re going to move on to something altogether unique:  the meta-noir novel.  (Jesus, when are you gonna just talk about movies?  Quiet, you.)

When Gary Mairs — a gentlemanly film scholar, a fine filmmaker, and a good friend — first introduced me to David Thomson’s novel Suspects (as in “the usual”), I wasn’t sure what to make of it.  Now, 27 years after it was written and 5 years after I encountered it for the first time, I’m still not sure what to make of it.  Thomson is a British film critic and historian who is largely known in this country for his reference books and a recent series of short, punchy biographies of leading movie stars and noteworthy directors.  His reputation is mixed, even among those who like him:  he has opinions that it would be overly polite to characterize as ‘eccentric’, and he’s obsessed with particular movie stars — especially women — in a way that borders on unseemly.  He’s never really produced anything like a revolutionary reading of a film, and his value as a historian and scholar are more due to his voluminous capacity for remembering detail than any exceptional insight.  But he’s also a very engaging writer, with a lively if not groundbreaking style, and his books are hard to put down because his enthusiasm for the medium of film is so obvious and infectious.

Gary told me, when he first hipped me to the existence of Suspects, that he actually preferred it to Thomson’s film writing.  I wasn’t sure how to take this, since his film writing was all I knew of the man.  (I’d later find out that he’d written screenplays for some Hollywood heavy hitters, but none of them had ever been produced — not that this is necessarily a black mark against him.)  The idea sounded intriguing to me, especially given my consuming devotion to film noir, but I’d also been burned time and time again by non-fiction writers — and critics, especially — trying their hand at novels and flaming out in an embarrassing unspectacular way.  So it was with more than a little trepidation that I finally picked up a copy; but I burned through its 270 pages in a single day, and while I still have decidedly mixed feelings about the book, I return to it again and again.

What is Suspects, exactly?  It’s not an easy question to answer.  Written in 1985 after years of false starts, it’s a novel, but almost none of its characters are original creations of Thomson’s.  It’s a historical fiction, but the history it depicts is itself fictional:  it delivers to readers the background and fallout of events that never happened.  It’s an invention, but one that blurs the lines between fact and fiction:  even its narration — putatively delivered by a character it would be churlish to identify and spoil for the potential reader — seems to flag between the person identified as the speaker and Thomson himself.  Each italicized link between chapters can be read as a narrative connection between one event and another, but also as a commentary on film and its power to enthrall us by the critic who wrote the book.  This device and others makes it unabashedly post-modern, another quality that I enjoyed, but is likely to rebuff readers who see it as a mere gimmick.  “Is the order of these entries significant?” the narrator asks early in the book.  “I do them as they come into my head, but my head keeps running back to system.  So design and randomness bump together, skirmishing, like lovers.”

Then what, exactly, is the gimmick?  What on Earth is Suspects about?  Like many such exercises, it is easiest to understand in the terminology of the geek:  Suspects is an attempt to impose a Wold-Newton structure on the world of film noir.  But the number of people who know both noir and Wold-Newton are (hopefully) few, so a further explanation is in order:  essentially, Thomson gives us fictionalized biographes, each forming a single chapter, of some of the most notorious figures in crime drama.  Chinatown‘s Jake Gittes and Noah Cross; Casablanca‘s Ilsa Lund and Richard Blaine; Laura Hunt and Waldo Lydecker from Laura; Johnny Clay from The Killing and Dickson Steele from In a Lonely Place; Kit Carruthers from Badlands and Harry Lime from The Third Man; and outliers from films as diverse as Rebel without a CauseAmerican Gigolo, and It’s a Wonderful Life (one of the book’s most carefully constructed pieces of hidden criticism is to identify the latter as a far darker and bleaker film than it’s usually given credit for).  Thomson invents histories that show us where these people came from before we picked up their stories on the big screen, and what happened to them after the cameras stopped rolling.

If this was Suspects‘ only accomplishment, it would be compelling enough; Thomson has a gift not only for the fictional biography, but for weaving the true and the false together:  he not only works in little Easter eggs for the attentive out of the stuff of reality (the judge in Jake Gittes’ trial for criminal negligence following the death of Evelyn Mulwray, for example, is named Robert Evans), but he also cleverly incorporates events from the real lives of the actors who played the characters into those characters’ life histories.  (Appropriately enough, he engages this tendency in the most pronounced way when he writes about Harry Lime and Hank Quinlan, two characters played by Orson Welles.)  But it would still be nothing more than a clever collection of fantastical mini-bios, and Thomson clearly wants it to be more.

This is where the novel tends to stumble on its own ambition.  What becomes clear, after a certain point, is that Thomson is not merely trying to flesh out the pasts and futures of these dwellers in the shadows:  he’s also trying to connect them into a grand narrative.  The links that bind them crop up almost immediately, with some of them being satisfyingly obvious (Sidney Falco as the teenage protégé of Waldo Lydecker; a tenuous, if downright operatic, connection between two of the all-time great femmes fatale, Phyllis Dietrichson and Matty Walker) and others being completely out of the blue, with varying degrees of success (Kit Carruthers traveled in his wild youth with Rev. Harry Powell; Harry Lime once worked at a car dealership run by Beat the Devil‘s Henry Oliver Peterson).  These connections can get a little stretched, and Thomson has to futz around with timelines quite a bit to get all these folks in the same places at the same times, but it’s fun just to watch him try, and the central narrative reveal is a killer.

Some of the hiccups in Suspects‘ narrative aren’t Thomson’s fault.  In a handful of cases, sequels to the films to which he writes a speculative ending were made after the book was published, and while his outcomes are generally superior, it’s hard to drive the memory of the big-screen version from one’s mind.  Others make it something of a curate’s egg; Thomson has a gift for spotting patterns in dialogue, and often, his characterizations are terrific, sounding like scenes and snippets lifted from might-have-been deleted scenes; other times, though, he simply recycles a famous line in another context, a device that never fails to sound cheap.  The worst excesses of the book are thematic, and those who have criticized Thomson for the borderline-creepy way he deals with the carnality of some of his big-screen heroines will find nothing to dissuade them in Suspects.  He’s also got an obsession with incest that he wears so far down on his sleeve that the narrator tries to hang a lampshade on it, but that just makes it dangle all the more clumsily.

With all that against it, though, Suspects is a book of undeniable intrigue and charm.  For all its imperfections, it’s nearly impossible to put down, and it ranks as #1 among the books I have given away to friends and replaced for myself, just because I’ve wanted to have people to talk about it with.  Today’s omnivorous mash-up culture has given us far too many variations on this sort of geek-genre cross-pollination, but Suspects resembles Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen crossed with a Larousse biographical dictionary more than it does any half-assed modern what-if.  It is, predictably for Thomson, meticulously researched and historically rigorous; but, unexpectedly for Thomson, it contains little wonders of style, characterization and feeling, three qualities almost always lacking in such metafictional speculation.

Of course, while I would never characterize Suspects as pandering, I probably wouldn’t rate it so highly if the characters he presented and the milieu in which they operate didn’t so precisely tickle my noir sweet spot.  (Indeed, five years later, Thomson tried much the same thing, only with the Western genre, in a novel called Silverlight; the plot was stronger, but the characters were less resonant and the interplay less complex, leaving it less a daring piece of post-modern reclamation and more simply a mediocre oater.)  Any book where Norma Desmond secretly bears Joe Gillis’ love child, Kaspar Gutman and Joel Cairo ride off into the sunset to become bridge columnists, Double Indemnity‘s Barton Keyes and Scarlet Street‘s Chris Cross turn out to be the same person, Evelyn Mulwray and Carmen Sternwood are best friends, Jack Torrance is born in the town from It’s a Wonderful Life, and Brigid O’Shaughnessy has a baby that turns out to be a rather famous writer of comic books — well, that book is going to get my attention.

But the greatest strength of Suspects is that it does more than that — it carries its narrative beyond the childish dream that all our favorite characters live in the same little kingdom and know each others’ names, and turns it into a cleverly paced, surprisingly deep, and undeniably adult work of fiction that folds in on itself without ever crawling up its own ass.  It’s also that rarest of things, a book that, by its very nature, will never, ever be made into a movie, and thus — despite the fact that it’s constructed entirely out of characters from the movies — can be appreciated solely as a work of literary fiction.  It’s newly in print after seemingly random gaps of time being unavailable; its air is not entirely clean, but it is exceptionally rare.  Breathe it in while you can.

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