Monday, December 10, 2012

Alan Russell and the Marks of the New Noir

Alan Russell, Burning Man

One or two novels that break the established genre mold may be mere outliers; when you see it time and again, you know you’ve spotted a trend. Having recently seen mystery novels by Mark Mynheir, Tyler Dilts, and others, I’ve spotted a recurring theme where cynical noir antiheroes don’t just revel in their anguish. They want the path out. To that roster of authors, we can now add Alan Russell.

Detective Michael Gideon, a genuine LAPD hero, catches the case of the Paul Klein, a Beverly Hills teen whose body is found crucified in a local park. But when he begins poking the case, Gideon uncovers some unpleasant truths behind Paul’s seemingly charmed life: it seems young Paul had a fondness for antagonizing workers, immigrants, and anyone even slightly different. Suddenly, Beverly Hills High looks like a cauldron of suspects.

As if that wasn’t enough, Gideon, whose unique relationship with LA’s finest gives him the liberty to pick his own cases, also catches Baby Rose, an infant abandoned beneath a commuter rail line. The normally jaded PD always stumble on dead babies, and Gideon’s no different. But as he becomes increasingly entangled with his city’s most beloved child finder, and LA’s biggest Dominican monastery, he realizes his cynicism isn’t as complete as he thought.

Russell, probably the most seasoned mystery novelist you’ve never heard of, manages to keep several fires burning at once—pun intended, considering Gideon’s disfiguring burn scars. He takes the unusual tack of making his hero more brutally damaged on the outside than the inside. Gideon uses anger to defend himself against the world’s violence because, at root, he retains an essentially honest, unblemished, and very loving core.

Alan Russell
The one storyline Russell doesn’t completely sell features Ellis Haines, the Santa Ana Strangler. Years earlier, Gideon and his K-9 partner Sirius courted death to bring Haines in through a raging brushfire. Now, Haines holds a Hannibal Lecter-like sway over Gideon, who has externalized parts of his soul: Sirius has become his better angel, Haines his dark side. Sadly, this story thread feels imperfectly transplanted from a Thomas Harris novel.

Like Asta in Hammett’s The Thin Man, Sirius serves to highlight Gideon’s personality. We’re all only human, and we’ll say things to our dog we would never confide in another person. Sirius serves as Gideon’s police partner, but also his shrink and confessor. He gives Gideon the opportunity to come to terms with his own life. One wonders if Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe might have been better adjusted if they’d had a pooch.

But that’s a key part of the difference between Russell and writers like Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. Where that founding generation of the noir tradition created characters steeped in psychological depth, these characters don’t think about their own depth. In the culminating scene of The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade turns Brigid O’Shaughnessy over to certain execution because honor says he has to. He never asks why.

The noir pioneers asked questions about society, crime, and violence. The New Noir heroes ask questions about themselves. This does not make them simple, uncomplicated characters from the pre-noir era, like Miss Marple or Auguste Dupin, who served as driving vehicles for the mental puzzle. Russell, Dilts, Mynheir, and other writers create protagonists who turn the same cynical eye on themselves as they turn on the larger world.

Thus, notably, New Noir characters do something the classic noir antiheroes never do: they fall in love. Spade and Marlowe progress through a succession of commitment-free sexual encounters (Spade’s discussion with his secretary, who is also his paramour, about his affair with his partner’s wife, while also sleeping with O’Shaugnessy, is typical.) These New Noir heroes, on the other hand, engage in courtship, unheard of in prior noir iterations.

If Russell and the other New Noir authors stumble—and they do—it’s because they’re trying something new. Too few working writers today have the courage to try something really innovative, so it’s a simply aesthetic pleasure to see authors taking risks. Even their mistakes have gravitas.

While Russell doesn’t completely integrate every component of his storyline, perhaps because he has so many, he nevertheless manages to sell Gideon as a compelling character whose struggles command our attention. If there really is a New Noir, with characters who actually live rather than exist at the mercy of their past, Russell’s writing is a good way to get into it. And Michael Gideon and Sirius are good characters to open that door.

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