There’s a scene in The Maltese Falcon in which the actress Mary Astor is pretending to be a woman named Brigid O’Shaugnessy who has been pretending to someone named Ruth Wonderly, and she is telling Humphrey Bogart, who is playing a private investigator named Sam Spade, “I haven’t lived a good life. I’ve been bad, worse than you could know.”
And Bogart-as-Spade says, “You know, that’s good, because if you actually were as innocent as you pretend to be, we’d never get anywhere.”
As with many lines spoken in the cinema of American noir, Bogart’s statement comments on circumstances the detective shares with the viewer. Without a crime to investigate and a criminal to watch, both would have to find something else to do, which is also a way of saying they would have to find another way, someone else, to be. Crime stories and mysteries indulge us foremost in a kind of voyeurism, and it can be argued that the satisfaction that the private eye (and the audience peering over his shoulder) derives from seeing imaginary bad guys brought to imaginary justice derives in part from the guilt and shame they feel for sticking their noses in someone else’s business. We got ourselves into quite a pickle, but it was worth it in the end. But the queerness of the detective’s condition goes further: he is at heart opposed to acknowledging his own existence, even though it is his very active presence that brings down criminals and crime syndicates, starting with C. Auguste Dupin’s theft of a letter in 1844 and continuing on through the tales of writers like China Miéville and Georga Pelecanos today. The detective claims to investigate, to simply observe and use his ability to reason, but what he does, more importantly, is get involved with other characters and alter the course of the story. He says he’s after the truth, but he appears to be more interested in interfering.
The detective, and the viewer through and with him, is a ratty little man, a loner with a pistol weighting his inner coat pocket, a drunkard burning the office lamps past midnight, a nobody damned to the hell of being an outsider most of the time, so he can intrude on the affairs of miscreants some of the time. What does the detective do when not detecting? If the movies have anything to tell us, he sits in his office, waiting for the next troublemaker to walk through his door. In his debut novel Shadow Man Gabriel Blackwell offers us this thought, in the image of a young Dashiell Hammett doing what passes for his job at the fictional Archer Investigations in the late 1920s: “[he] was on a strict diet of recirculated air and relaxation, laid up behind his desk with nothing but a bottle and his memories to keep him company.”
Those familiar with Hammett’s most well-known novel may have sniffed out a joke. It’s also a metaphor, or, more specifically, the species of metaphor we call a figure of speech: Hammett gets his start as a private detective by going into business with someone named Lewis Miles Archer, whose name traces the curious trajectory of Hammett’s influence on Ross Macdonald via Raymond Chandler. In Blackwell’s novel, as in The Maltese Falcon, it is the murder of Archer—that is, if he was in fact murdered at all—that sets the detective to his work. Except here the story is a tale of many stories—novels and newspaper articles and letters and journal entries—and characters both fictional and nonfictional (though the liberties Blackwell takes with the names of people who really existed renders them patently fictional). The reigning conceit of this novel is that it is a biography of a fictional character, one edited, not authored, by Blackwell, a claim ratified in the hardboiled language that tells the story (the writer asks that we think of him as one arranging the text rather than the one writing it, reminding us that words and phrases belong to everybody and nobody).
Blackwell’s language is one of the novel’s great pleasures. He showcases a gift—and I mean this sincerely, and not at all backhandedly—for writing the artfully bad sentence, the figure-balancing sentence that produces bizarre images and nonsense while communicating. One thinks of David Byrne lyrics. Witness:
“They’d sit on the empty room and he’d be in the clear.”
“The baby on the train doesn’t rate at all.”
“That’s all there is to it: just a hint, a clue, a sore thumb. But a sore thumb’s only news if you can see the hand that it’s attached to. Otherwise, it just looks like a thumb, just like any other thumb. You might even think it was a toe.”
“Turns out he’s peachy apart from the scratch on his cheek and the sidewalk chipping, but the experience of nearly signing the deed on the farm gets to him.”
The book is rife with such lines. They are fun, and funny, too, and they remind, as metafictional sentences do, that we are reading something that was written, sentence by sentence, thought by thought, by a human who is subject to the same laws of time as the rest of us. In order to get this book written, Blackwell had to sit and imagine the story he was writing, an act that cost him considerable time that might have been spent doing other things, including being with loved ones. The fictional Blackwell, the obsessive editor poring over historical documents that may or may not lead him to discoveries about Archer’s true story, reveals that his work has not been without painful consequences (though I’ll leave finding out what those are to the curious reader). It is not just reading that is an escape, Blackwell suggests, but writing, too, perhaps alongside all other diversions justified under the sign of work. It is the nature of some men, shadow men (though I suspect Blackwell would say it is in the nature of plenty of women, too) to be present and not present at once: “It’s easy enough to be seen when you want to be. Easy enough, too, to not be seen, if that’s what you’re after. But to be both at the same time? It’s like someone telling you to act natural, or not to think of a pink elephant.” Of course what Blackwell is describing here is the writer writing, physically existing in one place while trying to be in another. It is his concern with fundamental desire of the mortal subject, to be other, elsewhere, that drives his novel, and if its pages are filled with comic moments, then the specters of human isolation and self-obliteration (through alcohol, through abandoning loved ones, through acts of fantasy) are never far. The ways we imagine make us quirky creatures, but the practice has a tragic dimension, too, because using the imagination entails flight from the present, the pretense to escaping bodies that will one day expire, shed names, and decay physically and memorially until nothing remains. Perhaps, ultimately, no one person exists, and the real hero is language, possessing us all, body after body, day after day, generation after generation (the book’s epigraph Latin epigraph means, “While transformed, I resurge unchanged”). Maybe we read and write and generally pretend because we long to exist out of time as characters, and not the way we do, the way Blackwell’s preface has it: “The truth is this world is full of no-name Joes, guys with names that mean bunk, and toes tagged with John Doe in every morgue in every city in every country.” Maybe those John Does, in whose faces we gradually find our own features, are the detectives of our fantasy lives, waiting for something to happen, or for us to pretend something does, so they might open their eyes once more.