Noir and Supernatural Detective Fiction
Amazon.com has declared that Richard Kadrey’s Kill the Dead is one of the ten best SF/Fantasy books of the year. Pursuant to that, I decided to finally sit down and read Sandman Slim, the precursor to the aforementioned Kill the Dead, and see how it is. Sandman Slim is fairly good; in case by some mischance you’ve been living in a cave and haven’t encountered it yet, it reads as a mash-up of the (sadly) little-watched TV show Brimstone and the movie Payback (which is one of the best movies that Mel Gibson has made in, oh, let’s say fourteen years?), with some Spenser for Hire and Dresden Files slathered on top.
The supernatural-noir, or supernatural detective fiction subgenre is pretty wildly popular these days (actually, it’s been going strong for several years), and I think it’s a really interesting kind of a splice of genres, so I want to talk about some of the things that I’ve noticed on the subject.
The first thing you notice when you pick up a new supernatural detective story is how clearly the author is trying to build the foundation for an ongoing series – and an ongoing series that lasts for eight or nine or twelve or nineteen books is a series that creates a status quo and returns to it as often as possible; and the status quo is writ large in Sandman Slim, almost to the point of its being painful.
Here are things that a supernatural detective needs:
- A favorite bar with improbably good food – this isn’t so weird. Who doesn’t have a favorite bar? And wouldn’ t YOU prefer one that had good food? It helps if the place has a weird or quirky theme, as “weird” and “quirky” are a pretty good shorthand for “interesting.”
- Some kind of interesting hobby or geeky interest. “Old movies” is a good choice (especially because sticking with the classics lets you avoid inadvertently dating your current novels). “Collecting stuff” – comics, kitsch, whatever – is another good choice. The hobby should either be really weird – again, to stand in for interesting – or else the kind of thing that’s going to simultaneously connect with and intrigue your audience with your familiarity with good taste.
- Powers. Well, obviously – what are you supposed to fight demons and zombies with? Just your wits and a shovel? You’re not John Constantine, here. It’s best for powers to come from enigmatic sources, so that they can be added to and made more powerful as the series progresses.
- A secret heritage. This is particularly important for supernatural detectives because (due to a couple things I’ll get to in a minute) it’s going to be really important that their powers be able to increase in efficacy as the series progresses.
- A supporting cast. Vitally important. Here’s how your supporting cast breaks down. You will need:
A friend who is a benign criminal, like a thief or a con artist, with a special skill set that the main character can sometimes draw on.
A member of law enforcement with whom the main character can have a contentious relationship.
A civilian that the main character can go to for help (or to feel “normal”), and who the main character can eventually feel guilty over drawing into “his world.”
A member of the local criminal class, who is more of a criminal than the main character, and with whom the main character finds it distasteful, but sometimes necessary to work.
A character who is like the main character, but even more of a killer (so that the main character has someone to favorably compare himself to).
A really good person who helps the main character, but disapproves of his methods.
A neutral party with a hidden agenda. This character will be great, because he can start off as someone who seems like an ally, but as his agenda becomes clear, it will become obvious that he is actually up to something horrible.
Once these characters have been established, their relationships play out pretty much exactly the same way every time. Criminals are either killed are redeemed, civilians are either killed or indefinitely protected. The main character develops very little in terms of personality, because as readers, that’s not what we want; we don’t really want progress, we want to pick up a book, read it, then put it down and basically forget about it. We want to hang out with characters that we know and who are familiar to us, so “growth,” in the literary sense, is generally avoided.
I imagine that a lot of this is dictated by the basic economics of being a fiction writer. Publishers don’t want to buy manuscripts that are only going to yield one or two books; they want to buy manuscripts that have the potential to yield fifteen or twenty. And it’s true that sometimes the heroes in these stories DO get to break out of their groove – I’ve expressed my admiration for the fact that Jim Butcher has finally got Harry Dresden’s story really moving – but of course it’s going to take a while before you can get to that. You’re going to need, as a writer, to show your publisher that you can get a book onto the NYT bestseller list before anyone lets you mess around with the status quo.
The thing about the Groove is that, while it’s economically sensible, it leads to some interesting and kind of weird storytelling problems. The number one problem that it leads to is:
There are basically two different kinds of Creep that happen in a story like this: Creeping Stakes and Creeping Power. This is also where we start to see the unique characteristics of the supernatural detective story, as opposed to the regular detective story. The Groove, as I’ve just described, is applicable to practically any private detective series, and it could as easily apply to Spenser for Hire as it does Anita Blake or Harry Dresden.
But the supernaturalism of supernatural detective stories lets a writer take certain liberties that are unavailable to regular detectives. Let’s go back for a second and consider Payback – which I’m sure Kadrey consciously drew from for Sandman Slim (the protagonist in Sandman is named Stark; “Richard Stark” is the pseudonym that Donald Westlake used when he wrote Hunter, on which Payback is based). In Payback, Porter – the protagonist – is trying to get his share of an armored car job, for the which he had been shot in the back and left for dead. This amounts to $70,000, which is not very much money (the paltry sum for his revenge actually comes up a lot in the story); Porter goes up against gangsters and triads and corrupt cops, risks his life, and gets his butt kicked, and all for $70,000 worth of stakes.
In Sandman Slim – the very first book in what will be an ongoing series – we are introduced to monsters that are actually worse than demons, and who intend to basically destroy the universe. Those stakes are, by contrast, pretty high. And, in fact, with supernatural detectives, what you notice is that in order to remain interesting the stakes are forced to creep ever higher. Sure, some people’s lives were at stake last time, but this time the entire city is at stake. Well, THIS time the entire North American continent could be destroyed! Well THIS TIME all of civilization is in trouble!
The Anita Blake books are a hilarious example of this as, for the first (I want to say) five or six books, the antagonist was a vampire that was EVEN OLDER than the vampire in the previous book. Eventually, Laurell K. Hamilton tops out with a vampire Homo erectus who was a million years old; subsequently, she had to abandon the “older vampire” paradigm and start in on all manner of other monsters, in order to ensure that her readers were constantly feeling the danger.
I don’t think that this is really necessary – I think that the thing that regular detective fiction shows us is that, when the limit of “someone’s life is at stake” is imposed, it’s possible to construct many, many stories that remain interesting despite the fact that the stakes never really get any higher. “Raising the stakes” is really a kind of lazy storytelling – substituting increasingly larger consequences for actual dramatic suspense.
This constant rise in stakes is what causes the Creeping Power effect – as the antagonists slowly creep upward in terms of power, the powers that the hero manifests need to increase in order to match. The dramatic event of, “the hero is at the mercy of a greater power than he’s ever seen, but then draws on a strength he didn’t know that he had” is nominally interesting, and as long as the “greater power” and the “hidden strength” are constantly switched out with increasingly more imaginative elements, an author can get a lot of use out of this.
Of course, as the protagonist’s power creeps upwards, the antagonist’s must necessarily creep upwards in power as well, because what kind of tension is there in a story in which the main character is able to just make mincemeat of whoever he runs up against? Seeing a character just act like a stone-cold badass is fun for a while, but eventually your writing teacher’s advice-o-matic is going to kick in with some kind of “there must be some danger to the character in order to create suspense,” and now instead of fighting demon Nazis your hero has to fight atomic demon space Nazis, or something.
Now, there’s a third kind of Creep that I’ve saved for the end, because I think it’s not just something that you can see in microcosm in a series, but also as an ever-more-common feature of adventure fiction – and supernatural fiction – in general. That is the Creeping Bodycount Syndrome.
In The Big Sleep, Philip Marlowe shoots a grand total of one person. But in the modern era, we create tension with action, and action means shooting, and shooting means dead bodies. Lots of dead bodies. Moreover, because the stakes keep getting higher, the action needs to increase, and that means more dead bodies. In regular old detective fiction, the protagonist is still hindered by the fact that he’s got the law to worry about – he may have his own, personal sense of justice, and the cops may be corrupt, but the fact of the matter is one tough PI can’t take on a whole police department. Not only that, but in the world of the supernatural, there’s a higher law that the hero has to be concerned with – Harry Dresden isn’t just here to get his seventy grand back; he’s here to save the world, which means detonating a Cadillac with a giant fireball is well worth the risk.
All of which leads to a pretty fascinating distinction, for me, between modern supernatural detective fiction and the noir precedents to which it obtains:
So, modern detective fiction all works hard to evoke that particular quality of noir, and for supernatural detective fiction the combination is especially fruitful – noir is about a world that’s about as bad as it can get, and nothing in the regular world can be quite as bad as the bad things in supernatural fiction can be.
But the intensity of evil in supernatural stories yields a corresponding loss in moral ambiguity. If you look at the 1930s precursors to something like Sandman Slim, you see a world in which there’s no real good guys. The cops are crooked, the women are liars, and practically everyone is some kind of gangster. Everyone is just looking out for themselves, or in it for the money – and it’s that ultimate pettiness of the world that permits the heroes to have such a petty morality.
There is no real good or bad in the world of Payback – so Porter’s insistence that he get his $70,000, his one, fierce stand for personal honor – is as valid a moral choice as anything else. It is, in fact, an admirable choice. It’s an admirable choice when someone like Sam Spade doesn’t back down when he gets threatened because, when it comes down to it, how much does it really matter? If some Mafioso gets a hold of the Maltese Falcon, who really cares? The rich are always getting richer, and they’re always stepping on people in order to do it; good people are always getting shot, and bringing their killers to justice is never going to put a stop to that. So, for a detective to stand up for what he thinks is right, however small and pointless that stand is, is for someone to force morality on an immoral world.
Except, in the supernatural world, there IS a side of the angels. And it has actual angels on it. At the pre-climax of Sandman Slim, the protagonist participates in a raid on a demented brothel run by sociopaths who are trying to perform a ritual that will basically destroy the world (demented sociopaths are a nice adversary, because you can kill as many as you like without feeling bad, and Kadrey doesn’t flesh these guys out beyond the “LA slimeball demented pimp” signifier). But when Wells (the “law enforcement officer with whom the main character has a contentious relationship”) asks the titular Sandman whether or not he’ll help in the raid, Sandman Slim tells him he’s just coming to help get back his kidnapped friends.
Now, this makes perfect sense in an analogous, non-supernatural detective story. If we were talking about a raid on a crack house by a police force that was probably equally criminal, having the detective say, “I don’t care what you guys are up to; this is a petty world, and my morality is equally petty” is fine. Except in this case, the villains in question are trying to actually, literally destroy the world – making Sandman Slim’s position a little ridiculous. What would be the point of rescuing your kidnapped friends only to have them die when Hell invaded earth and destroyed everything, anyway?
In one of the Harry Dresden books (Blood Rites, I think) Harry has a conversation with a Knight of the Cross (soldiers who have been anointed by God to fight demons, using swords that are made with nails from the True Cross) named Sanya, who claims to be an atheist. Harry declares this position to be ridiculous, claiming that he himself might refuse to pick a side in the war between Heaven and Hell, but for Sanya to actually not believe in Heaven at all is absurd.
Of course, Harry’s is actually the more ridiculous position; for a character to say, “I don’t know if I believe in an absolute omniscient, omnipotent force for good – this evidence is unsatisfactory – but I know that I can do good where I see it, and so I will,” is a far more morally-responsible position than Harry’s “I believe that there is an omniscient, omnipotent force for good in the world, I just don’t always want to do what He tells me.” In Philip Marlowe’s world, in which there are no right answers, this is defiant individualism; in a world in which Good and Evil are actual, real, verifiable forces, it’s nothing more than petulance.
In fact, the entire structure of the modern supernatural detective novel exists in support of this petulance. The array of supporting characters, for instance, exists primarily to normalize the main character’s moral reprehensibility – by having a roughly equal number of people who are worse than the protagonist (verifiably evil) and better than he, the author places the main character in the center of a spectrum of morality – but, in fact, a character willing to use violent or deadly means in order to achieve his ends is not necessarily the center of an ordinary, “real-life”” social moral distribution. And in an ordinary world, or one that at least had a pretense towards ordinarity, the question of that morality would need to be asked if the author had an interest in genuinely honest storytelling.
Equally, villains in stories like this are constructed to absolve the hero of moral responsibility – bad guys are always demons, or monsters, or vampires, or Neo-Nazis. Neo-Nazis are a great villain, because who feels bad about burning them alive? Hardly anyone; since they’re evil, there’s nothing uncomfortable about killing them. And as long as the bad guys have some genuinely dastardly plan (raping angels or something similarly horrible), as opposed to the greedy, selfish plans that defined the Joel Cairos of the past, then no hero ever really needs to ask whether or not what they’re doing is the right thing.
In the end, despite the pretense of “noir”, even the pulpiest of the new pulps – books like Sandman Slim – never really recreate the moral ambiguity of the old detective fiction. The sick feeling that there’s no right way out, the claustrophobia of being plopped into a drama of human misery in which every player is a liar and a criminal, all of that is replaced in the modern, supernatural detective stories with the raw, visceral pleasure of getting to blow up cartoonish caricatures of evil.
The Noir Skin
I don’t want to seem like I’m picking on Jim Butcher and Harry Dresden; the Dresden Files are quite a fun series, and Butcher’s been doing some great things with it—especially in the last book. But it does serve as a convenient example for an interesting feature about the neo-noir supernatural detective genre.
Consider: a hero who has to face down an ultimate evil by drawing on a secret legacy of power, and who thus defends all of mankind from destruction—that’s not a noir structure at all. It’s the driving structure of what we usually call “epic fantasy”, and it’s probably no accident that series like the Dresden Files or Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter are full of de facto nobility. What we see when we look at modern supernatural detective fiction—even the kind that claims an “antihero” as its main character—is not noir at all. Or, rather, it’s an epic fantasy structure that wears the trappings of noir. The old-fashioned noir-detective stories are a romanticized skin that’s been layered over what is ultimately a far more simplistic storytelling core; it’s not about moral ambiguity at all, or about standing up for what’s right despite all odds being stacked against you. It’s about sunglasses and trenchcoats and dames; about being able to call yourself a private detective, and so claiming that you’re independent of a social status quo—but, because you’re really in an epic fantasy, and epic fantasy is typically reactionary, you’re actually just serving the social status quo. Supernatural detective fiction (and a lot of regular detective fiction; see the aforementioned Spenser for Hire) adopts the affect of its Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammet predecessors, but still fits snugly into the warm, comfortable, and never-particularly-challenging mold of epic fantasy.
It’s satisfying, and entertaining, there’s no denying that. And there’s no easy answer to the question as to whether or not killing the badguys in fiction is a therapeutic release in a world in which we don’t get the chance to do that, or it’s a kind of a bad habit that reinforces a basic sociopathy to which all human beings are subject. What is true is that the need to preserve this jejune morality – this structure in which the white hats get to shoot the black hats and in the end it all turns out okay – is one of the major driving forces of a genre that runs a very serious risk of becoming stale, repetitive, and bereft of the intelligence that should be at its center.