[noir]

Dead Men Prefer Blondes

usty Deutsch’s name was, much like her hair colour, pure fabrication.

Her red ringlets glowed against the dark wood of the pub’s interior like embers in a fireplace. Bruen watched her approach from his customary corner, and with each step her face aged a year. Close-up, she was fifty, maybe fifty-five, and visibly tired of life. He counted

the rings under her eyes
the creases at her mouth
the broken fingernails

as she pulled out the chair and took a seat.

Ken Bruen?” Her eyes were wider than they ought to be.

Bruen nodded. “Nice to see you, Rusty. Congratulations on winning the competition.”

There was almost a blush. A shade darker and it would have matched the dye in her hair. “I’ve read all the Jack Taylor books. When they announced the contest, I entered straight away.” She smiled. Her teeth were crooked. “I had no idea you lived in London. Well… I know you and Jack Taylor aren’t one and the same, but…”

“You thought Galway?” Bruen smirked playfully. “It’s a well-known fact that all the best Irishmen don’t live in Ireland. I also don’t get through quite as many of these as Jack does.” He held up his glass and peered through it at Rusty. She was trapped in amber for a moment.

Rusty’s features mellowed with the evening, until she approached the colour of the faux marble statues standing on the bar. She told Bruen about her job, her ailing mother, thanked him profusely for the chance to meet him. After her third gin and tonic, the whites around her eyes had turned pink.

“Do you know why I read your books?’ she asked.

“No. And I don’t care as long as you pay for ’em.” Bruen smiled.

“My husband was in the Gardaí, he was a policeman, like Jack Taylor.”

Bruen swilled his beer and wondered: Is she a

widow
a divorcée
a madwoman?

When she brushed the red out of her face self-consciously, Bruen asked whether they should go.


utside, the rain spattered as from a paintbrush. Bruen flipped his collar and held the door for Rusty, who exited and then stood, bouncing on the heels of her feet, beneath the illuminated pub sign.

“Sure, let me give you a lift home,” he said. Two beers were as many as he would allow into the driver’s seat of his Volvo. Rusty climbed into the passenger side, and after the hollow thunk of door-metal, they made their way onto the slick street.

Second gear.

“He died a few years ago. In the line of duty is the phrase they use, I suppose.”

“Your man? Sorry to hear such a thing.”

Third gear.

They passed under a low-set bridge and graffiti glared at them.

“Were you in the Gardaí?” she asked.

Bruen spun the wheel gently and shifted back into second.

“Me? No, never. There’s three things you can be as a son of Ireland:

priest
teacher
or doctor.

I took option two and disappointed both the Holy Mother and my own holy ma.”

They climbed a ramp onto the motorway.

Third gear
Fourth gear

“Well, my other half ran with the bad crowd; that’s what he used to say. That’s what did him in, I spose.” Rusty glanced over at Bruen. “Sort of like Jack.”

“Jack’s not a nice fella, Rusty.”

Bruen imagined Jack Taylor’s face, the face he saw when he sat down at his laptop to write. Caved in and pock-marked, thinning white hair like the dying stroke of a paintbrush. Always a pint of beer in his hand.

“Jack’s only in it for himself,” Bruen added. “Wouldn’t make a good husband.”

Rusty Deutsch laughed.

They were close to Finchley Park and not far from the address that Rusty had given him. They pulled off the motorway and the lanes merged into one, trees sprouting up by the side of the road.

“What happened?” Bruen said it quietly, as though the words were tiptoeing past him as he spoke. “Was he shot? Or stabbed. Stabbing is more likely, in Ireland.”

“He drowned.” Twitching his head sideways, Bruen saw that Rusty had turned away from him. In the dim light of the streetlamps,

light
dark
light
dark,

her hair seemed to writhe, Medusa-like. Bruen fixed his eyes on the white lines of the road ahead.


he trees were red herrings. Rusty’s mother lived in a concrete housing estate that towered above the borough, a long-lost symbol of Thatcher’s Britain. Perhaps he should set a novel in London after all, Bruen thought.

“My best to your mother,” he said.

Rusty clutched her purse and opened the door. As she climbed out, in her narrow, angular bones and the tumble of red on top of her head, there was something approaching art.

“And don’t get too hooked on Jack Taylor – he was never a good Guard, nor much of a man.”

“I never said he was,” Rusty replied, and slammed the car door.

Bruen wound down the passenger window and called out: “But he reminds you of your man?”

“I hated my husband, Ken. And he hated me.” She was taking baby steps backwards in her plastic high heels. “He always preferred blondes, you see?”

Rusty pivoted and a shadow swallowed her, from head to toe, until just the clicking of her shoes

bounced
around
the breeze
block
building.

Advertisements
Standard
[noir]

The Detectives’ Book Club

The second time I saw Sam Hammett, he strode toward me with an unwarranted rancour, crumpled with a surly air into the chair opposite me and dropped onto the table a hardback book. The sound of it striking the rosewood made a wizened crone browsing the non-fiction splash coffee on the carpet tiles.

Hammett was greying. With the occasional stripe of black reaching back across the bristles, his hair was the half-used eraser to his pencil-thin body. His moustache draped his upper lip in a great arc. He seemed nonetheless to be sneering.

“This,” he said, stabbing the book’s dust cover with a narrrow finger, “is not what I asked for, Mr Archer.”

The Second Murderer is a classic work of detective fiction, Mr Hammett.” I paused, under the illusion that silence might be the solution.  But he leaned forward, opened the book to the first chapter and proceeded to read:

Ray Delaney’s coffee smelt like the underside of a bus. As the heat dissipated into the early morning sky, he could hear the counterpoint of city wildlife bubbling just beneath the veneer of civilisation. Cats mewed to a symphony of scratches and overturned trashcans, birds querulously warbled and – in the distance, unheard – larger creatures prowled the rocky red Californian soil.

The blue of Hammett’s eyes stung my face. “Like the underside of a bus?” he said. “What the hell kind of writing is that?”

“That is, Mr Hammett, one of the most famous opening paragraphs in detective fiction. Charles Thornton is not quite our best-selling author, but here at the Mysterious Bibliophile we thrive on sales of this novel, one you that seem so intent on disparaging.”

“It’s about as elegant as as…” He fumbled for a phrase caught in the air between us. Instead he continued: “as a… tarantula choking down a piece of dog food!”

A cough hybridised with a burst of chuckling escaped from a figure seated in the far corner of the store. He stood, reached with a glabrous hand a black wooden pipe to his mouth and stepped toward us around a tower of Erle Stanley Gardners. His suit was better upholstered than my couch.

“Good to see you in such festive spirits, Sam.”  In spite of the pipe he enunciated each syllable with an Ivy League exactitude. His jacket and vest were of a heavy tweed, and though his chin was weak he concealed it with copious puffs of smoke. He seemed to have punctured Hammett’s pomposity.

Hammett stood. “Ray,” he said. “I didn’t realise you frequented this place. Is this where they keep your poetry these days?”

Chandler smirked, his eyes watery but keen behind round, thin-rimmed glasses. He said: “I’ve circumvented the need to demean myself in the world of poetry, Sam, and so have you. Much like Mr Thornton, in fact—I’m terribly surprised you’re not a fan—we can bask in the glory of popular success without the expectation of  critical praise.”

Still seated, I watched them as though theirs was a struggle of Homeric proportions. Hammett’s gaze seemed to soften in the face of this raffishness, whilst Chandler—quieter, smaller and trying his best not to seem flustered in spite of it all—puffed a perfectly-twisting curl of oak-flavoured smoke into the air.

“Gentlemen,” I said. “Please take a seat, I’m sure I can find something to both Mr Hammett’s and Mr Chandler’s taste.” I rose and went to the back of the store. A stack of titles as yet unsorted teetered between two leather armchairs. I removed a soft cover and returned to my seat, perched my glasses on my nose and turned to the opening paragraph:

Her features, soft like wax, are half-hidden in the darkness. I wait until the train crossing the bridge screams into a corner and fades before I ask her why she is here. She speaks in riddles, fractal sentences, misappropriated phrases and English half-wrapped in her native tongue. I sputter in German, consonants and vowels spill beneath the underpass and flicker for a moment in the midnight air before obscurity snatches them. We talk like broken glass before, finally, her face leans toward mine and I see a wisp of warmth on her lips vaporise between us.

I could neither gauge their reaction nor draw a deep, well-earned breath before Hammett sprang to his feet and said: “Wonderful, that is more like it, Mr ArcherThe Laconic German, correct?”

“Yes, one of Gerald Loughton’s more pop…”

“Good God, Sam!” crowed Chandler, pulling the pipe from his mouth and swinging it in an arc as though dispensing incense. “He just spat at the alphabet and hoped for the best. There’s nothing there that one would be unable to express in a single sentence.”

“What sentence would you suggest, exactly, my dear Raymond?” he said, arching a bushy black eyebrow.

Chandler, now twisted in his chair the better to address Hammett, replaced his pipe and said: “I kissed her,” he paused. “Like she was my last drink of the night.”

Hammett raised a hand to his forehead and his blazer ballooned out from his sides. If he were any thinner he would disappear, I thought. He began to pace like a tiger enclosed, vivacious yet centred, appropriating with embracing gestures of his arms words from the book-dust around him.  “All you’re interested in, Ray: Adjectives and nouns. Try some verbs some day.”

“Nouns and adjectives are all that this country is interested in, Sam,” said Chandler.

The words bounced off Hammett as he paced toward the non-fiction. The old woman, now sipping lukewarm dregs from a Mysterious Bibliophile coffee mug, squinted up at Hammett, blind to the author’s eager stare.

Chandler creased back to face me in his chair and placed his hand on the dust cover of The Second Murderer. He said: “Do you know, Mr Archer, that Charles DeForest Thornton appropriated this title from me.” It was not a question. “My first novel was, in the original draft, going to be called The Second Murderer. But the agents, second only to actors in their finite wisdom, did not appreciate the reference.”

“Sometimes reference is all we have left,” I said. Chandler nodded sourly, eyes obscured in the glint of his lenses, chin hidden in a wreath of smoke. He rose slowly and traipsed past me toward his corner, and toward his miniature stack of books.

I looked back to Hammett. He was stood in a shaft of light at the front of the store, eyeing the shelves despondently. The sun—creeping in from the steps that led to the curb outside—shone onto the white streaks in his hair to form an afternoon halo. Behind me, Chandler was puffing like an irregular steam train and making notations on a battered copy of Eliot’s Waste Land.

I picked up The Second Murderer.

Cats mewed to a symphony of scratches and overturned trashcans, birds querulously warbled and – in the distance, unheard – larger creatures prowled the rocky red Californian soil.

Delaney was focused intently on the sunlight catching the right-angles of his filing cabinet. It was a dry, stubborn heat that had been many times his saviour, drawing from others an unexpected candour.

Delaney did not know it, but today was the first time he would see Sylvia Munroe.

[ends]

Standard
[noir]

The Whole Nagila

Shlomo Nagila‘s office overlooked Hanover Place, a narrow alley cut into the base of two skyscrapers. On Hanover were red-brick buildings clustered close to their taller, younger brethren, and at the head of the the alleyway was a theatre older even than Nagila’s offices. As he did every morning, he gazed down at the street below and sipped coffee from an insulated mug, wondering whether, today or ever, his business would grow successful enough that he might have to move into one of the black and silver towers surrounding him.

He walked his small, portly frame to his desk and pulled out a list of names and phone numbers. Several of the names were scratched out, others asterisked, but most were unmarked. All were customers of Fidelius Insurance. All were claimants. And it was Nagila’s job to investigate each claim and to report on any apparently fraudulent activity. Unnecessary assurances that this was as dull as airplane food made up much of every evening’s conversation with his wife.

He had called one name on the list and was laying the phone back in its cradle when an irate insectoid buzz sounded in the outer room. After regaining his composure – in almost twenty years he had never grown accustomed to Hanover Place’s angry doorbells – he made his way to the buzzer and pressed the button that linked the video screen to the camera at the front door.

A woman, dark hair tucked behind her ears and a bright red bag hanging from her door-buzzing arm, was moving her eyes from the ground to the small golden plaque that had Nagila’s name etched into it in faded black lettering. He let her in, then went and frowned at his reflection in the office window. With his increasingly arthritic fingers, he combed his combover over and went back to the outer room.

His guest did not knock. Stepping into the room she stumbled an “oh, hello” and held out a hand. He shook it. The woman wore a floral print dress in white and red, her purse of the same colour now hanging by her side. Cut across her forehead in a line were bangs so black that they could not have been natural, and offset with bright red lipstick these gave her face a hint of unintended severity.

“You look like you’ve just come from the 1940s,” Nagila said. She cracked a smile and seemed to be searching for a reply. He turned and walked toward his office. “I, on the other hand, actually do come from the 1940s. Right this way.”

“You are Mr. Nagila?” she asked.

“That’s what the plaque has said for seventeen years.”

“Of course, I…”

“Have a seat. I only have one.” He gestured at the faux leather desk chair. She creased into it and lay her bag over his list.

“Mr. Nagila, my name is Sandra Sussman and I’m looking to employ your services,” she said, adding “Much as I dislike the thought.”

“I think we’re going to enjoy working together. What is it? Divorce? Or maybe we’re not that far, maybe you just suspect your husband is cheating?”

Sussman looked nonplussed and said: “If that’s a convoluted way of asking whether I’m married, then forget it. I’m not. But I notice that you are.” She inclined her head toward Nagila’s left hand. Nagila attempted a lordly well-okay-then bow, smiled as his combover flapped onto his forehead, and asked how he could be of assistance.

“I need you to investigate my boss,” she said.

“Look, Ms. Sussman,” Nagila replied. “I do insurance work, divorce papers, the occasional candy-taken-from-a-baby crime. This one-man, one-swivel-chair office is not quite as chi-chi as it seems.” She looked down at the desk, her eyes scanning the bottom of the Fidelius list. As she pushed her bag to one side and leaned out her arms, her eyes caught the page’s letterhead and widened.

Nagila was asking: “So what’s your boss up to? Embezzling, sexual harassment? Transvestism? I had one of those about two y…”

“You’re working for Fidelius?” she rushed, breathily.

“Like I said. Insurance work.” Nagila spoke carefully, leaned up from the window and took several steps toward the desk. This might, contrary to all expectations, become interesting.

His guest sat upright in the desk-chair, her cotton dress squeaking against the imitation leather. “I’m an underwriter for Fidelius.” She got up and walked past Nagila. She was, he noticed, nearly a foot taller than him. The tips of her old-fashioned bob would have brushed nicely against his flap of hair. Framed by the window against an imposing, chrome-tinted skyscraper, Sussman looked dislodged in time, like she had been transported here from an episode of Mad Men.

“Right there.” She pointed at the barely visible tip of a building toward the harbour. “That’s his office, my boss. Conrad Callow.”

Nagila squinted, unable to make out more than another radio mast steeple on another skyscraper.

“Callow just made some very interesting adjustments to his wife’s life insurance policy, adjustments that I had to sign off on,” she explained. “The premiums went up, but so did the proceeds. And Conrad is the one paying Mrs. Callow’s new premium balance.”

“That certainly sounds both worrisome and tedious. My kind of work,” Nagila said.

Sandra Sussman provided him with photocopied documents, as well as her cellphone number and email address. A promise of down-payment was made in exchange for his assurances that, if all turned out well in the world of Conrad and Stephanie Callow, Nagila would charge only half his normal hourly rate. He agreed, telling her “We both make money from others’ misfortunes, Ms. Sussman” as he escorted her to the front door.

Later that afternoon, Hanover Place was thronging with people. A long, black truck with tinted windows had parked in front of Shlomo Nagila’s building and, from the end nearest the aging Pandoria Theatre, tattooed and bearded men were wheeling around large black and silver cases and traipsing back and forth with guitar-shaped boxes.

In the inevitable dusk, and with his glasses perched at the end of his nose, he could see a clearer outline of the Fidelius building Sussman had pointed out. The radio masts were stark silhouettes against the setting sun, and Nagila imagined for a moment that Conrad Callow might open a window stories above the street and gently tip his wife out into the summer evening air. He knew, however, that insurance fraud was rarely that thrilling.

He turned on the single overhead bulb and picked up the Fidelius List. At the bottom, asterisked because he had been unable to reach her earlier that week, was the name Stephanie P. Callow. He lifted the phone from its cradle and began to dial. [continues]

Standard
[noir]

Faber: A Photograph and a Clue

It is 2007. Faber, a student of post-modern detective author Charles Thornton, is in Berlin investigating an unpublished Thornton novel and events leading up to Thornton’s death in 1996. ‘The Poet’, a supposed friend of Thornton’s, pays an unexpected visit to Faber’s apartment.

Another photograph was uncovered, courtesy of the Poet. When the straggle-haired bohemian had appeared at Faber’s apartment door, his crumpled corduroy jacket tasting ripe in the humidity, he seemed curiously out of place. His conformist individuality was perfectly suited to Prenzlauer Berg and to the neo-Communist café where they had met, but on the quiet streets of Neukoelln he was visibly uncomfortable.

The Poet’s photo revealed a room, sparsely furnished and poorly arranged. The gloom was broken only by a crescent of light which shone from a desklamp at the centre of the frame. Surrounding the hunched figure of Charles Thornton was a halo of sixty watts, an author outlined in twilight.

On the third floor, the Poet stood at the kitchen window and looked across the courtyard to the graffitied building opposite. “Weiss ich gar nicht,” he said. Faber had switched into rudimentary German. He hoped that this courtesy might loosen the man’s lips.

“The last decade of his life,” Faber said, “inside that concrete cube, all alone.”

“All alone except for his photographer,” replied the Poet. It was unclear just what had prompted the anonymous face behind the camera to snap this frame: Thornton’s expression was neutral, his typewriter—though uncovered—was not loaded with paper, and the darkness literally obscured the possibility of a nighttime reading session.

“I didn’t want to tell you this.” The Poet moved away from the window , scraped past Faber and turned right into the living room. “But this photo was taken by his secretary Helga. It landed in a box in my basement when she left Berlin six years ago. Charles Thornton,” he concluded, “did not have many friends.”

Faber had reached the middle of the room. The Poet sat and gazed at the picture on the coffee table in front of him. “Are you saying that Thornton and Helga, they—?” Faber stepped between the table and the sofa and sunk into the neigbouring seat, as far as the second-hand cushions would allow.

The Poet said: “I don’t know whether they were lovers, but then whether they fucked or not is not really the point… if there is a point to any of your digging, Mr. Faber.” The indignation was this time unfeigned, but any vitriol he felt had long since been replaced with melancholy. “They were partners—as long as I had known Charles, he had been hers, and she his.”

Slowly manoeuvring the photograph across the table, Faber examined its borders as though there might be a perfume or a voice described imperceptibly at the edges of the frame. Helga had, behind the lens, captured a moment of serenity at the apex of Thornton’s breakdown. At that time Thornton had been working on the last Delaney novel, and though Faber had only managed to wrangle from his publishers an outline of Delaney & the Devil’s Interval, those years had evidently been close to unbearable for both Charles and Helga.

“I leave this with you,” said the Poet. “Any time you want to come up to Prenzlberg and bury yourself in a dead man’s world, let me know. My basement is your basement.” As he rose a smirk grew from the corner of his mouth to his left cheek. Faber thanked him, rose too, and waited for the echoing footsteps to decay in the hallway.

*       *       *

Across Faber’s desk were strewn Delaney novels and literary companions, his own notes, newspaper cuttings and cassette tapes, derivative fiction started but never finished and—finally—the photograph of Charles Thornton. The ex-pat author, the post-modern dean of detective noir, the mysterious émigré: Faber had used each of these descriptions numerous times in his academic papers, but none was sufficient to describe the man in this dog-eared picture, wrapped in a figurative and literal gloom. Somewhere out of shot, the indistinct Helga had turned Thornton’s voyeuristic tendency back on himself. Helga, he thought. Until today you were just a secretary.

He grasped for a cassette perched at the top of a small stack, but his wrecking ball hand toppled them and they clattered onto the desk. A neon pink post-it note protruded from one of the cases. Faber picked it out of the rubble and inserted the tape into the Dictaphone. He clicked PLAY and Thorton’s voice made the room instantly smoky.

“I suppose it comes to every generation, or at least to those who have lived through such a turbulent time and lived on — or should I say survived? — to tell the tale. It is only so far along a certain path that we can go before we reach thorns and stingers crowding over, under, and around us, impeding our progress so that we are compelled to stop. To stand still, only able to glance through the twists of green at that which lies ahead.

“We live in a post-satire world, someone once said. I forget who. Research is not my strong suit. But whoever passed on to us that particularly uninformative nugget of information was, to all intents and purposes, correct. Everything is post something, and we’ve come so far along this particular timeline — which cannot be altered, erased, reordered or accurately described — that we can only define ourselves by that which we succeed. Time pushes on against us, anticipating both physical and cultural decay to such an extent, that the modern has been twisted into an absurd, caricature-like, defiantly meaningless post-modern, no matter that defining one’s cultural existence as ‘meaningless’ is a paradox as big as they come.

“Post-modern. It is a prefix which signals the arrival of those thorns and stingers and the end of progress. Fin-de-siecle, one used to call it. But at the turn of the 20th century, when we were still kind enough to lock away famous homosexual men for their private indiscretions, at least a few of us were smart enough to know that we weren’t smart enough to know very much. I never thought much of his dramas or poems but it’s clear that old Oscar knew this: all is forgiven if you spread yourself — like a shameless veneer of credibility — just thinly enough around a room of half-baked writers.”

A click followed by a change in the pitch of the static signalled the end of the entry. As he replaced the cassette tape, the neon note told Faber that the recording was from “ca. Aug. 1993.” Lichttrager Verlag, Thornton’s publishers, had confirmed that a full draft of Devil’s Interval had been submitted by January 1994.

This picture had surfaced, had made its way organically from Helga via Thornton to the Poet and—at last—to Faber, and it was a clue, something of substance bearing the burden of something with none. Digging in a desk drawer, Faber pulled out a business card, corners frayed but text still legible, and he wrote down the Hamburg address printed on the front of it. It was time to pay a visit to Helga Schnatterer. [continues]

A clue, something of substance bearing the burden of something with none.
Standard
[noir]

The Detectives’ Book Club

The second time I saw Sam Hammett, he strode toward me with an unwarranted rancour, crumpled with a surly air into the chair opposite me and dropped onto the table a hardback book. The sound of it striking the rosewood made a wizened crone browsing the non-fiction splash coffee on the carpet tiles.

Hammett was greying. With the occasional stripe of black reaching back across the bristles, his hair was the half-used eraser to his pencil-thin body. His moustache draped his upper lip in a great arc. He seemed nonetheless to be sneering.

“This,” he said, stabbing the book’s dust cover with a narrrow finger, “is not what I asked for, Mr Archer.”

The Second Murderer is a classic work of detective fiction, Mr Hammett.” I paused, under the illusion that silence might be the solution.  But he leaned forward, opened the book to the first chapter and proceeded to read:

Ray Delaney’s coffee smelt like the underside of a bus. As the heat dissipated into the early morning sky, he could hear the counterpoint of city wildlife bubbling just beneath the veneer of civilisation. Cats mewed to a symphony of scratches and overturned trashcans, birds querulously warbled and – in the distance, unheard – larger creatures prowled the rocky red Californian soil.

The blue of Hammett’s eyes stung my face. “Like the underside of a bus?” he said. “What the hell kind of writing is that?”

“That is, Mr Hammett, one of the most famous opening paragraphs in detective fiction. Charles Thornton is not quite our best-selling author, but here at the Mysterious Bibliophile we thrive on sales of this novel, one you that seem so intent on disparaging.”

“It’s about as elegant as as…” He fumbled for a phrase caught in the air between us. Instead he continued: “as a… tarantula choking down a piece of dog food!”

A cough hybridised with a burst of chuckling escaped from a figure seated in the far corner of the store. He stood, reached with a glabrous hand a black wooden pipe to his mouth and stepped toward us around a tower of Erle Stanley Gardners. His suit was better upholstered than my couch.

“Good to see you in such festive spirits, Sam.”  In spite of the pipe he enunciated each syllable with an Ivy League exactitude. His jacket and vest were of a heavy tweed, and though his chin was weak he concealed it with copious puffs of smoke. He seemed to have punctured Hammett’s pomposity.

Hammett stood. “Ray,” he said. “I didn’t realise you frequented this place. Is this where they keep your poetry these days?”

Chandler smirked, his eyes watery but keen behind round, thin-rimmed glasses. He said: “I’ve circumvented the need to demean myself in the world of poetry, Sam, and so have you. Much like Mr Thornton, in fact—I’m terribly surprised you’re not a fan—we can bask in the glory of popular success without the expectation of  critical praise.”

Still seated, I watched them as though theirs was a struggle of Homeric proportions. Hammett’s gaze seemed to soften in the face of this raffishness, whilst Chandler—quieter, smaller and trying his best not to seem flustered in spite of it all—puffed a perfectly-twisting curl of oak-flavoured smoke into the air.

“Gentlemen,” I said. “Please take a seat, I’m sure I can find something to both Mr Hammett’s and Mr Chandler’s taste.” I rose and went to the back of the store. A stack of titles as yet unsorted teetered between two leather armchairs. I removed a soft cover and returned to my seat, perched my glasses on my nose and turned to the opening paragraph:

Her features, soft like wax, are half-hidden in the darkness. I wait until the train crossing the bridge screams into a corner and fades before I ask her why she is here. She speaks in riddles, fractal sentences, misappropriated phrases and English half-wrapped in her native tongue. I sputter in German, consonants and vowels spill beneath the underpass and flicker for a moment in the midnight air before obscurity snatches them. We talk like broken glass before, finally, her face leans toward mine and I see a wisp of warmth on her lips vaporise between us.

I could neither gauge their reaction nor draw a deep, well-earned breath before Hammett sprang to his feet and said: “Wonderful, that is more like it, Mr ArcherThe Laconic German, correct?”

“Yes, one of Gerald Loughton’s more pop…”

“Good God, Sam!” crowed Chandler, pulling the pipe from his mouth and swinging it in an arc as though dispensing incense. “He just spat at the alphabet and hoped for the best. There’s nothing there that one would be unable to express in a single sentence.”

“What sentence would you suggest, exactly, my dear Raymond?” he said, arching a bushy black eyebrow.

Chandler, now twisted in his chair the better to address Hammett, replaced his pipe and said: “I kissed her,” he paused. “Like she was my last drink of the night.”

Hammett raised a hand to his forehead and his blazer ballooned out from his sides. If he were any thinner he would disappear, I thought. He began to pace like a tiger enclosed, vivacious yet centred, appropriating with embracing gestures of his arms words from the book-dust around him.  “All you’re interested in, Ray: Adjectives and nouns. Try some verbs some day.”

“Nouns and adjectives are all that this country is interested in, Sam,” said Chandler.

The words bounced off Hammett as he paced toward the non-fiction. The old woman, now sipping lukewarm dregs from a Mysterious Bibliophile coffee mug, squinted up at Hammett, blind to the author’s eager stare.

Chandler creased back to face me in his chair and placed his hand on the dust cover of The Second Murderer. He said: “Do you know, Mr Archer, that Charles DeForest Thornton appropriated this title from me.” It was not a question. “My first novel was, in the original draft, going to be called The Second Murderer. But the agents, second only to actors in their finite wisdom, did not appreciate the reference.”

“Sometimes reference is all we have left,” I said. Chandler nodded sourly, eyes obscured in the glint of his lenses, chin hidden in a wreath of smoke. He rose slowly and traipsed past me toward his corner, and toward his miniature stack of books.

I looked back to Hammett. He was stood in a shaft of light at the front of the store, eyeing the shelves despondently. The sun—creeping in from the steps that led to the curb outside—shone onto the white streaks in his hair to form an afternoon halo. Behind me, Chandler was puffing like an irregular steam train and making notations on a battered copy of Eliot’s Waste Land.

I picked up The Second Murderer.

Cats mewed to a symphony of scratches and overturned trashcans, birds querulously warbled and – in the distance, unheard – larger creatures prowled the rocky red Californian soil.

Delaney was focused intently on the sunlight catching the right-angles of his filing cabinet. It was a dry, stubborn heat that had been many times his saviour, drawing from others an unexpected candour.

Delaney did not know it, but today was the first time he would see Sylvia Munroe.

[ends]

Standard
[noir]

The Detective

Interior, night. The short end of an L-shaped bar. The bartender is young, shining glasses unironically.

The detective crossed his legs in a manner almost feminine, tugged the cuffs of his white shirt another half-inch towards his fingertips, and tilted his head approximately 45 degrees to the left.

The colour of his eyes matched a background of drapes. He poured from the bottle. The light was low but I could make out an autumnal copper stream tinkling and twirling into the glass.

Lingering on the upstroke of the L-shaped bar was a woman, swinging across her torso a hand conducting some silent symphony. A forgotten scent drifted from her end of the room. The detective leaned his left elbow on the counter and thumbed in the woman’s direction. “Dimmer than a thirty-watt bulb at midnight,” he said.

The slow-motion bartender appeared at my right, the detective’s left, and placed a glass tumbler two thirds full in front of me. “I’m left-handed,” I said. He stared at me for either a second or an hour; eventually he swallowed the contents of the glass and glided back to the centre of the upstroke.

The interview was going none-too-well. “Why do you come here? To the Idlewild?” I said.

“For the atmosphere, Mr Butler.” He made an expansive gesture with his hands during which he glanced at our single companion, the conductress. “The smells and colours, the lights at midnight. People tell you what you want to hear by candlelight.”

I glanced to my left. Outside was a Packard convertible; through the rain on the window pane it was a splash of paints arranged impressionistically. I asked: “What’s your favourite movie?”

The detective laughed. “I don’t go to the cinema.” I began to like him some more. He tugged again on his cuffs. “In subdued lighting the heartbeat slows to almost nothing. The Idlewild, by that reasoning, hardly exists at all.”

The bartender and the conductress were talking. The sub-silent hum of their conversation came through like an underwater cymbal crash. I sipped from my glass and strained to make out a word or two. She was pouting, unpouting, blinking too slowly; I began to appreciate my companion’s assessment of her.

The detective unwound his legs, tied them in the other direction. He straightened his head.

“We are all actors in tiny cages, Mr Butler. We have such a small domain in which to perform.” He paused for no reason. “Small cogs in a large machine. It’s just that–I would rather be the oil.”

The detective was a man in his forties. His aquiline nose and severe jaw were filmic, emphasised by the shadows cast on the deep green curtains. He wore his tie loose. Beneath his suit jacket like a poorly wrapped Christmas present was, I knew, a pistol.

The conductress had broken off her dialogue and was dragging her eyes across the misshapen bar. She smiled a false smile. She was pretty in a leonine way, honey-coloured hair pulled back away from her forehead, skin stretched tight over high cheekbones.

“You are a poet? A newshound?” asked the detective.

“A writer.” I bobbed my head in a horizontal movement. My glass was empty so I picked up the decanter. I poured first for myself then for my subject. The stream of liquid caught the candlelight and made a perfect arc before coming to rest. A literal spirit level.

Lifting his glass to propose a toast, the detective said: “To the oil.” I replied in kind.

We sipped a little more. I looked through the tumbler at the fisheye reflections in its sides. The detective’s feral quality was made bulbous, clownish rather than grotesque. I watched him take a drink and imagined derricks dipping and rising. Small cogs in a large machine.

Writers.” he said. “Why is it always writers?”

I placed the glass on the formica table top. It cast a flickering candlelit shadow in one direction; in the other the bar lights produced a stiff, stark phantom.

The detective leaned forward, uncrossed his legs. “Every production of nature has had a history.” I didn’t argue. “Every complex structure is the summing up of many contrivances.”

“Is that what you do? Deconstruct? Decontrive?” In one movement he shrugged off the question, picked up his glass and leaned back into his seat.

“Do you think there is a purpose, Mr Butler? Something more than blind, pitiless indifference?”

I told him I didn’t know. He made a small circle with his left hand and half-hearted ice cubes chimed.

To my left and outside the window the detective’s convertible was now a photograph that had been left out in the rain. The clouds had eased apart and the Packard’s roof sagged under the weight of its watery load.

“What about you, detective?” I said. I held his gaze for longer than I had all evening. “Is there any purpose, any meaning to what you do?”

Crossing his legs and tugging at his cuffs, the detective said: “In my work I am turned into a sort of machine. A machine built for observing facts, extinguishing lies and grinding out conclusions.”

In the Idlewild each candle was being quietly pressed out. The bartender touched his tongue to his forefinger and thumb before leaning over each table. The conductress was lifting a beige belted overcoat onto her shoulders. She pirouetted away from the counter. Her eyelids were heading south.

After some verbal arithmetic I said: “well my job is to extinguish facts, grind out lies and observe conclusions.”

“Newshound…” he murmured.

“Writer,” I said.

The detective unwound his limbs and leaned forward until his body creaked into an upright position. I thought of old newsreel, buildings miraculously reconstituted by simply reversing frame by frame the footage of their demolition.

He nodded an oil derrick nod.

Exterior, night. The two men stand behind the Idlewild. It has stopped raining. They are situated between the window and the detective’s automobile.

The detective turned and began to walk away. He shrank as though observed through the wrong end of an eyeglass. I heard the drag of a door being pushed to.

Standing in the damp gravel I laid my hat on my head and pulled my coat over the peaks of my shoulders. The whirr of the car motor sounded distant, the transmission of a tin-can telephone.

Inside the Packard the detective was a series of shadows bent around corners. The cogs in my chest were finally turning faster and my heart thumped in my head. As the car drew up, I laid a hand on the concave indent. “Goodnight, Mr Butler,” he said.

“To the oil, Mr Pinkerton,” I replied. The taillights dimmed and I woke as though from a big sleep. [ends]

Standard
[noir]

Faber

PREFACE—Berlin, August 2007

Stories have a tendency to begin…” He clicked off the Dictaphone. Around him on the desk lay several cassettes, a sheaf of old manuscript paper and a small pile of magnetic tape long past its playback date. Despite being three floors up he could project into the distance beyond the windows the outline of the courtyard below, its dimensions and features, the bicycles and trash, the graffiti on the walls, the doors leading to hallways, leading to apartments and snaking up beneath him to the third storey and to him.

This was going to be method writing, he told himself. The life of stories had always seemed so much more real than real life had ever managed. But his hands moved only between his lap, the arms of his swivel chair and an invisible keyboard about an inch above the real keys; he couldn’t transfer the neurons from his head to the screen. In front of him were two large sash windows propped open on blocks of wood. In front of the windows was the invisible projection of the courtyard below, three stories up. And beyond the invisible courtyard was the building opposite his.

Its edifice was in the state of disrepair typical for this part of the city, but with only a few spots of graffiti. Directly opposite and a floor below was the apartment whose windows he couldn’t keep his eyes from. There was a reflection in the glass that he couldn’t make out from this distance—around forty feet of invisible courtyard air separated him from the windows—but he didn’t much care. It was not the contemporary place that he cared for, but the space it had occupied in the past, the space populated by semi-fiction and smoky rooms. If only it were a reflection of himself in that window it would have added a touch of literary aptness, thought Faber.

It seemed to take an inordinate effort to reach and spread the papers out with his right hand. He knew that the message which was being wired to him across the invisible space was not making it through clearly enough. Perhaps the messenger was choking on all that smoke, losing his connection amidst the fiction and the time and the third story projection of graffiti and bicycles. The sheet on the bottom of the pile contained notes he had made about six weeks ago, scraps from the start of a short story which was titled—in biro at the top of the typed sheet of A4—50 Things to Do After You Die. Thinking it might help, Faber shifted in his chair and began to retype it, adding in his self-edited comments.

50 Things to Do After You Die

CT sat behind his desk with his feet perched on the edge of a half-size filing cabinet. It was rusting at the edges, and the key no longer turned in the lock, but it served its purpose well — he was comfortable. The desk chair supported his back and the nape of his neck with moulded plastic fibre and polyester trim. His hat lay on the desk to his left, but he couldn’t remember the last time he had worn it. The felt had turned to bobbles and filaments which threaded together just enough to keep it in one piece.

The light was back — a brief, flickering glint which blotted out the window with sunglare in between sips of a coffee which had turned murky grey. It seemed to be an unobservant observer who hadn’t realised that the binocular glass would reflect the afternoon sunlight and produce an unintentional Morse code. He could not translate the message. It was lost in transmission.

He picked up the phone receiver and dialled for the building superintendent for the opposite block, Mr U—-. As usual the line rang distantly before fading slightly and clicking dead. He hadn’t been able to reach U—- for some time. This was worrying. CT sipped coffee. It tasted like the underside of bus.

It was 11am. He decided to call the day a washout and exited.

Faber screwed up the notes into a rough-edged ball and tossed it across the room. The ball landed with a barely perceptible white noise scrunch beneath the right-hand window. He automatically went to pick it up; opening the window around half way he skimmed it into the air between the apartment blocks and watched it fall into the rectangular entryway beneath, safe in the knowledge that its third storey version would live on just outside his window. Leaning on the sill he could make out more details of the reflection. Tilted inwards, it mirrored only blue summer skies and the odd telegraph wires intersecting with a powdery cloud.

Static and garish, the graffiti underneath the windows was still there. In block, black letters stencilled on to a purple and white background were the words vonkriegzufrieden, his rudimentary German allowing him to translate it but still not fully understand why it was there. The city seemed to jumble meaningless phrases and images together and slap them on to buildings, advertisements, trains and streets. Faber had never seen anyone applying these words and pictures and wondered if they simply seeped out from the cracks when no one was looking. They appeared of their own accord, springing up according the city’s growth like acne or scabbed-over tattoo scars.

He shut the window and rubbed down the summer evening goose skin on his arms. The cursor was still patiently blip-blip-blipping on the screen, but selecting all of the text he had retyped, he hit delete. His cut-up memories of the last year slowly began to form pockets in his head, and each pocket drew a thin line to another, and to another, until they began to interconnect.

January 2007. It was a building like any other, all peeling plaster, peeling posters and unappealing graffiti. All of Degarmo Straße was much the same, I saw, as I strolled up one side and back down the other with a feigned idleness hopefully befitting a local.

I stopped in front of the dilapidated exterior of an otherwise ordinary building – the building in which he had spent the last years of his life. Led with such a reckless carefulness, CT had settled here, in this country, in this city, in this street, and in this building. Encased in a dirty cube of concrete and graffiti, alone and sick but tirelessly writing.

The dirty cube of concrete and graffiti was still staring back at Faber with its urban tattoos and mirror images; the invisible courtyard was expanding its horizons with telegraph poles and sky by proxy. He leaned over to pick up the Dictaphone, switching it on and rewinding the ancient tape in the slot. He mouthed the transcription word for word from start to finish. As the clipped crackling ran out the line between memory and memory—at first just a series of Morse-coded blips themselves—stretched to become clearer. Stories higher up in this imagined space, Faber skipped back if not to the beginning, then at least to a beginning.

There it was, lying on the table. It was small and black and rectangular. It was short and stuffy and somewhat old-fashioned. And it was a thing. A clue, something of substance bearing the burden of something with none. And I’d put bullets through thick and thin to get this far. It was half-wound through, so I hit the button marked rew and hung my coat on the obligatory coat-stand, tipped my hat forward off my head and tipped myself backward into a welcoming, warm-seated recliner. And there it was, this thing. This symbol, this cipher, this sign, I alliterated mentally. Of course it had its symbolic value – it was, after all, a part of a narrative, of my narrative. And now I watched the reels as they wound another story back to its very own ‘once upon a time’.

It clicked. Half wrapped in shadow, I leaned forward to press play. Distant voices, the buzzing of white noise bees and the scratching of a catfight in a trashcan. The sound built up and subsided. Then thunk! Silence followed by the squeak of new cotton on old leather. And there it was… The voice began to speak, and I cracked a rare smile in the darkness of the room. As a wise man once said, “stories have a tendency to begin…” [ends]

Standard