Unsung in the Shadows
Reviewed by Joseph Clifford
The problem with writing pulp is there’s nothing new under the sun. It’s all been done, you’re flogging a dead horse, can’t teach an old dog new tricks. I mean, it’s a cliché. No matter what you think you are bringing to the table, you can’t beat two men who got there before you. Chandler and Hammett arrived at the buffet early, ate fast, and left nothing but scraps for the rest of us. (Some reports place a third man at brunch. Usually James M. Cain. But these reports can’t be substantiated, details sketchy. While Cain is a fine writer, I’m sorry, much like American politics, this is a two-man show.)
So for the serious writer who also happens to be a fan of the genre, what do you do? Writing is fucking hard work, and sitting down to extract 80K words when the best you can hope for is a tie is a sucker’s bet. No one gives a shit about homage, and they care even less about fan fiction (50 Shades of Suck My Balls, notwithstanding). No, when you want to go old school while laying new track, you’re like an immigrant in Florida without proper photo ID trying to vote: shit out of luck.
Unless you’re Gabriel Blackwell, of course, who pulls off such a nifty trick with Shadow Man, it makes me sort of hate him for my not thinking of it first.
I’m not going to attempt to lay out the plot, which yields more tasty tidbits buried beneath the dust than a Kang and Kodos cookbook. Let’s just say Shadow Man is very meta, and nothing is what it seems, starting with the genre itself. The subtitle of the novel reads “A Biography of Lewis Miles Archer.” For those of you late to the party, Lew Archer is a detective who first appeared in the works of Ross Macdonald, before making a cameo in Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon under the name Miles Archer, a bumbling dick bumped off in the first act. So who is Blackwell writing about? Well, both. And neither. See, he’s writing about the real Lewis Miles Archer, whose legacy transcends the confines of literary disciplines. He’s the unsung detective who actually cracked the case of the falcon; who brought down General Sternwood and his two loony daughters. And if you’re now thinking, Hey, wait, those are two different books! You’re right.
Truth is, it’s more than that. The Maltese Falcon. The Big Sleep. Trouble Is My Business. The Thin Man. I lost count. Who knows how many cases were actually cracked by Lewis Miles Archer, but in Blackwell’s world, he’s the real hero. Hammett? A Pinkerton drunk who stumbled onto the falcon case by luck; he couldn’t solve a three-piece jigsaw if he had a two-piece head start. Chandler? A conniving shyster turned hack paper pusher turned hack writer. You thought Archer got plugged after Brigid O’Shaughnessey set him up on the docks? He played you for a fool. Archer knew his old lady was in bed (literally) with that rummy bastard Hammett, and he used his “death” as an opportunity to escape a lifetime of debt in San Francisco and start over in sunny LA. You might know him better by the name he adopted down there: Phillip Marlowe. (The unoriginal Chandler only glommed onto the alias after the fact.)
“The Shadow Man,” Blackwell, quoting “a younger, ambulatory Hammett,” writes, “is meant to blend in, to disappear by always being there. It does you no good to hide yourself, because then…the guy you’re shadowing…if he notices you, he notices you trying to hide from him.” Archer so seamlessly weaves in and out of narratives—slipping behind the scenes, dying, coming back to life, assuming new identities—that when versions of him start popping up in other writers’ novels, real-life swapped for the make-believe, the fabricated for the immortal, it all feels perfectly normal. Which is a testament to Blackwell’s dedication to his craft. He isn’t merely a fanboy; he proves master of the milieu, expertly exploiting infrastructure in a highly original way.
There’s an oft-employed device in detective fiction that sees the PI investigating what he initially believes to be two separate cases, only to discover, as he gumshoes bowery and boulevard, that they are, in fact, the same case. But here, again, Blackwell puts a fresh spin on a familiar trope, taking not just two cases but two novels, Hammett’s and Chandler’s signature efforts, The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep (which also happen to be the two most influential works in the entire canon), and then rewrites the book(s) on everything you thought you knew.
What makes pulp pulp isn’t the dames with gams up to here, the heiresses hell-bent on revenge, the pug-nosed prizefighters desperately seeking redemption—it’s not the characters, but the voice. Pulp fiction is glued by its metaphors and similes, tied together by the fabric of its unique language. Of course every genre, from the worst poetry to an abominable romance novel, has its own manner of speech. But nothing is as unassailably cool as the hardboiled. Which makes it difficult to mimic without being called out.
You can’t get away with it in conventional fiction (or even a book review) without drawing attention to it. Which is why Blackwell’s novel is such a triumph. He’s constructed the perfect scenario to exploit this dynamic, guilt-free. And, man, does he come up with some gems.
Describing Archer’s more famous, underachieving partner: “Hammett had gone gaga over a fellow spirit-medium and drinking fountain named Hemingway, who believed only in the tips of icebergs.” Which may be a dorky writers’ joke, but it’s a fucking funny one. And later talking about a seeming non-sequitur tossed into The Maltese Falcon, the strange case of a missing man named Flitcraft: “He’s happy, the kind of happy people dream about when they read too many magazines.” And then on the allure of Tinseltown, he smashes the allusion of glitter and gold. Archer tells us, “No matter how many movie stars walk their dogs down the Boulevard or take the streetcars to work, Hollywood is still a town of hayseeds and hicks, born gawkers to a man.” This is a book published in 2012, yet it feels right at home in the ’40s. My favorite of the bunch, though: “She was crazier than a one-legged girl at a chorus line audition.”
There are a lot of great things about living in the 21st Century. The Internet. We have a black president. OK, that’s all that’s coming to mind right now, but I know there’s more. But, man, I’d like to wear a fedora. I’d like smoking cigarettes to be cool again. I want to live in a black-and-white, man’s man world without hipsters and skinny jeans and ironic mustaches, where no one knows reality TV from vampires who sparkle. For two hundred and seventy-eight pages, Gabriel Blackwell took me back there. If you are a fan of the genre, do yourself a solid and let him take you there, too. It’s a helluva trip.
Joe Clifford is the editor of The Flash Fiction Offensive and producer of Lip Service West, a “gritty, real, raw” reading series in Oakland, CA. His short story collection, Choice Cuts, is out now. His novels Wake the Undertaker (Snubnose Press) and Junkie Love (Vagabondage Press) will be published later this year. Much of Joe’s writing can be found at www.joeclifford.com. He has been to jail but never prison.