The Same Old Story, or Straight Up Truths From Downright Lies

Same old storyWhile channel surfing last night I came across a showing of The Singing Detective, a 2003 theatrical remake of Dennis Potter’s powerful 1986 BBC Television miniseries of the same name. The original series starred Michael Gambon as “Philip Marlowe,” a hospitalized writer suffering from psoriatic anthropathy, a painfully crippling arthritic skin condition suffered, not by coincidence, by Potter himself. Confined to bed, unable to move without agony, and totally dependent on an apathetic hospital staff, “Marlowe” fills his days mentally rewriting his old book, “The Singing Detective,” with his healthy self cast in the lead role. “Marlowe’s” days are filled with pain, the humiliation of dependency, and bitter anger in a surreal blend of reality and fever-induced hallucinations in which the players are constantly breaking out into lavish production numbers of 1940s popular songs.

The remake, updated and Americanized, featured Robert Downey Jr. in the leading role (and renamed Danny Dark), and while Potter supplied the screenplay, it lacks the power of the BBC original. Part of that is its length: a sparse 106 minutes versus the 415 minutes of the six-parter; another is Downey’s performance. The self-assured snarkiness that makes him so appealing in roles like Sherlock Holmes and Tony Stark comes across here as his being just another asshole, albeit one suffering from a debilitating disease. But, despite its flaws, The Singing Detective does retain its core theme:

The writer’s need to bring his reality in line with his fiction.

As I wrote recently elsewhere, I used to believe writing fiction was the art of telling lies. It’s only of late that I realized it’s the art of telling the truth with lies. Downey’s Danny Dark makes frequent references to his cheap or crappy detective fiction, belittling the form as he crawls through it seeking out the truths he’s written into it about his past. “Danny” needs to keep rewriting “The Singing Detective” until he can strip away the lies in which he’s disguised the truth and find, if not a cure for his disease, a release from the snare of the past that causes him as much pain and suffering as does his physical condition.

The Singing Detective isn’t a “mystery,” at least not in the sense of an Agatha Christie whodunit. Like any work of fiction, it’s a mystery about a person. No one would ever call F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby a mystery novel, yet what else is it but Nick Carraway’s following clues to unravel the truth about the mysterious Jay Gatsby/James Gatz?

I love mysteries. I read lots of them, schlock and otherwise. But the best are the ones where the mystery goes deeper than finding out who the killer is or where they stashed the loot. James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, John D. MacDonald, Robert B. Parker, Bill Pronzini, Lawrence Block, Jim Thompson, Andrew Vachss…their protagonists don’t just solve the mystery and walk away to be reset, Miss Marple-like, to the status quo for their next appearance. Their characters carry the scars of their lives and their cases and the people they’ve effected along the way. They’re not stories about crimes; they’re tales of human souls caught in life changing, often deadly situations.

All I had in mind when I started writing The Same Old Story was a plot, a whodunit set in the comic book business of the early 1950s. My idea was loosely based on two separate but true incidents from that world: artist Joe Maneely’s 1958 accidental death falling between the cars of a New Jersey bound commuter train, and a scheme perpetrated by at least one comic book editor to defraud the publisher for which he worked. But as I got into it, the “how” and the “what” of the crime seemed less and less the key to the story than did the “who” and the “why”…not as in “whodunit,” but as in “who are they and why did they do it?”

That may sound a lot like I’m belaboring of the obvious, but I don’t think so. I love Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels. Archie Goodwin and Wolfe are old, familiar, and comfortable friends, but they are aloof from the people and the stories in which they become involved. What I know of their backgrounds is interesting but, in the end, superficial. Whatever happens in one novel is forgotten in the next; whatever torments they encounter (and seldom suffer themselves) have no bearing on how they will behave in the novel that follows. Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder, on the other hand, is a tormented and tortured man about whom the author has constructed a thirty-seven year/eighteen book life arc unlike just about anything else in the genre. Wolfe collects his fee and moves on to the next case. Scudder doesn’t care about the money; he’s out to save souls and hopefully, in the process, find a little bit of salvation for his own sins.

My Max Wiser is closer to the latter than the former. He’s a character with a history and he carries it with him wherever he goes. He’s a writer who believes so much in what he writes that, like Potter’s “Philip Marlowe/Danny Dark” the line between what he’s living and what he’s writing becomes blurred. Does life imitate art, or is art imitating life?

Yes, I was an English lit major and therefore suffer greatly from pretention, so pardon my deconstructive ramblings. And, no, I’m not in any way trying to equate myself with these literary giants, just attempting to point to how their works have served as inspirational jumping off points to my own (very) humble attempts at playing in their beautifully tended field. So maybe mine is just The Same Old Story of murder, theft, love, and deceit…but I hope it’s one I’ve managed to tell as truthfully as my lies will let me.


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