SEPTEMBER 28, 2014
IT WAS IN 1980 that I first came across Andrew Coburn’s Off Duty, a tightly plotted novel in which one would be hard-pressed to identify the primary criminals: a pair of cops, a real estate agent, the mafia, or a crazy Polish killer stalking a Boston suburb. Up until then I was reading the usual suspects: noir perennials like Hammett, Chandler, Goodis, Jim Thompson, Ross Macdonald, and Chester Himes. But Off Duty, along with work by James Crumley, George V. Higgins, K. C. Constantine, Charles Willeford, James Ellroy, and Elmore Leonard, was proof that, even in the glory days of voodoo economics, the noir side of crime fiction could plumb the depths of the culture, to investigate crimes at every level of society.
Coburn was different from the other noirists emerging at the time. Despite spending years as a crime reporter, his prose even then appeared to be less indebted to hardboiled stylists like Chandler and Hammett, much less Hemingway or O’Hara, than to the more elegant and mainstream prose of Cheever, Yates, and Updike — though lacking, as it did, the innate conservatism of the latter, as well as the macho posturing of the hardboiled crowd. Moreover, Coburn, unlike many of his contemporaries, sets most of his fiction not in the usual white heat of urban decay but in the suburbs. Though unlike other Boston-area writers, whether Higgins or the epicurean Robert B. Parker, Coburn has always been drawn to the domestic side of crime, while portraying the respectable neighborhoods in which his characters reside as no less frightening than the mean streets of his grittier counterparts. Called a pointillist du roman noir by French crime pundit Claude Mesplède, it’s not surprising that Coburn’s fiction, given the tempo of the culture, would take a back seat to helter-skelter novelists like James Ellroy, all too ready to throw anything into the mix bar a well-constructed sentence. No such grand gestures for Coburn. His prose remains as understated as Ellroy’s is loud, yet his fiction, like that of the demon dog himself, revolves around voyeurs, misfits, the covetous, the deranged, and the eccentric.
Born in 1932 in Exeter, New Hampshire, Coburn attended university in Boston before becoming a crime reporter at The Eagle-Tribune, then a literary critic and editor at The Boston Globe. He even started his own newspapers: The Journal of Greater Lawrence and Greater Lawrence Today. So thorough was his investigatory work that the mafia was said to have it in for him. So by the time his first story appeared in Transatlantic Review in 1963, followed by his first novel, The Trespassers, in 1974, he was probably thinking that a career as a novelist might end up increasing his longevity, if not his reputation.
Mesplède was right about the pointillism. Coburn gets up close and paints portraits in delicate, if often unflattering, colors. Other than the odd psycho, his creations tend to be civilized, if not civil, at least until the moment they decide to stick in the knife. Creating neither a black nor white world, Coburn over the years would go on to examine an assortment of dubious activities and types: intrigue in high places in Company Secrets (1982); mafia and corporate crime in Sweetheart (1985), Love Nest (1987), and Goldilocks (1989); sadistic cops, political heavies, and enigmatic women in Widow’s Walk (1987); snipers, ill-at-ease and disgruntled outsiders in No Way Home (1992) and Voices in the Dark (1994); the Lindbergh kidnapping in Birthright (1998); and a young killer who terrorizes a small town in On the Loose (2006). Popular, as are most things noir, in France, three of his novels have been adapted for the screen: Off Duty (Un dimanche de flic, 1983), directed by Michel Vianey; Widow’s Walk (1987), directed by Pierre Granier-Deferre with Philippe Noiret and Guy Marchand; and Sweetheart (Toutes peines confondues, 1992), directed by Michel Deville.
In addition to his novels, Coburn has published some 30 stories, 10 of which are reprinted in Stark House’s Spouses & Other Crimes, along with one making its first print appearance. Since this was the first time I’d encountered these particular stories, and because so few noirists these days seem fluent in both formats, I was surprised to find Coburn’s short fiction to be every bit as good as, if not better than, his novels. Furthermore, taken together they illustrate the truism that in a crime novel it’s what you include that matters, while in a crime story it’s what you leave out. The latter’s a process — partly cinematic, partly poetic — at which Coburn excels, and one that demands readers fill in the spaces between the author’s finely wrought paragraphs and sections. Mainly linear in direction, though not without some odd diversions, Coburn’s stories are marked not only by his mid-Atlantic dryness, but also by an awareness that class differences, at least as much as pathological tendencies, are root causes of crime.
The stories that comprise Spouses & Other Crimes are acerbic and creepy, with envy, anxiety, and voyeurism the order of the day. Imbued with an undercurrent of class antagonism, Coburn populates his short tales with damaged and obsessed individuals who desire what they can or can’t have, and, in doing so, are fated to suffer the insufferable. No wonder binoculars are more evident than handguns, and a psychiatrist, Dr. Wall, pops up in most of the stories. With the passivity of a lazy reader or nonjudgmental author, Wall, like an aural hooker, is part buffoon and part enigma, always listening, answering questions with questions, handing out homilies only when pressed. In the end, the best this rent-an-ear can do is ask his patients about their medication. Throughout are Coburn’s finely crafted sentences, as in the first story, “Charlie Judd,” published in 1964; here the binocularist is an elderly man, who, in turn, is observed by a 12-year-old boy: “The sun, previously lolling behind billowy clouds, tears loose and strikes Charlie, scattering him. To my horror, with only particles of him visible, he seems two-thirds fictitious.” It might mark the first, but hardly the last, occasion in which Coburn will play with time and personality, sparing nothing in the process.
In “Bang Bang,” it’s class that matters. Vacationing on the Cape, Fay’s wealthy husband Wyatt spots his old English professor, and he tells Fay that the man is said to have murdered his wife, only to have been exonerated after two mistrials. But, such is the desert she inhabits that Fay secretly opts for companionship with the murderer rather than their rich friends. And, in Coburn’s world, where there’s murder, there must surely be banality: “Mrs. Boyd shot him a homicidal look that left Fay with scant doubt that, given hammer and knife, Mrs. Boyd was capable of shattering her husband’s skull and slashing his throat.” Though Wyatt is out for revenge, and their wealthy friends seek to exploit Fay, a certain decorum must be maintained, whatever the cost or the comeuppance. “Suddenly it became clear to Fay that in marriage Mrs. Boyd was meat and potatoes while naive women like herself, surrendering their souls at the altar, were little treats, frosted cakes, sips of punch.”
The wittily titled “A Woolf in Vita’s Clothing” opens with a woman named Caroline in a Chicago diner, fresh from killing her husband in North Dakota. There she meets Chuck — “He had the sort of face […] that looked as if it wanted to be forgiven, the sin left to the imagination.” He too is a spouse-killer, and a dead ringer for the professor in “Bang Bang.” Together they hit the road. “Reality craves fantasy,” he tells her when she says her husband had said her head was always in the clouds. As for Chuck, his true belief is basic but somewhat highfalutin: “At some point the universe will dissolve into an idea of itself, from which it evolved. Put another way, when God grows bored with his idea of us, we’re finished.” She says, “That can’t be true,” to which he answers, “Truth is relative. A lie told in Chicago is gospel in North Dakota.” She says, “You know so much.” “He wanted to tell her that he knew nothing. He was a product of group therapy, disturbed strangers bathing in a communal pool of unhappiness polluted by self-pity, their troubles traced to others, not themselves, responsibility seldom mentioned.”
“The World of War” opens up wounds and psychological scars caused by recent wars, and their effect on veterans, their families, and the culture at large. “In the morning I wanted to be leave my face in the mirror,” says Jarvis, a Vietnam vet who has yet to recover from the experience. He visits Dr. Wall, as does his wife, Mimi, an aspiring journalist. “When I was in high school,” she tells the shrink, “I found life funny. Now it’s merely a phenomenon.” Meanwhile, their son is off to Iraq, and both Jarvis and Mimi know he too will return wounded, if not dead. This is Coburn at his most political and his most cryptic, packing three lives into a handful of pages, stating the obvious, yet managing to surprise.
Also in the political world is “George W. Bush.” Teddy, an Iraqi vet, now a teacher prone to saying the unspeakable, is married to Ellen, a woman hungry for money and autonomy. Post-9/11, divergences are barely tolerated, while money, religion, and patriotism are seen as abstractions worthy of pursuit. Ellen considers the past, “Way back when, Nana didn’t vote for Kennedy because, she said, a man with his finger on the nuclear button should be an atheist, someone who knows there’s no happy hunting ground.” And all that separates one war from another is our response: “Nana told of the nightly news leading off with body bags and kill counts. Different war. Different time. Everything else the same.” Though medicated, Teddy has flashbacks in the classroom, telling his students, “The dead wait for us to die so they won’t be bothered by our memories of them,” and that the two most evil words are Halliburton and ExxonMobil. The shrink can only say that “truth, authenticity, it’s all relative,” while the developers, whose “small expressionless eyes were monosyllables,” are taking everything they can.
Meanwhile, “Katie Couric” is Coburn at his most subtle: “When Montgomery’s wife walked out on him, without warning, no note, nothing, she went from a real person to a semi-abstraction.” It’s a humorous story that focuses on Montgomery’s incomprehension as he loses his grip on reality. He fills his journal with epigrams while conflating his wife with Couric, who, on screen, utters the very words his estranged wife might have deployed. Dr. Wall shows up again, but not to hand out any answers, not even when the protagonist asks, “How much of life is hearsay?” Is the shrink simply a stand-in for a self-deprecating author, and hearsay the only hard currency at one’s disposal in a world deflated of meaning?
In the hitherto unpublished “Mrs. Comeau,” Dr. Wall pops up once more, with his “perfectly barbered ball of hair Comeau imagines bouncing like a volleyball across the floor, against the wall, out the window. His grey eyes were pebbles plucked from the beach, and his bow tie looked spinnable.” When Wall asks if her husband has a mistress, she says, “Yes, money. He caresses it … He’s not a man. He’s a currency.” Meanwhile, Comeau’s lover is a wealthy writer who’s never written anything. After breaking up with him, she befriends a young cop, who stops her for speeding — “She had a lapsed driver’s license and a run in her pantyhose …” — then arrives when Comeau’s former lover becomes abusive. When her son drowns, Comeau divorces her husband and takes up with the cop, though she’s the one who dictates the terms of their relationship. “Most of life is lost,” she tells Dr. Wall. “Living with it is hardest.”
“Jocelyn” features another spirited woman seeking to get what she can. Even Dr. Wall becomes smitten with her, though that does not alter his responses. Retired to Florida, Wall is pursued by Jocelyn, who continues to phone him, much to Mrs. Walls’s irritation. A literary editor, Jocelyn is capable of her own homilies, picked up from a high school English teacher on whom she had a teenage crush. She helps Lionel the Tartar with his novel, then marries him: “They laboured for three months, many cuts, much rewriting and came up with a product that held God accountable for defects and demoted man to an animal with an attitude.” Asking Dr. Wall, “Do our tracks substantiate our existence?” he can only answer, “More or less.” But her English teacher wasn’t the person she thought he was, forcing Jocelyn to quote from her own novel: “The sum of a man is always subject to subtraction.” However mocking, such pearls of wit are indicative of personality as much as class. While her mother marries a retired physicist who tells Jocelyn, “every action has a reaction, but not every action deserves one.”
“The Christmas Clara Cried” is a simple story of a family gathering, the last of its kind, Christmas Eve 1941, with “Roosevelt on the radio, eggnog on the rug.” It takes place at the home of the narrator’s great-grandmother, a woman prone to weeping. At just three pages, it’s filled with nostalgia for a world yet to be born and one not yet dead. Naturally, the narrator talks about the morbid symptoms of his guests and what awaits them. It reads like a teaser for a novel Coburn might never write. (“Long roads to travel. The war in its infancy.” Clara on the floor, drunk, tangled up in the Christmas tree.) In another voyeuristic tale, “Ginger,” the narrative is spliced between a couple in an apartment, the husband of which is spying on a woman who lives below. She happens to be a local journalist, about whom everyone seems to have a different view. For the man who spies on her, eventually entering her home, she’s an object devoid of personality; for her moneyed husband, she is a means of embarrassment; while for her eccentric editor she is a source of infatuation. Accordingly, Ginger produces enigmatic articles — “If we stood face to face with God, we would become fiction and God would become fact” — that perplex everyone, even her husband, whose inability to distinguish art from reality or stalker from lover will only confirm the adage, “If it moves, kill it.”
The final story, “Plum Island,” is, on the surface, nothing more than a portrait of an old man fishing, as observed by a younger narrator, who ruminates on the old man’s past:
His thoughts return to the woman he didn’t marry, to the way she stood near the surf and rearranged her mass of hair so that he could better see her face […]. He recalls how she dropped her hands from her hair and drew her child close because of a sudden figure on the beach, a man with a shotgun held downward, laid against his leg.
Yet that hint of danger suggests there might even be a second narrator, who may or may not be in control. The young man says, “Tell me more.” “Nothing to tell. He was just there, an omen, a presence you couldn’t ignore. At least she couldn’t.” This three-page story reads as though Borges could have written it, as the fisherman (or the narrator) pictures the woman: “Then she grows aware of my eyes and vanishes into the past, where moments, hers and mine, no longer connect.” These are “ghosts of other generations,” the narrator admits. “He and I are one, our age difference blurred.” Like seeing oneself through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars, the words, forever in the dark, say, “Carry on, son,” as the future elides, fractured, along with the past.
Taken together, these stories, with their turnabouts and turns of phrase, their incongruities and spatial awareness, linger long after they’ve been read. This makes Spouses the most stylish collection of short noir fiction since Daniel Woodrell’s Outlaw Album. Not that these collections are likely to kick-start a revival of the crime short story collection. But it is a reminder that, in a world of diminishing returns, the form remains worthy of investigation. Moreover, anything that challenges commercial wisdom, overstatement, and linearity, succeeding while refusing to supply crime fiction junkies with their full narrative fix, must have something going for it. Even if by chance such collections were to become commonplace, it’s hard to imagine that many could be better or more perceptive than this.