Cosmopolitan Chaos: Dwyer Murphy on “An Honest Living”

September 13, 2022   •   By Jonathan Lee

An Honest Living

Dwyer Murphy

DWYER MURPHY’S QUIETLY brilliant debut novel, An Honest Living, takes its title from a Jack Nicholson line in Chinatown: “Listen, pal,” Nicholson’s Jake Gittes tells a snooty guy who works in finance, “I make an honest living. People only come to me when they’re in a desperate situation.”

The same can be said of Murphy’s protagonist, a well-read but down-on-his-luck lawyer working in an industry that’s never had any trouble attracting desperate souls — the New York book world. Working in dead-end legal jobs in and around literature, our hero staggers, sniffs, and reads his way through a plot that feels at times like it was produced by Bolaño’s ghost slipping into the Justified writers’ room. Determined to figure out truth from fiction, he gets himself embroiled in a mysterious criminal case that he’ll never be able to forget. The novel explores the ways in which we’re nothing without our curiosities — even if those curiosities, in the end, undo us. 

Murphy knows what he’s talking about: he was a high-flying attorney at a white-shoe firm before becoming a novelist, swapping one almost-honest living for another. He is also the editor-in-chief of CrimeReads, and one of the many pleasures of this debut is the feeling that it is not just a novel about stories, but one that is made of them: noir allusions, literary references, and nods and winks to the big screen bring extra layers of vibrancy to each chapter. I spoke to Murphy about Los Angeles versus New York noir, the little mysteries that can end up being the lifeblood of life (and fiction), and the reason he wanted his book to capture a certain type of New York nostalgia — that sense of “always standing outside the Film Forum waiting for someone, wondering if we’re going to miss the start of the show.”

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JONATHAN LEE: Why did your chosen title, “An Honest Living,” feel right for this novel?

DWYER MURPHY: We searched for quite a while for the right title. Finally, my publisher made an official request that I drink exactly one bottle of red wine — I think I must have mentioned to somebody or other that one bottle really brought out my best qualities, under the right, controlled circumstances — and proceed to watch Chinatown, the movie whose presence — its legacy, its metaphors, and all the really bizarre stories surrounding its production — seeps into the lives of the fictional characters I’m writing about.

So that’s what I did. I got to the scene where Nicholson, as Jake Gittes, is at a barber shop getting a shave and some mean bastard from the bank, in the next chair over, gives him a hard time about savoring his little moment of success, getting a scoop on the front page of the paper. Nicholson is peacocking like only Nicholson can do, but he also knows enough to understand that what he’s done is somewhat shameful, but he’s not going to let this bastard from the bank, whose meat and potatoes is foreclosing on working people’s homes, look down on him. He sits up in his chair, covered in cream, and says, “Look, pal — I make an honest living …” As soon as Nicholson read that line, I knew we had a title. It was too perfect. I’m writing about a washed-out lawyer making ends meet doing odd jobs around the city, who gets caught up in something he doesn’t understand, but which he knows is sordid and strange and that’s part of the appeal. A novel about the obsessions that make up our days and about all the bizarre little ways we fool ourselves into believing we’re making an honest living, within reason.

Yours is a very New York story, but noir inevitably points us towards Los Angeles too — and this fine publication is the L.A. Review of Books. Were there distinctions between New York and L.A. noir you were interested in exploring in the book?

Well, I think it’s hard to write in the noir tradition, and to really take that tradition seriously, without wrestling with the influence of Southern California writers. When I was first starting out with this book, I was obsessed with Ross Macdonald and Margaret Millar, a married couple who respectively wrote some of the best American noir of the century, and whose work often feels so distinctly evocative of California that you almost can’t disentangle the mystery from the terrain. And then obviously there’s Chandler, or in this case, Chandler as channeled by Robert Altman, which might be my very favorite kind of Chandler — his best novel, reimagined in Altman’s chatty, non-sequitur style with Elliott Gould wandering in and out of that incredible apartment and that overlit grocery store. I was also thinking a lot about Walter Mosley and the Easy Rawlins series, and the way Easy takes such pride in his home and the avocado tree growing in his yard.

Good noir is almost always, in some way, about real estate. Maybe that’s the California influence shining through, so that when you transport your noir to New York City, another place where corruption is amplified and simultaneously obscured by the names on deeds and the owners of the permits to bulldoze this or that neighborhood in pursuit of yet another skyrise condo building, you bring along some of that California tradition. Honestly, I could talk about California crime fiction all day. And then the next day maybe we could spend on the New York writers, starting with Donald Westlake. And then for good measure I’d think we better start in on the Florida crime tradition. It’s wonderful how all these schools of noir bleed into and inform one another.

Speaking of Florida, I think there’s a bit of Elmore Leonard in your style too, together with maybe a dose of Bolaño’s Savage Detectives, but your book has great fun moving between more hard-boiled and soft-boiled elements. To what extent were you conscious of playing with, subverting, or maybe at times simply embracing the elements we associate with noir narratives?

I wanted very much to move between the different registers of noir — the minutes boiled. Sometimes just for comic effect, but also because I have such a great affection for these authors and stories and the different traditions and tropes of noir. Eventually, it was about finding the right voice for a washed-out corporate lawyer who just wants to be left alone with his books and his movies and maybe a joint and some sunshine now and again, but mysteries keep showing up on his stoop. Which meant I needed a character who could tell a good, entertaining, ruminative story while also doing three things: (1) making fun of himself; (2) sorting through the various fictions that have permeated his life; and (3) talking all this through with friends and acquaintances, ideally at diners or bars or somewhere people are liable to break out dancing. (I love numbered sentences, don’t you? It’s the former lawyer in me. Your honor, I have seven items I’d like to address …) You can only get so hard-boiled when people are dancing nearby.

I love that you seemingly play with elements of Chinatown — toying with the associations we have with certain classic movies — and maybe I spotted the odd reference to the occasionally forgotten classic Body Heat too? So, movies were factoring in as influences, too.

Well, you can’t get away from Body Heat if you’re writing a crime novel, since that one’s so closely tied to the novels of James M. Cain, one of the genre’s towering figures. Actually you’ve caught me out, because there’s a sequel to An Honest Living in the works now that has, in its undergirding — a little like Chinatown works beneath the action of An Honest Living — Lawrence Kasdan’s sultry 1981 neo-noir. But speaking more generally, yes, there’s a conceit in this story that the books and movies we read and watch tend to leave an indelible mark on our lives, and sometimes our perception of what’s happening around us is in fact influenced by those artworks. So in some ways, these characters are trying to sort out what plot they’re caught up in: Chinatown, Rear Window, Vertigo, maybe a Conrad novel or two, and, because this is New York, Edith Wharton.

That’s at a conceptual level. At a practical level, my New York, the version of the city where I lived in the 2000s and later, was largely shaped around bookstores and movie theaters. That’s just how I spent all my time, when I wasn’t walking around or riding the subway or halfheartedly practicing law. In memory, I’m always standing outside the Film Forum waiting for someone, wondering if we’re going to miss the start of the show. It was important to me to bring that feeling into the novel. In fact, my editor and I reworked nearly the entire chronology of the story to make sure the characters could plausibly catch a showing of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows at the Film Forum in 2006. A minor detail, but it helped create an atmosphere.

At least once when your amateur detective has quibbles — ethical or simply in terms of consistency of storytelling — he manages to “put it out of mind.” To what extent is this a novel about our own capacity to see things that aren’t there and ignore things that are?

That’s the entire game, isn’t it? Especially with a mystery but maybe with every novel, there’s this necessary sleight of hand and a game of misdirection. Sometimes you, the author, are playing it with the reader and sometimes your characters are playing it with themselves, or they’re trying to turn the tables on you and do something a little wild and unexpected. Also, I wanted to capture a bit of the feeling of how mysteries might play out in a life as it’s actually lived, where weeks or months might go by without you dedicating yourself to the resolution of every little puzzle and misunderstanding that passes you by. We’re not all professional detectives, or housebound snoops like Jimmy Stewart’s character in Rear Window. We’ve got other things going on, or we’d like to have, and we’ve got jobs to go to and other friends and love interests to chase around for a little while. The mysteries that capture your attention are always shifting, and while you’re not looking, they transform into something else altogether. That’s the fun stuff in life.

The book has received some great early praise, but no one so far has quite put their finger on one element of the story that I think stands out — the humor. Much of the book plays out as a delightful if subtle farce. Its plot is powered by mistakes and deceptions that could easily be played for tragedy, but which instead you deploy for the rippling ironies they set in motion. Is comedy in crime literature an underacknowledged thing, or am I just looking to the wrong commentators and books?

Humor was integral to a certain strand of crime fiction, where there was a baseline of cosmopolitan chaos and a lot of crooks and sleuths with open minds and liberal attitudes towards the many and fascinating ways people manage to get themselves in and out of trouble. That’s the kind of novel I like still: a world of operators, hustlers, schemers, and talkers — people who want to entertain and take advantage of one another and generally see the world and its foibles with a pervasive sense of humor that borders on romantic fatalism. I’ll take that kind of story over a very somber tragedy any day, but that’s just my taste, or my weakness, maybe. In terms of my own humor, I tend to make fun of things I love and cut them to pieces.

The novel is set in 2005, but the characters are always slipping through trapdoors into the past — their own, and that of the city, and its books and movies. What does the future hold for literary noir, and for your own writing interests?

It’s an exciting time for crime fiction, with an incredible generation of writers dedicating themselves to different pieces of the genre and bringing to it perspectives that have never been experienced in the literature before. For my day job, at CrimeReads, I’m lucky enough to get to spend my days reading their books: Steph Cha, Ivy Pochoda, Alex Segura, Kellye Garrett, Rachel Howzell Hall, S. A. Cosby, Eli Cranor, Jennifer Hillier, Andrea Bartz, Jordan Harper, David Heska Wanbli Weiden, and dozens of others who are transforming mystery as we know it.

For me, I’m turning to the heist novel. Next summer I’ll have another book out with Viking called Stolen Coast about a town in Massachusetts full of fugitives, thieves, and secret romantics. I’ve always had a fascination with heist fiction, whether in books or movies. It’s this perfect, concentrated form that allows you to explore all kinds of transgressions and oversized ambitions while still allowing your characters a chance to just sit around and chat and bullshit over dinners.

After that, the sequel to An Honest Living — an Elmore Leonard homage set in Miami and obsessed with books, émigrés, and neo-noirs, especially the ones set in Florida. For me it always seems to come back to Elmore Leonard. His work is just so full of life. It’s intoxicating.

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Jonathan Lee is a novelist and television writer whose most recent books are High Dive and The Great Mistake.

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Author photo by Carolina Henriquez-Schmitz.