MAY 13, 2019
SEAN CARSWELL HAS HAD an interesting, varied career. He’s a publisher, a contributor to alternative press magazines on punk and skateboard culture, and a Pynchon scholar (his book Occupy Pynchon deals with the later novels, in terms of a political-social context that emphasizes movements toward participatory democracy). His new novel, Dead Extra, is his eighth book, and it marks his first full foray into hard-boiled crime fiction, though he has worked with elements of noir before. It also feels of a piece with his previous work, a few of his favorite themes appearing in his expedition into the detective genre: the use of a state hospital setting, the appearance of real people in his fictional text, the focus on the working-class end of both society at large and the film business in particular, and even a ukulele as a story component.
Dead Extra starts in the vein of the classic L.A. noir stories from the era of World War II and the postwar period, with familiar tropes including a detective who is a former cop, a returning veteran, and former POW, plus corrupt cops, lots of alcohol and alcoholics, an insane asylum, a brothel, and the crimes of a privileged elite (of both the moneyed class and the movie business). The narrative shifts focus among several of the main characters, particularly Jack, the former cop and returned veteran, and Wilma, his wife, who died before Jack’s return. Their story is told in alternating chapters, with Jack’s story set in 1946 and Wilma’s in 1944, during the months leading up to her murder. Other chapters are from the point of view of Gertie, Wilma’s twin sister, and Hammond, Jack’s partner on the police force before the war.
At the beginning, the story, the cast of characters (including Jack’s PI father and Wilma’s friend Lottie, an alcoholic rich girl and former asylum inmate), and the style (short sentences and period slang that includes misogynist and racist language) align with the strain of neo-noir fiction that hews most closely with the terms of the original qualities of the genre. Jack asks Gertie, after encountering her at Wilma’s grave, if there was more to his wife’s death than the story given in the police report, a simple accident in a bathtub:
Gertie leaned back in her chair. She took a pre-rolled cigarette, tapped it on her tin case, and placed it between her lips. Jack dug a lighter from his inside coat pocket and offered Gertie a light. She inhaled and blew the smoke out from the side of her mouth. A red fingernail dug a strand of tobacco off her tongue. Her eyes never drifted. She held Jack’s glance. “I think there’s more.”
But Gertie offers her ex-brother-in-law her theory of the death in a document — reproduced in the text in a typewriter-like copperplate font — that shifts into a new mode that foreshadows some of the genre-stretching elements that will come later. Gertie is a script girl in the studios, and frequently rewrites (or even writes) the scripts that male studio writers take credit for. Her tale is strangely detailed, more like a short story or a film treatment than a straightforward hypothesis about the crime:
A cowbell echoed through the bungalow. Someone had sprung the front door lock and forced himself inside. Wilma grabbed the edges of the tub. Panic poured in […] Heavy heels clomped across the hardwood floor. One man. […] The door to the bathroom led into the living room, in full view of whoever thumped his brogues on the floorboards. She could walk out and face him or stay in the tub and wait for him.
Gertie’s text goes on through her sister’s panicked barefoot escape from the house, chased by the intruder, the neighbors’ failure to come to her aid, and her return to the house just ahead of her attacker, her feet torn up by her desperate flight across her gravel driveway, and the final attack. This elaborate tale is not simply her assertion to Jack that there’s more to Wilma’s death than a fall in the bathtub. The reader will find other novels within the novel, other scripts within the story.
At several points, in fact, the straightforward, realistic plot begins to shimmer like a mirage, not quite dissolving into metafictional games but not remaining quite reliable. When Jack visits Leslie Bell, the wealthy father of Lottie, Wilma’s friend from the madhouse, and introduces himself as a detective, the older man looks up from his elegant breakfast table and responds with an outburst of gangster slang altogether inappropriate to his status, almost as if he has been miscast in the role:
Jack couldn’t tell if this whole scene was for real or not. He looked at the egg, white on a white plate, then up at the man, his furry gray eyebrows, his dark, close-set eyes. What kind of guy lives in a museum like this and calls a young woman a chippy? Everything about Bell felt like a performance, like a director had told him where to sit and what to do, like screenwriter had fed him lines.
Leslie Bell is “slumming” in his encounter with the pseudo-detective, adopting a “street-cred” language he hasn’t earned, but each of them is playing a consciously adopted yet artificial social role as well as a recognizable role from the movies.
There is also a bit of literary satire, such as when the sisters encounter one of Gertie’s colleagues, a scriptwriter named “Bill,” who once wrote a novel about a girl who “ends up at a party she never should’ve gone to and gets raped.” Gertie finds the novel “too Southern. The sentences went on forever.” The steamy novel about a rape and a brothel, plainly a reference to William Faulkner and Sanctuary, which was itself a hard-boiled and scandalous story filtered through a literary sensibility. In Dead Extra, there is more than one rape, with both male and female victims, and a more lurid brothel than Faulkner’s, and, unlike Sanctuary, in which Gertie observes, “[all] the characters were men except for one woman for who, Gertie just knew, it was going to end poorly,” the story Wilma and Gertie are caught up in is not all about men, and the women in Carswell’s story are active participants, not passive victims.
The 1944 chapters also have another, somewhat more direct literary precedent. After a world-class bender, Wilma is involuntarily committed (by her father-in-law), and her narrative suggests Mary Jane Ward’s 1946 novel The Snake Pit and the 1948 movie it inspired. But Wilma’s asylum experience is not as horrific as Ward’s semiautobiographical tale (or other horror and noir depictions of insane asylums): the process of her commitment is a crime made possible by a misogynist, paternalistic system, and there are awful things going on in Camarillo State Hospital, the “madhouse” where she is committed (the real Camarillo was also used for the exterior shots of the asylum in the film of The Snake Pit).
In the 1946 chapters, Gertie and Jack are warned to stop investigating Wilma’s death, with violent results that carry the story forward, through various perils and pursuits toward a classic noir set piece in a suburban mansion. Through it all the “extra” of the novel’s title is really Jack. Wilma is from the start the author of her own story (on the first page, Jack is standing at her grave, reading the headstone: “Wife. Sister. Author.”). It is the twins who set things in motion and ultimately achieve some sort of resolution. When Gertie rewrites the novel’s story as a movie script, Jack literally becomes an extra in his own story, mirroring Wilma’s part-time job as a film extra.
Over and over, everyone (including Jack) calls Jack a bad detective. He retains masculine prerogatives like violence, but those male traits do not put him at the center of the story, which is occupied by the doubled heroine, the twin writers, who are decisively not helpless victims. Wilma, trapped in the asylum, makes the best of it, going along when she can and subverting the order of the place when it’s possible (even performing a satirical song about the place during a madhouse talent show). And Gertie seems at every point to be stage-managing events, using Jack as a cat’s-paw and inserting herself when his efforts are insufficient.
There is a phrase at the end of the novel that evokes Raymond Chandler’s famous definition of the noir hero: Jack observes, in the “good detective” of the film version of his own story, “A man who could walk through the filth and depravity of the modern world and come out clean. A man who saw death and inflicted death and wasn’t haunted by it. A man who lived in two dimensions.” Jack does have that essential trait of the hard-boiled hero, the ability, even the willingness, to kill. But Jack, interestingly, fears that aspect of himself. He says that the war taught him that most people can’t shoot to kill, even in the face of the enemy:
Most humans can’t kill other humans. But some can. For whatever reason. And Jack was one of those people who could. So it wasn’t that he didn’t want to find out what happened to Wilma. It wasn’t that he didn’t want her killer to pay. He just feared the horror show once he did find out.
His self-awareness gives him a bit of life in three dimensions.
Carswell uses period detail to draw a portrait of ’40s Los Angeles (including its original trolley systems), as well as actual celebrity inmates of the asylum to add realism to that part of the story (as well as a rich debutante who could have stepped out of The Big Sleep). Wilma’s narrative of her madhouse confinement and of what we would now call sex trafficking turns out to be a draft of the novel she will publish not long before her death. She realizes, after Hammond fails to take her account of torment and rape seriously, that the first draft of her “bughouse story” isn’t going to work: “The new version had a sense of humor to it. If Hammond’s visit had taught Wilma anything, it was that no one cared about the problems of women in this world. A fiery tale of a woman wrongfully committed wouldn’t change anyone’s mind.” Wilma may be wrong about the possible impact of a novel about the treatment of the mentally ill, but she may be right that the world wasn’t ready for the feminism of her first draft, in 1946. But the humor she employs in the rewrite would give her novel some of the timelessness of the wry edge of the best of noir, and The Snake Pit, without that humor, has faded into literary and sociological irrelevance.
Carswell has taken Wilma’s advice and rewritten classic noir tropes with self-conscious irony that emphasizes the hard-boiled humor of the original noir mode, and without ever condescending to the genre. The result is enjoyable as a detective story — whose scope is broadened to encompass the attention to the “problems of women” that Wilma felt impossible in the ’40s — and as a humorous tribute to the L.A. roots and continuing possibilities of the genre.