where the writers are
Unrecognizable World: Deceit and Evil, Rage and Responsibility
After Dark My Sweet

Ironically, Red Room requested a blog about books into films at the same time I was posed a similar question by Randy Dotinga of the Christian Science Monitor, who’s writing an article on books that inspired film noir. But this ended up leading to an exploration of how to portray evil, the essential role deceit plays in such depictions—and, inevitably, the recent violence in Tucson and the climate of hate in this country.

After Dark, My Sweet is based on a very good Jim Thompson novel, but not one of his absolute best. The film, though, is superb.

It’s directed by James Foley (a criminally under-rated director—he also did Glengarry Glen Ross, a brilliant film), and stars Jason Patric in his first major role, with Rachel Ward and Bruce Dern. It involves a kidnap scheme in Palm Springs with a brain-damaged boxer as the sympathetic heavy. The scheme goes haywire (Axiom 1: All schemes must go haywire) when it turns out the rich kid our crew of misfits has abducted is severely diabetic.

I love everything about this movie but particularly the characters. No one’s who he seems to be, with both sympathetic and repellent traits, strengths and weaknesses, dreams and nightmares interwoven seamlessly. More importantly, each character is self-aware in a meaningfully way; each possesses a sense of reckoning that renders his crimes meaningful not just to us but to himself. We know everyone will truly suffer for what they’ve done, for they possess the redeeming curse of reflection. And this motivates the increasingly complicated third act plot twists (Axiom 2: All schemes must have twists), including the devastating one that ends the story.

A recent article on film adaptations of Thompson’s work—it came out in conjunction with Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me—claimed that Europeans always make better films of Thompson’s novels than Americans because Europeans consider him a literary novelist, not a pulp writer. It would have made for an intriguing premise if it hadn’t relied on totally overlooking After Dark, My Sweet—not one mention. None. That’s like talking about the greatest American president and ignoring Lincoln.

Another great film noir adaptation is The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith. The movie was fine as far as it went, but that was the problem. The film couldn’t capture except through implication what is intrinsic to the book, and what provides its essential frisson: the chilling contrast between Tom Ripley's actions and the inner world that motivates them.

The reason the book is superior—and why the film could not possibly compete—is that Tom's inner conception of himself reveals just another layer of fraud. There is something deeper but untouchable, unknowable about him, because it's not just his worldly persona that's self-fabricated. While being articulate and seemingly self-aware he's in fact utterly and terrifyingly self-deluded. The book provides a sense of an impenetrable void at his core, which accounts for his chameleon-like (or parasitic) behavior. He only truly comes to life when assuming the persona of another, without ever fully realizing this about himself. It's far more chilling than the movie.

Another book-into-film with a similar theme—and a similar problem—is John Fowles' The Collector. Before I turned to writing I worked for fifteen years as a private investigator in San Francisco. Two of the cases I remember best involved serial killers who used The Collector as a kind of guidebook for the abduction, torture and murder of young women—Christopher Wilder and Leonard Lake. Wilder supposedly memorized the entire text of the novel, and Lake named his Calaveras County operation Project Miranda, after the story’s victim.

I'd read The Collector as a teenager; it’s the only book I ever physically threw down because its ending horrified me. Part of the reason I was so repulsed was the fact that, in the middle of the book, told from the point of view of the victim, Fowles took such painstaking care to humanize her, portray her anguish and terror—none of which, apparently, made much impression on the two psychopaths.

The other and more decisive factor, though, was how, like Tom Ripley, the criminal mind at the heart of The Collector (Freddie Clegg) was utterly blind to his own wickedness. Again, the interior world of the character was no more true than the deceitful exterior. At his core, there was an emptiness instead of a human soul.

This crystallized my notion of evil, which I came to believe necessarily includes an element of self-deceit, an ability to justify even the most horrendous cruelties, injustices and acts of violence in the furtherance of some end the perpetrator sees as perfectly (if unconventionally) acceptable—from rape and murder to the annihilation of the Jews to torturing prisoners.

The film didn’t capture this as insightfully as the book. Terrence Stamp rebelled against portraying Freddie Clegg as the passive, sexually repressed, self-deluded Prufrock he was in the novel—and for whatever reason, William Wyler, the director, agreed. Sad, because the movie ends up making Freddie more “likable,” which in this case adds more confusion than complexity.

When I began to write crime fiction, I committed myself to doing everything I could not to glamorize crime, not to trivialize violence, not to portray any of my characters as disposable or inhuman. My work in the criminal justice system had made me painfully aware of the fact that it’s flesh-and-blood human beings who perpetrate crime, who suffer its consequences, and who are obliged to clean up afterwards.

But I was also sobered (if not in the end silenced) by Fowles' experience. No matter what measures I took to render crime honestly; no matter how hard I tried to avoid the pornography of violence that too often characterizes the genre, with its cartoonish heroes and villains and victims, its orgasmic acts of bloodshed serving as final justice, its false solace that all will be well if we just kick some serious ass; I could never control what a reader took from my writing—especially a psychologically unbalanced reader.

If someone suffered because a reader took inspiration from something in one of my books, I could argue I tried my best, but there would still be responsibility to bear, however tenuous. I couldn't cry "innocent" and blithely deflect blame elsewhere. Luckily, this has never happened. But with every word I write, I know it can.

Needless to say, I’ve revisited all this given recent events in Tucson.

I understand how media commentators can argue that their statements were not what prompted Mr. Loughner to murder. One cannot control how a bent mind will construe one's words.

And yet I can also condemn them for taking insufficient care, for glad-handing the stakes, then failing even for a moment to reflect honestly on what it means to lionize violence in the public sphere, especially at this historical moment. That too is a kind of self-deceit, and a potentially disastrous one. The assassination attempt on Rep. Giffords was not an isolated event, but part of a nationwide pattern of increasing distemper throughout last year. It's not too much to ask that this be considered when we weigh our words.

Iris Murdoch equated love with the unnerving realization that other people actually exist. They also bleed and die.

Compassion implies self-awareness, the realization that someone fundamentally like myself resides in other people. They are not merely players in my own psychodrama, means to fulfill my wants—or exorcise my demons.

The narcissistic conviction that certainty in my cause grants me the right to state my opinion as feverishly as I feel it is juvenile and careless, regardless of which end of the political spectrum it comes from. It also fails to reflect meaningfully on one’s anger, which is one of the cheapest, most intrinsically dishonest emotions we have. I speak, sadly, from a lifetime of experience. Almost every time I’ve looked back on an explosion of anger, I’ve seen I was frightened, or ashamed or guilty, and was trying to “cast out”  that terrible sense of being exposed onto someone else, in order to reclaim some sense of power. This now characterizes our national debate, and the deceit at the heart of it is increasingly revealing itself in the evil of violence. 

Talking of second amendment remedies or shoving fake bloody hands into the faces of members of Congress, using the gunslinger imagery of "reloading," placing targets on Congressional districts, referring to one's opponents as enemies or worse—Obama bin Laden, General Betray Us—and categorizing every setback as an apocalyptic event is not like crying "Fire!" in a crowded theater; it's like crying "Open fire!" in a theater filled with scared, angry, armed people. Real people. Just because I have the right to say pretty much whatever I damn well please doesn't magically eliminate responsibility, even if my words are twisted. It would be a tidy world if it were otherwise. And an unrecognizable one.