Meditations on Noir

We use the French term noir because it was the French who first recognized the deeper social and philosophical work being performed in what were essentially considered commercial, or even “pulp,” crime novels. There’s a reason Albert Camus claimed his inspiration for The Stranger, his bleak novel of a disaffected murderer, drew its inspiration from James M. Cain’s noir classic The Postman Always Rings Twice. Both novels are existentialist masterpieces. With his dark trench coat and a cigarette dangling from his lips au bec, Camus looks the part of a brooding French philosopher. We expect him to be deeply psychological and of course he doesn’t disappoint us.
By contrast, Cain looks every bit the bespectacled journalist he was, but he took sun-drenched Southern California as his milieu for darker explorations. He knew Los Angeles back when it seemed like paradise and you could still smell salty ocean air and the perfume of orange groves above the smog. But he also knew that pretty scenery doesn’t make humans behave any less horribly to each other. Even though we expect (and get) sordid crimes and wicked twist endings from Cain’s novels, we read them primarily for the brisk, satisfying plots and the unethical characters who come to bad ends.

Noir novels are the 20th-century version of gothic potboilers. These books take us behind the scenes of the trashy stories we see splashed across the covers of American tabloids. We expect the cheap titillation of tawdry sex and back-alley murders. We certainly don’t think of ourselves as embarking on heavy philosophical explorations of humanity’s place in a Godless universe. America doesn’t do philosophy, at least not that we’re willing to admit.

However, Cain delivers with both barrels. He’s got one loaded with all trashiness the public has been primed to expect, and the other barrel is packed with the same unflinching self-examination practiced by Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre.

And it wasn’t just James M. Cain who wrote these sorts of things, though he did it first and best with his first three novels, a trifecta of noir brilliance – The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, and Mildred Pierce. But a whole host of other American noir writers emerged during the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s. Proto-noirist Cornell Woolrich wrote not only a brilliant series of novels with Black in the title but also Rear Window, which Hitchcock adapted into his brilliantly claustrophobic film. After Cain, David Goodis found the most favor with French readers. In 1960, François Truffaut turned his novel Shoot the Piano Player into a brilliant film. The grande dame of noir, Patricia Highsmith wrote her Talented Mr. Ripley series as well as Strangers on a Train and countless other wicked gems. For a delicious taste of Highsmith’s genius for psycho-sexual tension, check out the underappreciated 2015 film Carol which adapts her 1952 novel The Price of Salt. Though his talent was uneven due to his bouts of alcoholism, Jim Thompson wrote a dozen or more indispensible noir classics, including The Killer Inside Me, Pop. 1280, The Grifters, Savage Night, and (my personal favorite) After Dark, My Sweet.


These authors were the luminaries, but many other noir writers emerged in this era. Some wrote quickly for money. Others had just one or two brilliant moments in the sun. Yet, prolific or not, they all still understood the basic premise of a bleak worldview they were promulgating. Living in the wake of World War I with all its fresh horrors, followed by the global grind of the Depression, and then emerging into what Charles Willeford called the “new forms of ugly” manifest during and after World War II with its twin horrors of the Holocaust and the atomic bomb.

In the face of all this, noir authors wrote what came naturally to them, gritty, grinding crime novels that tried to make sense of a world where God is dead, or at least sleeping. Noir became essential because it confronted the fact that we are ultimately alone in the universe. Worse, we no longer have any illusions that anything can save us from ourselves.

Why Is TV So Bad for Writers?

Like many other writers in the public eye, Stephen King has said in a bunch of interviews that he thinks watching television is one of the worst things a writer can spend his or her time doing. As far as I’ve seen he hasn’t spent a lot of time elaborating on why he feels this to be the case, but he makes the claim often. Maybe King doesn’t say more because it’s self-evident. He certainly seems to think so. Also, I admire the courage of a writer from the baby boomer generation for so vocally rejecting one of the defining appliances of his youth. For me, though, the best thing about King’s pronouncement is that I’ve started re-examining my own TV habits.


I don’t think of myself as having a television problem, but I probably could, and probably should, cut back. I often watch for a couple hours in the evening. Yes, it’s mostly a waste of time. Not entirely because I sometimes write about television. Though I mostly enjoy watching sit-coms and I don’t know that I’ve ever written about those. The shows I tend to write about are ones that I watch more for analysis than for simple entertainment. Not that I don’t enjoy watching things like True Detective or The Killing. I do, and I recognize that Netflix and other streaming services are ushering in a new golden age of television where shows can become more novelistic as their stories arc over full seasons and beyond. But I’ve also watched a fair number of things that I didn’t enjoy for writing projects. The Following comes to mind. The Poe connection notwithstanding, I know wouldn’t have made it more than a few episodes into that one if I hadn’t accepted an assignment to write about it.

But the question still remains, why exactly is television so terrible for writers?

At the risk of rehashing a million arguments made in the 60’s and 70’s, I think I’ve got a few cogent arguments that will have aspiring writers turning off the tube. If you need more convincing, you can track down Jerry Mander’s 1978 classic Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. For my part, I’m not worried about how TV affects society as a whole or the mass of watchers as individuals. I’m just thinking about how it impacts those of us who write.

First, TV sucks down time we could better spend on other activities. Every hour you spend staring into colorful, dancing pixels is at least an hour you don’t spend writing. Of course you can’t write every hour of the day. Nobody does that and nobody expects you to. But if you haven’t gotten your writing in for the day for whatever reason, then what the hell are you doing sitting in front of the TV before bed? The other thing about time, which is always at a premium, is that when you’re not actively writing you need to be reading. One of the neglected secrets to success as a writer is spending as much time as possible reading the work of other writers. You’re learning more about your craft even when you’re just relaxing with a book. You’re hearing new ways to describe things. You’re observing different ways to tell a story. And most importantly, you’re exercising the verbal aptitude of your brain.

In fact, this idea of verbal aptitude brings us to the second major problem with television for writers. As its name implies, TV is a visual medium. It’s audial too, but the primary way it works is by riveting the attention of our eyes. It shows us moving pictures. US television broadcasts at a rate of 24 frames per second. If, like they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, then that’s 24,000 words per second. That’s a full-length novel’s worth of description every three to four seconds. Processing all that information should be exhausting, but it’s not. Instead it teaches our brains to become lazy, at least in terms of our verbalization of things. The part of us that works to put into words everything we see and experience just can’t keep up with 24,000 words a second. No way, no how. So instead we shut down that part of ourselves. We stop exercising our verbal aptitude so that we can just let the pretty pictures wash over us. That means, TV shuts down the inner writer dwelling in each of us. That thought alone should terrifying enough to make you keep your television in a locked cabinet.

Third, TV is an anti-literacy machine. Okay, that sounds hyperbolic, but you don’t have to believe me. Test it out on yourself. Give up television for just one week and devote those hours to reading instead. You don’t have to read anything in particular, but maybe pick two or three novels of those novels you’ve been meaning to read but haven’t gotten around to. The typical American watches about five hours of TV a day. That’s 35 hours of reading during your one week experiment. So, if you honestly convert your television hours straight over to reading hours, you’ll probably read a few books over the course of the next week. You’ll certainly get through one or two even if you’re a slow reader. But this experiment isn’t even about the missing time you’ll rediscover. It’s about the shift in your thinking. Your brain will feel different after a week of reading a few books instead of watching TV. Your verbal aptitude will be heightened. When you walk around in the world, you’ll find yourself internally describing things in words. You’ll find yourself making different observations, connecting ideas in different ways, being more literate. You’ll also be inspired to buy a couple more books to replenish the ones you finished reading last week, and that promotes literate culture even beyond the limits of your own skull. As will the increased writing you do.

And that’s why television is so deadly for writers. It wastes your time. It reduces your verbal aptitude. And it alienates you from your own literacy. Thanks to public schools, most Americans can read. So we’re not actually illiterate, but when we don’t read or have no interest in reading, we become aliterate. When that happens, book culture stagnates and dies. Some people might think the endangered state of book culture doesn’t affect them. It does. Deeply. But that’s an argument for another time.

If you’re a writer or want to be one, then you already know what sort of world you want. One with books, and more of them.

So, I think I’ll give it a try. Starting now, I’m committing to one full week of reading instead of watching TV.

If you decide to join me and do this too, stop back by and let me know how it goes.

Slogging Through Two Seasons of The Killing

I know I’m late to the party, but I finally found out who killed Rosie Larsen and why. This past weekend I finished watching the second season of The Killing, a moody police procedural set in Seattle but produced by a Danish director and crew. Though I really disliked the eye-rollingly tidy final episode, which was at least a twist or two too far (and maybe ten or more too far), the finish wasn’t really where the show fell apart. This denouement was just the final straw that broke the back of a strong beast overburdened with practically every piece of personal baggage the writers could pile onto it. The last episode also fell directly into the old trap of using long flashbacks to show us the crime as it happened. While not the most egregious misuse of this device I’ve seen, a dubious honor that still goes to the Jody Foster rape drama The Accused (1988), the effect was still to whitewash all those careful shades of gray the show had worked so hard to establish. The idea that the past is somehow perfectly recoverable and knowable not only comes across as blithely expository and patently false, but it completely undermines the contradicting subjectivities and moral ambiguity that are really what make dark crime fiction so compelling in the first place.


The characters and case in these first two seasons were quite interesting, but ended up having more potential than punch. Although some have complained that the story dragged on for too long, I found the opposite to be true. I think the idea of spending two full seasons on a case that most cop dramas would have solved in a single 50 minute episode is refreshing. In fact, personally I would have liked to wallow even deeper in the drudgery of police work. But while The Killing trusted its viewers enough to stay engaged with the slow character development this required, it punked out when it came to sticking with the long, tedious work of solving a crime and coming to terms with its consequences. Sadly this element that should have made the program so unique proved its ultimate undoing.

The painful thing here is that the show started out so strong. I loved the first season (or most of it), but by the second season I started to get frustrated with having so many twists and turns. They seemed to want a big new surprise at the end of every episode, so instead of feeling gritty and real, the show starts to feel forced and over-wrought. The problem arises that every stunning new reversal can’t help but tear another long snag of unintended implausibilities into the fabric of the show’s diegetic reality. At a certain point this tangled knot of deception becomes so Gordian that even slicing through it with a bright sword ends up feeling like a betrayal. I understand that some viewers might have struggled with boredom while confronting the long, painful process of not knowing what happened and not knowing how to find out; however, that real-world grind of police work and emotional marathon of seeing a case to conclusion seemed to be precisely what the show had earlier promised.

So, why not just make us squirm under this pressure? Why not stay committed to the aesthetic vision of the first half dozen episodes?

Instead, cliffhanger episodes and a new prime suspect every week maintained freshness for a while, but in the end it became its own sort of overstimulated tedium. And the show became a failed reiteration of the cop show conventions it had attempted to break with in its earlier episodes.

Yes, at times the show still made an honest attempt to wallow in the procedural grind. The slow exhaustion that overtakes Detective Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) helps express this discomfort. So do the combined pressures of Linden’s past as an unhappy foster child and her present as a criminally negligent parent. Enos performs the role brilliantly, with her face growing more haunted and her nervous tics becoming more pronounced as the case wears her down. The pathos of Detective Holder (Joel Kinnaman) also offers great insights into the grueling aspects of police work. When the show mines his troubled past as a narcotics addict and the ongoing strain that history has on his family relationships, the pathos becomes palpable. We really start to understand why these two damaged homicide detectives cling to their waterlogged and sinking case like two fatigued swimmers who know they can’t quite make it to shore. But then Linden’s exhaustion becomes an excuse for the cabal of corruption to take her badge and have her involuntarily committed, a plot turn that transmutes character gold into dull dramatic lead. Suddenly the problem is not so much that she’s pushing herself too hard, eating and sleeping too little, or suffering from over-identification with the victim and victim’s family, it’s all just a big conspiracy to keep her from solving the crime. She’s fine once they can bust her out of the psych ward.

Similarly, Holder moves fluidly from desperately needing his Narcotics Anonymous meetings, to learning that his sponsor has betrayed him and feeling desperate enough that he steals drugs from a former underworld contact and hooks up with another addict from his meetings, to being miraculously cured of his addictions and perfectly redeemed from the taint of corruption that earned him his dirty badge in the first place.

Getting out of the weeds to take a longer view of these first two seasons, I now almost want to laugh at the clown car of false leads, innocent suspects, red herrings, and wild tangents. It all feels very dramatic when you’re moving from episode to episode, but in retrospect the story arc comes off as a scattershot of mystery cliches — teenagers with secrets, corrupt politics, tribal casinos and Indian land rights, infidelities and jilted lovers, past connections to the mob that can’t ever be overcome, vigilante justice gone wrong, street snitches, teachers corrupting students, a haunted widower, a creepy dude living with his even creepier mother, millionaires partying with call girls, a mayoral campaign, cops running afoul of long-term FBI investigations, a terrorist plot, human trafficking, bodies in trunks of cars, and on and on. This is just too much to cram into a single case and have it still seem like gritty portrayal of day-to-day police work.

In the end, I still very much enjoyed these first two seasons of The Killing. Or I will have once I learn to forgive and forget that miserable finale. But for the most part, I don’t regret the time I spent getting lost in rainy woods, dirty back alleys, and shadowy offices. The tale remains legitimately heart wrenching as it explores Rosie Larsen’s awful murder and the tragic effects that her death has on those who knew and loved her. With their deep personal scars and uneasy chemistry, Detectives Linden and Holder are the sort of likably pessimistic cops that you find yourself wanting to follow through hell and high water. I do want to spend more time with them. I’m sure they will remain as compelling as whatever case they’re working.

But, that said, I still need to take a break before I dive into season three.


Poe’s Popularity

Since attending the 4th International Edgar Allan Poe conference in New York a few weeks ago, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why Poe has become such a cultural icon in recent years.

Yes, Poe was always one of the more important American writers of the 19th century, despite being dismissed from consideration as “serious literature” for so many years. Instead, and somewhat strangely, Poe’s enduring popularity caused him to be classified as juvenile literature, which his work is absolutely not, but along with scaring (and scarring) generations of readers, foisting him off on the young had the somewhat perverse effect of only making Poe more widely influential. Having such a lineage and coming in an era dominated by YA fiction certainly boosts Poe’s current reputation. He offers dark magic for kids schooled with Harry Potter, and grim cultural critique for teens enthralled by the dystopian visions of Hunger Games and the Divergent trilogy. So, that’s probably part of Poe’s secret, but there’s more.

Poe also wrote the very first recognizable detective stories. His trio of Parisian mysteries featuring C. Auguste Dupin and his nameless sidekick who narrates the tales, starts with the locked-room case of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” first published Graham’s Magazine in 1841, these stories introduced the idea of mysteries where the detective (and along with him the reader) encounters a series of clues which he must them assemble into a solution told in the form of a narrative that accounts for each piece of the puzzle.


It’s worth noting that Poe referred to these detective stories as his tales of ratiocination. He always preferred the word “tale” to indicate a short story. Meaning “logical reasoning” and pronounced with a hard T so the first syllable sounds like rat, the word “ratiocination” was cumbersome and unfamiliar even in Poe’s time, so it’s no wonder we’ve shifted over to calling them detective stories or mystery stories; however, these newer descriptions subtly place the focus on the central figure of the detective in the first place or on the puzzle itself in the latter. Poe’s awkward word “ratiocination” still has the advantage of emphasizing the mental thought processes that interpret the story’s clues in order to produce the mystery’s solution, and that’s exactly where Poe wanted to place focus. For Poe, detective stories are always primarily about how we analyze the word around us, reading information in order to deduce hidden truths.

Writing fifty years later, Arthur Conan Doyle followed Poe’s model with his enormously popular and influential Sherlock Holmes stories and novels. Conan Doyle was quite open about his debts to Poe, but he cleverly renamed the detective’s process “deduction” which was already familiar from philosophy and has proven a much more manageable term for most people. In the 20th century, writers like Agatha Christie and Rex Stout turned the production of detective novels into a fine cottage industry with a ravenous readership. Interestingly, after the 1930’s most American crime writers veered down the path of detective as action-adventure hero, following Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler down a path that perhaps has as much in common with the Leatherstocking novels of James Fenimore Cooper (Last of the Mohicans, etc.) as it does with Poe’s more intellectual tales. In any case, with his three Dupin stories, Poe essentially invented a genre that has become dominant in our times. Every country in the world writes and reads detective stories and novels these days.

The significance of this contribution by Poe cannot be overstated. No one invents a genre! And mystery stories have become one of the main staples of popular entertainment ever since. No wonder the Mystery Writers Association named the award they give out to the best crime fiction every year the Edgars. Imagine a world without Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, without Perry Mason and Columbo, without Law & Order or CSI. It’s nearly impossible to fathom how Poe changed our way of thinking about crime and police work. He not   only introduced the figure of the detective to the popular imagination, but by focusing on the details of how detectives think he revealed how virtually every profession had become altered by the rise of the scientific method. Now, now matter what job you do, you probably imagine yourself as something of a detective, at least sometimes.

Only perhaps Mary Shelley can make a similar claim for science fiction with her 1818 novel Frankenstein, and that novel owes as much to its roots in Gothic horror as it does to the rise of modern science.

So, these are both huge reasons for us to admire and respect Poe’s literary achievements, but I’m still not sure they adequately explain why Poe’s face appears among that pantheon of cultural icons featured on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s album, much less why the Baltimore Ravens would name their team after the title figure from Poe’s 1845 poem “The Raven.” Of course the poem is a masterpiece that was hugely popular when it was first published and it has remained an American favorite every since, but it still seems so culturally improbable that we would have a football team named for it. I mean, what other 19th century American writer gets name checked by the NFL? Or any other writer by any other sport for that matter?


But the current mania for Poe doesn’t end there.

A number of historical crime novels include Poe as a character and countless more mysteries center on the discovery, theft or forgery of rare Poe books and manuscripts. A few years ago, John Cusack played a crime-solving Poe in The Raven. Recent television show The Following focuses on the exploits of a college professor turned serial killer who controls an enthusiastic cult of students obsessed with Poe. One of Lou Reed’s final albums even pays homage to Poe’s work.

Of course there are tee shirts and coffee cups, but everybody who’s anybody has those. Poe has gone even further. Now you can even buy no end of Poe memorabilia from Poe action figures and Poe bobble heads to Poe-ka dotted iPhone covers and book bags. I personally own a few of these items thanks to my lovely wife Petra and to my kind friend Jean, with whom I worked for years at Murder by the Book. Becoming the object of such cultural fixation is usually reserved for movie stars and rock musicians, but Poe’s current popularity is undeniable.

Yet unraveling all the precise reasons for this 21st-century infatuation remains a task worthy of Poe’s own Parisian detective. Fear not! I’m on the case and will reveal more next time.


Why Are There Police in Monty Python and the Holy Grail?

I recently revisited one of my favorite comedy films with my friend and colleague, Dr. Meg Roland. Meg is presenting a short talk at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) this week in advance of their screening of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Meg is probably one of the top medievalists on the west coast, so it’s no surprise that she would be asked to give her professional opinion of the English troupe’s take on the legend of King Arthur.


Meg’s a good friend and I was happy to play along, but I didn’t expect watching the film to touch on my own scholarly interests as heavily as it did. I hadn’t actually watched Holy Grail for probably twenty years, but I’d seen it so many times in high school that my friends could quote long passages from it verbatim in outrageous British accents.

Okay, yes, I might as well admit it. I was one of those socially awkward nerdy kids who felt more at home with the tabletop adventures I had playing Dungeons & Dragons than I did venturing across the darkened auditorium at a high school dance to brave asking one of the girls to dance.

This was way before being a nerd was cool. Believe me, it was painful at the time.

This was also long before I found that my endless fascination with detectives and with crime and horror fiction could translate itself into a rich academic life. (N.B.: I mean “rich” here in the sense of fulfilling, not remunerative; the scholar’s life these days seems to include a vow of poverty.)

In the old days, when I would watch Holy Grail with my friends and quote the lines along with the actors, we tended to ignore the strange intrusions of the stuffy historian killed by the knight and the subsequent interruptions by the uniformed police trying to arrest the professor’s killer. But imagine my surprise in discovering upon re-watching the film now that these oddly modern intrusions by the cops, the weird interludes that formerly seemed to disturb the magic and humor of Arthur’s quest, can actually be seen as advancing a relatively insightful argument very closely related to my own scholarly interests.

A lot of the laughs in the film derive from the conflict between pre-Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment modes of thought. The witch trial scene, for example, gives us poignant parody of scientific thought where pre-Enlightenment thinkers struggle to understand cause and effect. The rabble, of course, doesn’t care about mastering logic. They just want an officially sanctioned excuse to burn the poor woman they’ve dressed up as a witch. King Arthur and Sir Bedevere are earnestly trying to gain a deeper understanding of natural laws, even as their bumbling attempts spark our laughter.


But this push toward post-Enlightenment thought is telling because the rise of science and rationality ultimately spells the end of the myth and magic of King Arthur and his knights as well as the pageantry and glory of monarchy and church.

At the core of the cultural shift during the Enlightenment is a radically new way of understanding truth. No longer would Truth come from on high, handed down by God through his chosen representatives on earth. The new truth becomes understood as a narrative construction told from interwoven and sometimes contradictory points of view.

After the Enlightenment, instead of Truth with a capital “T,” we are left with a contingent and fragile truth, now forever with a lower-case “t.”

Consider how the scientific method works. We come up with a hypothesis and then we test it against evidence. If the original hypothesis doesn’t account for all the available evidence, we must revise it.

Our courts of law start to work in the same way. Rival lawyers develop competing narratives. Juries decide which story seems to best explain every existing piece of evidence. Once the jury votes, the judge declares that version to be the verdict in the case and pronounces a sentence.

The post-Enlightenment gives rise not only to new forms of government, like American democracy, but also to police forces charged with maintaining law and order on behalf of the citizenry. Initially the police are only charged with preventing unrest and stopping crimes in progress, but fairly quickly it becomes clear that the police and courts need a way to deal with crimes that have already been committed but for which there is no clear culprit. They need specialists who can apply the scientific method to solving mysterious crimes and serve as consultants to the police. They need the detective.

Not coincidentally, the detective figure becomes the hero of our new post-Enlightenment literature. The Enlightenment had already destroyed the magic of Arthurian romance, so we needed a new heroic to populate a new sort of “realist romance,” a figure who could embody the ideals of the new era.

We need somebody who can arrest our long-standing enthusiasm for these ridiculous stories of knights and sorcerers and holy grails.

That’s precisely the exchange enacted by the close of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. After all the fun and laughter and silliness, we need to be serious grown-ups who establish law and order. The film’s tweed-clad historian is slaughtered by a knight after he breaks the fourth wall, addressing the audience about Arthurian stories as if they were fiction.

The irony, of course, is that the historian and his ilk are the ones actually killing off the old tales (at least metaphorically), even if the knights are better armed. Culturally speaking, Arthur and his knights are living on borrowed time. Eventually, the police arrive at the end of the film to dispel illusion entirely as they stop the action, throw Arthur into the back of a police van, and then break the film’s fantasy entirely by shoving the cameramen away, and placing a hand over the lens, and saying it’s all over. There’s nothing to see here, folks. Move along.

But of course we can’t give up on these tales. We love our heroes. We need somebody who can replace the old quests with a hero’s quest of this own, which is precisely what detective stories do and why they follow almost exactly the same pattern as the older quest stories.

We swap the holy grail for the Maltese Falcon and we’re back in business.


The Park for Dead People

My mother tells me that as I child I referred to the cemetery as “the park for dead people.” From the mouths of babes, the truth rushes forth.

Boise Pioneer Cemetery

While attending an academic conference in Boise, I took a break from things to hike into the foothills and to visit the old pioneer cemetery. It was a quiet and haunting place, this small collection of graves inside a wrought iron fence. The October afternoon was warm and the flag on its pole flapped in a gentle breeze.

Boise Graves

I walked down the rows of graves, reading the headstones and imagining the lives of the people buried there. I imagined too the lives of those who have known them and left them here to rest from the cares of the world in this park for dead people.

It still seems an apt description to me — the park for dead people. We might argue that libraries serve much the same function. Like the stretch of library bookshelf, a hard-won plot of textual territory, the cemetery is a modest patch of land dedicated to the idea of honoring our forebears and remembering the past.

Rowland Grave Marker


There are cultures that believe you don’t pass into the next stage of death until there is know one left alive who remembers you. So, I was especially touched to see that someone visiting earlier had placed a small stone atop each grave marker that said “Unknown,” a token to remember the humanity of those who were forgotten even when they were alive.

Unknown Grave

Inadequate perhaps, but at least it’s some sort of acknowledgment of what came before. We can be a fickle and forgetful people. The pressures of daily life occupy us so completely that we often lose the long view, that life is brief and fragile. But cemeteries remind us that previous generations were once as we are now, up and moving around, rushing through their own brief span of time, moving across the country, building houses, laughing, loving, living.

Boise Cemetery Bush & Fence

Analyzing the Title of The X-Files

The first and most superficial meaning of the show’s title refers to the cases that Special Agents Mulder and Scully work during the series. Within this diegetic framework (that is, within the fictional world of the show), the X-Files are a collection of FBI “cold cases” that have not been closed because they contain one or more elements that lack plausible, rational explanations. As such, the X-Files are quite literally the mysteries being investigated.


Nicknamed “Spooky” by his fellow FBI agents and given a windowless basement office to signify his marginalized status, Agent Mulder is the keeper of these X-Files. His role in the series is to serve as the voice of credulity. He’s the one who gives the series its first catchphrase, “I want to believe.”

The series is launched in the pilot by Agent Scully’s new assignment as Mulder’s partner. The pairing makes sense because Scully’s training as a medical doctor gives her the enlightened rationality that Mulder seems to lack. If Mulder is too gullible, Scully is a skeptic. Also, even though Scully is putatively the junior partner with less experience in the Bureau, her FBI supervisors make clear to her that her job is not only to work with Mulder to close X-Files by finding rational explanations for them, but also to keep an eye on Mulder personally and to report back to the supervisors about his questionable activities.

So, the agents’ job is to research and to close these X-Files, but of course the logic of the series quickly reveals itself. Mulder and Scully are confronted with some answers but not all, and most episodes end by maintaining the insolvability of the mystery in question. The X-Files can never be fully closed because the “truth” of each case never allows itself to be read.

Another way to read the title of the series is to see the X as representing “ex-“ the Latin prefix for “out of” or “from.” As a prefix, ex- can also mean former. As a preposition, the word ex often means “without” or “excluding.” Tying this back to the internal logic of the show, these then are files that are outside or not included in the main body of files. They are outliers, both literally and figuratively. This descriptive way of looking at the X-Files then also makes a clear allusion to the show’s obvious antecedents in American television. Both “Twilight Zone” and “Outer Limits” presented similar types of episodes that explored the supernatural, the creepy, and the weird. Not surprisingly all three of the shows have titles that refer to their status as being somehow outside normal experience or existing in a some sort of a liminal space. The “twilight zone,” for example is neither day nor night but always in between. Again, I haven’t been researching the show, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Chris Carter, the creator of The X-Files, cites these other shows as influences on his own series. In fact, I’d be surprised if he didn’t.

Continuing this idea of the X-Files belonging to a liminal space, the X in the title is also the Greek letter chi that is often representative of a crossing over or a transition. We see this in everyday usage on road signs that say “Xing” rather than spelling out the word “crossing.” In that sense, the title of the series suggests that it offers place of transition or crossing over for its characters and its audience.

Finally, as a label for the series, this title possesses a final key virtue: it is at once familiar and unfamiliar (which, by the way, is precisely Freud’s recipe for the uncanny). For now, we can just observe that we know what files are. They’re boring, mundane collections of information. Whether on the computer or in manila folders in a big metal cabinet, most of us probably have to deal with files at work all the time. But we don’t initially know what the X stands for, so this adds a dimension of mystery to the title and makes it all the more memorable.

Further, our experience of the show corresponds directly with this initial hit from the title. The X-Files follows the basic pattern of a police procedural with federal agents, the structure of each episode is familiar. A crime or other mysterious event happens, Mulder and Scully go to investigate, they find clues, begin to structure plausible solutions, etc. Yet the discoveries these detective figures make are often unexpected and sometimes defy explain within the normal limits of modern rationalism.

That this standard-issue, late 20th-century rationalism itself has an ideological agenda is where the show begins to venture into conspiracy theory. We tend to imagine that at least as far as science and technology go, we live in a post-ideological world, but The X-Files clearly wants to challenge this notion. Still, I’ll leave that can of worms on the shelf until a future post.

Jim Thompson Novels Reissued

I’m thrilled to see that Mulholland Books has reissued such a sizable chunk of the Jim Thompson oeuvre. The time is ripe for a new generation to discover this “Dimestore Dostoyevsky,” as noir scholar Geoffrey O’Brien dubbed him in the afterward to Black Lizard’s 1986 edition of After Dark, My Sweet. The Vintage arm of Random House sensed that Barry Gifford and company were onto something and snatched up the Black Lizard imprint.


Vintage subsequently made quite a few Thompson novels available in the more aesthetically pleasing trade paperback format. Still, those books came out over twenty years ago and can be hard to find. Sadly too, Vintage quit digging so deep into the catalogue of forgotten writers like David Goodis and Harry Whittington and used their version of Black Lizard mostly to produce new editions of Chandler and Hammett who are formidable talents of course but who had already been readily available.

As I argued in my own Master’s thesis a few years back, Thompson still deserves a much larger audience than he’s ever managed to attract in the US, but his vision is perhaps too unrelentingly dark to achieve mainstream acceptance here. Thompson’s Marxist sympathies shine through in his savage critiques of America’s capitalistic positivism and that makes folks uneasy. So too does his insistence that criminal misfits and killers are not the monstrous others we’d like to believe; the ugly face of humanity is right there in the mirror if we’re willing to take an unflinching look. Indeed, Jordan Foster gets it exactly right in the title of her piece for Publishers Weekly: “The Killers Inside Us.” This is the mark of Thompson’s break from our post-Enlightenment pieties.

The French get Thompson, which is perhaps why we still use the French word noir to describe this sort of crime fiction. The best film adaptation of a Thompson novel is probably still Tavernier’s Coup de Torchon, which moves Pop. 1280 to French West Africa. As O’Brien writes in that afterward, the average reader of mystery fiction “wants his anxieties alleviated, not aroused,” which is why cozies are so popular with invalids and retirees. And perhaps it’s true that most crime fiction is essentially “conservative” in that it tends to resolve any rupture in the social order (such as murder or theft) by reasserting that order and ensuring that the lawless are appropriately punished.


But Thompson doesn’t work that way.

A relentless experimenter in literary forms, he continually breaks genre conventions to claw through that paper-and-ink barrier that separates author and reader. The end of Savage Night is a case in point, but there are plenty of other examples. One of Thompson’s crazed narrators unravels so completely that divergent voices occupy alternating lines in the final pages of the novel.

Personally, I’m seizing on this excuse to refresh my memory of some favorite titles and revisit the ones I don’t recall as well. Thompson’s work always rewards multiple visits and he scarcely ever wrote a novel longer than 50,000 words.

Cheers to Mulholland for reissuing these novels with new forewords by a number of today’s best crime writers (with a few curious omissions). Here’s hoping Thompson gets under the skin of a whole new generation of readers.killer-inside-me

(Re-)Watching The X-Files

Thanks to Netflix streaming services, I’ve recently been re-watching The X-Files in order from the beginning. I have an abiding interest in conspiracy theories so the show is a natural fit for me. However, while I enjoyed the numerous episodes I saw back during the show’s original run from 1993 to 2002, my life at that time wasn’t such that I could watch anything too religiously. So I missed a lot.


For the most part, the episodes worked as stand-alones since this era when shows like The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer were first pioneering their ideas of multi-season story arcs, a bold move back in the 90’s, before the advent of Netflix or Hulu or other “on demand” television providers. It’s true that shows were released on VHS tapes but these still had nowhere near the social currency currently enjoyed by DVD boxed sets in the 2000’s, and they lacked the commentary tracks, alternate takes, and other special features now routinely available on DVD.

The release of shows in DVD boxed sets marked the potential for endless re-watching, but binge-watching a series doesn’t seem to have gained quite the popularity it currently enjoys until shows started appearing via online streaming. As few as five or ten years ago, you still would have had to swap out the DVD in your machine every hour or two. Now you don’t even have to buy anything, just subscribe to an inexpensive monthly service, and if you do nothing but keep watching, Netflix streaming will run episode after episode of a show one full season at a time, and it even conveniently edits out the opening credits so you don’t have to sit through those repeatedly.

Instead, you can stare in full spectatorial wonder without so much as touching your TV’s remote or the screen of your iPad from sunrise to sunset. Or perhaps, as is more commonly the case, from sunset to sunrise, when you groggily turn on your side and hope to catch a short nap before the world expects you as a civilized person to make your first dignified appearance for the day.

I’m not much of a binge-watcher, but clearly the current technology has opened new frontiers in sleep deprivation and social catch-up-ism. Miss the first season or three of that show everyone seems to be gabbing about at the water cooler? No problem. Just bluff your way through a cursory chat and then power through the requisite material over the weekend. Just like with Wikipedia and Shazam, we’ve never had such rapid ability to fake and amass cultural literacy. There’s really no excuse anymore for not watching everything.

Personally, I tend to watch shows and films like I read books, slowly to savor them and to give some attention to detail. For me, the joys of analysis always overmatch our contemporary drive for sheer consumption. I recall a few terms back when I had an undergrad boast to me that his Netflix queue showed that he’d watched over 10,000 films, but I wasn’t overly impressed by this factoid since he had a hard time performing a decent critical analysis of any of the stories or novels we read in class. Shoveling massive amounts of media into your head doesn’t mean you’re actually digesting it,, which is why I have a bit of a hard time watching things that don’t satisfying my interpretive impulse.

Fortunately, only half way through the first season I’m already finding The X-Files holds up. Yes, the clothing and hairstyles are a bit dated. And the technology is occasionally quaint, like when Scully gets paged at dinner and needs to find a pay phone or when Mulder develops old-fashioned rolls of film in a chemical bath or gets lost in the woods and can’t call anyone for help or look up his location on GPS. But these are minor details. The central premise of the series and various phenomena and conspiracies taken up by the individual episodes are still as rewarding and intriguing as they ever were.

I’m taking notes as I go and plan to use episodes along the way to launch into broader discussions here. For example, the pilot starts with the reliable and rational Scully first receiving her assignment to work with conspiracy-minded Mulder. Her exchange with the FBI bosses and her subsequent initial encounter with Mulder warrant some closer scrutiny. Similarly, the second episode, about a missing Air Force pilot, contains the series’ first truly uncanny moment and it’s something I think could serve as the basis for a larger exploration of Freud’s notion of the unheimlich.

Not that all my planned posts will be so densely theoretical, diving into psychological or philosophical esoterica. Not at all. It’s television after all. It’s meant to be entertaining. So you can count on me to also explain why I think The X-Files could be looked at as the anti-Scooby Doo. See, fun!

Finally, this particular post launches a couple new categories for my blog, “television” and “conspiracy theories.” I’m hoping the introduction of both these topics will prompt me to blog more regularly. Next time I write about The X-Files, I plan to start by examining its trio of catch phrases: “The truth is out there,” “Trust no one,” and “I want to believe.” Evocative statements, but what does each of these really mean?

Teaching Video Game Theory, Part Two

What Video Game Study Can Do for Academia

In my last post (“Teaching Video Game Theory, Part One: What Academic Study Can Do for Video Games”), I argued that video games deserve critical attention. But the question remains whether video games have anything essential to offer in return. What benefits can the inclusion of video games offer to Culture & Media Studies?

Well, in many ways the humanities are suffering. It’s no secret that universities around the world are in financial straits. While cutting budgets and raising tuition, administrations are looking at the numbers. And the liberal arts are not pulling their weight. According to a New York Times article about the global crisis in liberal arts, the number of students studying the humanities at Harvard has halved in the last 50 years. Yet another NYT piece about waning student interest in the humanities reports that although nearly half of faculty salaries at Stanford University go to professors in the liberal arts, only 15% of recent Stanford grads have majored in those disciplines. Those are alarming trends and suggest the humanities are fundamentally unsustainable. At least as they are currently imagined.


In response to this crisis in the humanities, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences issued a report last year stating: “At a time when economic anxiety is driving the public toward a narrow concept of education focused on short-term payoffs, it is imperative that colleges, universities, and their supporters make a clear and convincing case for the value of liberal arts education” (32). This report also stressed the importance of facing the new challenges of the Digital Age.

So, how do we do that? How do we make the case that a liberal arts education is worthwhile especially with the advent of the Digital Age?

Well, teaching video games is a start. We need to bring this powerful cultural medium into the classroom and engage students on their own terms. Over the past decade I’ve become aware that fewer and fewer of our students read for enjoyment. But nearly all of them use significant amounts of their free time to play video games. Male or female, younger or older, they choose to experience these video game “texts” of their own free will.

I already argued last time for the significance of video games as cultural artifacts. Every year more academic studies of video games are published and certain trends of intellectual thought about games have already begun to emerge.

All of this scholarly focus on video games is performing interesting and culturally important work; however, as academics we need to do more to translate this emerging discipline into the classroom experiences of our students.

They crave it. Not only that, but they deserve it. And so do we.

Video games can revitalize the humanities.

In order the remind the world how valuable a liberal arts education can be, we first need to entice students into taking our classes and then we need to make the classroom experience meaningful enough that they want to pursue degrees in our disciplines. When students are clamoring to study the humanities, financial support become available.

Three keys to attracting students are relevance, fun, and depth.

Relevance. Students want to take classes and study subject that connect to their actual lives and provide them with better ways of understanding the real (and often virtual) world they inhabit on a daily basis. For a class to be relevant, it needs to provide students with the analytical tools that help them interpret the information that bombards us from every side. Part of this is learning to ask the right questions. Part of it is learning how to understand the stuff our social interactions are made of – language and ideas and assumptions and rhetorical strategies. When it comes to teaching critical thinking and effective reading and writing skills, the humanities are not just relevant but central. There’s a reason two out of the three basic R’s of education are in the humanities! Yes, ‘rithmetic is important, but try surviving a day in the Digital Age without reading and writing.

Fun. Students learn best when they’re having fun. This is why so many young people retain seemingly endless minutia about the video games they play (which they experience as fun) and recall so little about that boring world history or chemistry class where they were forced to memorize dates or formulae. Fun lights up the brain like a Christmas tree. Just look at all those presents! By contrast, boredom shuts down the mind. “Eat your peas” and “do your chores” do not inspire enthusiasm and engagement. Psychological studies bear this out and pedagogues are already busily trying to create “useful” video games that can surreptitiously indoctrinate players with real world information.

Depth. This one is trickier, but in some ways it’s the secret ingredient because it’s key to what students crave from classes. Relevance and fun are both very important, but alone they cannot complete the circuit of education. The avid mind of a student wants to think new thoughts, to make surprising connections, to explore uncharted areas, to see the ordinary as strange and to view the strange as ordinary, to learn how to ask important questions and how to find interesting answers, to discover the mysterious joys of an intellectual life.

Video games offer a powerful way to provide students with relevance, fun, and depth. Not only is that good education; it’s where the humanities shine.

**This essay is cross-posted on the Marylhurst Blog.**