The Literary Noir Roots of HBO's True Detective

Colin Ferrell stars as Ray Velcoro in season two of HBO's True Detective (Image © HBO). 

Colin Ferrell stars as Ray Velcoro in season two of HBO's True Detective (Image © HBO). 

At any time, one can turn on the television and find a drama where a detective is solving a crime. However, these procedural dramas represent only a sliver of what the mystery genre can afford audiences. Noir, which has its roots in stories by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammet, has begun to permeate television. No television writer has come to represent noir more than Nic Pizzolatto, author of the Edgar Award winning novel Galveston and creator of the HBO drama True Detective. True Detective’s first season played like a mix of Edgar Allen Poe (who created the detective genre with his 1841 short story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”) and H.P. Lovecraft. There were crimes and murders, but also the feeling of inhuman horrors, poking through the sides of the world. It was an instant hit, touching on the noir, horror, and procedural genres.

    In its current season, True Detective is embracing its noir roots, becoming a mix of Poe and Raymond Chandler. Pizzolatto has kept some of the supernatural overtones, but they don’t permeate the story as thoroughly as they did in season one. Instead, Pizzolatto is embracing the heightened noir that is found in the works of James Ellory and Megan Abbott’s earlier works (or, if you only like your noir in film form, think of David Fincher’s Seven). Literary noir has been a continuing influence on True Detective and it’s clear Pizzolatto has done his homework. Viewers of True Detective would do well to visit some of the novelists who helped lay the seeds for the HBO drama; they’d get a better sense of where True Detective is coming from, and they’d read some damn fine fiction, too.

    Noir has long been a staple of Pizzolatto’s fiction. One of his earliest stories, “Between Here and the Yellow Sea,” concerned a football coach and an ex-high school football player going to “rescue” the coach’s daughter from a life as a pornographic star. Both the coach and the ex-player see themselves as noir detective figures, damaged but on the side of justice. What they find when they reach the coach’s daughter brings this into question (I won’t spoil it here as it’s worth reading). The story serves as a lesson in how noir can often reverse our expectations not just of the way fiction works, but also of the way life works. Life, like noir, is nuanced.

    Pizzolatto’s works are firmly set in the rugged, masculine world of noir that was found in Chandler’s novels or in the works of Donald E. Westlake or James M. Cain. Like these other writers, Pizzolatto uses the dark setting as a way to explore human nature without easily delineating between heroes and villains. The men in noir often toe the line between criminal and law enforcer.

    True Detective’s Ray Velcoro, played by Colin Farrell, is a more extreme version of Chandler’s Marlowe, although not by much. Both characters drink and smoke and have a penchant for philosophizing. Through their characters, Chandler and Pizzolatto examine not just the moral compass of their investigators, but also the way they perceive life and the way that perception reveals truths about how the world works, in both fiction and reality. True Detective has never been overly concerned with the mechanics of investigative procedure; in Season One the killer was found by examining what houses were painted green almost two decades after the fact. Chandler’s The Big Sleep has a similar moment. It contains a character who might have been murdered or might have committed suicide. When the book was adapted into a film, director Howard Hawks asked Chandler which it was, and Chandler admitted that he had no idea. Some might claim that this takes away from the works, but those critics are focusing too much on plot and not enough on story. Plot is the mechanics of a tale, the order events unfold and are revealed to the audience. Story is everything that happens before, during, and after a tale is told. Story gives the audience its character and theme, plot is merely a vehicle to get the audience through the story. Focusing more on plot only robs a work of meaning.

    Pizzolatto and Chandler are more interested in story and character than anything else. This is an approach that is consistent in most noir stories. Irish novelist Ken Bruen has a memorable private investigator named Jack Taylor who takes on cases in Galway. Taylor causes problems as often as he resolves them. Through Taylor, Bruen explores the anger of the impoverished in Ireland who feel that the government has left them behind in exchange for deals with corporations, following too much in the footsteps of American economics. Bruen’s plots contain shocking twists, but, like Pizzolatto and Chandler, he puts character and theme before the mechanics of investigation. Scenes exploring Taylor’s interiority vastly outnumber scenes of investigation.

    This works well because noir is inextricably tied with atmosphere as opposed to plot. Noir stories are adept at critiquing the world they are set in because the oppressive, dark setting is a requirement of the genre. Having characters react to the oppressive setting, be it Los Angeles or New York City or Galway, presents the reader with a picture of a desperate reality, one where people suffer due to an unfair universe and the presentation challenges the reader to come to terms with that. Bruen uses this to critique Irish politics and Pizzolatto is doing much the same in True Detective by critiquing the areas he believes American life comes up short. The first season revolved around the ritual abuse and rape that local institutions in Louisiana, be it the government or the church, were happy to cover up when the powerful were involved. The feeling of scandal being glossed over evoked another noir novel, 2011’s The End of Everything by Megan Abbott, which explored a small suburb where sexual assault and misconduct were always just beneath the surface, threatening to pop out if anyone dared to explore. Like True Detective, Abbot’s noir novel showed how perilous living in chosen ignorance of abuse can be.

    True Detective’s second season is focusing on the effects of big business mixing with government in Los Angeles and the surrounding areas. The investigation the second season revolves around, the death of city official Ben Caspere, introduces this critique, but the characterization and world-building prove just as important to the furthering of the critique. Ray Velcoro is being dragged down by his associations with Frank Semyon, a mobster trying to go legitimate, and with the corrupt local government of Vinci, California (an invented town that could stand in for far too many places in America). Velcoro’s association with corruption has had as much of a physical toll on him as the corruption has had on the town itself. Seemingly drunk 24/7, Velcoro staggers more than walks. In one scene, he sees a group of children playing in the contaminated waters outside of a factory. He whistles at them to go away, but he looks so downtrodden himself that the hypocrisy is obvious. Bruen’s aforementioned Jack Taylor has a similar arc, becoming more physically battered book by book, representing the decaying world that surrounds him. The physicality of the leads tells a lot about the purpose of the story.

    Pizzolatto is well aware of how the crime novel can become social critique. It is not only apparent in his works, but also in his interviews. While talking with Dave Walker, Pizzolatto said, “I think the big social novel is a crime novel. (James) Ellroy writes social novels, Dennis Lehane writes social novels. (George) Pelecanos writes social novels.” More could be added to the list. Along with the ones mentioned throughout this article, writers like Richard Price (Bloodbrothers and Clockers), Scott Lasser (Say Nice Things About Detroit), and David Simon (HBO’s The Wire and the non-fiction masterpiece Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets) have been using the crime genre to analyze the world for years.

    Noir also dabbles in gender roles, usually complicating them. The leads in noir are men more often than not, but there has been a steady rise in women in noir, both with characters and writers. Lesser noir fiction usually puts women into only one of two positions: villainess or virgin. When noir is on point, it can bring very complex women to life. Elmore Leonard’s short noir story, “When the Women Come Out to Dance,” examines two women, both of whom have had troubled pasts, but one of whom is a Caucasian American and the other of whom is a Hispanic immigrant. The story contrasts how they deal with sex, violence, and race while never losing track of the story’s breathless pace. Its ending acts as not just a plot reversal, but also a thematic one, making the reader question many of the assumptions he or she made while reading the story. Leonard’s piece acts as a crash course in how noir can examine the way readers perceive women in fiction. Evelyn Piper’s 1957 Bunny Lake is Missing takes a mother, Blanche, and puts her up against a terrifying situation: the apparent abduction of her daughter. The situation grows worse as the authorities believe she’s crazy, but Piper’s work shows us Blanche’s fortitude and makes her as impacting as any of the characters in Chandler or Hammett’s works. Blanche pushing up against the gender assumptions of her time ends up being as riveting as any other investigation.

Rachel McAdams stars as Antigone Bezzerides in season two of HBO's True Detective (Image © HBO). 

Rachel McAdams stars as Antigone Bezzerides in season two of HBO's True Detective (Image © HBO). 

    After its heavily male freshman season, True Detective brought in Rachel McAdams to play Antigone Bezzerides, a character that is half femme fatale and half Raylan Givens from Justified (a lighter but no less evocative noir drama). Bezzerides acts as a skewed version of past noir leads. She carries around knives so that she can kill any man who threatens her despite the physical differences between the genders, she’s into kinky sex that scares away partners, and she smokes- but she always uses an e-cigarette.

    The relationship between Bezzerides and Velcoro is a far cry from the relationship between men and women in noir stories from the first half of the twentieth century. Both are on equal footing in regards to investigative skills and neither is all that interested in help. There isn’t sexual tension between the two (not yet, at least), but political tension. Velcoro comes from a department that is interested in keeping the crime hushed while Bezzerides comes from a department that wants the crime solved and corrupt cops like Velcoro locked away.

    Bezzerides is far from the first capable woman crime fighter, though; she comes out of a tradition of tough women in difficult positions. Elmore Leonard created a similar, although less caustic, investigator in the character of Karen Sisco, who appeared in his novel Out of Sight and in multiple short stories. The character proved popular enough to be adapted to television in the short lived ABC drama Karen Sisco and the film version of Out of Sight.

    Going back a little further, James M. Cain created complex femme fatales in his novels The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. The women in Cain’s novels were dangerous, but also smart and independent, more than capable of tangling with the equally morally bankrupt men. They were women who could become out and out villains, but Cain’s mastery of characterization prevented them from becoming stock bad guys and instead they became multifaceted characters. It’s not a surprise that Cain went on to write a genre-free novel, Mildred Pierce, which beautifully crafted a mother who had a complicated, at times hateful, relationship with her narcissistic daughter. By delving into a darker world, noir writers are able to show the reader the many twisted faces that can be found in humanity, be they faces of men or women.

    As True Detective heads further into its second season, it will be worth keeping an eye on the way it deals with social critiques and gender, just like its many literary predecessors did. Noir is often focused on in regards to film, but its literary history is even richer, and it is from there that True Detective draws its strengths.