Monday, December 28, 2009

Histories, Mysteries: The True Story of How Stark Made Noir

By Steve Weddle

"I know a hawk from a handsaw."
- William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 2.2

"How and why did crime fiction diverge from mystery fiction? That is, how did the whodunit and the joy of the puzzle degenerate into crime fiction, dealing primarily with social issues and the aftermath of crime/violence?"

So that’s my set-up for this here Secret Santa idea of Jay’s. I’m kinda thinking someone is using this as an opportunity to write a research paper that he can sell, so I’m going to be very careful and helpful and be sure to get all of my facts straight.

We can hop in the Wayback Machine and watch some Greek tragedies, if you want. I don’t mean the current historical fiction books about how Socrates’ cousin solves mysteries and keeps the streets safe in ancient Parmanatheusopolis or whatever. I haven’t read those books. They could be great or not so great. I dunno. Let’s stick to stuff I’ve read, until I need to seem bright and talk about stuff I haven’t read, kinda like at every party I’ve ever attended.)

Let’s look at those old dudes. Sophocles wrote plays involving mysteries. The Roman Cicero, kinda. Bah, let’s don’t. Long time ago. Mysteries. Murder. Incest. If it comes up at a party, just say, “Dude, it’s all Deus ex Machina, ain’t it?” and then go get another drink. That’s old stuff. Let’s hop up to HAMLET, a mystery of sorts written by the Earl of Oxford on a drunken mead binge between March 14 and March 21, 1601. Who killed the king? Why? Was the wife in on it? Was Ophelia really played by a dude? Wasn’t calling the stage the “Globe” theater kinda pretentious? I mean, geez, talk about your arrogance.

But the so-called “modern mystery” and first detective came to us thanks to newspaperman Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s Auguste C. Dupin turned into Arthur Conan O’Brien’s great detective, Iron Man, who solved mysteries with his half-brother James “Rhodey” Watson. Iron Man, also called Tony Stark, had serious substance abuse problems, snorting up the cocaine and smoking the hash on the way to solving mysteries. This was the first “flawed detective.” (We don’t count Prince Hamlet as flawed, because dressing in all-black used to be cool.)

So Iron Man and Rhodey along with The Scarlet Witch (a detective created by Nathaniel Hawthorne) and Emma Peel formed a group called The Avengers and began to solve crimes in deserted English towns. In the fourth season of their TV show, Rhodey married Emma. The Watsons moved to Birmingham into a house with 18 other family members in which all of the Watsons spent the evening saying goodnight to “John Boy.” Emma Peel Watson, who absorbed the powers of The Scarlet Witch in the ninth season called “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” left Rhodey to join other witches at a pork-processing plant called “Hogwarts.” Stark continued to abuse drugs, solving a few crimes along the way. A notorious criminal called Charles Sheen had stolen his career. Stark defeated Sheen in a loser-leave-town cage match, then joined with John Cryer (a super-hero who attacked villains by locking himself in their bathrooms and flooding their homes) and a Canadian hero called “Puck” in a comic called “Two and Half Men.”

Eventually Stark traded his super-powered suit for a bag of grass, some beads, and a copy of Woody Allen’s “Manhattan.” Stark then used his knowledge of crime-fighting to write novels under the name “Robert Ben Parker.” Nearly sued to oblivion by a writer called “Robert B. Parker,” he then changed his name to David Bowie.

Stark, now Bowie, then began working at a McDonald’s in Westlake, Kansas. There he honed his skills writing movie reviews for "Gentleman's Magazine." The queen of Ellery, a tiny island nation in the Pacific, was also working at the restaurant, though she and a man named Arsenio Hall were incognito because her island was under the military rule of Gordon Pym, the Tara King. Seeing Bowie’s talent, the Queen hired him to write commentaries on her island nation’s politics, leading to the Tara King’s overthrow.

Bowie used his social commentary and his own experience fighting crime to write “A Study in Scarlet,” a story of love, betrayal and murder, based on his unrequited longing for The Scarlet Witch. (The third Scarlet Witch, Jean Grey, who had switched back to her red witch outfit after the grey one had gone berserk and killed Eddie Brock.) In the story, mad scientist Aragog Reilly travels to the Hogwarts plant, steals DNA from The Scarlet Witch, then clones her to make a villain called The Scarlet Spider, a being whose creation nearly destroyed the entire multiverse. He is defeated by Smokestack Lightning and Carlos Jackal, two of the first “anti-heroes” who trap The Scarlet Spider in a music store and use violins to get the answers they need by shoving splinters under his fingernails.

The combination of personal, up-close violence and socio-political commentary on the world in which this could take place, led to a new form of the mystery novel – crime fiction. His follow-up to that story was the novel, “Murder at La Roche-Noire,” featuring a character loosely based on his former teammate Puck and a convoluted plot involving the torture and death of teenager Virginia Clemm at a commune in central France. This novel, which is narrated by the girl’s cousin-husband, Henri Le Rennet, led to a run on the torture and killing of people in crime fiction, now called “Noir” fiction. (The final “e” was dropped as publishers were attempting to cut back on expenses.)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Noir Fiction is now the most popular and greatest form of writing.

I hope that this essay is of use to whoever handed me the secret Santa topic. If you are turning this in to a class or selling it to someone, as I suspect, you may also want to examine Poe’s story “The Gold Bug Variations,” in which Richard and Stefanie Powers examine a lost Bach manuscript, discovering that it had actually been written by John Shakespeare, an Avon salesman and butcher near Hogwarts.

It’s no surprise, I suppose, that Poe started the modern mystery. Newspaper folks such as me, Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, Janet Cooke, Rufus Griswold, and others always love a good story.


Bryon Quertermous said...

What a load of crap.

Everybody knows he changed his name to Bono, not David Bowie...sheesh.

Mike Dennis said...

Good post, Steve, with sterling insight. It really cleared it all up for me.

Steve Weddle said...

Bryon, I guess I was trying to sneak that one by you.

Mike, Thanks. Glad to help, sir.

last year's girl said...

This was... better than I ever could have anticipated.

I mean, had I been stuck with How The Grinch Stole Secret Santa I'd have stormed off, or at the very least made a bunch of shit up.

Nice work, Mr Weddle. I expect to see a class on this at some point in the future.

Jay Stringer said...

any post that manages to weave the spiderman clone saga into the fabric of literary history is a work of evil genius.

but you missed the but where professor James Moriarty emigrated, grew a beard to disguise himself, and changed his name to Weddle.