Geschrieben am 1. April 2024 von für Crimemag, CrimeMag April 2024

Nick Kołakowski: Smoking Gun (22) – Redemption in Noir?

Moral Redemption in Noir: Is It Possible?


The other night, I participated in a panel discussion hosted by Rock and a Hard Place Press, which produces one of my favorite crime-fiction magazines right now (along with some great anthologies). The topic was regret, memory, and the past in the context of film noir and crime fiction; I was joined by authors Chris Harding Thornton and Mike McHone, whose respective books you should definitely check out if you get the chance.

Near the end of the session, the moderators (Stanton McCaffery and Rob D. Smith) posed an intriguing question to each of us: what’s your favorite redemptive arc in noir? Of course, as a genre, noir is antithetical to redemption; it’s all about doom and descent. The Jim Thompson or Elliott Chaze version of a happy ending is everything zeroing out, with the righteous and unrighteous all eliminating themselves from life’s great equation. There are effective exceptions to the rule—I’ve always loved Frank Miller’s “That Yellow Bastard,” in which the anti-hero cop manages to vindicate his existence by saving a girl—but I feel they’re relatively rare.

Fortunately, I have an answer to that question I’ve cultivated for some years: Jack Vincennes in James Ellroy’s “L.A. Confidential” (and I’m talking the novel’s version, not the various cinematic and television takes on the character). Vincennes is a stylish clotheshorse of an LAPD detective who advises Hollywood stars on how to play cops; when he’s not pursuing cases or on a movie set, he pops pills, engages in blackmail, beats the crap out of people, and generally behaves like someone who wouldn’t trust around your dog, much less brandishing a lawman’s badge.

But Vincennes can’t maintain that lifestyle and eventually hits rock bottom. The book’s central case—a massacre at a late-night diner—offers him a chance to do something righteous. As the narrative approaches its end, he’s finally in a good place. His wife has heard his sins and doesn’t care; he’s used his police skills to make the world a little bit better:

“Jack tried to cry—no go. He shaved, showered, put on slacks and his best sports jacket—over a Hawaiian shirt. He drove to Brentwood thinking everything around him looked new.”

Then he gets shot in the face and dies.

In typical Ellroy style, Vincennes’s sendoff is delivered at lightning speed: gunfight—boom—splat. When I first read the book in high school, I found that outcome infuriating. It seemed like the worst kind of cynical cheat to kill one of the characters who seemed to be finding his way free of midcentury L.A.’s ethical sewer. But as I grow older, I see Vincennes’s demise as sort of perfect, ensuring that he stays redeemed. In Ellroy’s messy world, it would have only been a matter of time before a living Vincennes slipped again and tumbled. 

In noir, death might be your best option if you want to remain morally righteous. That’s a cruel conclusion, sure, but it’s a cruel genre. 

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Nick Kolakowski is the author of „Maxine Unleashes Doomsday“ and „Boise Longpig Hunting Club“ as well as the Love & Bullets trilogy of novellas. His noir fiction has appeared in Tough, ThugLit, Mystery Tribune, Plots With Guns, and various anthologies. His „Payback is Forever“ (Shotgun Honey 2022) is inspired clearly by the novels of Richard Stark. Our review here (in German). – See also his Hell of a Mess. A Love & Bullets Hookup.

Nick Kolakowski, geboren 1980, aufgewachsen in Washington. D.C., hat Geschichte in Chicago studiert. Er schreibt Romane, Kurzgeschichten, Lyrik und Essays, viele davon über Crime Fiction und verwandte Themen. Seine Texte erscheinen u. a. in der Washington Post, in Shotgun Honey, North American Review, The Evergreen Review, Rust & Months. Kolakowski lebt in New York City. Eine Besprechung des von Parker inspirierten „Payback is Forever“ in unseren Bloody Chops.

Bei Suhrkamp auf Deutsch: Love & Bullets.
His essays with us

His column „Smoking Gun“ with us: 
What Makes Jack Reacher Tick?
‘True Detective: Night Country’ Tries to Make the Familiar into Something New
Is David Fincher’s ‘The Killer’ a Comedy? 
Rewatching ‘Drive’: Gosling as Noir’s Apex Predator
Elmore Leonard  – City Primeval
Cormac McCarthy Used Crime Fiction’s Tropes to Make Masterpieces
Parker: Donald Westlake’s One Amazing Trick
Cosby, Winslow, Pruitt: Three Heavy-Hitting Thillers for Summer
Weed-Based Crime Thrillers are Going Up in Smoke
‘The Last of Us’: Crime in the Post-Apocalypse 
What Made “Glass Onion” and “Knives Out” So Popular?
Jordan Harper’s One-Two Punch of Crime Fiction Deserves a Wide Audience
‘True Detective’ Season 2: Was It Better Than We All Thought?
From ‘Touch of Evil’ to ‘True Detective,’ Long Shots are Crime Films’ Secret Weapon
Michael Mann, again: What Michael Mann Teaches Us About Enduring Crime Fiction
„Heat 2“ – How Do You Craft a Sequel to a Masterpiece?
4 Ways Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” Novel Stands Out From the Film.
On „Heat“: Manhunter Takes Down Thief: How Michael Mann’s Early Career Led to ‘Heat’
The Most Honest Nihilism – on „The Way of the Gun“
No, Time to Die – The latest James Bond movie digs into the fatalism at the iconic spy’s core.
Cormac McCarthy’s Overlooked Masterpiece? – „The Councelor“
Nightmare Alley“ – How Guillermo del Toro’s Film Alters a Masterpiece Noir Novel
David Cronenberg – The Carnal Crime of “A History of Violence” and “Eastern Promises”
With Parker, Donald E. Westlake Pulled Off Crime Fiction’s Most Spectacular Magic Trick
Guy Ritchie’s Return to Crime Films is Worth Watching

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