Roundup September 2006

Dark Passage

A selective investigation of recent mysteries and thrillers

The stench of careerism—both rewarded and punished—exudes from every corner of this novel, which is populated by those who “deplored the appearance of opportunism, although not opportunism itself.” It’s an achievement of Robert Townean proportion that so bleak and beautiful a drama could—essentially—hinge on the selection of a new chairman for the archdiocese’s building fund. And it’s almost madly heroic that Dunne and Didion would attempt a screenplay from a novel in which key characters’ dialogue “was ritual, a search for meanings among the monosyllables. Like smoke blown into the wind, it left no traces if the interpretation was wrong.” The book is a masterpiece. That the movie is even good (which it is) says as much as anything about this labor of love.

For a visual foray into the morally smoggy mid-century L.A. depicted in True Confessions, there’s Scene of the Crime: Photographs From the LAPD Archive (Harry N. Abrams; released in 2004 but still available), with an introduction by Black Dahlia author James Ellroy. This is an inescapably gruesome book, showing Jackson Pollock–style blood splatters leading away from an emptied rocking chair; a stained meat cleaver sitting on a counter next to a windup race car and a little toy speedboat, below which lies the adult victim, hair matted, facedown in a puddle. Many of the scenes involve crimes of passion, and it’s partly the quotidian settings that make these photos so disturbing. In boardinghouse rooms and dingy bungalows, one finds pinups and Hollywood publicity shots adorning the walls, a game of solitaire laid out on a kitchen table, and here or there a slumped and bloodied victim, with maybe a look of mute confusion still on the face, or a leg stuck in an immodest position.

Every bit as grisly but less disturbing are the book’s numerous mob hits. There’s something crudely charming about a couple of heavies like “the two Tonys,” sitting in their Oldsmobile, smartly attired with neckties and pocket kerchiefs, one arm draped casually over the seat back, another out the open driver’s-side window. But for the dark streaks running down their faces, you might think they were tossing their heads back in a last laugh. Which maybe they were.

Jon Zobenica is a senior editor of The Atlantic.
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