Friday, December 04, 2015

30 Days of The Fade Out: Whodunit? Separating Suspects.

As we get closer to the conclusion of The Fade Out, we might reveal more about where we think the story's central mystery may or may not be heading, but first, some preliminary thoughts:

In his foreward to the massive 2011 anthology titled The Best American Noir of the Century -- which I recommend -- co-editor Otto Penzler distinguishes between noir and the private detective story, in which the protagonist usually fits Raymond Chandler's evocation of "a knight, a man who could walk mean streets but not himself be mean."

Film blurred the distinctions between the two types of stories by employing a similar visual style for both, but the two genres display "opposing life-views of a moral, even heroic, often romantic detective, and the lost characters in noir who are caught in the inescapable prisons of their own construction, forever trapped by their isolation from their own souls, as well as from society and the moral restrictions that permit it to be regarded as civilized."

Another source of confusion is the fact that noir often centers on a mystery -- a whodunit, often the sort of murder mystery that would drive a detective story.  That's sometimes the case with the noir comics created by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips:  once again we are reminded of Batman: Gotham Noir, but there's also the two Criminal stories that focus on Tracy Lawless.

(On the other hand, "Coward" and "Bad Night" have mysteries surrounding the plot in which the central characters find themselves, but they're not traditional murder mysteries, and "The Last of the Innocent" has an entirely different structure:  by the end of the "teaser" comic and the end of the first issue, we know that Riley Richards plans to murder his wife.  What remains is finding out how he plans to do it, whether he gets away with it, and what happens to his soul in the process, and beyond the callbacks to Archie comics and other works, this unusual take on the crime story is another reason the story stands out.)

Whether the reader is invited to try to solve the crime alongside the protagonist -- or even attempt to beat him to the punch -- there are certainly rules and expectations for a satisfying mystery story.  To begin with, the solution must make sense in hindsight, not violating what is established in the story, and the culprit should be introduced early, not on the page before the story's resolution.

Who murdered Valeria Sommers?  And who covered it up?

In a complex story, the answers to these two questions might not be identical, and those responsible for later murders and other crimes might not be the murderers either:  they might have eliminated the killer for payback of their own, to cover their own tracks from some related crime, or for some other nefarious reasons.

In addition to the events and incidents that would be presented in a novel or film, we have additional information that allows us to categorize the characters in The Fade Out:  we have the covers to each issue in the limited series, and we have the evolving "Cast of Characters" page toward the front of each issue.

I'd separate the characters into the following groups.

  • Main characters:  each of these appeared in most of the "Cast of Characters" lists and probably appeared on at least one cover.
  • Supporting characters:  each of these appeared at least once in the "Cast of Characters," but not much more than that and certainly not on the cover.
  • Minor characters:  none of these appeared in the "Cast" lists or on the cover, and they probably appeared only in an issue or two of the comic itself.
We also have cameos by real-life celebrities, actors and the occasional writer:  going by the categorization above, they're all minor characters in this story.

Personally, I think that the mystery story is more satisfying when the killer is more prominent is in its telling,   So I hope -- and may come to suspect -- that the killer is one of the "main characters" as defined above, and I further hope that he's introduced relatively early, certainly by the end of the four-issue "Act One."

If the killer is a minor character, wholly absent from the covers and the "Cast of Characters" list and, worse, introduced in the back half of the story, I'll be a little annoyed with the mystery's solution even if the main character's story is resolved with an appropriately dark ending.

And if the killer is one of these real-life cameos, I'll be even more annoyed, as I think it's better that their presence adds flavor to the story, rather than the story smears their reputations even in an entirely fictional narrative.  In the alternate timeline of Watchmen, it was implied that its universe's Nixon was responsible for the assassination of its Kennedy:  never mind the flaws and even the corruption of its entirely fictional characters, that move pulled me out of the story and struck me as unseemly.

We'll review both the covers and the "Cast" lists in the days ahead, but until then...

Consider the series' twelve covers, and read those first four issues that constitute "Act One."  Look closely at those first four lists of the "Cast of Characters."

I strongly suspect that there's a killer there -- at least one.

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