A National Book Award-winning novelist announces her intention to write something altogether different. Previously, she’s published “strange books that defied any attempt at coherent recollection or summary. Odd, staccato books full of people with contradictory motives and destructive wishes.” Now, she wants to kill off a character on the first page, “like a crime novel.” “There’s something to be said for that kind of efficiency,” she proclaims. “It’s decisive.” So long, literary longueurs; hello, streamlined suspense fiction.
This is one of many delightfully meta passages in Dwyer Murphy’s debut crime/literary novel, “An Honest Living.” Murphy has earned this self-reflexivity. Editor in chief of the website “CrimeReads,” he knows not just where the bodies are buried but how readers want them to be discovered.
The novel opens in 2005 with a request from a woman to our narrator — a once-successful but now drifting NYC attorney who enjoys playing the role of “the eccentric washout” and might be named Dwyer Murphy. (His name is never given, though we’re told that Dwight Murphy is “only off by a few letters.”) The woman, named Anna Reddick, offers the narrator $10,000 in cash to catch her about-to-be-divorced husband, an antiquarian book collector, trying to sell rare pamphlets that belong to her family.
This is a shady proposal to begin with. After the “controlled buy” is done, things get shadier. It turns out that the woman isn’t in fact Anna Reddick, just someone pretending to be her. The real Anna Reddick, the aforementioned award-winning novelist who writes under the penname A.M. Byrne, claims no knowledge of the setup and threatens to sue the narrator. Anna’s husband, Newton Reddick, soon goes missing. Anna’s father, Liam Moore, is a vulgar, penny-ante real estate developer. He plays at being richer than he really is (sound familiar?) and is trying to get in on waterfront development in gentrifying Brooklyn.
Somehow, this all fits together. Or maybe it doesn’t. In noir, that’s often the driving question: Are the patterns I see around me the workings of power and corruption or just the workings of my paranoid imagination? “An Honest Living” is filled with noir tropes: mistaken identities; forged manuscripts; fenced goods; coffee at diners and bodegas and train stations; a city whose “small, dying shops” and “ghostly vistas” are about to be rezoned and spun into staggering wealth, if only you can jam your snout into the trough.
At one point, the narrator goes to a screening of the 1958 film classic “Touch of Evil.” Afterward, our almost-contemporary Phillip Marlowe smokes a joint and considers “the way nothing that happened in [the movie] was done naturally and all the characters seemed to know they were in a movie only there was nothing they could do about it.” That’s how things tend to happen to noir characters: with the sense that they’re caught up in a plot beyond their control or ken. It isn’t long before the narrator realizes that his own life is beginning to resemble the plot of “Chinatown.” He checks the movie out of the library: “It was better than I remembered, quieter, lit in interesting ways, and not too much seemed to happen.”
Murphy’s sentences move quickly but his plot unfolds with great leisure. After the opening rush, not too much seems to happen here, either. Indeed, noirs are rarely ever about whodunnit. (Just try to reconstruct who did what to whom in Chandler’s “The Little Sister” or Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon.” I’ll wait.) Rather, they’re about creating a certain kind of atmosphere: an all-encompassing environment that is corrupted and bewildering, in which subjectivity bleeds into, and is shaped by, the world around it, where cynicism about the future is cut by sentimentality about the past.
Anna Reddick/A.M. Byrne gets it wrong when she declares that she’s leaving the literary behind for the decisive efficiency of the crime novel. As Murphy well knows, the crime novel is anything but efficient. I can rarely remember the ending of a good detective novel, but I can almost always remember its texture, the feeling it evoked and the atmosphere it placed me within. In other words, the crime novel lives by its literary effects. (Just as Murphy piles up the noir tropes, he includes elements familiar to readers of literary fiction, from a character who names himself after the protagonist of Roberto Bolaño’s “The Savage Detectives” to a wonderfully weird cameo by fictionalized versions of the short story writer Deborah Eisenberg and her partner, the playwright Wallace Shawn.)
“An Honest Living” resolves some of its plot mysteries but not all of them. It introduces us to various worlds-within-worlds — the antiquarian book trade; big city law firms — but refuses to neatly tie them all together. The novel concludes, no spoiler here, with this sentence: “I closed my eyes and in the wind was a trace of salt.” This is the way a good noir ends: not with a plot but with a vibe.
AN HONEST LIVING
By Dwyer Murphy
Viking, 288 pages, $26
Anthony Domestico is chair of the literature department at Purchase College, SUNY, the books columnist for “Commonweal,” and the author of “Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period.”