Setting the tropes of film noir aside for a moment, Raymond Chandler’s iconic sleuth, Philip Marlowe, feels more like Eliot’s Tiresias: knowing and foresuffering all, peeling back the cheap tin lid on the eternal drama of exploitation playing itself behind the inscrutable facades of suburbia. In The Big Sleep, the clean lines of LA interior design comment on a shady underworld as Carmen Geiger lolls drugged and compromised. Nothing escapes the world-weary Marlowe as he enters that room: ‘The ivory furniture had chromium on it, and the enormous ivory drapes lay tumbled on the white carpet a yard from the windows. The white made the ivory look dirty and the ivory made the white look bled out.’
Drenched in Chandler’s LA sun it isn’t, but Charlotte Gann’s Noir views suburbia through the eyes of a forensics team. The collection’s first section, ‘Surveillance’, opens with ‘Puzzle’: ‘If I look closely I can just see how these / red-roofed houses slot together – where / to unclip the lid on each, lift it gently / and peep inside. In this one, a lad with his back / to a box-room door plays Space Invaders’. Gann’s first person narrator remains a mystery, enjoying the anonymous omniscience of the surveillance age and the modular construction of her vision of suburbia presents private lives as fragile and doll-like. The section remains focused: in ‘Private Eye’, ‘everyone here watches their neighbours / through binoculars’ and, in ‘Prisoner’, a woman is loaded into the van at the county court, locked ‘into the tiny box-like cubicle inside’.
The second section, ‘Witness Protection’, looks again – looks harder. A stand out poem, ‘Vice’ requires quoting in full:
He holds her in his vice
The place is soundproofed.
She’s screamed and screamed
and no one’s come.
When she stops the birds still sing.
Weather passes. Days
are days. The postman calls.
She hears the milkman whistle.
Initially, we are absolved. ‘The place is soundproofed’ and life continues with the cruel indifference of Auden’s ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ where ‘the dogs go on with their doggy life’. However, Gann’s final line exposes the sham: ‘She hears the milkman whistle’ and, sickened, we understand that the screams rang loud and clear in the small hours – small wonder, as Gann’s is a prefabricated, paper-thin suburbia, an LA sound stage.
Gann’s suburbia is Gothic and a section in Noir, ‘The Bloody Chamber’, references Angela Carter’s reworking of Perrault’s ‘Bluebeard’. However, like Matthew Stewart’s The Knives of Villalejo, recently reviewed here, Gann’s not interested in reassuring her reader with the distance of a Transylvanian or Los Angeles mise-en-scène. We’re made instead to wander the half-deserted streets of our own towns. A couple of weeks ago, yards from my children’s primary school, a double murder was committed behind the closed doors of a terraced house. How long, I wonder, before a neighbour picked up a phone?
- Charlotte Gann blogs here
- Follow her @CharlotteGann