Saturday, April 25, 2015

Idea map 2: True Detective, detective fiction tropes.

I touched on a few of these ideas yesterday when I wrote about Idea Map 1. Today's work is going to go in depth on some of those ideas plus others, drawing on a number of ideas present in the study of detective fiction for several decades now. If you find yourself wanting citations, well, there's a world of scholarship out there already, enough to find easily on your own. One place to start would be the Wikipedia entry on detective fiction. It's not bad, and it'll point you in a few other directions you might find fruitful. I'd be cautious about the TV Tropes website, for two reasons. One, you'll never get out. It's an utter time sink. Two, those are tropes for television, not for the written word, so while there'll be overlap, there'll also be differences, and it's more than simply YMMV.

On to the map. As an aside, I need to be better with graphic programs.

The inner ring:

Layering: palimpsest; narrative, interpretive (via semiotics), and temporal layering
Visual tropes: sight/blindness, concentricity, concealment/revelation (subset: religious tropes, sacrifice), light/darkness, clarity/obscurity, masking/unmasking
Triangular relationships, with the most basic as priest/sacrifice/community, a triangle paralled in both Cohle and Childress's actions; the shape of the 'devil nets' that Cohle and Hart find as part of Childress's visitations; overlaps with the lovers' triangle of espionage fiction (lover/beloved/interloper parallels spy/handler/raven or swallow, depending on gender
Capture tropes: trapping/escape, freedom/confinement, constraint/release; associated trope is criminal/confessor, which is paralleled in Hart's relationship with his wife and in Cohle's skill as an interrogator; visual is crab traps in numerous scenes plus 'devil nets' at both crime scenes and unrelated scenes
Religious tropes: transgressor/confessor, sacrifice/redemption, purity/corruption, monk/congregant 
Atonement: the central trope uniting the artist-investigator with the investigator-priest


Layering is a common trope in detective fiction, mystery fiction, police procedurals, and sometimes in espionage fiction. Generally speaking, narrative layering occurs when the detective walks the path of the criminal in the effort to solve the mystery and catch the perpetrator. In True Detective, it's more complicated. Many feet walk the same path. Childress, and possibly the other members of the cult, are the first ones to walk their paths. Subsequently, Cohle and Hart start following Childress, unbeknownst to them, but they are sidetracked by the evidence found at the LeDoux encampment. They're not able to pick up the signs of the path again for years, and are able to do so only when Cohle has left the force and started investigating on his own. Detectives Gilbough and Papania follow what they believe to be Cohle's footsteps as the perpetrator, but in fact they're on the wrong path altogether. Temporal layering is connected to the crime scene. The events that take place on the crime scene overlay a scene that is (probably) otherwise uninvolved with a crime. After the crime scene overlays its present time, the detective(s) must retrace what has occurred in the crime scene by way of observation and measurement; Cohle's ability to use his understanding as an artist-investigator-philosopher means he outstrips the ability of the police force and its resources to explicate the events at the crime scene. He is able to understand what happens during the time of the crime and its aftermath in ways that the other investigators cannot. Interpretive layering is a matter of semiotics, or the philosophical study of signs and symbols. Evidence and its interpretation is perhaps the primary semiotic element in detective fiction. In True Detective, the evidence is incorrectly interpreted by Gilbough and Patania, so that they believe that Cohle is the perpetrator. The same evidence is incorrectly interpreted by Cohle and Hart at first, so that they believe that the LeDoux brothers are the central perpetrators. Later, the same evidence, augmented by other findings largely on the part of Cohle, is understood correctly by Cohle, then transmitted to Hart in Cohle's role as a profiler of corruption.

Visual tropes are probably the most common tropes in detective fiction, and for good reason: they apply directly to the effort of the detective and any of his cohort. There are so, so many of these in True Detective that it's exhaustive to document them all.  (I've got a separate idea map on visual tropes alone, so more to come on this.) The key ones, especially by the time we get to the last episode, "Form and Void," are concealment/revelation, masking/unmasking, and concentricity. An additional one, face/avert, requires some attention in how it's used by Cohle. Concealment and revelation are the heart of detective fiction, espionage fiction, police procedurals...where would the criminal be without his attempts to conceal himself? Along with this trope goes those of clarity/obscurity, darkness/light, sight/blindness, and other demonstrably visual tropes. Masking/unmasking tropes are related to both identity and criminality, but independently. For instance, in True Detective, Gilbough and Papania are subjected to Hart's ongoing confessions about his infidelity, none of which is important to their investigation. At first, it seems that Hart is simply being clumsy, but the audience eventually sees (and Gilbough and Papania never see) that Hart's confessions are a cover for his counterinterrogation of Gilbough and Papania. Hart finds out everything from them; they find out nothing from him. Hart's mask as a womanizer isn't really a mask at all, given that all of that has come out about him for his wife and children. His unmasking reveals nothing. Gilbough and Papania share their investigation with Hart in an unrewarded effort to find out details about Cohle, details that Hart legitimately does not possess. Concentricity happens all over True Detective, with the most important one being the site of the confrontation between Cohle/Hart and Childress. 

      Abandoned fort
           Recreated woods, ie, Carcosa
               Throne room        
          Recreated woods, ie, Carcosa  
     Abandoned fort

That's inadequate as a diagram, but as I lamented above, I need to get better with graphic programs. The center is the throne room, where Cohle, Hart, and Childress battle, and where Cohle's most profound hallucination occurs. The Carcosa woods are the corridors circling the throne room--filled with devil nets, branches, moss, skeletons, rope, they're the area through which both Cohle and Hart make their way as they approach. The abandoned fort is the structure encircling all of this, and around it are the woods. 

Concentricity is an incredibly important trope in detective fiction novels, especially The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, one of the major 20th century updates to the genre. The idea of circling--the detective circling the criminal and vice versa, as in so many police procedurals, for instance, or the police force circling the wrong perpetrator as the gumshoe tracks down the correct one, as in The Maltese Falcon, or even in a non-detective fiction story such as Casablanca, with its reference to "the usual suspects"--is one of the core elements of detective fiction, and its importance in True Detective is not to be underestimated. Here, Carcosa becomes the center of a concentric reality, one that's distinct from the reality in which Cohle and Hart (and the rest of the police force) function. The landscape itself in south Louisiana becomes a character.

Triangular relationships are the armature for detective fiction and its related genre, spy fiction. In detective fiction, the primary triangle is that of the detective/criminal/community. It's based on the religious triangle of the priest/sacrifice/community, and it's paralleled in spy, or espionage, fiction with the lovers' triangle of the lover/beloved/interloper as paralleled by the spy/handler/raven or swallow, where the raven/swallow is the interloper. (Historically, a male seducer of a spy is referred to as a raven; similarly for female seducers and swallows.) Without this triangular armature, the structure of the narrative becomes something else as it blends into other genres.

In True Detective, this shows up in all manner of ways. Hart's infidelities create at least two lovers' triangles, and likely others. The distraction of DeWall and LeDoux and their victims onsite in "The Secret Fate of All Life" create a detective/criminal/community triangle with the detectives; that ultimate relationship doesn't come out until Cohle's interrogation of Guy Leonard Francis, the drugstore robber/killer who tells Cohle that the King in Yellow is still free. At that point, Cohle is forced to confront his ineffective work in the previous investigation and restart it, as a civilian rather than as an officer, to gather evidence and catch the real perpetrator. 

Capture tropes are key because frankly, where would detective fiction be without them? Even espionage fiction lets people go for the purpose of discovery. When such a release happens in detective fiction, however, there had better be a good reason. In True Detective, the capture tropes are played out in parallel between the flashbacks to Hart's infidelities and Maggie's discovery of them, and the flashbacks to Cohle and Hart's tracking down DeWall and Reggie LeDoux. Hart is a perpetrator on a significantly lesser scale than the LeDoux cousins, yet one without the other is incomplete. This links them to the espionage fiction trope of the lovers' triangle: Hart constructs lovers' triangles even as he is a detective searching for criminals whose sacrifice will appease the community. Within detective fiction conventions, Cohle and Hart track down DeWall and Reggie LeDoux through good solid police work, but it turns out that the ultimate perpetrator is still on the loose--and there may be others shielded by the politically powerful. Thus begins another cycle of capture tropes, this time with both Hart and Cohle as former officers, now PI (Hart) and gumshoe (Cohle, only formally after Hart hires him as an investigator outright).  The visual correspondents to the capture trope in True Detective are the 'devil nets', which are ostensibly made by Childress and placed at various crime scenes, and the crab traps, which show up during Cohle and Hart's questioning of various potential witnesses and family members.

Religious tropes: Here is where we encounter Cohle at his fullest development. Cohle is the transgressor turned confidant, transgressor turned confessor, the sacrifice who becomes the redeemer, the pure one distancing himself from corruption, and the monk who declaims to his congregants. Without the religious tropes, Cohle's character is underdeveloped and unworthy of trust. From his first monkish moments, where he tells Hart that he doesn't sleep but only dreams, to his final confrontation in the religious chambers of Carcosa, to his description of his afterlife encounter with his daughter, Cohle is primarily a religious figure. Without his monkish qualities, there is no grounding for Hart's indiscretions; similarly, without Hart's womanizing, Cohle's asceticism has no efficacy. 

Cohle's own background indicates some level of criminality, both once he goes undercover and after he leaves the police force. His real skill is as a confessor in "the box," aka the interrogation room. 
I never really found it that hard. You know, you just look at somebody and think like they think. Negative capability. I mean, I guess it's a skill. Most times you don't even need just look them in the eyes, the whole story's right there. Everybody wears their hunger in the heart, you know. You just got to be honest about what can go on up here [taps temple with pocket knife blade]. The locked room. (S1 E3, "The Locked Room")
Cohle's skill in interrogation is unparalleled, as admitted by Hart and shown on screen. Cohle's services as an interrogator are really those of a confessor, someone who can work his way inside the mind of a perpetrator and gain a confession. Yet Cohle is also the sacrificial figure, as his near-death experience in episode 8, "Form and Void," indicates. Cohle's sacrifice isn't that of his life, but of his death: Cohle is returned from what he believes to be the afterlife and his daughter's love, back to the world we, and other perpetrators, live in.

Notions of purity and corruption are throughout the True Detective narrative. At first, we think that Hart is the "pure" one and Cohle is the corrupted one, but we quickly revise that as we see Hart's infidelities contrasted with Cohle's asceticism. Hart is the transgressor, and as he confesses his infidelities to Gilbough and Patania (who could not care less about them), we see a man who cannot rid himself of his past because he cannot confess fully. Cohle, on the other hand, hides nothing, and is excoriated for it. His unwillingness to be true to anyone but himself ultimately gets him booted from the force and from police work altogether; he bounces downward until he is a part-time bartender at a shack joint in rural Louisiana, drinking on his off-hours (or so he tells Gilbough and Patania). Even that doesn't constitute corruption in the moral sense. Hart is as corrupt as he ever was, while Cohle's work and drinking do nothing to defile his monkish existence.

None of Hart's transgressions matter to Cohle, whose sole motivation is to solve the murders and find the real perpetrator. Cohle is willing to sacrifice himself to do so, as demonstrated in the fight between himself and Childress. Cohle has no way of knowing the degree to which he is outmanned by Childress, who is physically larger and stronger, and whose attacks are devastating once Cohle is disarmed of his pistol. In fact, Childress very nearly wins the battle; only the fortunate placement of a pistol near Hart, knocked away during a fistfight, permits Childress's defeat.

Cohle's rescue by Hart begins his afterlife journey. During his hospitalization, Cohle describes a scene to Hart that can only be a near-death experience. Cohle encounters his dead relatives, including his daughter, and attempts to go with them across some kind of border. Cohle does not cross, though, and finds himself back in the material world, suffering from his wounds and watching news broadcasters describe the denials of the politically powerful even as the Childress compound is scoured by police investigators. Although there are many subtle references to Melville's Moby-Dick in True Detective, there is one that cannot be overlooked:

Not a word he spoke; nor did his officers say aught to him; though by all their minutest gestures and expressions, they plainly showed the uneasy, if not painful, consciousness of being under a troubled master-eye. And not only that, but moody stricken Ahab stood before them with a crucifixion in his face; in all the nameless regal overbearing dignity of some mighty woe. ("Ahab," chapter xxviii)

The religious tropes lead naturally into that of atonement, which is another dominant trope of detective fiction. In True Detective, this trope is incredibly complex.

First, there's the contrast between Hart as sinner and Cohle as priest-confessor. Hart has a sheriff-style personality, one who is privately corrupt yet publicly pure. He seems to be sacrificial when in fact he is selfish. Hart's true confession scene only occurs during his last visit with Maggie, now his ex-wife, just before the shootout at the Childress compound. Hart doesn't fully know what he's going into, but he intuits that this will be decisive, no matter how it turns out. Hart does his best to reconcile things, but given his inability to come clean on any substantive part of his life, this too is unresolved. Even when he is in the hospital, after the shootout and recovering from his injuries, Hart still lies to his ex-wife and his daughters as he assures them that everything is going to be all right. 

Despite all this, Hart is the craftsman, where Cohle is the artist. Without Hart's genuine skill at doing police investigation legwork, much of the detail surrounding the murders committed by Childress would have gone unrecorded. But once Hart discovers that numerous police reports have been falsely adjusted, the real trail becomes apparent, and Hart and Cohle can progress in their search for the killer.

Between Hart and Cohle is a pile of bodies--first only one, that of Dora Lange, but as they investigate it becomes many--and the body becomes the locus of atonement for both the investigators and the killer. For the investigators, finding the real killer will be a debt repaid, as Cohle reminds Hart in season 1, episode 7, "After You're Gone." For the killer, the body, and really, any body, becomes the locus of ascension, as Childress tells his sister-wife in "Form and Void":
 “It’s been weeks since I left my mark, would they have eyes to see.”
Childress's method of communication is through death. The styling of Dora Lange's discovery scene--which is not the crime scene--is Pre-Raphaelite. Childress is an artist even as he is a murderer and cultist, which takes years for Cohle to understand. Yet it is only Cohle, as an artist-investigator, who will understand it. 
“My ascension removes me the disc in the loop,” he’s describing the cosmology of eternal recurrence of various characters, including Cohle and Reggie Ledoux hit upon, and he’s hitting upon his personal mythology. When he says, “It’s been weeks since I left my mark, would they have eyes to see,” we can tell from that that he’s angling for a reckoning, for a showdown. (Slate interview with Nic Pizzolatto, 10 March 2014)
On the other hand, we have Cohle, the priest-confessor. He suffers from hallucinations; he's been committed to a drug rehab/psychiatric facility, ostensibly to support his cover as a drug manufacturer and transporter; he's performed criminal activities since leaving the force. In the beginning, he personifies the cowboy cop, driving a decrepit Ford F-150, showing up drunk to a dinner invitation, and manipulating prostitutes for both drugs and information. His work in south Louisiana transforms him, so much that he becomes the strange cop in a strange land, someone who doesn't belong with either the police or the perpetrators, someone who can move between both worlds but who is trusted in neither, and someone who relies upon his sensibilities as an artist to support his work as an investigator.

This is a lot for one day's work. I have much to augment all these pages, items derived from my re-viewings of the series, my reading of Lovecraft scholarship, my re-reading of Chambers, and my general thoughts. 

More to come.

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