True Detective: "The Crime Lying Hidden in History and Buried Deep in the Landscape"


In Imagining Los Angeles: A City in Fiction, David Fine writes that it is the role of the detective to discover “the crime lying hidden in history and buried deep in the landscape." Fine’s concern here is with Los Angeles noir fiction, but the same can be said for fictional detectives working in any region—their role is to unearth veiled histories and truths, to drag skeletons (animal masks and antler crowns optional) into the light of day. For anyone with a familiarity of Los Angeles’ rich, yet dark history, the task Raymond Chandler assigns to Phillip Marlowe is a weighty and dangerous one, not only for the character himself, but for the ersatz historians who constantly recreated the origin myth(s) of Los Angeles as the city grew and evolved. As Fine notes, “In Chandler’s world, both the view [as in ‘living with a view’] and the future are purchased by the gains of brutal acts committed in the past. The job of Marlowe, as detective, is to drag the criminal rich down to the flatland, carry them back to their histories, their crimes."

Rework that final sentence to include Rust Cohle's and Marty Hart's names and replace "flatland" with "bayou," and the parallels between Raymond Chandler's and Nic Pizzolatto's characters, and their roles as detectives, are rather striking. It's not just a recent past that is being excavated in these cases, not a murder that leads to an argument a few weeks in the past and then ends. Their investigations strike upon a central, yet hidden nerve connecting the present to a shadowy past. The cases get snagged on threads of an expansive, blood-slicked tapestry, revealing that the crimes under investigation are part of the very landscape (and history) of the world they live in, and involve the rich and powerful, "pillars of the community," much like how in Chinatown Jake Gittes shifts from a simple investigation of an "extramarital affair" into the very history of the city of Los Angeles, with Gittes finding his way to the doorsteps of the people who made the dream of the city into a reality. Unsurprisingly, there is much darkness to be found in Gittes' investigation, as there are in Marlowe's, Cohle's, and Hart's cases—it is not an uncommon trope in American history and fiction that the present is a construct built upon the crimes of the past.

Jacob Mikanowski's fantastic piece for the LA Review of Books"'True Detective': Down the Bayou (Far From Any Road)", delves very deeply indeed into the history and the landscape of Nic Pizzolatto's southern Louisiana, which like many depictions of the American South in fiction is a liminal space and a convergence point for many histories: Puritan religious ideals, Continental philosophical thought, American folk music, European colonialism, and early 20th century horror fiction, just to name a few of the connections Mikanowski makes. William Faulkner's Light in August similarly enlarges the idea of the South with readers stumbling over the "torso of the beheaded mastodon," looking with Reverand Hightower along "barricades from the middleages," and witnessing Joanna Burden's hair coming alive "like octopus tentacles," alluding to Medusa. There is a tradition of depicting the South as a world seemingly superimposed over or coexisting alongside many other histories and narratives, as can also be seen in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, whose title comes from Agamemnon's words to Odysseus in Book XI of The Odyssey, and the Coen brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which also draws from Homer's epic, to just name two key works.


Mikanowski keenly notes that while the portrayals of Rust and Marty keep us hooked, "it’s the trail of allusive breadcrumbs and narrative trapdoors that have transformed criticism of the show into a paranoid art." Many people aren't content with their weekly allotment of True Detective, and choose to follow Pizzolatto's "breadcrumbs" into the forest, back into the past, into history, down into the landscape, away from the light and into the darkness, just as the Puritans would have warned us against. (Also, I very much enjoy Mikanowksi's term "paranoid art," as it seems to describe not only how certain fans and critics of the show engage with True Detective, but gives name to the type of investigation Rust continues against Reverand Tuttle after leaving the police.)

Even my friends who are not as enamored with the show as I am seem unable to look away. Despite all their complaints about Rust's cryptic soliloquies or the seemingly unfocused narrative or their desire to "get back to the investigation" and away from the characters' messy inner lives, they still follow alongside Marty as he is being lead into Carcosa by Rust. If I was to hazard a guess, I think this inability to disengage can be summed up neatly by the title of a recent Hazlitt piece, "True Detective is Heading Somewhere, Isn't It?" There must be an end goal, a payoff, a golden fleece, an Ark of the Covenant. Right?

I have a feeling the success of tonight's final episode is going to hinge on this expectation—once Rust gets to Carcosa, he'll know, he'll have found some essential truth, exhumed a terrible history and dragged it back aboveground for all to see, and then he can shuffle off this mortal coil. In some ways, this is also Marty's expectation—further horror, the unraveling of a conspiracy, and perhaps death. He visits his ex-wife to thank her, presumably for the good years of their marriage, for raising their daughters in his absence (both before and after the divorce), to which she asks if he is "saying goodbye." He doesn't directly address her question, adding weight to her words and his silence.

To paraphrase one of my favorite professors, Dr. David Williams, author of the brilliant work Searching for God in the SixtiesRust and Marty see the world as an artichoke: there are layers to be pulled back to reveal a heart, an essential truth (unlike an onion, whose layers only reveal more and more layers of social construction—no heart, no essential truth). They are detectives, investigators of a crime, and if we take Fine at his word and believe that the "future [is] purchased by the gains of brutal acts committed in the past," Rust's and Marty's worlds are defined by crimes, which can be investigated and, hopefully, solved. If the case cannot be solved, it is only because the detective couldn't find that truth, not because the truth did not exist. As Marty said about suffering from "the Detective's Curse": "the solution was right under my nose, but I was paying attention to the wrong clues." I have a feeling this quote will play heavily into the final installment of True Detective.


There is a heaviness and electricity in the air for the show's finale—if done right, True Detective will enter the pantheon of bizarre, challenging crime shows like Twin Peaks that encourage not only an active engagement with the material presented in each episode, but further analysis, asking us to also become detectives, to unearth our own truths; if the final crescendo hits too many wrong notes, if what Rust finds in Carcosa is an endless series of layers and not a heart, not something that can be grasped, held, and appreciated, the entire journey to this anticlimactic end may well come under heavy scrutiny. My only concern is that in some ways we have already found the "heart"—the "man with the scars" was under Rust's nose the whole time, mowing lawns at Tuttle's properties. I know this fact in particular has a good friend of mine worried about an unsatisfactory end to Rust's and Marty's story, a fear I can understand.

My only hope is that Pizzolatto knows exactly what he is doing. When asked back in early February during an interview with the Daily Beast if he knew how the show would end, Pizzolatto responded, "I knew what the last scene was. I wasn’t entirely sure how we were going to get ourselves there, but I knew what it was. And if the last scene had to change because the characters revealed something to me, then it would change. But actually the last scene is the last scene that was always intended to be."

As there have only been a few patches of dead air on this show for me, I'm going to hope this final scene, one that seemingly drove and shaped much of the writing of True Detective, will make sense of the journey through the strange Louisiana landscape of Pizzolatto's mind, through the dark history/-ies surrounding his two protagonists, into the turbulent thought patterns of Rust's troubled mind and through the fall of the house of Hart, down into Carcosa in pursuit of the Yellow King. If not, we'll all get to play detective tomorrow, delving into the landscape and history of True Detective to figure out where it all went horribly wrong.