By Peter Hummers on November 18, 2021
At the center of Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel (but not the film) The Maltese Falcon is a story that one character tells another. It has apparently nothing to do with the narrative. Known by literary scholars as the Flitcraft Parable, it’s a four-page-long anecdote about an ordinary man who, after narrowly missing being killed by a falling beam, just walked away from his ordinary life. “[Flitcraft] felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works…. Life could be ended for him at random by a falling beam: he would change his life at random by simply going away.”
Five years later, he had gradually and unwittingly recreated his entire pre-beam life, in a different city with a different family.
“Long ago, in Kentucky, I, a boy, stood/ By a dirt road, in first dark, and heard/ The great geese hoot northward./ I could not see them, there being no moon/ And the stars sparse. I heard them./ I did not know what was happening in my heart./ It was the season before the elderberry blooms,/ Therefore they were going north./ The sound was passing northward.” (Robert Penn Warren, “Tell Me a Story [A]“)
I see the first three seasons of True Detective as a trilogy. (It seems now that creator/writer Nic Pizzolatto (The Killing) has cut ties with the series after the third season.[^]) While each season of the anthology series is self-contained, I see a theme.
The first season is about two former homicide investigators with the Louisiana State Police’s Criminal Investigations Division, Rustin “Rust” Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Martin “Marty” Hart (Woody Harrelson, Cheers), questioned in 2012 by detectives Gilbough and Papania about a 1995 murder case in which Cole and Hart were the primary investigators; they have not seen nor spoken to each other since an altercation concerning Martin’s wife Maggie over a decade prior. With many of the old files destroyed in Hurricane Rita, the two men are separately asked to recount the history of the previous investigation, and also their working relationship and personal lives, as well as a series of other related individual cases as new evidence suggests that the perpetrator remains at large.[^]
“Long ago, I stood by a dirt road, in first dark, and heard the great geese hoot northward. I could not see them. I heard them. I did not know what was happening in my heart.”
What Lincoln called the “mystic chords of memory” would seem at first to be the subject of True Detective, although as a benefit, we also get three gripping murder yarns.
“At the beginning Brigid O’Shaughnessy listened with only partial attentiveness, obviously more surprised by his telling the story than interested in it, her curiousity more engaged with his purpose in telling the story than with the story he told; but presently, as the story went on, it caught her more and more fully and she became still and receptive.” (Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon, the “Flitcraft Parable”)
California Highway Patrol officer Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch, Friday Night Lights) discovers the dead body of a city manager who was involved in a major land deal. Given the ambiguous jurisdictional nature of the crime scene, two other officers, Vinci Police Department Detective Raymond Velcoro (Colin Farrell) and Ventura County Sheriff’s Office CID Antigone “Ani” Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams), along with Woodrugh are assigned to investigate the murder. The crime soon involves Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn), a career criminal who was involved in the land deal and whose life savings were stolen when the murder took place. The three detectives, plus Semyon, quickly realize a larger conspiracy at play involving the victim’s ties to the city of Vinci’s deepening corrupt proliferations.[^]
“Presently, as the story went on, it caught her more and more fully and she became still and receptive.”
Season Two is True Detective’s Flitcraft Parable. It’s a terrific, complicated, self-contained noirish detective story, along the lines of a Raymond Chandler novel. Some critics didn’t like Season Two; many thought it self-indulgent. I think it’s a great, delicious feast of a tale. The critical consensus at Rotten Tomatoes reads, “True Detective’s second season stands on its own as a solid police drama, with memorable moments and resonant relationships outweighing predictable plot twists” (emphasis mine).
“Tell me a story./ In this century, and moment, of mania,/ Tell me a story./ Make it a story of great distances, and starlight./ The name of the story will be Time,/ But you must not pronounce its name./ Tell me a story of deep delight.” (Robert Penn Warren, “Tell Me a Story [B]”)
There are echoes of Season One in Season Three: no characters or situations, but a strong feeling that we’ve been here before, of déjà vu. Now three timelines are visited, and the audience must look for clues (hairstyles, surroundings) to identify each.
In 1980, partner detectives Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali, Green Book, The 4400) and Roland West (Stephen Dorff) investigate a macabre crime involving two missing children. In 1990, Hays and West are subpoenaed after a major break in the case. In 2015, a retired Hays is asked by a true crime documentary producer to look back at the unsolved case. It becomes gradually apparent to the viewer that Hays is now suffering from Alzheimer’s, and the audience are not the only ones confused about the timelines. Some scenes actually begin in one timeline and end in another. (David Milch, who had just been diagnosed himself with Alzheimer’s, shared writing credits with Pizzolatto on Episode 4 and evidently had more input during the season.)
“The name of the story will be Time, But you must not pronounce its name.”
John, the mysterious titular oracle of David Milch and Kem Nunn’s great series John From Cincinatti, said, “The line and circle are big. On the wall, the line and circle are huge. On the wall, the man at the wall makes a man from the circle and line. The man at the wall makes a word on the wall, from the circle and line. The word on the wall is my father.”[^]
He’s referring to cave paintings of Altamira, the first written stories. The ability to tell stories is uniquely human. It’s what sets us apart from the (other) animals.
This ability to in effect record time is the engine for mythology, history, the scriptures of the world’s religions. This ability is in a way the father of the human race.
And the Flitcraft Parable and True Detective Season Two? In the freestanding parable, Flitcraft, in his new life, assumes the name Charles Pierce, an apparent reference to Charles Sanders Peirce, a philosopher of semeiotics, the general theory of signs. “On the wall, the line and circle are huge.”
In the freestanding True Detective Season Two, the writing is objective. There are no dueling narrators telling the same story from different perspectives at different times, and as in Dashiell Hammett’s stories, we are never given a subjective view, even in his first-person narratives. Hammett never wrote “He thought…”; in the parable, Sam Spade told his anecdote “in a steady matter-of-fact voice that was devoid of emphasis or pauses, though now and then he repeated a sentence slightly rearranged, as if it were important that each detail be related exactly as it had happened.”
The trilogy of True Detective seasons 1-3 is a story about nothing less then why we tell, and must tell, stories. Without that, there’s nothing. Tell me a story of deep delight.
(Pete Hummers is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to earn fees by linking Amazon.com and affiliate sites. This adds nothing to Amazon’s prices.)
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