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Denis Johnson's gym bag

July 30, 2008 |  9:30 am


Anita might distract the cops with her door-blowing smile, but she’s gone by the time two FBI agents show up at the hotel room. They’re the ones who tell Jimmy that Anita embezzled the $2.3 million. They’re looking for it.

Jimmy’s on his way out. He’s holding Gambol’s gym bag -- which holds Gambol’s big, inconvenient shotgun -- and tells the agents he’s got his own clothes in it, is all. The FBI agents -- who go on to search the hotel room for Anita’s embezzled money, or clues to it -- let Jimmy walk away. They never check inside his bag.

Strains belief, right?

But does it matter? That's after the jump.

This implausibility reminded me of something I’ve just begun reading: “The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps.” It’s a 1100-page collection of classic noir stories from the pulp magazines -- “Black Mask,” “Detective Fiction Weekly,” “Dime Detective,” etc. Logical plots are not, so far, the rule.

In Paul Cain’s story “One, Two, Three,” three men double-cross each other while driving back and forth across southern California, all for the affections of another girl with a door-blowing smile. The who-where-when doesn’t fit together, even when it’s explained at the story’s end. But it’s not the point. The point is how much they trust each other, or should – and what they overlook when stupefied by the lady’s gaze.

Detective fiction is known for its intricate plotting, but noir has a long tradition of not caring too much about messy details. It’s said that, while adapting Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep” for film, screenwriters William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett couldn’t figure out who killed the chauffeur -- and when they asked Chandler, he couldn’t either.

All of which is to say that it doesn’t matter that real FBI agents would make Jimmy Luntz open his gym bag. Not if we’re more concerned about Jimmy, and whether or not he’ll see Anita again, and whether that'll be good for either of them.

Carolyn Kellogg