Steve Stekeley’s 1948 Noir The Scar (also known as Hollow Triumph) is perhaps most notable because its leading man is Paul Henreid, who six years earlier had played the part of Victor Laszlo in Casablanca. Beyond that, The Scar is at first sight an eminently ephemeral movie, easily forgettable. But it’s interesting in so far as it problematizes the very process of memory and recognition.

Henreid’s character in Casablanca is a Czech resistance hero who is strangely both the center of the plot and utterly marginal. For though the film ostensibly revolves around Laszlo’s efforts to flee the Nazis and seek asylum in America, what we remember is the tension and romance between Ingrid Bergman (playing Laszlo’s wife) and Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine, the bar-owner who has the letters of transit that would make Lazslo’s escape possible.

Similarly, in The Scar, Henreid again plays a character who fades from view… the difference being that in this film Henreid also plays the character who replaces him. Moreover, this is a film about the replacement itself, and the effect that it has (or, oddly enough, doesn’t have) on the audience.

Read more at Projections.


Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost muddles generic distinctions. It’s either crime fiction busy trying to pretend to be something else, or perhaps more interestingly something else trying to deny that, in the end, it contains all the elements and formulae of the detective novel, albeit rearranged and (somewhat) displaced.

I say that the formulae of crime fiction are only somewhat displaced because, in the end, the mystery that (perhaps reluctantly) drives the plot is eventually resolved. The clues all line up, the victim’s fate is discovered, the suspect falsely accused is vindicated, the true perpetrator arrested, the case is closed, and the book ends with the detective’s interior monologue:

I’ve got a signed confession. I’ve got your notebook. I’ve got your loyal partner sealed in an evidence bag. I’m driving home straight into the setting sun. [. . .] The light is all around me. (242)

This is a pity. It does, however, justify the otherwise curious omission of a question mark from the book’s title: in the end we think we know what was lost, what was missed the first time round, as the novel almost slavishly obeys the generic convention that no loose ends can be left behind.

The pity is that we become distracted by the clever touches of plotting as evocative incidents earlier in the narrative are overdetermined by their subsequent role in tying down the book’s denouement. To give just one example: a character remembers exploring the building site on which a late twentieth-century mall is being expanded to displace the mid-century factory that once stood there; he discovers a fissure within this process of erasure and remodeling, an underground cavern in which something of the place’s past is preserved, if now in almost meaningless disorder, “an old scrolling blackboard with nothing written on it, bits of machinery, an old umbrella” (106). But it turns out that this underground recess becomes the key to the detective story plot, and as such suddenly almost emptied out of its broader resonances; it’s merely a convenient place in which a body can go undiscovered.

In short, my strong recommendation is that no reader go further than page 228. This is where we find the only twist in the tale, the book’s one surprise as the name of the mostly absent detective is finally revealed.

I recognize that I am here spoiling the plot: but really, even as far as crime fiction plots go, it’s thin and quite predictable. If read as detective fiction, What Was Lost is unsatisfying.

Fortunately, the novel offers other satisfactions, most of which revolve around the book’s real mystery, the one element that survives the crime fiction gesture to clear up what had been obscure and to clarify what was hitherto muddy. This is the fantasmatic glimpse of a young girl on the shopping mall’s CCTV camera, spotted first in the early hours of the morning by a sleep-deprived and somewhat irritable security guard named Kurt.

For What Was Lost is less about loss than it is about visibility. It’s about a young girl who wants to be invisible, to blend in; she can only find this feeling of comfortable anonymity at the mall, where “nobody knew her. She wasn’t the quiet girl from class. She wasn’t the girl with no mom and dad” (45-6). But perhaps ironically, she wants to disturb the anonymity of others, to survey them unseen as “a detective, an invisible operative gliding through the malls, seeing things that nobody else noticed” (46).

In the end, young Kate Meaney is led astray when she doesn’t realize that those surveyed can exert their own power over their surveyers. She doesn’t understand that “when someone’s watching you, you’re in charge. If you move, they move” (236). And ultimately she herself becomes the one surveyed, the ghost in the machine who exerts her own strange power upon the people who catch sight of her; and also upon the reader who glimpses her through and despite the formulaic detective fiction apparatus that surrounds her in this novel.

And it is true that in this surveillance society (and the UK, in which O’Flynn’s novel is set, is the most surveyed society in the world), sometimes we see revealed on the CCTV something that can never be resolved by reasoned analysis or even the workings of justice. There are some sights captured on the monitors that continue to haunt us now, long after the relevant cases are closed.


I have nothing very much against looting, particularly in the aftermath of a natural disaster of the scale witnessed a day or so ago in Chile. At a basic level, one does what one can to survive. More interestingly, it could also be seen as the inversion of Naomi Klein’s “shock doctrine” thesis: taking advantage of a shock to the physical and material infrastructure in order to re-imagine social relations, now no longer in capital’s favor but in the multitude’s. As Rebecca Solnit argues:

The aftermath of disaster is often peculiarly hopeful, and in the rupture of the ordinary, real change often emerges. But this means that disaster threatens not only bodies, buildings, and property but also the status quo.

Part of this peculiar hopefulness arises, as Solnit also argues, from a realization of “the fragility of existing structures of authority.” If this recognition leads to looting (no doubt itself the wrong word), then so be it.

And in some sense then it is no wonder that in the aftermath of disaster sovereign power is also so anxious to re-establish its authority, in large part for instance by stigmatizing the affected populations. And no doubt the more anxious that power is, the more it resorts to such tactics, even therefore at the cost of revealing the extent of its own fear and ineptitude.

Some of that ineptitude, the way in which disasters wrong-foot constituted power, can be seen in an examination of how the disasters in Haiti and Chile reveal such different expectations and representations of the two countries and their populations.

Note that I am here mostly talking about how the international media have covered these two tragedies, which appeared at first sight to offer an object lesson in the distinction between progress and poverty, civilization and barbarism. But in the end there is almost a certain wry amusement to be gained in seeing how wrong these representations have proved to be.

Haiti was of course treated as first and foremost a security problem, for which a military response was in order: Port au Prince and its slums had to be stabilized and secured before aid could be distributed; no doubt hundreds more lives were lost in the delays caused what what was fundamentally a racist fear and stigmatization of the threat of black violence. (Again, Rebecca Solnit is excellent on this.)

Chile, on the other hand, is one of the whitest of Latin American countries, and it regularly prides itself on being the most civilized and economically advanced; sometimes the Chileans think of themselves as the English of South America, and not just because they, too, don’t know how to dance. The “Chilean model” is touted far and wide as the height of democratic order, economic efficiency, political transparency, and so on.

In line with the expectations that such images raise, initial reports on the earthquake that struck near Concepción emphasized how prepared the country was, how much better was its infrastructure and capacity to respond, how much more quickly it would bounce back. Its market-driven economic growth would barely wobble; after all the country is an “A plus student when it comes to economics”. President Bachelet was even said to have initially declared that they needed no foreign aid on the basis precisely, Chilean commentator Patrico Navia was reported as saying, “that Chile is not Haiti. It is like Japan, or the US.”

Indeed, comparisons with Haiti were overt and ubiquitous. The New York Times actively encourages teachers to draw quite literal lessons from pairing the two together.

The implication was clear: Chile, white and prosperous, could comfortably survive an earthquake that was many hundreds of times more powerful than the little tremor that touched that backward (and black) Caribbean island.

Ah. But now it turns out that, when push comes to shove, those white people are just a rabble of thieving ne’er-do-wells. Time to send in the tanks.


No Country for Old Men coverCormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men is driven by the taut language of the thriller, which stops to provide details only when it comes to machines and armaments:

The dead man was lying against a rock with a nickel-plated government .45 automatic lying cocked in the grass between his legs. He’d been sitting up and had slid over sideways. His eyes were open. He looked like he was studying something small in the grass. There was blood on the ground and blood on the rock behind him. (17)

This laconic style suits the landscape in which it is set: the deserts, highways, and motels of Texas bordering on Mexico. It seems to be a wide-open land of big skies and long distances. In fact, this very openness means that there are few places a man can hide.

The novel’s plot is suitably skeletal. A drug deal has gone wrong, and a Vietnam vet by the name of Llewellyn Moss, out hunting antelope, comes across the wreckage: bodies, abandoned cars, packages of heroin, and a briefcase packed with several million dollars in used hundred-dollar bills. Moss takes off with the cash, and soon enough just about everyone is after him: Mexican drug gangs, a fearsome contract killer, and the local police. The ensuing chase criss-crosses these dusty badlands, and takes Moss over the border to Mexico, where he gains brief respite in the local hospital having thrown the cash-laden case over the side of the border bridge. But from the start Moss seems to be aware that all his efforts will be in vain. This is not a story with a happy ending.

Interspersed through the narrative are the melancholic and world-weary commentaries of the sheriff who’s always one or two steps behind the bloody action. Ed Tom Bell is also a military veteran, but of the Second World War not Vietnam. Close to retirement, Bell laments the changes that he has seen over his years of service, and laments his inability to prevent the trail of destruction that is snaking through his territory. Indeed, the novel’s opening vignette sees a captured criminal strangle one of Bell’s deputies with his own handcuffs and then calmly walk away. Perhaps then it’s for the best that there is no climactic confrontation between the forces of law and order and the killers that they are ostensibly out to stop. As Bell notes,

I think for me the worst of it is knowing that probably the only reason I’m even still alive is that they have no respect for me. And that’s very painful. Very painful. It has done got way beyond anything you might have thought about even a few years ago. (217)

But the sheriff’s irrelevance is such that even his semi-philosophical musings are, in the end, far off the mark. He complains about the young with their “green hair and bones in their noses speakin a language [their grandparents] couldnt even understand” (295), but these grouches about youth fashion hardly touch on the real evil that McCarthy has let loose at the center of his novel.

Indeed, ultimately we learn very little about the contract killer, Anton Chigurh, who is the book’s true anti-hero. As Bell notes, “the reason nobody knows what he looks like is that they dont none of them live long enough to tell it” (192). At one point, as Chigurh finishes off his final (and apparently superfluous) assassination, McCarthy appears to suggest that this human killing machine simply obeys a higher order of principle and morality, more in tune with the way of the world and the brutal dictates of fate: “I have only one way to live. It doesn’t allow for special cases. A coin toss perhaps” (259).

But in this landscape in which only the powerless speak, indeed in which speaking is an indication of impotence, this brief attempt to ventriloquize power is unconvincing. For McCarthy, power is violence and violence is, quite literally, unspeakable. He has conjured up a monster, or rather a personification of his view of nature as monstruous, about which he finally has nothing to say. He merely points: Look, while you can, through this novel, at an image that in life would leave you for dead.


Tinta roja posterLombardi’s Tinta roja (“Red Ink”) is a glimpse of Peruvian society from the perspective of a tabloid newspaper’s crime beat. The crimes themselves are almost always tawdry and all too predictable: a lover’s suicide in the cemetery; a street vendor run over by a bus; a jealous wife killing her husband found in flagrante with another woman. The skill, indeed the art, of the tabloid journalist is to write these stories up with an eye for human (melo)drama.

The film’s plot centers around Alfonso, a young student who comes to work as an intern at the newspaper El Clamor along with his on-again off-again girlfriend Nadia. Alfonso dreams of being a novelist, and idolizes Mario Vargas Llosa. At the crime desk, to which he is reluctantly sent as Nadia nabs the only vacancy in the cultural section, he is soon nicknamed “Varguitas” but his new boss, the cynical old hack Faúndez. But despite his initial shock and upset–confronting his first corpse, seeing how his colleagues manipulate and deceive the people they are writing about–Alfonso gradually learns to fit in with his new surroundings. He rather likes, for instance, the fact that he has to throw out all he has learned in journalism school about objectivity and neutrality. After all, the job of a journalist is to write a sort of fiction.

Moreover, the tabloid hacks share a certain grim solidarity with the people they’re writing about: the hard-luck cases, widows, and bereft mothers of Lima’s shantytowns. They offer these people their fifteen minutes of fame. In the words of “Van Gogh,” the driver of the minivan that takes them from one bloody crime scene to another, “the crime pages are like the social gazette for the poor. They are famous if only for a day. We treat them like stars.” Though nobody’s quite as eager to get into the paper as the cops on the beat who serve as the journos’ informants, ensuring they get their anxiously desired scoops on their media rivals.

The notion that the crime pages offer a vision of Lima from below is a promising one. But the film falls down when, ironically, it adopts the strategy that Faúndez teaches young Alfonso: when it imposes a melodramatic plot on proceedings, concentrating more on family ties than on social tapestry.

After long meandering without too much purpose, except to show how Alfonso gradually becomes as hard-bitten and cynical as his mentor, suddenly the plot becomes a story of (biological) fathers and children, a morality tale to teach us that blood is thicker than water. Faúndez’s own son, a young man with learning difficulties, is found tragically dead, and Alfonso reports on the incident with the usual lurid dispassion, exposing his boss’s life to the scandal-hungry gaze of the paper’s readership.

Tinta roja stillThe old pro flees from the limelight, and only returns when the next story involves Alfonso’s own long estranged father, who turns out to be a crooked doctor covering up suspicious fatalities by providing false death certificates. Faúndez intervenes to prevent Alfonso from turning his now merciless muckraking spotlight on his own flesh and blood: “There are good headlines every day,” he says, justifying the fact that he has spiked his young apprentice’s scoop. “But however shitty they are, you only have one father.”

And it is when a new intern shows up at the paper, that Alfonso realizes he has become boss of the crime section, and moreover has become even more heartless than Faúndez, in less than half the time. He has tarnished what relationship he might have had with Nadia, adopting the most machista of attitudes, and he has forgotten entirely about his dreams of becoming a novelist, even though the manuscript he submitted to a literary prize won him a scholarship to Europe.

So in the end he walks out. The tabloid press are condemned for being utterly soul-destroying and heartless. But who now is to write about the everyday misfortunes and dramas of the urban poor?

YouTube Link: the film’s trailer (along with the trailers for Paloma de papel and Días de Santiago).