“Forget it, Jake. it’s Chinatown.”
That end line of the 1974 film Chinatown, considered a high watermark of American noir cinema, has created a pop culture touchstone, and its utterance in company usually indicates a very particular kind of moment. Like in the film, when Jake Gittes is confronted with the futility of the end of his case, the phrase is a notification from one person to the other that it doesn’t matter what you know, and what’s right and wrong. Some things are just out of your hands. Gittes is ultimately confronted with this line specifically to remind him not only of his place in the social hierarchy of law, order, and justice, but also of the general futility of it all when it comes to those who have power versus those who don’t. Gittes, like so many noir private eyes, is left in the depressing position of knowing but being unable to do much of anything except maybe just survive another day. If you’re lucky, you can maybe thrive like that, going day by day.
While not immediately apparent, this is a running theme through Joe Meno’s novel The Boy Detective Fails, his 2006 novel that directly plays on the old literary concept of the brilliant child detective. Billy Argo is a direct reference to Encyclopedia Brown (the book is even peppered with analogues for the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew in the Hartly Boys and Violet Dew, all of whom struggle with growing up in the novel), the hyper-intelligent child prodigy who is the hero of his small town, with plucky childhood friends as sidekicks. In being a sly analysis of the cliché of “plucky” boy detective, illustrating a world in which these cutesy childhood adventures mask larger and sadder stories, it more-closely connects with noir detective fiction. It looks at the price and the weight of knowledge and intelligence, and how little “knowing the truth” about something can actually do.
The theme of knowledge having little or no value due to larger outside social and realistic sources and influences is one of the definitions with regards to noir storytelling, and thus most modern and postmodern detective fiction as well. Meno clearly defines Billy’s childhood as being rooted in constantly digging up truth, absolute facts that are hidden from the larger world around him, almost regardless of the fallout for better or worse. It begins almost immediately when Billy is first presented with the gift from his older brother, the detective kit, and his ability to discern his older brother’s homosexuality, a revelation that immediately sends his family into conflict. Billy (and the narration) immediately move on from that, determined to continue to constantly bring truth to light, reinforcing that this attachment to the power of truth seemingly at all costs creates an absolutist bar that ultimately real life could not continue to reach for.
Chinatown is all about complexities and futility, and how violence and greed are driving a seemingly-minor land issue (water rights, in particular). It manifests an ideal example of noir because despite the brightness of California, nothing revealed is positive. They’re just sad truths. In the same fashion in The Boy Detective Fails, we as readers can see that so many of the things revealed as truths by Billy Argo, Fenton, and Caroline, despite being simple truths (the crimes of people who never recover their lives after prison, the failings of the local politicians and police, the newly-discovered lives of others after Billy leaves, seemingly-moving on without them), are far from them. It’s sad to see the Hartlys as glory days-obsessed young men still caught up in a fantasy of law and order and serving justice. It’s sad to see the decaying minds of the former villains that Billy confronts and interacts with, how their lives are now shells that are abandoned, forgotten by the world.
In the novel’s ending, Billy finds out what happened to the only failed case that he and his friend Fenton and sister Caroline was in fact far deeper and darker than they thought. As Billy finally discovers what it was during that last “case” of his sister’s that drove her to suicide, he asks “Who? Who did this? Why? Why would anyone do this?” His almost plaintive “who/what/why” into the darkness of the cave underneath the wishing well, discovering the lair of a serial killer and predator both finally but also too late, the root of so much of his own character is laid bare. Throughout the book Billy strives in an almost childlike way (which is deliberate) to solve the murder of Caroline, Caroline wasn’t murdered. Yes, there was an influence on her that arguably drove her to suicide, but it wasn’t a murder, it wasn’t a crime. It was a tragedy, a senseless tragedy.
Meno and The Boy Detective Fails works. It just does, because it manages to, on a storytelling level, manage to effectively cover the odd and fluid part of one’s life where the simple absolutism of childhood begins to slowly dissolve more and more into the gray moral relativism of adulthood. Billy Argo never had that slow period, so he experiences it at such a fragile time of his life, and that he comes through it despite its accelerated pace is a testament to the inner strength of people who truly do want to thrive and survive. At the same time, it’s also a window into how detective fiction can also have a childhood and adulthood, where again, childhood is moral absolutism and relativism is the adulthood. Tragically, so much of adulthood is not only survival, but it is also about sadly discovering that answers just don’t have the power or the authority that they used to as kids. Sometimes, things suck, and just can’t be avoided.
Ultimately here Billy Argo is relieved to not necessarily “solve” Caroline’s death, but rather to solve the eternal question of the price of knowledge. As a child in the perceptively-simple but actually-complex environment of his town during childhood, finding out the answer seemingly-solved everything. Childhood in Meno’s work references moral absolutism. Conversely, adulthood is the gray area of postmodernism, of moral and social uncertainty. Even though noir mystery writing primarily reflected social change and uncertainty in this lack of moral absolutism, personal growth and change works within this just as well. When Billy first enters the world at large after his institutionalization, he still considers answers to, at their root, have some level of fundamental power and necessity to be uncovered. Now though, he realizes what happens when people push and push and push for answers, unaware just how dangerous they can be.
Billy learns to survive and move forward one day at a time, and he also learns to recognize how that’s okay. It’s not required to have all the answers, and all the answers to all the problems don’t magically solve anything. The “boy detective” fails, but Billy the person doesn’t. He can’t, because you can’t fail if you’re surviving.