“Body In The Box” – On the Connection Between PI’s & Tabloid Writers

The Internet and home computer/smartphone ease-of-access has allowed for the fairly-stagnant publishing industry, be it books, essays, poetry, or news, to finally crack in places, allowing voices previously-unheard or underrepresented to have access to publishing and writing tools. It’s been great and opened up a huge new world for so many voices and perspectives.

However…

The flip side of the egalitarian potential of the Internet ha been that, unfortunately, yes, pretty much anyone has access to publishing and writing tools, letting their voices and perspectives be heard.

It’s in this weird space that we can look at the progression of tabloid pop culture writing and reporting, from Hedda Hopper to the National Enquirer to Buzzfeed and Perez Hilton and see an odd space that’s reviled, but at the same time an intrinsic aspect of middle-class entertainment nonfiction reading. The Weekly Galaxy, the tabloid newspaper at the heart of Donald Westlake’s mystery novel Trust Me On This, claims (in 1988) to sell millions of copies weekly, the paper’s name eliciting both revulsion and exclamations of delight when the reporters in the book mention who they work for. Which makes sense, considering how popular even today websites that combine terribly-misleading headlines, news journalism, “clickbait” stories, entertainment, humor, and outright fiction continue to be (the infamous “listicle” template that entertainment news websites like to employ alongside photo slideshows are a great example).

Why tabloid reporters, though? Why would, back in the stone age of 1988, would Westlake use tabloid reporters?

I mean…why not?

It’s not a rhetorical or a sarcastic question. It’s a legitimate thing to bring up, that these sorts of reporters represent the same type of classic noir protagonist that usually we herald. If we look at the private eye as a sort of go-between that can navigate various socioeconomic strata and is both necessary as well as reviled, then why wouldn’t a sleezy tabloid reporter not be the same thing? Entertainment news, for better or worse, exists and fulfills a necessity, there’s a demand for it, so obviously we need someone to take up that demand and create the content. At the same time, we belittle and degrade that type of writing and reporting, even though the cast of characters in Trust Me On This constantly point out that SOMEONE has to be buying all those magazines weekly, a reach in print rivaling The New York Times or even the evening news on TV. Yeah, journalistic integrity is well and good, but sneaking into someone’s home, lying to get information, and disrupting the lives and security blankets around the upper crust of society is what pays the bills, a journeyman element that is overlooked at times in depictions of classic noir PI’s. They’re journeymen, working to make money in a new and confusing world that everyone struggles to understand And all of those things are the coin with which, looking at Westlake’s book here, journalist and PI are the two sides of. Too often we view private investigators and the general heroes of noir as noble champions of justice and truth in a harsh world, but an important aspect of them is that they’re also portrayed as somewhat-reviled figures because they exist in a unique space.

These private eyes, just like journalists who report on private affairs, on entertainment news and rumors and hearsay, exist in a fluid unique space that they both created and was created for them. The private detective exists to move between social classes and represent the interests of whichever class hires them, and in a similar fashion, the tabloid reporter moves between classes in the same way, though their relationship with said social strata is a bit more defined. However, there’s still the similarity in every strata, from the moneyed rich and famous needing the coverage to maintain their fame (just as the old money hate the private eye as a “hired help” that in every mystery they find themselves reliant on).

While we don’t want to see it, that interconnectivity between reporters and private eyes is there, deep down.

The naive and self-righteous new hire in Trust Me On This discovers a body on the side of the road in the oppressive Florida heat, a nagging microscopic aspect of a possible story (or case!) as she immerses herself in the plan to infiltrate a movie star’s exclusive wedding for pictures, video, testimonials, anything to get a scoop. The readers demand it after all…though the readers did demand the other story from a not-so-distant past that might have led to that body on the side of the road.

Like any good noir story, the trick isn’t necessarily in buying the mystery, or seeing it as a good or complex plot. Far from it, because in any good noir story, the plot itself is always secondary to (arguably two key factors;

  • Character – The framing of how someone works, best described in looking at their interactions not only with others from both sides, but also in the way that a fictional character interacts with themselves or with the world when they’re alone.
  • Symbolism – The ultimate meaning of items and people and ideas as representing larger abstract concepts, usually social, economic, intersectional, spiritual, or otherwise within a fiction or nonfiction narrative.

Both of these factors ultimately combine into “style,” into the aesthetic of noir that has become identifiable in film and prose. And noir is always about style, be it the style of those involved and what it represents (class, money, career, approaches to life, etc) as well as the literal style of the writer themselves. Westlake’s style itself draws on more character than symbolism, but in the end both the need to focus on a person as a sum of interactions with both others and themselves as well as how various types of characters can represent different types of people and approaches to life (mercenary, cutthroat, journeyman, passive observer, etc) as well as what these actions and beliefs ultimately represent when it comes to how noir reflects society, social struggle, mobility, modernism, and all that jazz. Part of all of that sometimes includes the ugliness of modernism, and pop journalism/news and the role that it can have in society is a part of that.

After all, while at many times functioning as reactionary, sensationalist, or even outright propagandic, tabloids are an indicator of the power of print media that still has an important social foothold, as well as being a pipeline into middle-class homes and reading habits. While we might hate it, it functions like the classic PI, in a necessary roles that exists to fill a need we don’t always eat or even at time think mercenary and toxic, but exists nonetheless in a post-WW2 world. You can’t get rid of a good private eye, and you’ll never get rid of all the tabloid journalists. You shouldn’t want to, anyway. For either of them.

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