Noir just got a postmodern update. The hard-boiled detective genre made famous by American writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler in the 20th century has been taken up by a British professor of literature and given a tech culture twist. And it’s really good!
Patrick McGuinness’s book Throw Me to the Wolves, published in the US by Bloomsbury in April, is a perfect summer beach read that also gets satisfyingly deep. This reporter read it in one long sitting, frittering away a whole weekend day between its pages so entertaining was the tale.
The story is ostensibly about two British police officers trying to solve a murder. A young woman has been killed, and her neighbor, a retired private school teacher named Michael Wolphram, is the cops’ main suspect. Wolphram is a weirdo insofar as he lives alone and has refined tastes in art, books, clothing, cars, and music. He doesn’t have a criminal past, and there are no previous allegations of wrongdoing against him. But he is different, unusually solitary and sophisticated, and so he doesn’t quite seem innocent, though there is no physical evidence to indicate that he is guilty.
The book, which is a riveting and speedy read, despite being deep and literary, is as much about our times as it is about solving crime. The police are under pressure to charge someone, anyone. The 24-hour news cycle makes it impossible for them to be thoughtful about their interrogations or investigation. People are ravenous for news and they don’t much care about the truth, which makes it difficult for the detectives to convince their boss not to charge Wolphram without more evidence. Social media ends up dictating what the police chief will do, and fake news has a strong chance of winning the day.
The beauty of McGuinness’s book is in the execution, however, more than the plot. The writing really delights. McGuinness is a professor of literature and poetry at Oxford University, specializing in 19th- and 20th-century French works. However, his style isn’t academic and his preoccupations in this novel are very 21st century. With humor and damning insight, McGuinness captures the spirit of this moment, our cultural obsession with information, communication, and outrage. He manages to indict even the novel’s readers with his account of crime solving in the Instagram era and the unleashed stalker in all of us.
“You’re not dead until your phone contract says so,” writes McGuinness as his detectives sift through the online detritus of the dead woman’s life. She is still getting messages on her dating app, and friend requests to the deceased only increase on various social media platforms as her death becomes the day’s top story. McGuinness’s officers are caught in a changing world, nostalgic for a time before the device takeover. “The world never had an OFF button, no, but you could at least turn it down sometimes,” muses the protagonist, though he isn’t old enough to claim as much with confidence.
The characters McGuinness creates are rich and thoughtful. The writer employs cliches and subverts them easily. He turns the typical good cop/bad cop routine into an opportunity to explore class, bias, ignorance, and intellectual depth. By the end, no one is spared from the realization that they have underestimated the people around them and minimized the lives of others based on preconceptions.
We may not all be criminals, but McGuinness shows that by participating in the project of postmodernity, tweeting our trials and tribulations and taking in everyone else’s information, we’re also not innocent. We are this world’s wolves, and any of us might easily become the pack’s prey.