“Ineluctable modality of the visible.…”
—Stephen Dedalus’s contemplation as he walks along Sandymount Strand, Ulysses
As a student, I was always puzzled by James Joyce’s cryptic phrase. Was it a Zen koan of English literature? A philosophical reference? Something from Thomas Aquinas? Finally, I came to the conclusion that Stephen is thinking about a central problem of human experience: Is what we encounter with our senses “real”? Does it exist independently of human consciousness?
One of the enduring satisfactions of mystery and crime writing, the theme of this issue of Alta, is the similar search for “who done it.” Does the person, or situation, which seems innocent or easily explainable on the surface, conceal a deeper, more sinful, truer reality?
Good mysteries and noir classics are explorations. They see beyond what seduces on a first impression—the straightforward sense impression—and ask: Is that reality or a veil? Is the suspect whom we expected the sum of clichés or someone else? The great detectives look past the artifice, the poseurs, the excuses and find the guilty, the criminal, the truth behind a hall of mirrors.
Another great satisfaction of the best writing, including mysteries, is the ability to conjure up a scene—a specific locale that really does exist and is recognized by the reader as familiar.
Consider the opening lines of Raymond Chandler’s “Red Wind”:
There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.
You are immediately transported to Los Angeles. As the story begins, the reader knows she is in good hands. We recognize the scene. Next comes the mystery.
Real life sometimes ends in real tragedy. But the classic mystery is expected to resolve the murder before the last page. Perhaps this is an eternal promise of literature, if not real life. We want to see the loose ends tied up.
But such a resolution is more complicated than a “happy ending.” It’s a recognition that only some kind of justice, or hope, or love will actually endure. In literature and in life.
Thus, Joyce brought his divine comedy to an acceptance. As Molly Bloom recalls her life and loves, she deems the main culprit of her story, Leopold Bloom, as “good as another.” Bloom is what he seems, and all the story’s conflicts end with her lustful acceptance:
I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.
PHOTOGRAPHER FRED LYON
For many years, Life magazine’s oversize pages were home to the best and most-renowned photographers. The publication was a showcase for their now-iconic images of midcentury America. Among the greats of that generation is Fred Lyon, now in his 95th year and still working. He’s shot innumerable photos throughout his career, traveling the world for big-name publishers like Time Life and Condé Nast. But the city of his birth—San Francisco—and its noir traditions have always appealed to him. “We have hills, and fog, and cable cars, and a couple bridges that won’t quit,” he once said. We are thrilled to have one of Lyon’s photographs—a moody vision of a man and woman on a San Francisco night in 1953—for our cover. His pictures pull you in and suggest a story. Based in tough reality, they’re also part dream.