True Detective: The Much-Anticipated Finale and the Novel That Preceded the Series

If you have been watching the new HBO anthology series, True Detective, you may be very ambivalent about watching tomorrow night’s final episode in the initial story. If you haven’t been watching, it features Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as detectives investigating a series of bizarre, ritualistically sadistic killings that have stretched over two decades. The series is set along the Gulf Coast of Lousiana, much of which seems to represent the last tenuous refuge for both the endemically impoverished and the malevolently maladjusted.

On the one hand, the final episode will finally provide a resolution to a very complex and compelling story that has been presented with tremendous skill. The acting, directing, and writing have all been very equal to each other—a rare accomplishment in television or film. On the other hand, the brevity of the story—its having been presented in a mere eight episodes—means that once the final episode is over, we will begin to regret that we will not be seeing any more of detectives Marty Hart and Rust Cohle. The plan seems to be to be that each story in the anthology will include a completely different cast of characters and criminal focus.

I imagine that the stories in this anthology will be somewhat widely separated on the calendar for two reasons. First, like David Chase with The Sopranos, Nic Pizzolatto not only has been solely responsible for the writing of the series but has also been serving as the executive producer. Certainly he is going to need a break in order to recharge his batteries and to keep things fresh. Second, this first story has been so totally engaging, so distinctively fascinating, that the next story is almost certain to seem somewhat disappointing, especially if it follows almost immediately on the conclusion of this story. If you will allow me a sports analogy, in baseball, when a batter hits a grand-slam home run, it is very rare that he gets the chance to hit another one in the next at bat. So even if he hits another home run, never mind a triple, a double, or a single, it will pale in comparison to what he did in the previous at bat.

As soon as I watched the initial episode of the series, I wondered who Nic Pizzolatto was and whether he had written any novels or stories. Born in 1975 in New Orleans and raised in Lake Charles, Louisiana, Pizzolatto attended Lousiana State University and the University of Arkansas. He contributed work to literary journals at both institutions, and he had almost immediate success in placing his short stories in some of the premier literary journals publishing short fiction, including The Atlantic, Iowa Review, Missouri Review, Oxford American, Ploughshares, Quarterly West, and Shenandoah. Those stories were then collected in the volume Between Here and the Yellow Sea (2006). The collection was named one of the top five fiction debuts by Poets and Writers and longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Pizzolatto’s work has been included in The Best Mystery Stories of 2009, has been a finalist for a National Magazine Award for Fiction, and has received an honorable mention from the Pushcart Prize.

Pizzolatto followed the short-story collection with his debut novel, Galveston (2010). Translated into French, German, Italian, and Chinese, the novel received the French Academy’s Prix du Premier Roman étranger, as the Best Foreign First Novel. In this country, the novel received the Spur Award for Best First Novel from the Western Writers of America, and it was also a finalist for the Edgar Award for Best First Novel from the Mystery Writers of America and placed third for the Barnes and Noble Discovery Award.

Before moving to California to focus on writing scripts, Pizzolatto taught writing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Chicago, and DePauw University. Before focusing on True Detective, he wrote two episodes for the first season of the AMC series The Killing.

I almost immediately ordered Pizzolatto’s collection of short stories and novel through Ohiolink, the statewide consortium of university, college, and selected public libraries. I have just finished the novel, and I think that it provides some interesting comparisons to and contrasts with the series.

Like True Detective, Galveston is set in the Fulf Coast areas of Lousiana and Texas, and most of the characters are representative of an underclass for whom illicit behavior is the most readily available option and for whom the future is largely a short-term consideration because taking a long view of the future is tantamount to looking into nothingness. Like the series, the novel has a very existential tone, though there is no character in the novel who is as reflective and as articulate as Rust Cohle is.

Like the series, the novel also has a split structure, with storylines set more than a decade apart juxtaposed in a manner that intensifies the suspense in both parts of the story. In this case, the main character is not a detective investigating a crime but, instead, an enforcer for the New Orleans mob named Roy “Big Country” Cady. The novel opens just after Cady learns that he appears to have extensive lung cancer and right before his boss, who has recently taken up with Cady’s estranged girlfriend, sends him and another problematic associate ostensibly to collect a debt at an address where three hired killers are waiting to eliminate the deadbeat debtor as well as the two debt collectors. By an almost miraculous stroke of luck, Cady manages to kill the three hired guns. But, by then, everyone else is dead, except for one of the two prostitutes that had been in the house with the deadbeat debtor. The prostitute is a teenager, a relatively recent arrival in New Orleans, and her name is Raquel “Rocky” Arceneaux.

Against his better judgment, Cady takes her along with him as he tries to put as much distance as possible, as quickly as possible, between the two of them and the mob associates who will surely be fanning out to locate and to eliminate them. After a brief but momentous side-trip to Rocky’s dismal family home, they end up in Galveston. For the two of them, it is at times a somewhat idyllic respite, but the general mood is of an increasingly uneasy interval. Over the next several weeks, Cady worries continually about the degree ro which the complications that Rocky has brought into his life may be compromising not just his personal safety but also the hardboiled persona that has made him a formidible figure in the fringe world in which he has moved.  Nonetheless, it becomes increasingly clear that the cancer diagnosis is undermining his own ability to maintain that stance toward  the world–that he is losing the hard-eyed, brutal edge that he has always been able to maintain as if it were a form of self-composure.

The entire novel is narrated in the present tense, but in the part of the narrative set closer to the present, Cady is back in Galveston, leading a quiet life after a decade in prison. He has lost an eye, and he has a metal plate in his head and a pronounced limp, as well as a host other less obvious infirmities. But he has found work that gives him a roof over his head, has established a small circle of acquaintances, and has adopted a dog that is the closest thing that he has to a personal companion. But, as Hurricane Ike eerily approaches the Gulf Coast of Texas, Cady’s past suddenly seems to be catching up with him, and it becomes clear to him that he is well beyond doing any more running.

Although the novel certainly deserves the accolades that it has received, it is not quite as good as the television series. The two together do suggest, however, the Pizzolatto is a writer worth watching, a writer who has the potential to create a significant body of work, regardless of the genre(s) in which he chooses to work.

2 thoughts on “True Detective: The Much-Anticipated Finale and the Novel That Preceded the Series

  1. WOW!!!! Just watched season finale of HBO True Detectives, WOW, what awesome characters, congrats to the best two actors working together, Woody Harrelson & Matthew McConaughey AND THANK YOU creator Nic Pizzolatto. Very powerful show!

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