Liar’s Kiss

Liar’s Kiss

The thing I love about hard-boiled detective stories is the dialog. Even more than the moral ambiguity, the labyrinthine plots, the noir visuals, the corruption (and the critique of power), or the idea that getting your ass kicked counts as a sound investigative method -- I love that rapid-fire, half-growled, tough-guy back and forth.

Eric Skillman delivers the dialog:

"Listen, my brother was a cop, I wouldn't fuck with you--"

"My sister's a doctor, doesn't mean they let me into the operating room."

Liar's Kiss is not a great book, but it is a pretty good read. It's neatly plotted, well scripted, and it pulls you along toward its unresolved conclusion. The story is formulaic -- a cynical detective, a wealthy femme fatale, a dead husband, and some compromising photos -- and ultimately forgettable, but it shows the strengths as well as the weaknesses of its genre. A trench coat and a smart mouth can take you a long way.

"Let me guess. . . . I should see the other guy?"

"Hell, I wish I'd seen the other guy."

Jhomar Soriano's art, while sometimes very beautiful, is not always up to the task the story assigns it. The really black blacks and really white whites leave many of the pages feeling strangely bare. The visual result is often one of sketchy human figures standing before blank backdrops. The impression it creates is less that of black-and-white film and more one of low-budget theater: amateur actors and very basic sets.

The main exceptions are the flash-back scenes, which are done in softer grays and in greater detail. These stylistic choices are surely deliberate: The protagonist, Nick Archer, is -- as we learn -- living in the past. ("Guilty consciences are what separate us from the animals, baby," he says in one of the novel's most revealing lines.) And time is itself an important theme in the story: the visual representation of time provides, first, an alibi, and then, incriminating evidence -- wrongly, it turns out, in both cases.

More interestingly, the softer tones are also used in the title sequence, which presents quick, disjointed, glimpses of the detective and his client making love. It is the only scene from the narrative present depicted in this more impressionistic manner, with the suggestion that, outside of memory, it is only in this one erotic encounter that Archer feels alive. Later, he recalls, "I hate her, sure, but I'm able to play that off as passion and I'm barely even lying. . . ."

Liar's Kiss practically begins with this betrayal. Reading it the first time through, I only saw the sexual energy, the passion; but looking at it again, knowing the context, I can see the hate, too -- the look in his eyes, the clenching of his teeth, the grip of his hand. The double effect -- present at the beginning, but not revealed until the end -- opens the moral questions that the book poses.

It is not only the problem of whether the protagonist is really a hero. It's the question of what heroism represents, as a system of values. Is it anything more than bitter, vindictive anger, a willingness to use, manipulate, and sacrifice others, and a (not- incidental) flavoring of misogyny?

At the end, Archer himself is unsure: The last chapter is his confession, and his fate is left, fittingly, to the judgment of one of the women he has misled. The closing pages are silent. She reads, she thinks. She does not speak to anyone else, nor does she narrate for our benefit. We do not know, finally, what her decision will be. Liar's Kiss ends at the point of crisis, the moment before the decision is made. It is, in more than one sense, a dodge, an evasion, a cheat. Responsibility is shifted, from protagonist to confidant, from writer to reader.

But I like the fact that the book closes with questions rather than answers. It suggests a mystery beyond the facts of the case, a need for judgment outside the dictates of the law. It reminds us, again, that when a human being has been killed, knowing how, when, why, and by whom does not actually "solve" the murder. Nothing does. Nothing can.

What, then, is justice?