False Negative by Joseph Koenig (Cover Art by Glen Orbik)
“I’ll call you,” she said.
“You don’t have my number.”
“I had it from the start.”
False Negative is true-all-the-way-through noir crime fiction. Joseph Koenig’s punchy pulp prose, married to a remarkable attention to detail creates a setting that begs for a sinister plot and gets more than it bargained for…
Adam Jordan is a dedicated newsman who asks all the right questions. When he finds himself out of the job, he’s shocked by a call from the editor-in-chief of “Real Detective” (a pulp monthly) who says he’ll pay Jordan a nickle per word for true crime stories. Before long he’s embroiled in a caper where beauty queens, party girls, and aspiring actresses are being murdered in droves–and if he’s not careful, he’s sure to join them.
“We pay better than the papers, because good crime writers are harder to find than inventive killers.”
Koenig surprised me with this one. I was very impressed with the thoughtful and calculating nature of his style, but I admit that it takes a few pages to get clued in to his rhythm. Sometimes the story would shift so rapidly from one character to the next that I felt it was frequently disjointed. Additionally, he seemed very at ease in the time-period. All of the lingo/jargon/slang of the era seemed like it fit- but it was also confusing at times- the story is so true to it’s own vernacular that it never calls “time out” to fill in the rest of us.
I love the fact that Koenig was a former crime reporter, because it comes through powerfully in his rhetoric. He frequently speaks as if journalists and the media are the “fourth branch of government.” One example:
A good reporter followed up on everything the cops did. Without newsmen looking over their shoulder, Jordan believed most police departments were worthless bureaucracies…But Halloran wasn’t happy to see Jordan coming to his door. Jordan supposed that no cop ever was. He took it as evidence that he did his job well.
Also, Adam Jordan’s character is so richly woven because Joseph has written himself in. The broadest stroke of genius was to immerse the main character in so many different crimes (potential stories he could write, or did write throughout False Negative), because it makes the reader grasp for connections that aren’t really there. I was constantly wondering if the current murder I was reading about had anything to do with the central plot, and this created powerful bonds between myself and Adam Jordan; We were left asking the same questions. In that way, this mystery/thriller is possibly the most immersive I’ve ever read.
“Everyone was an authority on murder. Everyone, from Jordan’s experience, but the practitioners.”
Koenig never shies away from historical events and figures– a frequent weakness in noir crime fiction. It seems that most authors are afraid to introduce any character that might be recognized in history, because someone will point out where they went wrong. Not so with False Negative, which makes several references to famous folk of the era, and even features a complete ‘cameo’ of Louis Armstrong. I felt that this lent credibility to the novel, because the book often read like historical fiction.
Noir Definition Round-up:
1) The Seedy Underworld
The majority of the novel takes place in Atlantic City; but it’s the off-season, and the cold has driven tourists and locals alike away from the beaches of the Jersey Shore. Koenig’s hand with detail creates just the level of stink we’d expect in the filthy high-rises and private, yet sinister, parties.
“Was there an emptier feeling than to return alone to a city you’d stopped calling home?”
2) The Anti-Hero
Adam Jordan is a particular, egotistical, and self-absorbed writer, whose sense of self-importance is constantly at odds with the opinions of those who hate him. He’s a music snob, a chain-smoker, and he offends the women in his life because he can’t commit. But! he’s damn good at investigation, even if he’s a poor judge of character.
“He doesn’t care if you like him,” Greenstein said. “All he likes are faces. He’s married to them, he worships them. Adam Jordan never takes a fact in vain, so help him God. Give him the facts, just the facts, ma’am, like that cop on TV says.”
3) The Femme Fatale
Several women could foot-the-bill of femme fatale in False Negative, but they’re stripped of their potency. Koenig has written these women who aspire to be femme fatales, but only end up killing themselves.
“Don’t look scandalized, you didn’t know women use their loveliness in ways got nothing to do with love. Figure it give ’em power over men, when it’s the other way ’round.”
The book is overflowing with ambitious women, women who want to be famous but don’t realize the cost. Private parties are thrown for old men who wield power and influence, where young women have their innocence devoured wholesale. Only one woman in the book isn’t a completely helpless waif, but even she isn’t role-model.
“What do you know about beautiful women?” He knew that the prettiest girls he’d dated were the most insecure. None were as gorgeous as Mollie Gordon, or filled with as much self-doubt.
Adam Jordan is constantly seeking the personal validation that would come from becoming a successful writer. He also seeks the intellectual redemption that accompanies the solving of a mystery, and the satisfaction of cornering a killer. Even though he cannot undo what has happened, he feels he can redeem those murdered by understanding how they came to be killed, and preventing further victims in the future.
“He scraped the sand from her cheek, and tilted it toward himself. She was a beautiful woman dead for several hours whose looks hadn’t begun to fade. He reproached himself for being sentimental. Beauty was the cheap accolade that newsmen rewarded automatically to female victims of murder.”
A silky thread of sexuality runs through the novel- some beautiful and freeing, some depraved and horrifying. I would say that this book approaches eroticism, but never really arrives.
“Suzie Chase was the wrong kind of beautiful.”
7) Loss of Innocence
Some of the most difficult scenes to read are seen through the eyes of the killer. He’s not satisfied with merely snuffing the life out of a woman, he must control her first- bend her to his will, even destroy her if he must, before he steals her life. Rape is never comfortable to read, I’m sure it’s equally uncomfortable to write.
She felt tears welling, but wouldn’t let them come. They were a part of herself she was able to keep him from having. “I hope you die,” she said.
8 ) Smoke
Adam Jordan never goes anywhere without his “Lucky’s.” A thought occurred to me while I was reading this book: I wonder if the reason that smoke is such a prevalent theme in noir crime fiction is because it’s a unifier. It brings people together, they bum a smoke or share a light, just like they share their bed or various crimes. It’s a fire that burns between them, and they breath the smoke together- it scorching the same trails in their lungs and bloodstreams. I don’t know, perhaps there’s more to explore there…
She put a cigarette between her lips, leaned close, and touched the tip to Jordan’s, blew smoke past his cheek.
Although he never says it, Jordan is afraid of being a failure. This fear applies to both his professional life and his personal life (especially where women are concerned). The women in his life, particularly Mollie and Cherise, always get the best of him. No matter how diligent or attentive he is to either, they never react the way he anticipates.
“Facing down an empty first page held no terror for him. He’d been doing it for years.”
False Negative is methodical noir that isn’t encumbered by all of the cliches and tropes you’ve come to expect. If you haven’t read him before, Joseph Koenig has some surprises for you.
“On his nightstand was a stack of books he’d been meaning to read, but writers who finished what they started gave him a sour feeling.”