Joe Carmody, Hector Berlioz & Victor Strang (Ethan Coen’s Eyes)

Created by Ethan Coen

“The meniscus don’t lie, greaseball!”
Joe Gendreau in “Gates of Eden”

In his first collection of fiction, 1998’s Gates of Eden, filmmaker Ethan Coen presented us with fourteen short stories, novellas and short screenplays. With his brother Joel, the Coen Brothers have written and directed some of the most unconvential and quirkiest take-offs on film genres, including noir (Blood Simple), detective films (The Big Lebowski), gangster films (Miller’s Crossing), police dramas (Fargo), and even screwball comedies (The Hudsucker Proxy, Raising Arizona). They’ve always shown a real affection for the crime genre, even as they were cheerfully subverting it, so when one of them decides to write a few tales featuring P.I.s, the least we can do is take notice.

JOE CARMODY‘s a college-boy and a boxer heading straight to Palookaville, who takes on some private eye work to make ends meet. Alas, determined as he is to make it in the worlds of both boxing and detective work, he seems to display no particular talent for either, in “Destiny.”

HECTOR BERLIOZ grabs the title role, as a not-quite-as-smart-as-he-thinks-he-is P.I. in “Hector Berlioz, Private Investigator,” a spoof of old-time radio dicks that plays like some unholy cross between Dashiell Hammett and Groucho and Chico Marx.

VICTOR STRANG is another hapless private investigator who gets one ear bitten off in a fight (stop me if you’ve heard this before), and loses hearing in the other from the trauma. Struggling to make sense of his life (as well as interpret his surreal dreams of the Pope lifting weights), he visits a psychiatrist, in “A Fever in the Blood.”

The title story’s also a good one, too. “Gates of Eden” is all about Joe Gendreau, a two-fisted, hard-boiled inspector from California Weights and Measures, who may be taking his job way too seriously. The story grabs all those old pulp clichés and runs down the hall with them, laughing all the way. “Standards are what make us a society,” says Joe. Indeed.

Since these stories are just snippets, almost, and the Coen boys have been fluttering all around the P.I. genre (particularly Blood Simple and The Big Lebowski) without actually lighting, you have to wonder if they’re finally going to take the plunge and give us a real private eye flick someday. One can only hope….

In fact, once upon a time, way back in Autumn 2011 or so, it was announced the Coens would be involved in developing a P.I. show for Fox entitled Harve Karbo. It never came to pass, but imagine that…

UNDER OATH

  • “Thoughtful…well-written…affecting and evocative…What is really on display here is his startling ventriloquism, his facility with creating distinct and authentic voices. And boy can his characters talk…”
    The Washington Post
  • “Juicy…pulpy…It’s vintage Coen: funny, violent, and a little sad. Unrestricted by the natural limits of screenplays and moviemaking, Coen has more room to flex and to develop his characters, who are revealed in the dead-on dialogue that has always been a hallmark of the Coen brothers’ scripts.”
    –The Boston Globe
  • “Coen typically amuses the reader with his clever slapstick prose only to sucker punch him with sudden bouts of ferocious damage inflicted by humans at their worst. This approach defies characterization, but here is a litmus test for any potential reader: If you already feel comfortable defining or using the word “Coenish,” you are most likely to appreciate the gifts displayed in this novel….Fine examples of neo-noir, either homage or parody.”
    — Jay A. Fernandez (The Press Democrat)

SHORT STORIES

  • “A Fever in the Blood” (November 1987, Vanity Fair; 1998; also 1998, Gates of Eden)
  • “Gates of Eden” (January 1993, Playboy; also 1998, Gates of Eden)
  • “Hector Berlioz, Private Investigator” (1998, Gates of Eden)
  • “Destiny” (1998, Gates of Eden)

COLLECTIONS

  • Gates of Eden (1998) Buy this book | Buy the audio
    The audio version’s worth noting, even though it’s probably out of print by now, because most of the stories were read by actors, many of whom have appeared in Coen Bros. films, including Steve Buscemi, John Goodman, John Turturro, Matt Dillon and William H. Macy.

FURTHER INVESTIGATION

Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

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