Commentary on “The Final Portrait”
Late next fall a one-act play of mine, “By the Stars of Saint Matthew,” will be produced by a local theatre company. Last spring the director and producer of the upcoming show, Joe Frenna, asked for several re-writes of the script. He liked the gangland setting, and the story of a World War One veteran feeling disconnected from society, but the lead character needed to be tougher. “Kip Haley’s a gangster. Don’t smooth away his rough edges.” He felt I was too concerned with making him likable.
I get it. I’m a product of 1980s workshops where we were taught to see the humanity in everybody. I’m a big fan of defamiliarization, making the ordinary moderately strange, searching for the misfit detail that creates complexities. Moreover, I never want to limit a character to one easily defined truth (he’s a bigot; she’s an idealist). Instead, I see dignity in all people and want to write flawed characters who can constantly delight and surprise readers with unexpected turns of behavior, creating what Grace Paley called “the open destiny of life.” But, I think Joe was right. I do have a tendency, in my quest for complexities, to lean into the “good” of people.
Hayden Fuller for the most part is a decent person. His appearance—clean shaven; buzz cut; pressed shirt, chinos and leather jacket—gives off a 1950s Eisenhower-era conservatism, but he’s at heart a liberal who cares about social justice and righting wrongs. But in “The Final Portrait” something happened in the final scene that surprised me. No spoilers here. Read the yarn. But let’s just say, as I was also revising “By the Stars of the Stars of Saint Matthew” and discovering the darkness within Kip Haley, I found some shadows of sadism in Hayden Fuller. I’m not saying the ending is full-blown Spillane/Mike Hammer avenging angel stuff, but—
Well you be the judge.
Most of Raymond Chandler’s finer stories from Farewell my Lovely to The Long Goodbye to the underrated “Killer in the Rain” end with a mood of pyrrhic resignation: the world is a tough place and the hero, exhausted and suffering great emotional weight, surrenders: he doesn’t give in to the darkness, but the mean streets take their toll on his psyche.
There’s a lot of Chandler in “The Final Portrait” (from the plot’s emphasis on blackmail; high society; and double-crosses), but this time around I don’t share Marlowe’s spirit of resignation. Instead, in this yarn, there’s more anger and disdain toward the rich and their excesses.
It’s Hayden Fuller in a different key.
I hope you liked it.
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Grant Tracey teaches creative writing and film, and is an editor of North American Review. A master of the literary story, he began his Hayden Fuller Mystery series in 2016 with his debut novel Cheap Amusements (Twelve Winters Press). In 2021, the series continued with Five Hard Bites. Other recent detective fiction has appeared in Tough and Groovy Gumshoes. Read an interview with Grant.