The Edgar Awards Revisited: Mr. White’s Confession by Robert Clark (Best Novel, 1999)
By Angie BarryNovember 15, 2019
Two things that never go out of style: historical mysteries and gritty noirs. Combine the two and you have 1999's Best Novel.
Some things just never go out of style.
And the further we get, the more people like to look back. Folks will always love to romanticize the past; put it up on a pedestal as if it was better or more exciting than the turbulent, messy present. Since the past is an open book to us, we can cherry-pick which bits to remember. We can ignore all of the sordid nastiness and put a golden sheen on the parts we like.
So it’s no wonder that historical mysteries are evergreen. Hell, I’ll readily admit they’re my favorite subgenre.
Something else that’s never gone out of style: the noir. Oh, sometimes it gets dressed up differently: the neo-noirs of Michael Mann, lit by neon, the clothes all blocky pastels; Shane Black’s takes, like Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang and The Last Boy Scout, ultra-violent and profanity-laced; even the cyber-noirs of The Matrix and Dark City, with inhuman baddies and superpowered heroes.
But at their heart, all noirs are fundamentally the same, with their femme fatales, deeply nasty (often masochistic) villains, broken protagonists, and world-weary ennui. And when it comes to contemporary traditional noirs—those made today yet set in the style’s original heyday of the 20s-40s—you get a historical mystery that, far from shiny and golden, is rather paradoxical.
Because noirs are inherently gritty. Everything is grey chiaroscuro, from the atmosphere to the characters, wreathed in smoke, the light ventilated by Venetian blinds. Unlike so many other historical stories, they’re the antithesis of cozy. Noir never turns a blind eye to the nastiness of humanity.
All of this is to say: it’s unsurprising that Robert Clark’s Mr. White’s Confession won the 1999 Edgar. It’s a nearly immaculate noir. Not that it’s without flaws, mind you, but it’s a perfect example of the style, with its achingly lonely and beaten-down characters, police corruption, morally grey protagonists, allusions to Hollywood glamour, and a pitch-perfect sense of place and time.
Plenty in Confession is familiar. The murdered dime-a-dance girls were young and beautiful, dreaming of becoming movie starlets, brutally cut down. The prime suspect, Mr. Herbert White, with a passion for movies and photography, is a strange, awkward outcast. Lt. Wesley Horner, the detective assigned to the case, is creeping up on middle-age; he’s tired and empty following the disappearance of his teenage daughter and wife’s death from cancer. The detectives in Vice are dirtier than hell, eager to frame a patsy to quickly close a case and reap the accolades from the city. And the dialogue is as hardboiled as it comes.
“You got it kind of made, don’t you? Being a policeman?”
“Oh, yeah, it’s swell. All the free ham sandwiches and weak coffee I want. Sitting parked in cars in the dark. Visiting the fine folks up in Shacktown. Meeting people from all walks of life, some of them rapists and killers, some of them just flat-out dead.”
“If it’s so bad, why don’t you do something else?”
Wesley got out his cigarettes. He didn’t think to offer the girl another, nor did she ask, and he struck a match and lit one. “It’s a little late now. I’ve been doing this for more years than you got birthdays. And I suppose now I’m what they’d say is an expert in my field. I got a line in misery and wickedness like Carter’s got pills.”
They began to walk again, and Maggie said, “Kind of seems like the way you see it, it’s too late for anything at all.”
“Maybe. But I’d just as soon avoid surprises anyhow.”
Clark obviously has an ear for the time period and does a masterful job recreating 1939 Saint Paul. If Confession merely followed Horner and his investigation, it would be a solid enough story.
What elevates Clark’s noir is the titular character himself. Herbert White is hardly a stock caricature. He’s strange and a little off-putting, yes, a large and physically imposing man who moves oddly and interacts with the world with difficulty thanks to birth defects.
He also has a peculiar memory: he can recall things from the distant past of his childhood rather well, but when it comes to the middle and foreground, he struggles. To that end, he compiles dozens of scrapbooks and maintains a daily diary in order to keep track of his comings and goings, the people he interacts with, his thoughts and wishes and dreams.
I think it is that—the particular incandescence or luminosity—that I love about the pictures most, and I will watch almost anything to see it. It is as though the world thus illuminated—as if from within itself—is more real than what we ordinarily see; as though it is the world as perhaps it truly is. And if a picture is in Technicolor, as of course the truly special ones now tend to be, so much the better. For it seems to me that those colors—whereby a girl’s hair appears truly to be spun gold and her lips the hue of a plum and the sun that lights them is bright as an egg yolk—must be the world’s “true colors” (if I may make a pun) and now the dull and murky shades our vision usually grants us. That is what the movies reveal to us—that and, I suppose, memories for those of us who have no memories—and I see no reason to believe that it is not so.
Thanks to White’s diary entries and many letters, Confession is an unusual hybrid: both noir and epistolary novel. In fact, the last section is almost entirely epistolary. With White’s philosophic, frequently poetic musings on the nature of memory, humanity, love, and faith, Clark created a surprisingly literary story.
Noir is often more about style than substance; more about connecting the necessary dots, fulfilling the expected tropes, than diving deeper. Mr. White’s Confession takes the form to the next level, pushing it past expectations.
Of course, this being noir, it’s also an exceedingly heavy, dreary, and depressing tale. There are no clear-cut victories here. No rosy happy endings. Wish fulfillment entertainment this is not.
But the awards committee knew quality when they saw it, and anyone passionate about noir would agree that Clark certainly earned that Edgar. Coming directly after L.A. Confidential—another traditional noir that took home a bevy of awards and blockbuster bucks—and before Memento, with its own philosophic musings on the nature of memory and violence, Mr. White’s Confession shows we’ll never stop being drawn to both murder or the past.
Notes from the 1999 Edgar Awards:
- Clark’s fellow nominees included J. Wallis Martin (A Likeness in Stone), Robert Goddard (Beyond Recall), Michael Connelly (Blood Work), and Domenic Stansberry (The Last Days of Il Duce).
- Grand dame—and real-life baroness—P.D. James was the Grand Master.
- Wendelin Van Draanen’s Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief beat out Louis Sachar’s Holes and Kathryn Lasky’s Alice Rose & Sam for Best Juvenile.
- Best First Novel went to Steve Hamilton for A Cold Day in Paradise.
- The Ellery Queen Award went to editor Sara Ann Freed.
- He may be best-known for his wildly successful Percy Jackson fantasy series, but Rick Riordan was a mystery author first—he won the Best Paperback Original for The Widower’s Two-Step.
- Scott Frank took home Best Motion Picture Screenplay for Out of Sight (an adaptation of the book by the immortal Elmore Leonard).
- The Raven went to Steven Bochco, the television writer/producer behind Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, NYPD Blue and, yes, Doogie Howser, M.D.
We’ll see everyone back here next week as we enter the new millennium and John Valeri checks back in to review Bones by Jan Burke, the 2000 Edgar Award winner of Best Novel. See you then!
A special thanks goes out to The Mysterious Bookshop for donating many of the review copies of the award-winning books. For the latest on all new releases, as well as classic books for your collections, make sure to sign up for their newsletter.