Psychopomps and Two-Bit Keyhole Peepers

by Ian Tregillis

“When God Sits in Your Lap” [on sale now!] is set in a near-future world I first imagined for my novel Something More Than Night, wherein a (very) minor fallen angel named Bayliss is charged with investigating the murder of the angel Gabriel. The novel opens decades after Kessler syndrome has sequestered humans from the rest of the solar system and, by extension, the greater universe—an event loaded with metaphysical significance, though of course the mortals don’t realize it. This story takes place about a generation earlier, on the very night the Kessler cascade begins.

For several years, I’d held in the back of my mind an inkling of what Bayliss was doing that night. Eventually I broke down and told myself that story, just to scratch the itch. I am overjoyed to share the result with readers of Asimov’s.

Needless to say, Bayliss and his world are a bit strange.

When I sat down to formulate the concept for Something More Than Night, I’d known for over twenty years that I wanted to write a mystery story set within the fantastical bestiary of a medieval angelic choir as might be envisioned by Christian scholars of the era. Not for any philosophical or spiritual reasons, but out of a purely mercenary desire to take advantage of those wonderful centuries-old eyeball kicks. After all, they’re just lying around free for the taking. Beings with six wings and four faces? Wheels covered in eyes? Flaming swords? My most fevered imagination could never compete with Angels, Archangels, Principalities, Powers, Virtues, Dominions, Thrones, Cherubim, and Seraphim. That’s one heck of a zoo.

Many years later, while watching Rian Johnson’s directorial debut, Brick, it occurred to me that a fun way to ratchet up the strangeness, albeit somewhat randomly, might be if one angel in the choir—but only one—spoke in the patois of a noir detective who might have stepped from the pages of a 1930 pulp novel. (And if the novel happens to take place in the near future, meaning nobody can understand what the hell he’s on about half the time . . . well, that’s just part of the fun.)

Bayliss’s low-rent Philip Marlowe shtick became not just a character affectation, but scaffolding for the entire novel. (Even the title, Something More Than Night, came from a somewhat ubiquitous quote by Raymond Chandler. The title of this story, “When God Sits in Your Lap,” is similarly inspired by a passage in Chandler’s famous essay on the mystery form, “The Simple Art of Murder.”)

Of course, it meant I had to learn the lingo. And that really was a challenge.

“That’s where a typical slang glossary comes to the rescue. They’re not very useful, though, when trying to write a noir pastiche—in that case, what you really need is a reverse-lookup glossary. Say you have a character who wants to admit they had a little too much to drink the night before: how might they have done so in a 1927 issue of Black Mask?”

There are a few short glossaries online (such as Twists, Slugs, and Roscoes and The Flapper’s Dictionary) and some related works in print (for instance, Max Décharné’s impressive and extensive Straight from the Fridge, Dad, a compendium of hipster slang that slightly post-dates the era I wanted to evoke), but these are geared toward readers. For instance, in the ninety years since Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon was first published, literal generations of readers have read the line, “How long have you been on the goose-berry lay, son?” and wondered what the hell it could possibly mean. That’s where a typical slang glossary comes to the rescue. They’re not very useful, though, when trying to write a noir pastiche—in that case, what you really need is a reverse-lookup glossary. Say you have a character who wants to admit they had a little too much to drink the night before: how might they have done so in a 1927 issue of Black Mask? (They didn’t have one too many and get drunk. They had a skinful and got tight, stinko, stiff, iced, shellacked, plastered, pie-eyed . . .)

At the time, I couldn’t find any such resource. So I created my own. The end result—after devouring the works of Hammett, Chandler, James M. Cain and others, perusing old newspapers and films, and frequently visiting World Wide Words—was an eighty-page reverse-lookup noir slang glossary organized by topic. Knowing I probably wasn’t the only writer faced with the reverse-lookup problem, I posted my glossary online after the novel was published. So if you’re wondering what the hell Bayliss is on about during his misadventure in “When God Sits in Your Lap,” you can peruse the glossary here.

I’m glad to know it’s been a useful resource for other writers, too. I periodically receive emails suggesting corrections, or additions, or asking if I’m familiar with a particular term absent from the glossary. Decoding hard-boiled lingo sometimes boils down to a best guess and nothing more; it’s not uncommon to come across terms that only appear in a single sentence in a single story.

In the course of studying that wonderful hard-boiled cant, I learned a little bit about how many of those old noir stories work. Raymond Chandler, for instance and in particular, tended to treat plot elements like Lego blocks. He had a set number of blocks which he rearranged from novel to novel and from story to story. Marlowe finds a dead body, Marlowe gets knocked out, Marlowe gets grilled by the bulls . . . The line between trope and cliché sometimes gets a bit thin in the noir world. (On the other hand, a noir pastiche can practically plot itself, and as far as I’m concerned that’s part of the fun.)

Chandler’s characterizations aren’t wildly diverse or widely nuanced, either. That’s true of much of the original genre in general, I venture. Women in particular tend to fall into one of three categories: puppyish virginal sylphs; deadly sexpots; and drunken harridans. Naturally, I couldn’t resist playing against those stovepiped and stereotyped gender roles when writing “When God Sits in Your Lap.” In the bog-standard formula, Bayliss’s client would almost certainly be a lady (usually version two, the dangerous-sexpot subvariant, though occasionally version one, the puppyish-virginal subvariant). So, too, the gold-digger, with both of them angling for a share of a man’s fortune. Nuts to that, I say.

(Despite these issues, I still think Chandler was an extraordinary craftsman. I reread the Marlowe novels for the sheer joy of his extraordinary prose. To swoon over lines like, “She gave him a look that should have stuck out his back four inches.” Sublime.)

As I came to recognize those Lego blocks, and maybe even understand them and the operations of the world they represent, the juxtaposition of Bayliss’s noir trappings against his Aquinas-ish milieu no longer seemed entirely random. I mean, they were chosen randomly owing to some undiagnosable pathology of my imagination. But one could argue that the combination actually makes sense. Or so I’ve managed to convince myself.

After all, doesn’t the archetypical pulp-noir detective function, just a little bit, like a psychopomp?

Think about it. What is a psychopomp but a guide to and through the afterlife, the underworld? The psychopomp is your companion, your escort, on a journey from a world you know—the world of life, the living—to a strange and unfamiliar world with its own rules and conventions and requirements, even its own hierarchy. A world that furthermore has always existed alongside the world you knew.

Now, say you find yourself requiring the services of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. What is your money buying? Knowledge of, and access to, a world unknown to you. Often, it’s the criminal underworld. You’re hiring the shop-soiled Galahad, to borrow Chandler’s phrase, because that person is conversant with a world that you, on your own, cannot navigate. Otherwise why would you need him? (Unless you’ve got some other game in play because you intend to play the keyhole-peeper for a sap. That’s a slightly different set of Lego blocks, but they come with the standard set.)

In “When God Sits in Your Lap,” Tom Darlington hires Bayliss without realizing any of this. But it still takes a psychopomp’s knowledge of an entirely different world to make sense of the situation. . . .

Eh. Maybe it’s all spaghetti, as Bayliss might say.

By day, Ian Tregillis is a theoretical physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory. By night, he is the author of seven critically acclaimed novels including the Milkweed Triptych (Bitter Seeds, The Coldest War, Necessary Evil) and the Alchemy Wars (The Mechanical, The Rising, The Liberation). Ian’s first tale for Asimov’s shares the same milieu as his angel-noir novel Something More Than Night. The author’s short fiction has appeared in F&SF, Popular Science, The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, and Best New Horror. He is a member of George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards consortium, and he penned six episodes of Serial Box’s The Witch Who Came in from the Cold. A 2005 graduate of the Clarion workshop, Ian lives in New Mexico with his playwright wife and their extremely spoiled cat.

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