‘Neptune Noir:’ Book Review

I never got around to writing a review of the Veronica Mars movie, but it’s good. I was a pretty big fan of the show, and I thought the Kickstarter campaign to fund the movie was pretty ingenious. But, I caught the movie at home on VOD (It’s currently on rotation on HBO, if you’ve still missed it.), and I thought a belated review would be of little consequence, as most fans would have already seen the movie. I was several days late and even more dollars short.

I’m a big fan of crime novels (When I read for fun, it’s usually crime fiction.), and I love film noir. I was also a high school English teacher at the time the series originally aired, so Veronica Mars was kind of a perfect storm of a high school-set noir for me. It was a kind of Buffy, but without all the supernatural elements. In fact, I’ve always thought that if time could be rearranged, Kristen Bell would have been a better fit to play Buffy than Gellar had been. If you’ve seen Frozen (I know you’ve likely heard it.), you know that Bell would have aced the vocal parts on “Once More with Feeling.”

But, I digress. The Mars movie was pretty good. It took it a while to get going, because it had to fill the audience in on what had happened to the characters over a ten-year span of time, but once it got rolling, I liked it a lot. If fans of the show haven’t checked out the movie yet, you should. It’s currently on rotation on HBO; you can catch up with it after that hilarious knee-slapper, The Leftovers.

One of the really cool things that came out of the interest in the movie is the publication of some Veronica Mars novels. Rob Thomas, the show’s creator, was a published novelist prior to writing for television, and creating a series of mystery paperback novels featuring these characters seemed as natural a way of keeping things going as Joss Whedon’s Buffy Season Eight comic kept that world going. So far, there are two of those books if you’re interested. No matter what happens with future movies, it’s nice to know that Veronica can live on in a medium totally suited to the world of the show.

The book I am reviewing isn’t one of those novels, so don’t be confused. The book I’m reviewing is Neptune Noir: Unauthorized Investigations into Veronica Mars. Like Buffy before it, Veronica Mars is a television series that has spawned an academic cottage industry, though not nearly as massive as the one analyzing the Slayer. Neptune Noir is a collection of essays dealing with many facets of the show: theme; character; story structure; setting; and noir influences. The nice thing here is the book was edited by Rob Thomas himself; however, like a lot of these kinds of collections, it’s a decidedly mixed bag. Some of the essays give some interesting insight into the show, while some detail how the scripts followed traditional story structure.

The collection opens with a pretty great essay by Thomas himself about how difficult it is to make good television and how Veronica came to be. It’s fun and insightful and a very good read.

I was concerned right away after reading Thomas’ fine introduction. The first essay is called "Welcome to Camp Noir,” and it’s very problematic in my opinion. First, the central premise argues that Veronica Mars was camp. I would argue that it wasn’t anything really close to camp. Second, the writer (Lani Diane Rich) seemed to write as if she prepped by reading nothing by fan posts on Ain’t It Cool for weeks. I was worried that the entire thing would be unironic fandom nonsense. Luckily, things do pick up.

For instance, I very much liked Evelyn Vaughn’s essay, “Veronica Mars. Girl. Detective.” It very knowingly details how the tropes of hard-boiled noir were worked into the show and yet bent to fit the frame of a show that was about a high school detective. It reminded me of Rian Johnson’s film, Brick, which is also noir set in high school. What Thomas has done is to bend the noir aspects to fit more realistically into a high school setting while Johnson’s film doesn’t, resulting in an extremely stylized movie. Johnson’s style, with modern-day high school kids using arcane terms like they just stepped out of a Chandler novel, would get old week in and week out.

Joyce Millman’s essay, “Daddy’s Girl,” explores Veronica’s relationship with her father Keith. Veronica and her father were the spine of the show in the same way Buffy’s relationship with Giles really held that series together. (I’m a big believer that one of the reasons the last two seasons of Buffy are as mostly unsatisfying as they are is Tony Head wanting to scale down his involvement with the show.)

In fact, two recurring themes kept coming up in these essays. One was Veronica and her relationships with the men in her life. I never really thought about the similarities between Keith and Logan, in terms of temperament and the way they express their anger. The essays point out the show tended to shoot and position Keith and Logan in similar ways, something I never noticed before. Veronica would often be in shots where Keith and Logan would simply be swapped out. Second was the use of Neptune as a classic noir location. It may have been swimming pools and millionaires on the glossy surface, but it certainly had an underbelly. As Veronica says in the pilot episode, you were either a millionaire or you worked for the millionaire – Neptune was a town without a middle class. Frequent references were made between Veronica Mars and the noir films of Billy Wilder, specifically Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard.

(FILM) SPOILERS BELOW

The book was published by Smart Pop Books before the completion of the recent film, so none of its events get looked at, which would have been interesting when you consider how the movie ends, with Veronica rejecting a stable career as a New York lawyer to return home to Neptune and troll the shadows there.

The nice thing about the academic approaches to beloved TV series is they allow us to understand shows better than we did at the time. It’s fun to have those moments when you cock your head to the side like a Labrador and realize, “Huh, I never realized that before.” As Rob Thomas states in the introduction, it’s really, really hard to make good television. The good essays in books like this one help understand how rare it really is.

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