A Devil Under the Skin is the latest of Anya Lipska’s (a pseudonym for a British writer) noir-ish crime thrillers set in East London, featuring Janusz Kiszka, the go-to guy and fixer to London’s Poles – and a man with a Trabant-load of baggage from his youth in Communist-era Poland. Asked about Polish crime fiction Lipska told the Independent that it was marked by ‘a big anti-authoritarian streak, a satirical sense of humour, a romantic enjoyment of melancholy, and a preoccupation with the past’. As her cinematic alter ego she chooses Jake Gittes, in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. Eithne Farry
Like most writers, I don’t have much of a clue where my characters come from, but now and again I recognise someone or something that has left a lasting thumbprint on my writing. One of them is Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of Jake Gittes in Chinatown: it burrowed under my skin and ultimately found its way into the DNA of my own fictional detective.
Jake is the kind of hero I can identify with. An ex-cop who drags round a guilty conscience from a case that went wrong, apparently leading to an innocent woman’s death, he’s now a sleazy private eye specialising in ‘matrimonial’ cases. He’s cynical and crude, and doesn’t hesitate to dish out violence to men and women who stand in his way. Yet Jake’s flaws make him as battered and appealing as an old leather suitcase.
Jake never becomes a cardboard cut-out hero. As he’s drawn into investigating a fishy business involving water rights and high-level corruption in Orange County, we sense that he’s in way over his head. Just like real people, he is by turn funny and determined, smart and fallible. For me it was a directorial stroke of genius to have Jake spend several scenes, after he gets slashed by one of the bad guys, wearing a comedy nose bandage – it’s a powerful symbol of wounded yet defiant masculinity.
If Chinatown were the standard-issue blockbuster, Jake would ultimately conquer the forces of evil: he’d nail the bad guy and get the girl. Polanski had to fight for his much darker vision – the tragic denouement that turned Chinatown from a good movie into a masterpiece. Jake fails. He hasn’t dispelled the past – he has only repeated it.