"True Detective": A Pure Visual Novel

I spent the last ten days devouring everything by novelist and screenwriter Nic Pizzolatto, the sole author behind HBO’s magnificent True Detective. I got hooked on Pizzolatto’s writing within moments of finishing the first episode of this bleak, philosophical, and wry new mystery series about two cops investigating a serial killer in rural Louisiana.

Full disclosure: I’m terribly biased towards writers like Pizzolatto, who dwell in the psyches of lowlifes, fallen cops, hustlers, hookers, and never-weres. When done right, these characters are far more compelling than the ones you find in most literary fiction—urbane dentists and bankers preoccupied with success and vexed by marriage and family life.

Nic Pizzolatto
Nic Pizzolatto

“Something erupted at the Dowling Industrial factory and the gases are making our sunsets plum and plutonium orange,” Pizzolatto writes in short story, “Between Here and the Yellow Sea.” Meanwhile, the “hazy gold cordgrass” and “yawning” grain fields make the Texas landscape look like they were “cleared up with explosives.”

In another story, a former heroin addict is haunted by images of his girlfriend overdosing in the lavender bubble bath and “the purple bathwater” that covers their last night together. Fire makes two campers faces “orange and jumpy,” and feldspar twinkles “pink” and “polished as flesh.”

In Galveston—which Dennis Lehane described as an “incandescent fever dream of low-rent, unbearable beauty”—the podunk towns outside New Orleans are “scabbed with rust,” and the men wear “belt buckles the size of human hearts.”

True Detective is filled with same haunting imagery. It glows with superheated atmospherics: landscapes lit up with an atomic orange sun, an ocean-blue revival tent perched in the middle of electric saw grass, a bone-white refinery reaching like a skeletal hand into the sky. At first, you might think that this is the result of HBO recruiting a damn good cinematographer, which is likely true, but the haunting visual elements are also embedded in Pizzolatto’s work.

And wouldn’t you know, my hunch about Pizzolatto’s affinity colors and their supra-sensory effect was further confirmed by last week’s episode, “Locked Room,” when Detective Cohle explains to his bewildered blind date that he has synesthesia (something Karen Russell, author of the southern gothic Swamplandia!, is often diagnosed with by Goodreads commenters). Cohle describes the condition as: “It’s misalignment of synaptic receptors and triggers alkalis, colors, certain metallics. It’s a type of hypersensitivity. One sense triggers another sense. Sometimes I’ll see a color and it’ll put a taste in my mouth. A touch, a texture, a scent may put a note in my head.”

The camera drifts toward a sawdust-floor dance; a goldenrod glow of dance lights throbs. Throughout Pizzolatto’s work, the surfaces ripple.

Since the latest Golden Age of television kicked off with The Sopranos in 1999, there’s been chatter about television dramas evolving into visual novels. Talents like David Milch (Deadwood), David Chase (Sopranos), Matthew Weiner (Mad Men), Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad), and Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire) have certainly proved that a writer’s singular vision can be distilled through a writer’s room—with story arcs, side plots, and character voices delegated out to multiple staff writers. Now with talent like Pizzolatto, a novelist as the sole controller over an eight-episode series, we have reached a punctuated equilibrium between novelist and television series—a rare and rapid leap forward for the visual novel.

Natasha Vargas-Cooper is a journalist living in Los Angeles.