Posted by Fran Wilde on Mar 6, 2013 in Apex Publications Blog: Matters of SF, Fantasy, and Horror | 0 comments
For my inaugural Apex blog post, I’m going try something completely different from my usual nattering. No food essays. No tech widgetry. Just pure, unabashed cluelessness.
It’s Noir Month at Apex Publications.
And I know next-to-nothing about the genre except that I like reading it.
Noir quite often but not always involves a crime and a detective or their narrative stand ins. How is this evolving? What do you keep in your noir toolbag and what do you leave in the past?
I don’t know if I’d call it “evolving,” exactly, as much as an identifiable set of parameters that are still in play, still viable, sixty years later. Those would include a male lead who thinks he’s running the show, when in fact he’s being played, usually by the woman he’s fallen for (see, for example, James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity) You can write a lot of stories just from that one element. You can even trade on it, as David Goodis did in his novel, Dark Passage, making it a terrific point of tension with a narrator (and any reader familiar with the genre) who can’t help but assume the woman who is helping him out must be setting him up. Just about every other woman in his life has set him up at one time or another.
The noir “voice” of the ’40s and ’50s is, to a great extent, forever in the past—in particular the “hard-boiled detective” narrator. I think Hammett and Chandler worked that voice so well, so distinctively, that you can only parody it now. Something like Jonathan Lethem’s Gun with Occasional Music comes to mind.
Much of today’s noir does retain many of the elements that originally defined noir—both the mood or atmosphere conveyed by the visual elements that were an essential part of film noir, as well as nonvisual elements, like the fatale (femme or otherwise) and the luckless investigator, doomed by his circumstances, his appetites, and often his moral code. But plenty of today’s noir departs from noir conventions in significant ways. While there does seem to be a crime of some sort at the center of most noir, usually a murder, there often is no detective, no one trying to solve the crime. Instead, there are often different factions, different players each working different angles, trying to come out of a (usually grim and often worsening) situation on top. The tension is not between right and wrong, but between different versions of wrong that would benefit different people. Right often isn’t on the table.
In fact, more and more, that element of unavoidable doom is seen as a defining element of noir. Duane Swierczynski once defined noir most succinctly as a state of being “fucked.”
In my writing, I tend to pick and choose between the elements of noir. My main characters tend to share the jaded and cynical world view that is common in noir, and I am a sucker for wisecracking hard-boiled detective, as long as it’s not poured on too thick. But I also tend to show my characters a little more mercy than most true noir writers. Perhaps that’s to leave the door open for sequels, or because I like my characters too much. Maybe I’m just squeamish.
One element that is often found in noir that I try to avoid is the inevitably doomed, final bad decision dictated by an inflexible moral code that so often leads to so many unhappy endings for so many noir protagonists. Maybe my protagonists are less morally rigid, but I have a hard time asking them to make decisions that will obviously doom them. Instead of finishing that one bit of unfinished business, that one last thing that would align the world in one hundred percent accordance with their moral view, my characters would say, “Ninety percent is close enough. I’m going to take the money and the girl and go to that sunny place I have been talking about for the whole story.” Or the equivalent.
I don’t always go for the outright fairy tale happy ending, but I usually end up tossing them a bone. After all, I have to live with these people.
What do supernatural elements add to noir? How do they complicate things?
I’m assuming you refer here to my story in Ellen Datlow’s Supernatural Noir, “The Dingus.” The supernatural element had to be part of the world of the 1950s that the story is set in. So in effect the supernatural element was also noirish—dark and uncertain, as is the survival of my narrator. By the way he is not a detective. He’s a former boxing trainer who’s lost his license and now drives a cab. The supernatural element is the catalyst that sets everything in motion, and it’s a complication that nobody in the story save our femme fatale sees coming. And the title, of course, is itself a reference to a work of noir, The Maltese Falcon.
What is the role of “the body” in noir?
I think that even in most nontraditional noir, there tends to be a body, or a body-to-be, driving the story.
Noir became very popular following WW II. Is this a Hollywood-driven phenomenon? Is it harder to write noir than to convey it in film?
I grew up on film noir. In fact I was exposed to it before I knew it had a name, before I appreciated it was a recognizable phenomenon. But it seems to me, many of those early noir films are based on novels—on Hammett and Cain and Goodis, for instance—so it seems to me the dark swirlings were literary to begin with but emerged in cinema as something visually ominous, thick with blackness and a bleak outlook. I don’t think it’s harder to write noir fiction than to convey it in film. The aesthetic is pretty well defined, and anybody can pick up those elements and use them, even take them out of the definably noir, as writers like Paul Auster, Thomas Pynchon, and Michael Chabon have done.
Initially, noir was definitely a film genre first and foremost, but while the film genre has largely died away, the fiction genre is thriving. It is probably that transition from film to prose that has led to the de-emphasis on the visual elements of noir, and the ascendance of the character and plot elements. I certainly wouldn’t say it is harder (especially since I am not a film maker) but I would definitely say it is different.
What are your favorite noir stories?
Just about anything David Goodis wrote. Jim Thompson’s novels. The British author Derek Raymond, whose “Factory” series is the Hieronymus Bosch vision of “noir”—there’s nothing darker out there. And of course the various [City] Noir anthologies from Akashic Books, including Philadelphia Noir. Some excellent stories in those.
I am partial to the work of Dennis Tafoya and Scott Phillips.
What do you think would make a great new noir story ?
If I told you that, then I couldn’t write it, and neither could McGoran.
Gregory Frost is the author of novels including the Shadowbridge series (Del Rey) and Fitcher’s Brides (Tor). His short stories have appeared most recently in Supernatural Noir (Ellen Datlow, ed.) and Apex Magazine. He’s director of the fiction writing workshop at Swarthmore College.
Jon McGoran is the author of Drift, debuting July 2013 (Tor Forge). Writing as D.H. Dublin, Jon is the author of the forensic crime thrillers Freezer Burn, Blood Poison, and Body Trace (Penguin Books).
From Modern Noir Master Tom Piccirilli
Screenwriter Tommy Pic fell hard from Hollywood success and landed in a psychiatric ward, blacked out from booze and unmedicated manic depression. This is not the first time he’s come to in restraints, surrounded by friends and family who aren’t there.
This time, though, he also awakes to a message from his agent. The first act of his latest screenplay is their ticket back to the red carpets. If only Tommy could remember writing it. Trying to recapture the hallucinations that crafted his masterpiece, he chases his kidnapped childhood love, a witch from the magic shop downstairs, and the Komodo dragon he tried to cut out of his gut one Christmas Eve. The path to professional redemption may be more dangerous than the fall.
…This is what makes you die.
Fran Wilde writes speculative fiction, poetry, and things in between. She is a submissions editor for Apex Magazine and hosts a food and genre fiction interview series called Cooking the Books.