A STUDY IN NOIR
I have been invited to read at a phenomenon that is swirling through at least the darker, dirtier urban landscapes of the world: the much celebrated Noir at the Bar.
New Orleans has them, and LA, of course. Ireland, Glasgow. You’ll find them in England, Philadelphia, Seattle, New York, Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver. I gave up checking who has them and who doesn’t. None that I could find in Hawaii, in my brief investigations—or in Iceland, the very heart of neo-noir—go figure.
The one I’ll be reading at is in my old neighborhood: Gastown, Vancouver, British Columbia—Blood Alley, the area is called (no time to get into the terrifying name right now)—down some stairs and in the back, at the Shebeen (translation: speakeasy) Whiskey House.
This will be my first time at a noir podium, and I want to do it well. I want to fit in. But I’ve been reading Vancouver noir heavyweights Sam Wiebe and Dietrich Kalteis recently, and just this week I caught a captivating post by Harley Mazuk on what noir means to him, and to tell the truth, I’m beginning to feel more blue-gray than noir. Are even the darkest passages from Undertow noir enough for the awesome Shebeen? What is noir? How strict is the dress code, and what do ardent noir fans do to trespassers?
So that’s my challenge here, to touch the surface of what is noir writing, first from my newbie POV, and then get a little guidance from some vets in the genre.
To me, a noir writer is passionate about his or her city. There are wafts of nostalgia and romance, but not much prettiness in the prose. The characters are as scary and touching as a ride through skid row. The endings aren’t neat. The human flaw takes a lead role. There is so much contrast it can make you squint, the shadows set off by breathtaking gleams of light. There is violence, of course there is, but the plot is never about a kidnapped daughter of a president, with confetti at the end.
What about the future of noir? To Mazuk, noir belongs where it was born, home in the big-city smoky bars of bygone days, but can it also pervade a small prairie town in the era of the cell phone, or even shoot into the future? Can noir board a spaceship?
How many shades of noir are there? One or two? Fifty?
I asked Dietrich Kalteis, Sam Wiebe, and Harley Mazuk—those no-nonsense authors mentioned above—to tell me what they consider the essentials of primo noir, and this is what they had to say:
Noir is all things dark and gritty. Its stories range from hard-boiled to screwball, with a focus on the gutter of society. And noir isn’t interested in the good guys winning; its heroes are desperate, flawed, and marginal. Bad luck and worse decisions and lose-lose situations. Noir is Elmore Leonard, George V. Higgins, Jean-Claude Izzo, Patricia Highsmith, Don Winslow, James Ellroy, and James Crumley.
(Ride the White Lightning, The Deadbeat Club, Triggerfish, House of Blazes, Zero Avenue)
“Dark crime fiction” is as good a definition of noir as any. Part of its appeal, to me at least, is that it’s about the consequences of violence: how violence breaks into the everyday, disrupting things, uncovering secrets and desires. Noir is less about gruesome murders than the effect murder has on people who think they’ll never be victims or perpetrators—people a lot like us.
(Last of the Independents, Invisible Dead, Cut you Down)
The primo noir story opens in a bleak, dark setting, with plenty of shadows and an undercurrent of danger. The plot centers around a doomed or desperate protagonist and other characters who have immoral urges (like greed or lust) that they can’t control and may not understand. Things go downhill from there.
(White with Fish, Red with Murder)
Interesting. Distilled from all this is something to consider, but it would take a page of its own: is noir predominantly male domain? I won’t get into that here, and maybe it’s self-evident enough. But it’s been really interesting hashing this out, and after hearing from these guys, I think I do know better where I stand on the gray scale, and no longer fear the podium.
I’ll close with ghosts. Who would you like to have read at your local pub on Noir Night? I know Dashiell Hammett will get a big vote. For me, Ed McBain, sure. Elmore Leonard, standing room only. And I’d love to see and hear Conan Doyle read the Adventure of the Creeping Man, or Ruth Rendell describe the dropping of rocks onto cars from an overpass.
If noir lies in the eye of the beholder, what do you behold?