12/13/14 CAN THERE BE A MARYLAND NOIR? The first time I went on the Late Last Night Books website I thought the site may have been devoted to noir because of the nighttime cityscape that, at the time, was used with the logo. But that turned out not to be the case. The nighttime motif is “because so much reading, writing, and living happens after-hours,” although there are hints of the noir genre beginning to appear on LLNB. Pallas Snider Ziporyn, our guest blogger in November, is the author of A Cappella Drug Lord, a story involving a Yale a cappella group becoming cocaine mules in a mash-up of Breaking Bad and Glee. Sounds like noir to me.
So what is this genre called noir, and when did it begin?
Noir fiction is defined as dark, involving crime, and often with unhappy endings, and is frequently confused with its cousin genre, the hardboiled detective stories. While language and themes are similar, the noir protagonist will be a victim, a suspect, or the perpetrator of the crime. In the hardboiled genre the protagonist will be on the side of the law, as a police officer or a private investigator. This is as defined by the purist. What we are seeing today is the dropping of the hardboiled label as the detectives, loaded down with self-destructive qualities and horrid character flaws, slide into noir as their genre of choice. The first books that pop up on Goodreads Noir Fiction shelf are Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, and Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, but of course with detectives like Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade running the show, they are technically of the hardboiled genre. Characters in noir are going to be motivated by most of the things found in the seven deadly sins: wrath, greed, pride, lust, and envy for sure, and some talented writer could probably make a noir story adding sloth and gluttony, as depicted in the screenplay for the movie, Seven.
Annapolis born and Washington College alum James M. Cain opened the door for American noir fiction in 1934 with the publication of The Postman Always Rings Twice, followed in 1943 with Double Indemnity. Jim Thompson appeared next, writing over thirty novels in the late-1940s through mid-1950s. His novels, The Killer Inside Me, and Pop.1280, are noted for a sheriff as the protagonist, but they are very far from being good guys. Patricia Highsmith appeared on the noir scene in 1950 with the publication of Strangers on a Train, and later, The Talented Mr. Ripley. An amazing skill of Ms. Highsmith is her ability to have you cheering for a psychopath like Tom Ripley, as he eludes detection.
In the 1990’s James Elroy revived noir fiction with works like The Black Dahlia and L.A. Confidential, along with Elmore Leonard and his massive body of work.
Today we see experimentation with noir literature. Don Winslow’s Savages and its prequel, The Kings of Cool, open with pretty vulgar and insulting exclamations, but directed at whom— the reader? His overall style is more expository than anything else. Kiss Me Judas, by Will Christopher Baer, is a dark tale of a contemporary urban legend told in a jolting style that makes the reader feel like he is on drugs.
The current Queen of Noir is surely Gillian Flynn. She has to be the literary spawn of Patricia Highsmith. She is most noted for Gone Girl, but don’t overlook her first two novels, Sharp Objects, and Dark Places. Like Highsmith, you shouldn’t be rooting for Flynn’s protagonists, but you will.
Noir is now country specific. Ken Bruen leads a large field of Irish Noir writers. Mostly noted for his Jack Taylor series, my personal preference is American Skin. The protagonist, with IRA connections, makes his way to New York, and then the Southwest, where he collides with an American psychopath. Another favorite Irish writer of mine is Tana French. Her first novel, In the Woods, won an Edgar for Best First Novel.
Scandinavian Noir, also referred to as Nordic Noir, made headlines with Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and from there the regional genre took off like a rocket. Another advantage to reading Scandinavian Noir is you get a geography lesson. Larsson’s trilogy takes place in Sweden. Jo Nesbo and his Harry Hole series (my favorite is the standalone, Headhunters) take place in Norway. Peter Hoeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow is Denmark based. James Thompson (an American expat living in Finland and not to be confused with the Jim Thompson mentioned earlier) takes us inside Finland’s Arctic Circle with his dark novel, Snow Angels.
So that brings me back to my subject, Maryland Noir. Recently a reviewer of Gary Garth McCann’s novel, The Man Who Asked To Be Killed, referred to it as “Maryland Noir,” hence the inspiration for this article. Gary’s story is set in Annapolis, and his protagonist is a lawyer and cousin of a Maryland governor. We can’t forget about my two novels, Aquarius Falling and Capricorn’s Collapse, stories of a young man involved in prostitution and cocaine dealing in Ocean City, and later as a mob accountant, skulking between D.C., and Baltimore’s Little Italy and Fells Point.
With James M. Cain leading the way, there is just no reason not to have Maryland Noir!