Writing Craft: Defining Noir

I love noir. It contains or shares elements of various genres I am drawn to and tend to write in, like disturbed and unusual psychological issues, dystopian themes, hard-boiled character-driven drama, brutal honesty, and gritty realism when it comes to the human condition. I selected several stories from The Best American Noir of the Century, a 731-page short story anthology edited by James Ellroy and Otto Penzler, for this craft-base blog entry.

The anthology is filled with so many great authors and stories I had a hard time deciding where to begin. As the anthology is assembled chronologically by publishing dates, I settled on the earliest works, ranging from 1923 to 1952, to determine what common threads exist between these various stories that classify them as noir. Otto Penzler explains in the Foreword, “noir … is virtually impossible to define, but everyone thinks they know it when they see it. Like many other certainties, it is often wildly inaccurate.” I love this fact about this genre. Its definition seems to reside somewhere in our collective subconscious, an area where the darker side of humanity dwells and occasionally surfaces to disrupt everyday life. Penzler finished the Foreword by saying, “If you find light and hilarity in these pages, I strongly recommend a visit to a mental health professional.” I wouldn’t say I found anything light and hilarious, but I was fascinated by these stories.

Penzler’s statements issued a challenge: what defines noir and makes it so appealing? After reading the stories from Tod Robbins, James M. Cain, Steve Fisher, MacKinlay Kantor, Day Keene, Dorothy B. Hughes, Howard Browne, and Mickey Spillane, the common thread I found was a casual attitude toward death: either the thoughts of killing, driving someone to suicide, or following through with emotionally charged murder, with or without remorse.

In Tod Robbins’s “Spurs,” the short story that was the basis for the controversial 1933 film Freaks, Jacques Courbé, a seemingly harmless circus-performing dwarf, is capable of breaking his wife’s vitality and spirit in exchange for her teasing during their circus wedding and subsequent plans for his wealth. The beautiful, strong, and talented Jeanne Marie only married him for his inherited fortune, he quickly found out. She found him to be a joke as she was determined to keep him at bay and eventually cause his death and take ownership of his inheritance. A year after marriage when the circus was back in town, Jeanne Marie runs to the aid of her old boyfriend the charming bareback rider Simon Lafleur, the “circus Romeo,” to whom she planned to return to after Courbé was dead. Courbé, with the help of his wolf-dog companion whom was also his performance partner and mode of transportation, tracked them down and killed Lafleur.

M. Jaques Courbé cleansed his sword on a kerchief of lace, dismounted, and approached Jeanne Marie. She was still crouching on the floor, her eyes closed, her head held tightly between both hands. The dwarf touched her imperiously on the broad shoulder which had so often carried him.
“Madame,” he said, “we now can return home. You must be more careful hereafter. Ma foi, it is an ungentlemanly business cutting the throats of stable boys!”

In the 1946 story “The Homecoming,” by Dorothy B. Hughes, a strong jealous rage causes the protagonist, Benny, to kill his girlfriend Nan and an old war hero boyfriend who visits her after returning home from Korea. The whole story is focused on Benny’s jealously of Jim, the celebrated war hero and popular kid from high school, as he walks to Nan’s home, climaxing in their unintended deaths. At least he thought the murders were unintentional, despite carrying a gun to the home with the intention to put Jim in his place.

There were lights in most of the houses. You’d think the neighbors would have heard all the noise. Would have come running out to see what was going on. They probably thought it was the radio.

They should have come. If they had come, they’d have stopped him. He didn’t want to kill anyone. He didn’t want even to kill Jim. Just to scare him off. Just give him a scare.

She couldn’t be dead. She couldn’t be, she couldn’t be, she couldn’t be. He sobbed the words into the wind and the dark and the dead brown leaves.

Mickey Spillane’s 1953 story “The Lady Says Die!” portrays a story of a wildly successful Wall Street broker, Duncan, an otherwise good man, who exacts revenge upon an old schoolmate and rival Walter Harrison who took his fiancée away from him through a course of one-upmanship and married her for a short time. He reveals to a detective over drinks his desires and the course of events that led to Walter’s death.

God, how I hated that man! I used to dream of killing him! Do you know, if ever my mind drifted from the work I was doing, I always pictured myself standing over his corpse with a knife in my hand, laughing my head off.

Playing off his rival’s weakness of getting everything he desired, a well-planned series of seemingly causal and innocent events drives Walter to suicide on the anniversary of the date he had stolen Duncan’s fiancée.

Interestingly, one story in this selection had self-awareness for the noir genre, in that human death could not occur as one might suspect. “Gun Crazy,” published in 1940 by MacKinlay Kantor, follows the life of Neslon Tare, who is obsessed with guns from the age of six. He develops amazing dexterity and shooting accuracy, eventually giving way to becoming an outlaw robbing banks and using his trick shooting skills to his advantage to evade capture. The twist, as is revealed by the characters who know him best having grown up with him, is that he cannot hurt a single living soul, he is incapable of shooting people or even rabbits during a hunting trip as a kid. This weakness leads to his eventual capture and imprisonment, and no one, surprisingly, dies.

“You’ll Always Remember Me,” by Steve Fisher, published in 1938, was perhaps the most disturbing of the stories I read. Told in the first person, the 14-year-old protagonist Martin Thorpe reveals his penchant for torturing and killing, both animals and humans. He has a history of being thrown out of schools for causing problems, only accepted into the current military school because his father is wealthy and paid double tuition. He feels remorse for the older brother of his girlfriend about to be executed for his father’s murder, the central theme of the story. However, Duff Ryan, a young detective, senses Thorpe is behind the murder, using a gruesome tactic to prove his suspicions.

Duff walks Thorpe to a chapel on the school campus discussing his violent past school records, beginning the conversation that they had a job to do, to “kill a kitten,” one that had been severely injured by a car and Duff kept alive with an injection to reduce pain for this scene.

I could see the funny twist of his smile there in the moonlight. His face looked pale and somehow far away. He looked at the cat and petted it some more. I was still shaking. Scared, I guess.

He said, “Too bad we have to kill you, kitten, but it’s better than that pain.”

Then, all at once I thought he had gone mad. He swung the cat around and began batting its head against the pillar in the chapel. I could see the whole thing clearly in the moonlight, his arm swinging back and forth, the cat’s head being battered off, the bright crimson blood spurting all over.

He kept on doing it and my temples began to pound. My heart went like wildfire. I wanted to reach over and help him. I wanted to take that little cat and squeeze the living guts out of it. I wanted to help him smash its brains all over the chapel. I felt dizzy. Everything was going around. I felt myself reaching for the cat. 

With the awareness that Duff was testing him, he manages to restrain himself and not partake in the cat’s killing. Soon after, Thorpe is able to act on his desire to kill, when he pushes Pushton, a younger kid who plays the bugle each morning, out of a dormitory window to his death. Thorpe is eventually caught for the murder of his girlfriend’s father and takes pride in the fact that he cannot go to prison or be executed because of his young age, reform school was his only punishment. To his frustration however, no one believes he was behind the death of Pushton as much as he brags about it, as it was attributed to an accident.

The blatant unapologetic honesty of human desire and controlling the fates of other people’s lives is central to all of these stories. Filled with emotional and psychological complexities based around human relationships and perceptions, noir contains an incredible gamut of storylines and settings, each story as compelling, even more so, than the last. And the beauty of it all is that these stories are timeless, as human nature has not changed in the past century, if not millennium, and probably never will.

Writing Craft: Fun With Problems by Robert Stone

Over the past few weeks, I have been working my way through Fun With Problems, a collection of short stories by Robert Stone. These stories exist in the darker side of humanity, revealing layers of complexities of the human psyche. Characters are dreadfully flawed, typically with an abused substance lending to their conditions. Relationships are equally complicated, usually broken, as each character works through each other’s issues, whether as casual acquaintances or lovers, showing that every action contains a consequence.

I am drawn to complex personas in any story regardless of the medium – that includes premium cable channel serial dramas – I have never liked shallow characters that can be simply labeled as good or evil, I feel ripped off. Equally, being a visual person I am attracted to vivid descriptions of environments and settings. When these two qualities of a story play off each other, they strike a visceral nerve leading to a serotonin rush like no other.

In the title story, “Fun With Problems,” we find Peter Matthews, a divorced lawyer on in years who lives a solitary life in the Massachusetts countryside, a place he hates. He lives there because of the opportunity to make a living off the criminal element in the nearby rural areas that result in kids landing in the local jail, such as his incarcerated client he’s on his way to meet.

[The Hamptom] Valley was his native place, and he had been watching it all his life; its preachifying and its secret horror. The recently arrived professionals, academics and technologists, had brought to Hampton a self-conscious blessed assurance, unaware of the beatings, arson and murder that thrived in the hills around their white-trim shutters. Matthews knew the place’s black heart. It was his living.

A drunk in recovery who has not actually recovered, he inflicts his apathetic negativity on others as it fuels his meager egotism and depression. The dreariness of falling sleet and snow on a bleak town paint a vivid portrait of Matthews’s mind during his drive to the jail.

The famous jail, the red brick rat-house minarets attached to a new wing of frosted Martian glass, stood beside the river between a pair of old paper mills…. There were also a few shabby offices, headquarters to some social-services organizations. These were relics of the age of concern, grown decadent with underfunding, long on ideology and short on practical solutions. One scarred band specialized in raiding the migrant-pickers’ cockfights. A crazy poet did children’s theater the children dreaded.

Matthews, reminiscent and longing for his happier, earlier days with his ex-wife in the 1970s, much like the jail that houses the delinquents he serves, is the relic of the age of concern who has grown decadent. The prison conference setting further paints this portrait.

Matthews and his client conferred in a chapel in the jail’s old wing, a relic of gentler days. The chapel had been temporarily divided by partitions of wallboard and Plexiglas that reaches a third of the way to the ceiling and were being slowly vandalized.

It is in this setting he finds his quick fix, a younger woman who happens to be a psychologist, who was also on the wagon, whom he can corrupt with alcohol to gratify his loneliness, and wanton needs. All of this playing a more significant role than his responsibility to his wrongly incarcerated client.

In the last story of the collection, “The Archer,” we meet Duffy, a well-established and somewhat eccentric professional artist who teaches at a New England university. He was reputed to have threatened his ex-wife and lover, a fellow professor, with a crossbow. Over-consumption of alcohol plays a central role as he copes with the heartache and daily reminders of what he once had. He travels to a college town on the Gulf of Mexico as part of his lecture circuit to escape the sorrowful New England winter and the reminders of all that he had lost – his home, his wife, and his life. The following scene captures his edgy, fragile psyche brilliantly:

The interior of the plane on landing seemed so impacted with flesh that it would have required only one neurasthenic’s psychic break to be transformed into a thrashing tube of terror, a panic-driven, southbound rat king of tourists headed for the offshore ooze.

Throughout the story Duffy make a series of observations of the town suiting of an established painter, one who sees the overall scene and zooms into the grittiest details as a sort of self-portrait. Each observation connects to a previous one, I noticed, painting a grand picture of the town. He describes the town as “layers of stuccoed box bungalows leaning on thin concrete walls lit by tiki torches, enclosing tin pastel swimming pools.” The descriptions often carry themes of religion, redemption, and morality, reflecting his thought-process and overall sadness. Note the tiki torch and plane references in the following excerpt in a later paragraph:

The doomed palms with their spiky crowns reminded Duffy of a crucifixion. Insolent posters were affixed to their suffering trunks with cruel nails the size of industrial staples, threatening passersby with the judgment of Christ. Artificial palms stood at intervals among others like Judas goats at a slaughterhouse to encourage and betray the doomed natural ones. The tiki-torch fuel, together with road stench and beach barbecue pits, gave it all the aroma of a day-old plane crash.

Throughout the stories in Fun With Problems, the scenery is lush and complex, filled with people and things representing the good and bad of society living amongst each other, its ambiguity displaying both flaws and beauty externalizing the protagonists’ personas. After finishing the book, I had read in Stone’s biography that he is known for writing about characters with complex psychologies, an attribute that I was pleased to discover during my own course as a reader.

Writing Craft: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road contained an unusual, if not disruptive writing style that immediately struck me on the first page. Sentences varied in odd structures, some abrupt, some run-on, some fragmented. Many contractions were missing apostrophes; quotation marks were completely absent from all dialogue. Some dialogue was intertwined within paragraphs of description, action, and narrative as exemplified in the following:

He screwed down the plastic cap and wiped the bottle off with a rag and hefted it in his hand. Oil for their little slutlamp to light the long gray dusks, the long gray dawns. You can read me a story, the boy said. Cant you, Papa? Yes, he said. I can. (7)

The disruptive writing style, seemingly incoherent at times, stylistically blended with the post-apocalyptical world of The Road. The atmosphere throughout the story was gray and cold, filled with the lifeless charred remains of a once flourishing landscape weighted heavily with despair and innate survival. The text portrayed this with eerie appropriateness. Sentences were cold, words were charred, and prose and dialogue loomed with despair, graced by the smallest nuances of hope. Proper constructs would have been detrimental to the authenticity of the story, its chaotic reality in the reader’s mind.

Dreams and memories blurred with the protagonist’s reality, as did the narration and the protagonist’s inner dialogue. Point-of-view shifted with no warning from third to first person to tell the story as accurately as it could be told. In the following example, a series of third person run-on sentences morphs into the protagonist’s perspective:

They stumbled and fell through the woods the night long and long before dawn the boy fell and would not get up again. He wrapped him in his own parka and wrapped him in the blanket and sat holding him, rocking back and forth. A single round left in the revolver. You will not face the truth. You will not. (68)

The ambiguity of who speaks the sentence “A single round left in the revolver” – narrator or protagonist – is found throughout the book lending to the precariousness and fragmentation of the story’s environment. The two subsequent sentences “You will not face the truth. You will not,” call to question whether this is actually the protagonist speaking to his son, his inner dialogue, or the narrator speaking to the protagonist, further compounding this world of uncertainty dynamic.

The stylistic handling or mishandling of the text contributed to the fullness of the story. Disjointed oversimplified dialogue with minimal clarity of who was speaking helped to illustrate the dismal, desperate environment. While heavy repetition of thematic words solidified the setting: gray, cold, wet, ash, burned, charred, dead. Run-ons punctuated by short fragments and single word sentences accentuated the scenes’ actions and moods.

My take away from The Road is one of creative freedom, of knowing the rules well and breaking them to fit the writer’s intent. The text successfully created a vivid portrayal of the post-apocalyptic world, one that was as rich and thriving in detail as it was gruesome and deadly in story. An exemplary literary work in which every word is used as the hues and thick brush strokes of a Van Gogh landscape.