Thursday, November 8, 2018

NOIR OR NOT: Guest post by J.L. Abramo


My latest novel, American History, is many things. In some respects, it is a work of historical fiction. A multi-generational, century-long saga. An epic tale of two Italian-American families related by blood but divided by hostility. It might be considered a mystery, a thriller, a crime novel, or a cops and robbers drama. What it is not is noir. Which, considering the recent flux of crime fiction calling itself noir, is not necessarily a bad thing.

Works featuring large doses of degradation—gratuitous violence, sex, and vulgar language—do not, I believe, automatically qualify as noir either.

Of all the sub-genres which huddle together under the umbrella known as crime fiction—mystery, private eye, thriller, police procedural—noir is possibly the most specific.

“Noir fiction is about losers, not private eyes,” says Otto Penzler, “the noir story with a happy ending has never been written, nor can it be.”

Dennis Lehane suggests, “Noir represents working-class tragedy—it is a genre of men and women unable to roll with the times, so the changing times instead roll over them.”

Strictly speaking, much of what I have heard read at Noir at the Bar gatherings (including my own readings) does not truly fit these descriptions. However, more and more lately, noir is hot. But what is noir and what is not? And are many crime writers trying to force square pegs into round holes?

Defining a category of writing—or of any art for that matter—too specifically, can create controversy. It is or it isn’t what you call it, so be careful what you call it. Either we redefine what is considered noir to make the label more inclusive, or we use more general terms like crime fiction, detective fiction, or simply good old fiction and not risk calling what is not a spade a spade. Otherwise, labeling a sub-genre—or in some cases a sub-genre of a sub-genre—has little meaning.

I’ve never considered my work noir. The Jake Diamond series is certainly not. Jake is more over-easy than hard-boiled. Gravesend and Coney Island Avenue are about NYPD detectives who are, for the most part, righteous. The closest I’ve come to noir is Brooklyn Justice. My protagonist, Nick Ventura, has a shady past and a subjective morality. But Nick is a private eye, a borderline professional, and he sometimes accidentally stumbles upon a happy ending.

Of late, I have been invited to contribute s short story to a noir anthology—and I have a decision to make. Pass—with the justification that it’s just not my thing—or try to round off the peg.

I have a general idea. More James M. Cain or Jim Thompson than Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. More After Dark, My Sweet or House of Games than Harper or The Rockford Files. But how much more. How many straight bourbons. How many non-filter cigarettes. How many sexy double-crossing dames. How much more than simply a body count.

When James M. Cain wrote The Postman Always Rings Twice, did he set out to pen noir fiction or did he—when he was a journalist covering the Snyder-Gray murder trial in 1927, where Ruth Snyder and her lover Henry Gray were accused of killing Snyder’s husband for the insurance money—simply get a good idea from a pair who had a terribly bad idea. When an interviewer for The Paris Review mentioned to Cain that he was so well-known for his hard-boiled manner of writing, Cain replied, “Let’s talk about this so-called style. I don’t know what they’re talking about—tough, hard-boiled. I tried to write as people talk.”

The question, for me, is can one write noir for noir’s sake? Can the gloom and desperation suggested by Penzler, Lehane and others be manufactured—or does it need to be called up from something authentic inside the writer? And what is the risk, psychologically, of stirring up such darkness?

In any case, I’ve decided to give the gracious invitation to contribute to a noir anthology my best shot. Start writing something I think might fit the bill, something noirish, and see where it takes me. And even if it only gets part way, I’ll at least have a little something to read if and when I’m invited to another Noir at the Bar event.

Meanwhile, readers can track down a copy of American History almost anywhere difficult-to-categorize novels are available.

J.L. ABRAMO was born and raised in the seaside paradise of Brooklyn, New York on Raymond Chandler's fifty-ninth birthday. Abramo is the author of Catching Water in a Net, winner of the St. Martin's Press/Private Eye Writers of America prize for Best First Private Eye Novel; the subsequent Jake Diamond Novels Clutching at Straws, Counting to Infinity and Circling the Runway (Shamus Award Winner); Chasing Charlie Chan, a prequel to the Jake Diamond series; and the stand-alone thrillers Gravesend, Brooklyn Justice, and Coney Island Avenue, a follow-up to Gravesend. His latest novel is American History. Abramo is the current president of Private Eye Writers of America. For more please visit:



Unknown said...

Good post, Joey. I tend to agree about the psychological risk of stirring up darkness. To date, I've kept my own darkest writing to short story form. Novel-length immersion in that part of my psyche remains hard to face. Maybe a few more unfiltered smokes n bourbon...

Mack said...

Interesting post, thanks for writing it. Noir or Not is something I have been considering a lot lately myself. As your wrote, noir is hot and I think the label gets misaplied because a book might appeal better than if put in the more general category of crime fiction. I know I've read books labelled noir where I was at a loss to find any noir elements. Then I read Dorothy Hughes' In a Lonely Place and Ride the Pink Horse and go "hell yeah, this is noir". I've never been comfortable calling Chandler's Philip Marlowe books noir. Hardboiled definitely, noir not. I figure I'll be pondering the question for quite a while.