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I started writing crime fiction, I wasn’t really interested in crime.
It was just a way of writing about the people I knew, ordinary people
who got a little too close to the edge sometimes. People who could go
either way, depending on what came along. I wrote about a down-on-his
luck-musician working a speed trap for his uncle, a small-town sheriff; a
convict whose three-year sentence over a bar fight leads to trouble in
prison and another twenty years added to his sentence; and a punch-drunk
ex-fighter being used by a mob boss he works for. I didn’t really know
any punch-drunk ex-fighters, but I didn’t have much trouble picturing
people getting in trouble. I’d seen some of that over the years.
Before long my stories were appearing in Thuglit, Yellow Mama, Pulp Pusher, and other upstanding publications. And Swill. That’s right, Swill.
I realized I was writing noir fiction. The genre seemed to suit my
spare writing style—I was never much for description and inner
monologue—and it suited my plotlines. I noticed that most of my
protagonists were dying off after a few thousand words. The death rate
was running about 70 percent. Most of my other protagonists were looking
at long prison stretches. Not all of them: the ex-musician at the speed
trap solved a murder. But the bodies were piling up.
I had a thought about that: you are what you write.
a Buddhist, it seemed like I should have a healthier, more optimistic
view of life. I really wanted to write something more uplifting, more
hopeful. If I’m going to make a difference in this world, I’d like to
help people get more out of their lives, not depress them. I was
determined to take a more positive tone. It wouldn’t play at Thuglit, but there were plenty of other outlets.
next story was about a forklift driver at a glass plant whose boss
wouldn’t let him have a day off to visit his father on the day he was to
be executed for murder. After another worker dies of heatstroke due to
being overworked, the forklift driver snaps and beats the boss to death.
The story ends with him on the road to the prison to see the old man
one last time before he’s arrested for murder himself. It wasn’t what I
started out to write, but that was how it wound up. Well, I told myself,
at least he’s not dead.
fiction grew out of hardboiled crime fiction in the thirties, when
writers like James M. Cain and Cornell Woolrich started writing about
ordinary people hanging on in very hard times. Desperate people making
some bad choices. And everything they did to get out of trouble only
pulled them in deeper. Given the moral codes of the day, they always
paid for their sins, even if the only payment was to remain stuck in
their dreary, hopeless lives.
the fifties, noir flourished as paperbacks became popular. Writers like
Day Keene, David Goodis, and Charles Williams became household names,
their books sometimes selling more than a million copies each. But noir
started to change. It became confused with film noir, a genre that has
more to do with the look and tone of a film than with the flaws and
fates of the characters. And the popular idea of noir broadened to
include a wide range of hardboiled stories. For many people today, noir
simply means a dark, cynical tone and a hard edge to the writing. The
moral codes have changed as well. Modern noir stories often have no
moral compass at all. In today’s neo-noir fiction—like the stories in Thuglit—the criminals often walk away grinning. And reloading.
I was writing noir fiction, old style. My characters were getting what they deserved, more or less.
classic noir fiction, ordinary, flawed characters are ruled by their
desires, leading to wrong choices and, ultimately, their undoing. It’s
sort of a formula—a fall-from-grace, bad karma morality play. The world
of noir is the world of the first and second noble truths without the
redemption of the third and fourth. It’s a world of people ruled by
their desires. Desire for money. Desire for revenge. Desire for a better
life. Or, pretty often, desire for a dame.
One of the best-known works of noir fiction is The Postman Always Rings Twice,
a 1934 novel by James M. Cain. It was a bestseller and was made into
several movies. The plot defines classic noir. Frank Chambers is a
drifter who takes a job at a roadside diner and falls hard for Cora, the
owner’s wife (played by Lana Turner in the 1946 movie, which explains a
lot). They talk about running off together, but Cora doesn’t want that
life. Instead, they wind up hatching a plan to kill the owner, Nick, an
older man that Cora married to escape her job in an L.A. hash house.
Their first attempt fails and Frank leaves, but he keeps thinking about
Cora. He returns, telling himself that he and Cora can make a life
together, and they wind up killing Nick in a staged auto accident.
district attorney is sure the accident was staged and cons them into
turning on each other, but a slick lawyer gets them off. Now they have
what they wanted. There’s insurance money, they own the diner, and they
have each other. Of course, they’re not satisfied. Frank wants to go
back on the road. Cora wants to build the diner into a moneymaker. They
quarrel. Their last quarrel leads to another accident. This time, Cora
flies through the windshield and dies. In the end, Frank is on death
row, convicted of killing Cora.
(By the way, there’s no postman. And nothing rings. The title is a non sequitur. Or a koan.)
is ruled by his desires. At the beginning, he’s a drifter, always
wanting to hit the road in search of something better. When he meets
Cora, he quickly becomes obsessed with her. As he says, “I had to have
her, if I hung for it.” When he wins $250 playing pool and thinks he can
use that to take Cora away from Nick, he tries to win more and loses it
all. Later on, when Cora leaves town for a week, he takes up with
another woman as soon as she’s gone. As much as he wants Cora, he’s not
satisfied once he’s with her.
Cora is ruled by her desires as well. She escapes her Midwestern roots,
then marries Nick to escape from her life in L.A. She kills Nick to
escape their marriage, then she plots to kill Frank. Like Frank, she’ll
never be satisfied. Inevitably, their cravings for something better—or
just something else—lead to something much worse: an unhappy marriage,
death in an accident, a murder conviction, death by hanging.
all ruled by our desires. That’s the appeal of noir fiction. We can all
see ourselves being taken over by desire and making the same bad
choices. We can relate.
the world of noir. There are no happy endings. No one lives happily
ever after. And that’s our world, too. That’s the appeal of noir
fiction. Life isn’t easy and it often ends too soon. We all want
something better, but we have a choice. We can deal with the world as we
find it, living in the present and appreciating that. Frank and Cora
had that choice. They could have loved each other and found a way to
work through the complications that caused. They told themselves that
murder was the only way they could be together. They told themselves
that they weren’t really murderers, that they were better than that. But
they weren’t. They chose not to be.
often characterize noir fiction as being about people who are doomed to
suffer. They live in a cold, hard world, and they have little chance of
finding something better. I don't agree. They have choices. We all have
choices. We create our own karma, day by day. The choices aren’t always
easy, but we are not doomed by mere circumstance. We are only doomed by
trying to be more positive, both in my day-to-day life and in my
writing. In my most recent crime story a man is on his way to a job
interview at a prison. He stops for a drink to loosen himself up, has
five or six. He robs a drug dealer behind the bar and gets ripped on
meth, PCP, and Xanax. He takes on a roomful in a bar fight and he’s
chased across the desert by armed bikers. Okay, let’s just say he has a
few adventures. And when he finally stumbles into the prison with his
clothes ripped and blood all over him, he finds that he’s what they look
for in a prison guard. He’s hired.
It’s a comedy.
he’s not a bodhisattva. And he’s not making great choices. But he’s not
dead. And he’s got a job. At least it’s a happy ending, so maybe I’m
making some progress. Besides, I had fun writing it. That’s the