Friday, November 26, 2010

Patti Abbott's "Friday's Forgotten Books"

My piece on The Name of the Game is Death is up at Patti's great blog, right here:
Thanks again, Patti, for letting me ramble on about one of my favorite books.

Donna Moore's Essential Noir

Donna Moore is the author of Old Dogs, a rollicking fun heist novel, as well as 2007 Lefty Award winner Go to Helena Handbasket. She has short stories in various anthologies, including Damn Near Dead and A Hell of a Woman (both Busted Flush Press). Donna runs the always amusing and entertaining blog Big Beat From Badsville, which focuses on Scottish crime fiction. I'm honored to have her here.

Donna says:

"A scan of my bookshelves revealed these as the first
twenty-ahem-three to present themselves to me. A couple of them are
not crime fiction, but they're definitely noir. A couple of them might
not be someone else's definition of noir, but they're mine. I get all
excited when I read a book which tortures its protagonist in the way
that noir fiction does. I hug myself gleefully as the poor guy (or
gal) desperately tries to scrabble his way out of a dirty great hole
and when finally, it looks as though hope arrives in the form of a
shovel...well, the only use for that shovel is to beat the protagonist
about the head before chucking more dirt on top of him. Ah, I do love
a nice bit of happy noir, me."

And Donna's list:

KNOCKEMSTIFF - Donald Ray Pollock
HELL OF A WOMAN - Jim Thompson
I WAS DORA SUAREZ - Derek Raymond
SLAMMER - Allan Guthrie
IN A LONELY PLACE - Dorothy B Hughes
NIGHTMARE ALLEY - William Lindsay Gresham (and if you've only ever
seen the film, the book is so much darker)
BURY ME DEEP - Megan Abbott
TOBACCO ROAD - Erskine Caldwell
SQUEEZE PLAY - James McKimmey
THE DISTANCE - Eddie Muller
TWISTED CITY - Jason Starr
LOSS - Tony Black
THE BOTTOMS - Joe Lansdale
WILEY'S LAMENT - Lono Waiwaiole
FAST ONE - Paul Cain

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Al Leverone's Essential Noir

The more of these lists I see, the more I suspect my own list of essential noir novels is fairly pedestrian-- yeah, there are some writers who seem to have made everyone's list (Cain, Hammett, etc) but so far every writer and critic who has contributed has pleasantly surprised me. Al Leverone, author of the forthcoming thriller Final Vector, is no exception.

Al says:

"I'm a 51 year old writer living in New Hampshire with my wife Sue, three children, one adorable granddaughter and a cat who has used up eight lives. A three-time Derringer Award Finalist for excellence in short mystery fiction, my work has been featured in Needle: A Magazine of Noir, Shroud Magazine, Twisted Dreams, Mysterical-E, FlashShot, Crime and Suspense and Black Hound, among others, as well as the print anthologies TEN FOR TEN and NORTHERN HAUNTS. My debut thriller, FINAL VECTOR, is due for release by Medallion Press in February, 2011."

And his list:
1) The Maltese Falcon - Dashiell Hammett
2) Double Indemnity - James M. Cain
3) The Postman Always Rings Twice - James M. Cain
4) The Big Sleep - Raymond Chandler
5) The Black Dahlia - James Ellroy
6) L.A. Confidential - James Ellroy
7) Cape Fear - John D. MacDonald
8) The Score - Richard Stark
9) Money For Nothing - Donald Westlake
10) Eight Million Ways to Die - Lawrence Block
11) The Drowning Pool - Ross MacDonald
12) Dead Aim - Thomas Perry
13) Strega - Andrew Vachss
14) Persuader - Lee Child
15) Trunk Music - Michael Connelly
16) The Wheelman - Duane Swierczynski
17) The Cold Spot - Tom Piccirilli
18) The Coldest Mile - Tom Piccirilli
19) Small Crimes - Dave Zeltserman
20) A Bad Day for Sorry - Sophie Littlefield

Monday, November 22, 2010

Vincent Zandri's Essential Noir

Vin "Action Man" Zandri, when he's not writing novels, is a globe-trotting photo-journalist, living a life shmucks like you and me can only dream about. His characters, however, don't have things quite so good. Among his books are Godchild and Moonlight Falls, and his newest is The Innocent, a nicely-packaged new edition of his first novel, As Catch Can.

1. The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler

2. The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett

3. To Have and Have Not, Ernest Hemingway

4. The Postman Always Rings Twice, James, M. Cain

5. The Getaway, Jim Thompson

6. The Killer Inside Me, Jim Thompson

7. Falconer, John Cheever

8. Homo Faber, Max Frisch

9. The Godwulf Manuscript, Robert B. Parker

10. A Catskill Eagle, Robert B. Parker

11. Wilderness, Robert B. Parker

12. The Last Good Kiss, Jim Crumley

13. The Wrong Case, Jim Crumley

14. Dancing Bear, Jim Crumley

15. The Man Who Liked Slow Tomatoes, KC Constantine

16. Tough Guys Don’t Dance, Norman Mailer

17. The Executioners Song, Norman Mailer

18. No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy

19. Caught Stealing, Charlie Huston

20. Killer, David Zeltserman

Saturday, November 20, 2010

NPP interviews NPP, and Heath interviews Heath...

...over at Sea Minor, Nigel Bird's terrific blog.

Three French Films Noir

The French get it. Here's three movies that exemplify that.

Clean Slate (Coup de Torchon)
French film based on Pop. 1280, by Jim Thompson, except the action is moved to French W. Africa in the late ‘30’s. It still works well. Police chief Cordier (Phillipe Noiret) comes on like a dim-witted buffoon, but when the town pimps push him too far, the murderous psychopath inside him emerges and he decides to wipe the whole town clean.

Shoot the Piano Player
1962-Francois Truffaut
Based on the novel Down There, by David Goodis, another example of a French director nailing the noir feel beautifully. After a personal disaster, an ex-concert pianist now plays in a seedy Paris café. His girlfriend wants him to make a comeback, but when he gets involved with some inept gangsters everything starts falling apart.
Solid acting, solid story, and even some surprising moments of humor. Superior movie.

A boarding school master (and complete asshole) is targeted for murder by his wife and his lover, who’ve had enough of his bullying and cruelty. But after they pull it off, the wife becomes more and more convinced that her husband is actually still alive. Crazy plot twists, mounting paranoia and jangled nerves follow.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Nigel Bird's Essential Noirs

Nigel Bird is a Support For Learning teacher in a primary school near Edinburgh.  Co-Producer of the Rue Bella magazine between 1998 and 2003, he has recently had work published by ‘The Reader’, ‘Crimespree’ and 'Needle'.  He was interviewed by Spinetingler for their ‘Conversations With The Bookless’ series earlier this year, won the ‘Watery Grave Invitational 2010’ contest over at ‘The Drowning Machine’ and has recently made debuts at ‘A Twist Of Noir’, 'Pulp Metal Magazine and ‘Dark Valentine Magazine’. His story ‘An Arm And A Leg’ will appear in the ‘Best Of British Crime’ anthology (edited by Maxim Jakubowski) in 2011 and ‘No Pain No Gain’ has just been accepted by Crimefactory. His blog ‘Sea Minor’ is currently running the ‘Dancing With Myself’ series of interviews. He hopes to complete a draft of his novel by the end of 2010.

Nigel writes:
"My memory for names has never been good. I have to beat around the bush to get to where I need to get. 'That book, you know, the one where god comes down to earth as a human and they nail him to one of those wooden things...'. It’s something I’ve had to get used to. My top 20 noir novels, then, includes those titles that are unforgettable even to me. I’m not the most widely read of individuals, but I’m going to give it my best shot. I do this in the knowledge that my pile of To Be Read novels looks so good it there are definitely going to be a few that would have made the list had I got to them earlier. I’ve also tried not to pick a list of the obvious in a bid to keep the series interesting and in doing so I’m stretching both the definition of ‘noir’ and of ‘novel’ in some cases."

Here goes:
Georges Simenon – The Man Who Watched Trains Go By
Allan Guthrie – Slammer
James M Cain – Double Indemnity
Tristran Egolf – Lord Of The Barnyard
Paul Auster – Man In The Dark
Donald Ray Pollock – Knockemstiff
Benjamin Whitmer – Pike
Albert Camus – The Outsider
Franz Kafka – The Trial
Jim Thompson – The Getaway
Charlie Williams – Deadfolk
Lawrence Block – Eight Million Ways To Die
Patrick McCabe – The Butcher Boy
Raymond Chandler – The Big Sleep
Ray Banks – Donkey Punch
The Longshot – Katie Kitamura
Dashiell Hammett – The Maltese Falcon
Don Winslow – Savages
Paul Cain – Fast One
Kate Atkinson – When Will There Be Good News
Joe Lansdale – Bad Chili

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Good Advices

A friend who knows a thing or two about it advised that I don’t post my short stories here on the blog, especially considering the novel coming out soon and yada. Suggested I start submitting again to the markets. Probably good advice. It’s something I actually gave a lot of thought to, awhile ago, back when I was writing more short stories than I am now and not really making much headway selling any. I’d sort of had enough-- I love writing stories, love it on a deep, primal level, but trying to find homes for them was disheartening and occasionally infuriating. I mean, I placed a few, here and there, but the hassle, geez. Every mag on line or in print has its own very particular set of standards for submission, some of them quite exacting, and the thing is, the thing is, see… when you go to all that trouble to re-format, change the double-spacing to 1 and a half spacing, pull in all the paragraph indentations, etc, etc… and then get the story bounced after waiting nine months… that’s the kinda stuff that just drives me nuts, dig? Or on the rare occasions you’d sell one, the monetary reward is, honestly, not even worth mentioning.
I’m not saying those magazines aren’t justified in having submission guidelines, don’t get me wrong. I’m just saying, it’s time I could have been writing something, you know?
So the decision I made about it at the time was, fuck it. I like writing stories. I don’t like trying to sell them. And if I miss out on a chance to earn a sawbuck or two, big freakin’ deal.
But this friend, this guy who knows what he’s talking about, says, “Exposure. Book coming out soon, you could use the exposure.”
And yeah, he’s right.
So after careful consideration, I’ve decided to NOT post short stories here anymore. There are some great markets these days for the kinda stuff I write, so why not? The exposure, even if it’s minimal, could very well be worth whatever small hassle is involved.
Now, if I wind up having no luck in the markets, I may very well change my mind again. I tend to do that sort of thing. Regardless, you can expect more stories from me, wherever they may appear…

Keith Rawson's Essential Noir

Keith Rawson is the author of well over 100 short stories, published all over the damn webbies. He's also a noted commentator and critic and general ne'er-do-well who clearly has the goods on lots of different people in the seedy world of crime fiction. He's also a contributing editor for Crimefactory Magazine. He runs one of the best blogs around at Bloody Knuckles, Callused Fingers: you really need to check it out on a regular basis.
I'm assuming Keith doesn't require sleep.

Keith writes:
"When Heath asked me to contribute one of these lists to Psycho-Noir, I was thrilled, because the one thing I have an opinion about (at least an opinion that I’m willing to express publicly.) is books. Particularly books of the noir/hard-boiled persuasion. Of course, I just couldn’t send through a simple list of books that have influenced me, I had to go ahead and muddy things up by including an explanations of why I put the book on my list. Quick word of warning, folks, I’m not going to include Crime and Punishment or MacBeth or any pretentious shit like that. Dos and old Shaky are great, but they belong in LIT/101, not on a list of great pulp novels."

1) The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain: No, I'm just not putting it on this list because I'm expected to put old timey classics on something like this. I actually like it. Plus, Cain was the shit and could write circles around guys like Hammet and Chandler.

2) Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye by Horace McCoy: Before the purists chime in, yes, I know it's hard-boiled crime, but it's the hard-boiled novel. By the way, there's going to be a lot more "hard-boiled" as opposed to "noir" on this list, so deal with it

3) The High Priest of California by Charles Willeford: Nobody dies, there's no gratuitous violence, the protagonist simply manipulates a situation until he gets what he wants and then discards what he worked so hard for—yeah, a piece of ass—without a second thought. WWWD?

4) The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson: Degenerate drunks always make the best crime writers

5) Black Friday by David Goodis: Degenerate, crazy drunks make even better ones)

6) I was Dora Suarez by Derek Raymond: ooooooogggggiiiiiiieeee! Yes, it's disturbing enough to make a 37 year-old man write/squeal "ogie". Also, further proof that degenerate drunks make the best crime writers. No, I'm not a degenerate drunk, I'm a respectable, functional drunk, which explains why I'm not writing at the same level.

7) Big Bad Love by Larry Brown: Don't even start, I know it's a short story collection, but damn, what a collection. Brown was a master of the short form and could say more with 2000 words than 99% of his contemporaries could say with 300,000. And while not exactly noir, Brown's fiction is darker and harder than most 'crime' writers

8) Child of God by Cormac McCarthy: You thought I was going to say Blood Meridian, didn't you? Nope, Child of God still makes my skin crawl more then any of McCarthy's novels.

9) The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins: The greatest crime novel of the 20th century. There, I said it

10) L. A. Confidential by James Ellroy: The novel which would redefine crime fiction for 20 years after its appearance. Big, over the top, violent, brilliant

11) Controlled Burn by Scott Wolven: Yeah, more short stories, but each story is a novel in miniature. The collection has defined a generation of writers

12) Give Us A Kiss by Daniel Woodrell: I know, I know, most people consider Death of Sweet Mister and Tomato Red to be superior novels, but Give Us A Kiss set the stage for his future novels and introduced the Dolly's to the world

13) The Walkaway by Scott Phillips: Has Phillips ever written a bad book? The sequel to Phillips debut, the Ice Harvest, is superior in every way to the original

14) The Song is You by Megan Abbott: Like Phillips, Abbott has yet to write a bad novel, but in my opinion, The Song is You was the novel Abbott was meant to write. Dark, atmospheric, meticulously researched.

15) American Skin by Ken Bruen: I could put any Bruen title on here really. Bruen has been a true innovator in the genre, redefining both sub-genres of the P.I. novel and the police procedural, but for me it’s the Irish author’s stand alone novels which truly define him as a novelist. American Skin is taunt, explosive and has defined Bruen’s output since its release.

16) Drive by James Sallis: The very definition of noir minimalism. Sallis never wastes a sentence, hell he doesn’t waste a word. Fast paced, sparsely poetic, should be required reading for anyone who wishes to indulge in the expensive hobby of writing fiction.

17) Kiss Her Goodbye by Allan Guthrie: Modern crime fiction’s darkest writer. Just when you think Guthrie can’t bow his characters any lower, he makes sure to grind their faces into the mud and shit of their souls.

18) The James Deans by Reed Farrel Coleman: Coleman’s opus, a bleak masterpiece that most future P.I. fiction will be judged against. I’m not shitting you, it’s that good.

19) Jimmy Bench Press by Charlie Stella: Stella has been redefining mob novels since he started applying his considerable imagination to writing novels. Admittedly, not his most accomplished novel, however it is his most realistic. The dialogue is whip sharp and you honestly feel as if you’re standing and eavesdropping on the characters

20) Small Crimes by Dave Zeltserman: Zeltserman’s loose Man out of Prison trilogy has, in its short existence, become a hallmark of noir/hardboiled literature. Small Crimes, Pariah, and Killer are all equally intense (and vastly different) reads, but for me Small Crimes sets the bar exceptionally high, not only for Zeltserman’s future output, but for all hardboiled novels that will come after it.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Jonathan Woods' Essential Noir Novels

Jonathan Woods is the author of the deeply, brilliantly depraved Bad Juju & Other Tales of Madness and Mayhem, from the venerable New Pulp Press. I asked him to contribute not because we're both associated with NPN, but because Bad Juju absolutely blew me away with its sheer wickedness and warped vision. As you might expect, his list is wildly eclectic. You can visit Jonathan's website at

Jonathan writes:

"As you can see my list is very personal and idiosyncratic and wanders fairly far afield to include some “literary” types such as Conrad, Camus, Nabokov and Burroughs. Besides the fact that the listed books by these writers are great examples of noir, I think it shows how the influence of the noir sensibility extends far beyond the traditional boundaries of crime fiction.
Many great crime writers, such as Hammett, Chandler, Ross Macdonald, Ross Thomas, Michael Connelly and James Lee Burke, are not on my list because I don’t think of them as writers of noir per se. Others, like David Goodis, are not there because I’ve actually never read a David Goodis novel. Hopefully this deficiency will be remedied soon.
So, for better or worse here, in no particular order of preference, here are my favorite 30 noir crime novels plus one collection of noir short stories."

1. Young Adam by Alexander Trocchi
2. Children of Light by Robert Stone
3. The Stranger by Albert Camus
4. Double Indemnity by James M. Cain
5. The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain
6. Miami Blues by Charles Williford
7. The Complete Tales by Edgar Allan Poe
8. Naked Lunch by William Burroughs
9. I Was Dora Suarez by Derek Raymond
10. Muscle for the Wing by Daniel Woodrell
11. Wild at Heart by Barry Gifford
12. The Real Cool Killers by Chester Himes
13. Child of God by Cormac McCarthy
14. Port Tropique by Barry Gifford
15. The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad
16. Clandestine by James Ellroy
17. As God Commands by Niccolo Ammaniti
18. I’m Not Scared by Niccolo Ammaniti
19. Shear by Tim Parks
20. The Two Faces of January by Patricia Highsmith
21. Jack’s Return Home (Get Carter) by Ted Lewis
22. The Book of Revelation by Rupert Thomson
23. The Oldest Confession by Richard Condon
24. Angels by Denis Johnson
25. Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov
26. The Ice Harvest by Scott Phillips
27. The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins
28. Sanctuary by William Faulkner
29. Rilke on Black by Ken Bruen
30. An American Dream by Norman Mailer
31. Duffy by Dan Kavanagh

Here's the trailer for Jonathan Woods' Bad Juju & Other Tales of Madness and Mayhem:
Bad Juju Trailer.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Patricia Abbott's Essential Noir Novels

Patti Abbott is a terrific writer of short stories-- her work has appeared at Thuglit, Hardluck Stories, Spinetingler, Thrilling Detective, and a bunch of others besides. She also lives in Detroit, so you know she's bad-ass. She runs one of the most fun blogs around at
Here's her choices for essential noir fiction; some nice surprises here:

They Shoot Horses, Don't They, Horace McCoy
Solomon's Vineyard, Jonathan Lattimer
Red Harvest, Dashiell Hammett
No Orchids for Miss Blandish, James Hadley Chase
The Day of the Locusts, Nathaniel West
The Bride Wore Black, Cornell Woolrich
The Postman Always Rings Twice, James Cain
A Kiss Before Dying, Ira Levin
1984, George Orwell
Pickup, Charles Willeford
Miami Purity, Vicki Hendricks
The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith
In the Cut, Suzanne Moore
Waiting for Mr. Goodbar, Judith Rossner
Play It as It Lays, Joan Didion
The Golden Egg, Tim Krabbe
The Song is You, Megan Abbott
Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates
Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ighiguro
Autobiography of a Face, Ann Patchett and Lucy Grealy

Friday, November 12, 2010

No More Prayers, No More Platitudes

Here’s the thing: I don’t believe in platitudes or prayer or “sending out good vibes”. I don’t think that “supporting the troops” or “caring about children” makes you special. I don’t believe that the world is going to change if you only think good thoughts and don’t worry about it. I also don’t believe that love conquers all, or that good guys always win in the end or that there’s a reward or a punishment after we’re dead. I don’t believe in spirit guides or guardian angels.
And I don’t believe that my fiction should reflect any of that horseshit.
I compromise every day. Every single day. I smile politely when someone says they’re gonna pray for all the poor folks in Haiti instead of actually, I don’t know, DOING something. I say “Good for you” when I see a bumper sticker urging us to support the troops when, come on, man, what else am I gonna do? NOT support them? I nod sympathetically when someone espouses on how we should think of the children, why isn’t anyone thinking of the children, when it seems obvious to me that only sociopaths don’t care about children, so why mention it?
I do all this every day because I have to in order to maintain the semblance of normal relations and peace. But really, I find it all rather idiotic.
So when you tell me that my fiction is too dark, too pessimistic, all I can tell you is: surely there’s a Dr. Seuss book around somewhere for you, yes?
I should make it clear that I’m not generally a cranky, unhappy guy-- in fact, I’m pretty cheerful most of the time. I’m a cynic, sure, but honestly, that’s not so bad, is it? We could benefit from MORE cynics in the world, I think. But my writing tends to reflect my belief that none of this really means anything at all… and that it’s okay that it doesn’t. On our trip through this world we have to be sure to pack our own meaning along with the toothbrush, but we can’t be surprised when our personal meaning turns out to have no relevance whatsoever to anyone else.
I’ll play the game in my day-to-day life, though, because NOT playing it takes a lot more energy, and comes with nothing but misunderstandings.
In my fiction, though, I’m the one who makes the rules. In my fiction, I get to call out the emptiness behind your platitudes, the pointlessness of your prayers. This is as close as I can come to a sort of manifesto.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Dave Zeltserman's Top 20 Noir Novels

So I put out the call to some of my favorite writers and critics lurking in the dark underbelly of Noir City, and the response was gratifying. I'll have several to post in the following couple of weeks, but let's get started with this:

Dave Zeltserman is one of the strongest voices in crime fiction these days, innovative as a stylist and totally committed to a dark, uncompromising vision. His novels include the acclaimed "Man out of Prison" trilogy-- Small Crimes, Pariah, and Killer. Most recently, he's explored the horror genre with the bizarre Caretaker of Lorne Field, and put out a collection of short stories called, appropriately enough, 21 Tales. Coming in February of 2011 is another novel, Outsourced.

Here's Dave's list of essential noir fiction:
1) Double Indemnity by James M. Cain
2) Grimhaven by Charles Willeford
3) Savage Night by Jim Thompson
4) Hell of a Woman by Jim Thompson
5) The Name of the Game is Death by Dan Marlowe
6) Anyone's My Name by Seymour Shubin
7) The Woman Chaser by Charles Willeford
8) How Like a God by Rex Stout
9) Dirty Snow by George Simenon
10) A Swell-Looking Babe by Jim Thompson
11) The Getaway by Jim Thompson
12) The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain
13) How the Dead Live by Derek Raymond
14) Robbie's Wife by Russell Hill
15) Miami Purity by Vicki Hendricks
16) Dead City by Shane Stevens
17) I, the Jury by Mickey Spillane
18) Wake Up Dead by Roger Smith
19) The Little Sleep by Paul Tremblay
20) Mr. Arkadin by Orson Welles

"Essential" Noir Novels

A couple days ago, the always fun and enlightening Paul David Brazil brought my attention to a terrific list of “essential noir” novels-- you can see it here:
Great list. But looking over it I found that it differed dramatically from my own; after all, even though there are books we’d all agree are must-reads, the ones we find “essential” mostly comes down to subjective evaluations, yeah? That is, the books that really impacted us on a personal level as readers or writers.
And because I’m obsessive this way, I just had to come up with my own list of essential noirs, 21 of them in all (I tried to settle at 20, but one more occurred to me and I didn’t have the heart to cut any of them out)…
Here they are, in no particular order:

Double Indemnity-James M. Cain
The Postman Always Rings Twice- James M. Cain
Pop. 1280-Jim Thompson
The Killer Inside Me- Jim Thompson
The Parker series- Richard Stark
(yes, I’m cheating. It’s a series. Sue me.)
Black Friday- David Goodis
Shoot the Piano Player-David Goodis
Red Harvest-Dashiell Hammett
The Maltese Falcon- Dashiell Hammett
Fast One- Paul Cain
Talented Mr. Ripley- Patricia Highsmith
No Country for Old Men- Cormac McCarthy
Slammer- Alan Guthrie
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?- Horace McCoy
The Black Angel- Cornell Woolrich
Bury Me Deep- Megan Abbott
The Name of the Game is Death- Dan J. Marlowe
The Black Mass of Brother Springer- Charles Willeford
The Burnt-Orange Heresy- Charles Willeford
The Black Dahlia- James Ellroy
A Kiss Before Dying- Ira Levin
The Jack Taylor series- Ken Bruen
(Cheating again, damn my hide.)

Tell you what: Send me your list of essentials and I’ll make a future post out of them. Cool?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Tragedy is funny

The line between existential and black comedy is a seriously thin line. I mean thin, like Lindsay Lohan right before her latest stint in rehab, or thin like your patience with hearing about Lindsay Lohan. Seriously thin.
Basically, noir fiction is about bad things happening to someone. Repeatedly. Bad things that just get worse and worse, spiraling downward-- not out of control, necessarily, but in a never-ending descent; I’ve always fashioned my stories like water running down a drain, going faster and faster as the protagonist searches in vain for a stopper. And the closer it gets to running out entirely, the faster the spin of water down the drain.
See why I never use metaphors or similes in my work? I suck at them. But you get the point.
Now look at a good black comedy. The Coen Brothers ‘Barton Fink’ comes to mind. If you described the plot of that movie to someone, without mentioning that it’s a comedy, you’d be describing a noir: neurotic NY playwright comes to LA to write for the movies, suffers surreal case of writer’s block, feels like he’s losing his mind in a dingy little hotel room, meets a strange and mysterious salesman who may be a psychotic serial killer. And what makes the movie a comedy? There aren’t any jokes in it, right? There’s not even any physical humor to speak of. The comedy is solely in the situation, in subtle reactions and sly dialogue.
This link between comedy and noir occurred to me recently when someone asked me to explain a bit about the book I just started working on. I began describing some of the action (without giving away too much, I hope), about a protagonist who makes a huge mistake, takes an even huger risk to fix it, screws THAT up, and winds up with a dead body he has to get rid of. Then, of course, it turns out the guy he’s killed is very important, and the protagonist has to scramble to cover his tracks and of course, the water starts spiraling down the drain from there.
I was describing this to someone, and this someone started laughing at the absurdity of the story. And the more I went on, the more the person laughed. And it dawned on me: Oh, yeah. This IS kinda funny, isn’t it? Because noir and black comedy have the exact same story pattern.
It makes me wonder how hard it would be to turn some classic noir, say Double Indemnity or maybe Night of the Hunter into a comedy. Maybe if Walter Neff does a spit take when Phillis suggests killing her husband? Or if Reverend Powell is continuously getting smacked in the nuts in his pursuit of those little brats?
Mel Brooks famously said “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall down an open manhole and die”-- and noir is about a protagonist falling down an open manhole, falling, falling. The punch line is when he hits the bottom.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Some More Film Noir Notes

The Naked City
1948-Jules Dassin
Fantastic police procedural only slightly marred by the unnecessary voice-over narration. Two sturdy detectives track a murderer, following up leads and meeting all sorts of interesting types, before the exciting finale on the Brooklyn Bridge.
Notable especially for all the great on-location shots of NYC.

Black Angel
Based on the novel by Cornell Woolrich; a superior noir. June Vincent’s estranged husband has been accused of murder. With the help of the awesome Dan Duryea as the victim’s hopelessly alcoholic songwriter husband, she sets out to find the real killer.
Also with Peter Lorre as the inevitable sleazy nightclub owner. Surprising ending. Solid movie.

The Lady from Shanghai
1948-Orson Welles
Welles is a tough-guy sailor, hired by the seductive Rita Hayworth to work on her husband’s yacht. Intrigue, suspicion, and murder follow. The scene in the hall of mirrors, toward the end, is masterful.

The Big Clock
A great cast in a top-notch noir. Ray Milland is a magazine publisher who misses a vacation with his wife and winds up spending time with another woman—a woman who winds up murdered, and all the clues point to Milland as the killer.
Also starring Charles Laughton and the beautiful Maureen O’Sullivan.

1952-Henry Hathaway
A young couple on a delayed honeymoon to Niagara Falls meets another couple whose marriage is falling apart: Marilyn Monroe is the evil vixen, Joseph Cotton is her shell-shocked war vet husband. With her lover, Monroe plots to murder her husband; the husband’s making plots of his own, and the young couple gets involved against their wills. Joseph Cotton is great in this one, and Monroe shows that she could actually act when given half the chance.