“Noir” is a small category in the vast world of crime writing, and I’m the only member of Top Suspense who specializes in it (although Dave Zeltserman has deep noir roots). But after attending the fabulous Noircon in Philadelphia this past weekend, I feel inspired to spread the net for new converts. Noir has never been one of the more popular genres in crime, but its devotees are some of the most fervent. With a better understanding of noir’s characteristics, rather than expecting someone to solve a crime and being disappointed, I believe, more readers would be prepared to enjoy it.
The definition of noir has broadened in the last several years with writers of any dark villain or alcoholic detective laying claim to the sophisticated French film term, but real noir devotees, as well as expert Otto Penzler, anchor the meaning with classic writers of the 40s and 50s, such as James M. Cain and Patricia Highsmith. For a novel to fall into the noir category, the narrator or point of view character has to be the criminal. Most often these people are undereducated, born into lower economic groups, and demonstrate warped psychology that winds them deeper into the dirt, from start to finish. No happy endings, no series possibilities. Interviewed for the Philadelphia Enquirer, Penzler cited the characteristics of noir similar to naturalist literature, with the cold, heartless universe turning the screws. But he also stated that the characters themselves are losers, who “through their own moral flaws, create a world in which they are doomed.” Both statements are true, depending where you stop following the chain of cause and effect. Noir is naturalist literature and reflects the Greek definition of tragedy. Reason enough to read it, right?
Beyond that, for me as a reader, the originality of character and plot that flows from trying to understand dark minds so dramatically different from my own and participating as these people frantically claw in the wrong direction, is what won’t let me go. I want them to succeed in murder; I want them to have what they desperately need, no matter what extremes become necessary. In an amoral universe, this universe that exists on paper (or screen), it is their turn. Of course, my stomach clenches and I mouth, “No, no!” as they make fatal mistakes.
As noir writers, we choose our darkest thoughts to blacken them further, and we love the characters we create because somewhere down deep they own our consciousness. They are heroes on our dark sides, punching out emotion at the gut level, more forceful than the logical workings of the brain on a mystery.
I’ve noticed that real people who have led “noir” lives find no interest in noir literature. I think it’s because they have already fought off that part of their brain in order to become the people they are now, to be safe. They want to avoid that place forever, and they are already overly-familiar with the inner workings of the criminal mind, while the rest of us, products of Catholic schools (myself anyway) and/or responsible parents, find psychosis riveting.
|Heide Hatry and her video|
It is only possible to give a taste of the intriguing events presented at Noircon this year: to start, there was the noir artist Heide Hatry, who grew up in Germany on a pig farm and later converted her expertise in slaughtering pigs into art that exposes the plight of animals. Other highlights were the fascinating and jovial interviews of this year’s award winners Otto Penzler and Lawrence Block. Penzler, obviously in pain, told about his purchase of the rights for all three Steig Larsen books for $30,000, which he then sold to a friend for $30,000 because of the difficulty of getting good translations. Block let out the news that he is finished writing, but nobody believed him.
There was the inspiring lesson from Keynote Speaker Robert Olen Butler, speaking on the genius of Charles Dickens and how to emulate his “film shot” techniques. Megan Abbott moderated a lively guilt-free panel on true crime, and Richard Edwards, on TV series, brought further appreciation for the genius behind Breaking Bad. Also memorable are the knowledgeable musicians and Burlesque performers who brought us further into the understanding of noir in entertainment. “Burlesque now is female empowerment. Women will always be objectified, but in burlesque they are in control of when and what reaction they get,” remarked Lulu Lollipop.
|Dwayne Swierczynski and Lawrence Block|
There wasn’t a dull panel in the bunch, all geared to an academic level audience and without the hawking of books. As Jonathan Woods, author of Bad Juju and Other Tales of Madness and Mayhem, sums it up: “Noircon was a hoot, from the pigskin artist to Duane Swierczynski’s droll interview of Larry Block; from the twirled tips of Jeff Wong's mustache to Grover Silcox's sterling rendition of Poe's madman in ‘A Tell Tale Heart.’ Wow! The mind reels.”
The conference that beats all other crime conferences by a mile holds assets that can’t be replicated: Deen Kogan’s Society Hill Playhouse, an intimate venue with tables draped in red and black; the creativity and hard work of Lou Boxer, who puts two years into each Noircon in order to make it fascinating and different, and most of all, the noir writers and readers, a tight group without taint of jealousy or competition. We huddle together gasping, laughing, hugging, in celebration of the wonderfulness of terror, obsession, and murder. We are a small percentage of the crime writing world, but choice.
|Lou Boxer and Grover Silcox|