It was a wrong number that started it,…
…the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the vioce on the other end asking for someone he was not.”
Today I’m trying my hand at noir/detective fiction. Sort of. I think I’ve been indoctrinated (by MFA programs and manuals on writing) to avoid genre fiction (like Sci-Fi, Mystery, Romance, Western, Fantasy, Hard Boiled Crime, etc…) over the years, and I’ve long wanted to dabble in such genres. The trap in writing in these genres is that they are usually highly formulaic. For example, many genre stories comply with the Seven Point Plot Structure, where character is established, then conflict, then setting (in that order). Literary fiction strives to break free of traditional boundaries and rules. And yet, I tend to take a stance closer to Robert Frost when he says that free-verse (poetry with no restrictions of meter, rhyme, etc) is like playing tennis without a net. That is to say, where’s the fun in writing (or tennis) without clearly defined boundaries and rules? I don’t know if I fully endorse this hypothesis, but there’s truth in it.
So what are the rules of noir/detective fiction? Well, there’s a crime, and a step-by-step investigation that usually leads to the culprit. Deductive reasoning is usually involved (think Edgar Allen Poe’s Murder in the Rue Morgue or Sherlock Holmes). But noir is a little different. It gained footing around the 1930’s, with stories by Dashiel Hammet and Raymond Chandler, among many other. Noir stories are still about an investigation, (or heists, or con games) but with a keen sense of stylization and a heavy reliance on tropes–such as the femme fatale, the anti-hero detective who talks sass and gets beat up in every scene, mistaken identity (people being wrongly accused), oppressive settings and weather, etc. Noir fiction begat film noir in the 40’s and 50’s, which is what most people think of when they think of noir. Then in the 80’s, noir begat a wonderful sub-genre called cyperpunk, which combines the tropes of noir with those of science fiction (think the movie Blade Runner, or the book Neuromancer). A few years later, Paul Auster wrote The New York Trillogy, which includes City of Glass. These novellas draw from the noir genre, but during their reading all expectations of the genre are thwarted and the read becomes something more of an existential, even metaphysical journey.
So to sum up my dissertation on noir, you can see that it hasn’t ever really died, it just falls below the surface and reemerges every so often. At present, it’s enjoying something of a rennaissance in both film (think Brick or The Big Lebowski) and literature (Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and Dennis Johnson’s Nobody Move).
This is all a very elaborate way of explaining that I’ve been wanting to write in this genre for a while. Maybe I was afraid of getting trapped in the prescriptive formula of it because there is really a whole lot of really bad noir out there that does just that. I wanted to do something that thwarts expectations, especially for those who are familiar with the genre.
I can’t say that this story does this at all, it’s my first attempt after all. I’ve tried to front-load the who-done-it stuff so that the story then turns into a why-done-it.
Hope you enjoy it!