Wherein I learn something about noir literature

If you follow my twitter feed you’ll know that I recently took Nick Mamatas’ 9-week fiction writing class at the Writer’s Salon in Berkeley. It was really good. The next session is starting on October 9th. If you live in the East Bay (or San Francisco) and you are a writer who is as good as or worse than me and you want to become alot better, you should definitely take this class.

Anyways, during the class, Nick mentioned several books that I was totally unfamiliar with. I not only had never heard of the books, I’d never even heard of their authors. The books were The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson and The Burnt Orange Heresy by Charles Willeford. When I looked them up, Wikipedia said that they were “crime” novels and/or “noir” novels. The former is about a murderous deputy sheriff in a small Texas town; the latter is about a Florida-based art critic who gets a tip for a hot interview with a reclusive European artist who’s bunkered down in a nearby cabin.

I read both books. And they were both awesome. But they left me confused. The two novels clearly shared some DNA. They were both first-person narratives starring amoral wretches who succumbed to temptation (and got their comeuppance in the end). They were both detailed, well-observed portraits of very small milieus. They both had a strong sense of setting. They were both fast-moving and gave short thrift to explanations. They both had structures that played around with narrative chronology (Thompson’s novel has frequent, quite long, background explanations and most of Willeford’s novel consists of an internal flashback). They were both quite short (around 40-50,000 words). And they were both unlike anything I’d read before.     Clearly, I was dealing with a whole strand of American literature that I’d never encountered before.

But I was (and still am) a little confused as to what that strand is. I am, after all, at least somewhat familiar with detective novels. I’ve read Hammett and Chandler. I’ve read Sherlock Holmes. And I’ve read novels about organized crime, like Mario Puzo’s works or Layer Cake. But these novels weren’t really anything like that stuff. There was no mystery or procedural element (although in Thompson’s book, at least, there was a question as to exactly how the killer would be caught), and there was no detective.

In a way, the novels were like an adjunct to the mystery genre: the story of a crime as told from the criminal point of view. But they didn’t offer the same pleasures as mysteries. They didn’t hinge on any sort of revelation. Nor were they, quite, psychological novels. The criminal impulse was, in both cases, glossed over. In a way, it was seen as being somewhat obvious. Of course anyone in these situations would be driven to commit crimes…the only difference is that these guys actually did it.

The major joy of the books was in seeing the consequences pile up. It was in seeing intelligent people thrash around against the limits of their environment and try, desperately, to outwit the almost insurmountable odds they were facing. The minor joy was in reading about the kind of people and the kind of places that aren’t normally the subject of novels.

So I decided to investigate further, and conduct something of a survey of this kind of novel (which is, I guess “noir” literature…although that is a term that I had previously associated with Raymond Chandler’s detective stories).

In assembling my reading list, I relied heavily on the Library of America’s two compilations of crime novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 40s and American Noir of the 1950s.

The novels I read were:

Thieves Like Us Edward Anderson
The Postman Always Rings Twice James M. Cain
Double Indemnity James M. Cain
The Big Clock Kenneth Fearing
Down There David Goodis
Nightmare Alley William Lindsay Gresham
Real Cool Killers Chester Himes
The Killer Inside Me Jim Thompson
The Grifters Jim Thompson
The Burnt Orange Heresy Charles Willeford
Pick-Up Charles Willeford
I Married A Dead Man Cornell Woolrich

In addition to these, I am currently planning on reading Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280, Willeford’s Cockfighter, and Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley.

It’s been a really interesting journey through noir literature, and over the next week or so, I hope to post more about what I’ve learned. But the biggest thing I’ve taken away from this experience is astonishment that I could have been unaware of something–a whole subgenre–that was (and to some extent, still is) a vibrant part of American literature. I mean, I know that it’s impossible to read everything, but I had thought, for some strange reason, that I knew–at least in broad strokes–about all the kinds of stuff that I hadn’t read. But clearly that was not true. I wonder what else I’ve missed?