Archive for March 31, 2020

© 2020 G.N. Jacobs

Pop quiz. What effect will the current emergency have on various literary genres like Noir or the larger category of Crime? Don’t know, it’ll be interesting either way when we live long enough to see.

The LA Times (see post) recently asked this question of several LA based Crime writers known for writing Noir stories. Fascinating read about things I already generally know including that writers who create in this field tend to use their personal experiences, fears and hang-ups to create their themes, characters and plots. To be fair, all writers do this regardless of the genre we choose, whether Noir to directly face our demons raging behind our eyeballs or, say, Fantasy when it’s time to get running and do anything else anywhere else.

The article highlighted various authors and explained how and why they developed their characters, settings and themes. One lost friends to the AIDS crisis. Others might develop a ‘Sherlock in the hood’ property. You get the idea…

What is Noir? It’s a style of Crime fiction that emphasizes the emotional despair inherent in our bad acts to each other. People do bad things to each other out of need, hate, jealousy, you name it. These acts happen in a milieu of indifference set against a paladin always out for justice and becoming bitter in the process. Symbols of hope, like children or Phillip Marlowe finding the right woman and retiring to Poodle Springs (Palm Springs in the real world) are typically extirpated off the page or saved for the last book in the series.

At least one author asserted that the current emergency wouldn’t affect the genre per se, but that the books set post-lockdown would go nuts and totally off the chain. I agree right up until I don’t. The main reason for this statement is we’re all inside. Inside equals less crime until we’re released by the societal hall monitor to hang out in our favorite restaurants. And then we might see hardboiled characters getting mugged in the parking lot at Lawry’s setting off a chain of tragedy…

The small part of this assertion that I don’t quite buy into is the implication that the emotional turmoil driving Noir runs in waves. The original classics (Phillip Marlowe among them) are rooted in the Great Depression. Dig deep enough and you’ll find stories set in the 1960s with the change from trust society to question authority. Other characters exist as a result of drug wars and so on.

I’ve been alive and able to read the newspaper for a few decades now. I just don’t remember the bullshit coming in waves. It always feels like it’s there lurking under the surface waiting for the right person in a presently fearful, depressed or angry state to rake it up and vomit it onto the page. Finding the Noir is thus a personal choice. My other thought is that Noir is the literary equivalent of the Blues where you sing about your worst day and feel better because you shared it with people lessening the hurt.

In my youth, we had child molester living in the unit over the garage in a house three doors north from my house. The scumbag liked little girls and so I was blissfully immune, but the younger sister next door wasn’t. I was told about it by my mother because she told me almost everything, but I was then instructed not to speak about it casually because it just wasn’t polite conversation.

Looking back, this incident is relevant because without therapy the girl next door would grow up like Evelyn Mulwray, the ultimate Noir femme fatale with an agenda. More importantly, my memory of the time (late 1970s) was of a cocoon where we’d gotten used to the changes of the previous decade and were just getting on with life. Yes, other perspectives from that time might have more to say that somewhere in the world someone is always getting fucked over.

Another example that began earlier and went later well into the 1990s, the neighbors on my first street were really messed up despite presenting the façade of the perfect Catholic family. The father was an alcoholic resulting in the usual emotional douchebaggery conducted behind closed doors. The mother cheated rather than getting divorced waiting out her husband dying of natural causes to marry her long-term lover. Yet another case where my perception of the era would’ve landed between the sturm und drang moments of our recent history.

As I read the article, I also had the thought that I’m just the sort of contrarian to challenge the wait until after the lockdown mindset.

I immediately thought of all over us being locked down as a taunt to indulge in the Locked Room murder. In the real world the body in the Locked Room is always a suicide, but it’s been fascinating to image the possibilities as a thought experiment. Barney Collier (Greg Morris) in Mission Impossible famously used a gear driven screwdriver to open an air vent grate from inside the shaft. And we have yet to set MacGyver on the problem.

Another possible way around the ‘we’re all inside’ limitation of the moment is to make being inside part of the story. And to reiterate the immortal truth of ‘don’t open the fucking door!’ Yes, suddenly we’ve just crossed The Big Sleep with Key Largo (everybody is inside for the hurricane), but I bring it up just to spark the creativity of seeing a limitation as a challenge.

Another way I might set a Noir during the emergency instead of after is to cheat and steal from other genres. I’ve already created concepts of surrogates like flesh droids in which a mindless body exists for people who can pay to ride around pretending to be firefighters and such. Easily repurposed so that the flesh droids shoot and betray each other.

And in another incomplete brain fart I took one of the darker fan theories about Disney’s Cars franchise – the anthropomorphic cars were self-driving AI vehicles that bonded directly to the sick bedridden humans to which they gave care by adopting their last driver’s personality after they died. My slight variation on this concept assumed the humans were still alive at home being told about their cars’ doings at the end of the day. Ripe for some kind of Virus Noir stories.

I’m also waiting for the Noir that takes place in the narrow spaces online between, say, The Sims or Second Life on the one hand and all the mayhem we imagine we can unleash on Zoom. I don’t know…come up with some means for the killer to hack our smart houses to kill people in the physical world. I agree that these thoughts might be too much SF for some people, but then I’m the guy that sometimes comes up with wacky player pitches reaching everywhere in our shared database.

We’re inside now. Give it a few months and we’re going to start writing about it. The world is different than a mere ten days ago. Some will charge head on into our fears with a modern Noir for the age. Others will seemingly avoid it going for the latest and greatest Fantasy, Romance or whatever. I’m also kinda waiting for a Lord of the Rings knockoff where the quest McGuffin causes diseases (yes, I went there). But, that is another brain fart for another post.

The emergency will change everything. Be safe.