Oct 13, 2009

Long-Time Mystery Reader, First-Time Noir Writer

Jeff VanderMeer

I’ve started this blog entry several times because I’m about to have a noir-influenced novel out after writing several classified strictly as “fantasy—and I’m painfully aware of coming off like “that guy.” You know “that guy”—the writer who switches genres and suddenly he’s also a huge convert to that genre in other ways. He writes articles and does interviews where he pledges his allegiance to his new paradigm and also gives half-arsed opinions on X, Y, and Z...and then six months later he’s on to something else shiny-shiny that catches his eye. Meanwhile, the true insiders—the core readers, reviewers, and influencers in that genre—are rolling their eyes and thinking “this guy doesn’t know crap.” I hate that guy, because I’ve seen that guy come galloping up on his white steed and assailing the ramparts of the fantasy genre more than once—probably about a dozen times. I don’t want to be that guy.

What I do want to say is that I’ve been an avid mystery reader—noir, police procedurals, hardboiled, you name it (although I tend toward the darker stuff)—since I was a teen and first encountered Raymond Chandler. I also reviewed mysteries for Publishers Weekly for seven years, and I can tell you that many times there was no greater joy than that gig, because they sent me fiction by so many writers I’d never read before. I discovered Ken Bruen and John Burdett and newcomer Francis Lin that way. I read so many mysteries between the PW gig and my own reading that when I visited Los Angeles for the first time we were driving down Mulholland and I started getting this strange sense of deja vu. About places and side streets I’d never seen before. Suddenly, I realized that I’d read so many LA detective novels that I was having flashbacks to scenes in books. Is that nuts? Maybe, but it was one of the best literary moments of my life. Totally cracked me up.

Give me a messed up detective (or cop) down on his luck, a difficult, morally ambiguous case with no apparent closure, and a bunch of leads that take him (or her) into the seedy underbelly of a city...and I’m in hog heaven. If it all ends in disaster and our anti-hero manages to just escape with his life, but keeps carrying on carrying on, all the better. Any variation on this works for me, which is why I love Derek Raymond, Ross MacDonald, the early Scudder novels (he was never the same after he got control of his alcoholism), Ray Banks, Mo Hayder’s first two novels, Henning Mankell and Meg Gardiner’s grimmer stuff, and that awesome duo of Maj Sjowall & Per Wahloo who brought us the morose detective Beck. There’s also a certain Mr. Piccirilli—as newbies, we both came out of the horror genre—whose The Cold Spot is an instant neo noir classic for me. Then there are the really cool weird noir writers that excite me: Brian Evenson (Brotherhood of Mutiliation in Last Days, anyone?), Jack O’Connell, Paul Auster.

I like mystery fiction for, well, the mystery, of course, but also because it acknowledges the imperfections of people, institutions, and the world in general. It doesn’t gloss over those aspects of society we’d prefer to forget. Sure, maybe it over-emphasizes or even glamorizes those aspects at times, but it still gives us a window into a side of life with which most of us aren’t familiar. Or maybe I just get joy out of being down there in the grit and the grime without having to take a sucker-punch to the gut myself.

To which you might well say, “Yeah, but w are you doing a guest post for CrimeSpree?” They asked because I’ve written a novel with a fantasy setting that uses a ton of tropes from noir and hardboiled fiction. There’s an impossible murder case, a detective in a tight spot, a girlfriend who might or might not be on the level, a friend who might be an informant—all of which plays out against a visionary fantasy setting with spies and rebels.

I’ve never before written a novel that could legitimately be called “noir” or “neo noir”. Why now? It just happened that way—this particular novel required those elements. But I’m glad because it’s allowed me to express an aspect of my pleasures as a reader that hadn’t previously appeared in my fiction. That gives me a lot of satisfaction, and made me develop some writing chops I didn’t have before.

Of course, it could all go south, couldn’t it? That’d be the noir way—real life mimicking fiction, like sussing out Los Angeles from stuff read in books. But, you know what? If I have to skip town, that’s okay. I can always lie low in the next burg over, maybe even pick up some work as an unlicensed PI. When they find me face-down in that crappy by-the-hour motel right off the highway, I know at the very least you’ll want to find out who did it.

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1 comment:

Brian Lindenmuth said...

Finch is a damn good novel and one of my faves of the year.

Great essay and introduction to a new community of readers.