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The Spaces Between Stars

Cité interditeMy name’s Warren Ellis.  I’m mostly a science fiction writer.  I’m sometimes also a crime writer.  These are essentially the same thing.

Let me try and explain that.

I don’t think HG Wells and Raymond Chandler ever met.  I don’t know that they would have had a lot to say to each other if they did.  Perhaps Wells might have gloweringly reprimanded Chandler for being mean about his friend AA Milne’s detective novel.  Or perhaps he might have asked for a go on Chandler’s wife, I don’t know.  But I like to imagine that an interlocuter bringing them together – perhaps in 1940, Wells’ twilight and Chandler’s emergence – would have explained why they should talk.

It was HG Wells, in large part, who made science fiction into social fiction.  You can trace back the roots of that movement to Mary Shelley and beyond, but it was Wells who both concretised it and gave it common currency.  Science fiction is nominally about the novum, the new thing that disrupts the world of the story.  But THE INVISIBLE MAN is not about an invisibility process, just as THE TIME MACHINE is not really about a time machine.  The great Wells fireworks were novels about the human condition, the sociopolitical space and the way Wells saw life being lived.

In crime fiction, of course, the story is nominally about the crime: the disruptive event introduced into the world of the story.  But THE BIG SLEEP isn’t about a murder, and FAREWELL MY LOVELY isn’t about a missing person.  Chandler’s great leap – and of course there were antecedents and even peers, but it’s Chandler who is indelible – was to make crime fiction fully an expression of social fiction.

These became the dual tracks upon which our mediation of the 20th Century ran.  Science fiction and crime fiction contextualised, explored and reported on rapidly changing and expanding modern conditions.  And they did it in ways that spoke to the felt experiences of our lives, to our hopes and our fears, in ways that other fictions, or even other reportage, couldn’t approach.  Science fiction and crime fiction explained to us where we really are, and where we might be going.

So when I write science fiction I’m a crime writer, and when I write crime fiction I’m an sf writer.  I’m talking about our lives, and the way I see the world.  I’m writing about the new thing, the disruptive event that enters that world, its repercussions and the attempts to deal with it.  But I’m talking about where I think I am today, and what I think it looks like.

In GUN MACHINE, I’m writing about a disruptive event: a small sealed Manhattan apartment filled with hundreds of guns, each one used in a single unsolved homicide.  But what I’m talking about is money, the acquisition of power, the deals we make in the name of security, the unique soul-killing exhaustion that comes of caring too much for too long, and the faces madness take in our lives.

Also quite a lot of people get shot.

I just have to trust that the good people at Mulholland Books will catch me when I get confused and give my New York City police detective rocket pants and a ray gun.

[Editor’s Note: We are proud to announce today that Warren Ellis is joining Mulholland Books for two books, the first of which will be GUN MACHINE and will be published in Fall 2012. Warren Ellis is more than just a writer. He is a movement. We are thrilled to be the publishers of GUN MACHINE.]

Warren Ellis is the award-winning creator of graphic novels such as TransmetropolitanFellMinistry of Space and Planetary, and the author of Crooked Little Vein. The film Red, based on his graphic novel, was released in October 2010. He has written a number of graphic novels under option for film and TV. He is personally adapting his series of Gravel graphic novels into a screenplay for Legendary Pictures. He lives in south-east England.

Mulholland Books will publish GUN MACHINE in Fall 2012.

Science Fiction Noir

One could argue until the cows came home about the definition and origins of noir, and many have been known to do so. From the moment that German expressionist movies and cinematographers moved that extra inch into darkness or crime writers combined their vision of cities at night with the despairing existential angst overwhelming their hapless anti-heroes, noir has been with us in many forms. A concept which is also a mood and an emotion.

These days the many faces of noir are bandied about with reckless abandon: we’ve had neo noir, blue collar noir, country noir, retro noir, political noir, urban noir, and so on and so on. And in most cases, these variations work and do encompass a territory which is familiar to all of us fans of atmospheric crime writing (and I say this as someone who has committed a handful of cities noir collections…).

But I would argue that another genre altogether lends itself with admirable efficiency to harbouring the very essence of noir: science fiction!

As strange as it may initially appear, SF is fertile ground for harvesting the tropes of noir and the disconnect between every day reality and the fully imagined alien environment the speculative genre offers is an ideal breeding ground for all that is best about noir.

Continue reading “Science Fiction Noir”

Darkness in the East

Noir is a French word meaning dark. It’s used to identify a certain type of grim fiction or film. Don’t let the French name fool you. There’s plenty of noir right here in East Texas, though it’s mixed with Southern Gothic and Western and all manner of stuff; it’s a gumbo boiled in hell. I know. I’m from East Texas. I’ve seen it. I’ve written about it. Weird as some of it is, fictionalized as the work is, it comes from a wellspring of true events you just can’t make up.

Let’s clear up one thing. There are plenty of good people in East Texas (saw one yesterday), but if you’re a writer of crime fiction, which I am at least some of the time, you’re not looking for good people. steam cloud You’re looking for weirdos, criminals, malcontents and the just plain stupid. That’s your meat if you write crime.

i just dont think I will ever get over youIn spite of the word, not all of the fiction or films associated with this genre are completely dark. Noir wears many hats, some even with bright feathers in them. Sometimes noir can laugh, which is where I come in. It’s where East Texas comes in. You can’t point at noir and call it one thing, but it usually has some of these elements: existentialist attitude, cynical and desperate characters, wise-ass talk, rain and shadows, a lightning bolt and shadowed blinds, sweaty sheets and cigarette smoke, whisky breath and dark street corners where shots are fired and a body is found, and long black cars squealing tires as they race around poorly lit corners.

For me as a writer, noir takes place in the backwoods and slick, brick streets and red clay roads and sandy hills of East Texas. My noir is about Baptist preachers claiming with lilting poetry to be called by the Lord to preach The Word, but who have intentions as false as a stuffed sock in rock star’s pants; pretty soon they’re gone with the congregation’s money and three deacon’s wives are knocked up. My noir is about the deep backwoods and small-town girls with inflated dreams and big blonde hair and the kind of oozing sex appeal that would make a good family man set fire to the wife’s cat and use it as a torch to burn down his house—with his wife in it.

You got your slicked-backed-shiny-haired used car salesman with more better deals and a plan to burn his business for the insurance money. You got your muscle-armed, pot-bellied hick with a toothpick and a John Deere gimme cap, forever dressed in hunting boots, camouflage pants and a wife-beater T-shirt—even if his destination is just the barber shop or the barbecue joint. He’s the kind of guy who likes to get drunk every night and drive home weaving. He’s the kind of guy whose last words are to his best buddy in the passenger seat—“Hey, hold my beer and watch this”—and who then proceeds to unzip his pants and attempt to drive his truck with his manly appendage.

Continue reading “Darkness in the East”

Insulting Your Intelligence (“Just gimme some noiriness”)

toys'r'usI sometimes wonder if the popularity of noir isn’t largely due to the fact that no one seems entirely clear on what the hell it is.

Not that a busload of perfectly smart people haven’t ventured a definition or two. A great deal of thought is expended on virtually a daily basis trying to pin this sucker down, but it’s proved too supple a creature for that. One might even say noir’s ambiguity is its genius.

Is it?

Noir’s resurgence hasn’t taken place in a vacuum. Call it noiriness. So-called reality programming has become the middlebrow darling of TV executives and viewers alike. Not only has documentary filmmaking enjoyed a renaissance as well, its techniques have infiltrated TV comedy: consider The Office, Modern Family, Parks and Recreation.

There’s a trend here: a desire for the lowdown, the real deal, the inside dope. A craving for the authentic — or at least its veneer.

Noir responds to the same impulse, though the underlying need is edgier. Trace the trend back, and you’ll find Frank Miller reinventing the Daredevil and Batman franchises in the 1980s, and Alan Moore creating Warrior and V for Vendetta. And before that, in the late 1960s and early to mid-1970s — when Lennon was belting “Just gimme some truth” — the lunatics were running the Hollywood asylum, giving us such neo-noir masterpieces as Mickey One, Bonnie and Clyde, King of Marvin Gardens, Scarecrow, Klute, Mean Streets, Midnight Cowboy, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, The Sugarland Express, Thieves Like Us, Dog Day Afternoon, Taxi Driver, and Chinatown.

I use the term neo-noir grudgingly. It’s become a truism that these films were in the noir tradition, but in fact many were simple, honest tragedies. Just as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman falls prey to the delusion of making it in America, Jake Gittes in Chinatown is betrayed by the mistaken belief that we can figure things out (in Polanski’s reworking of Towne’s script, anyway), and Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy is misled by his conviction that a perfectly devised mask can shield him from the pain of being unloved.

Nearly all these films had tough, blatantly tragic endings, and even the ones that didn’t had a sense that if the hero survived, he did so through luck or guile, not virtue. These stories appeared in the context of the Vietnam War, when America was searching for a deeper understanding of itself, something that would remain once you tore away the paranoia and the swagger and the teary, knee-jerk flag-waving. Watching wood-hut villages napalmed before our eyes on nightly TV, we were obliged to confront a much different America than we’d grown up to believe in; it showed in our art.

Here, yes, neo-noir echoed classic noir, which was rooted in the Second World War and its aftermath, when soldiers stripped of their illusions returned home to a country desperate for normalcy. Inwardly, many of these vets recoiled from their portrayals as heroes, for they knew what it took to survive combat, and often it was luck, or something much darker, not fit for a chat with the wife and kids or Reverend Tim.

And the graphic-novel noir of Miller and Moore simply continued this thematic thread, yes?

Not exactly.

Continue reading “Insulting Your Intelligence (“Just gimme some noiriness”)”

This Land is Noir Land

The Devil's HighwayI’ve always wanted to drive cross-country. Would have done it in college, except for two small things: (a) no car, and (b) no money.

But now that I own a motor vehicle (granted, a minivan) and have a little more folding green, I decided to take my family on a cross-country drive this past summer. We spent twelve days trekking from Philly to the Pacific Ocean, stopping at whatever caught our eye.

Of course, being a crime writer, my eye usually goes to dark places.

We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the allergy pills took hold . . . and I came to the realization that the U.S.A.—the whole dang thing—was an extremely noir country. Everywhere you look, there’s something to remind you of that French word for “black” that Otto Penzler thinks we all use incorrectly.

Don’t believe me? Here are only a few of our trip highlights: Continue reading “This Land is Noir Land”

Bernie Madoff: Noir Icon?

Bernie Madoff was in the news again recently—or at least his bankruptcy case was. It seems the trustee and some of Madoff’s victims are fighting over legal fees—surprise, surprise. It was a small story, and just the latest chapter in a long saga, but it had me thinking again about Madoff, and about the largest Ponzi scheme in history. Which, given that I write crime fiction, often with Wall Street backdrops, is probably inevitable. After all, the case is a playground of crime fiction motifs, and rich in inspiration.

In the event you somehow missed it, here’s the story in a nutshell: Bernie Madoff rose from modest beginnings in Queens, New York, to become what my grandfather would’ve called a big macher on Wall Street—a big deal. He amassed huge wealth and influence as chief executive of Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities, the firm he founded in 1960. His company was a major market-maker in stocks, and the technology he helped develop was instrumental in the creation of the NASDAQ. The firm eventually came to employ Madoff’s wife, brother, sons, and other relatives, and Bernie himself became an elder statesman in the financial services industry, serving on the boards of major industry groups and as chairman of the NASD.

In the late 1970s, Bernie added a new line of business to his company: an investment-management division, with affluent individuals as its client base. By 2001, this division had grown into one of the largest hedge funds in the world, with investors that included universities, hospitals, charitable organizations, bold-faced names in sports and entertainment, as well as banks and other hedge funds. It was this part of his business that Madoff was discussing in December 2008 when he confessed to his sons: “It’s all just one big lie…basically a giant Ponzi scheme.” And so it was: Madoff had for years been fabricating client statements so that they showed steadily growing investment account balances. If ever clients wanted to liquidate their holdings, they were paid with money from other investors. The rest of the cash apparently went to finance Bernie’s lavish lifestyle.

Madoff’s sons went to the FBI and Madoff was arrested, and the messy aftermath began. Personal fortunes—many large, but some quite modest—were wiped out. There were an unknown number of stress-induced heart attacks and strokes among Madoff investors and at least two suicides (a retired British soldier whose family fortune had evaporated and a French money manager who’d lost over $1 billion of his own and his clients’money). Several charities—also Madoff investors—closed their doors for good, and anti-Semites the world over gleefully trotted out the usual slanders about Jews and money.

Continue reading “Bernie Madoff: Noir Icon?”

Noir Is for Losers

Noir.

Slippery little word, isn’t it? French, but applied in retrospect to American movies that were themselves informed by aspects of German Expressionism. According to Otto Penzler, when people profess to be fans of the sub-genre, they very rarely know what they’re talking about. As editor, critic, and proprietor of the Mysterious Bookshop, Penzler obviously does.

The one thing noir isn’t, he says, is PI fiction. In fact the two sub-genres are “philosophically diametrically opposed.” Noir fiction’s “existential, nihilistic tales” represent the pitch-black flip side to PI fiction’s more optimistic slant. PI fiction displays an ethical code; noir fiction wallows in the gutter. PI fiction tends to restore order (Penzler’s connection to the sheriff cleaning up the wayward town is key); noir fiction must end in utter annihilation.

On the face of it, there’s not a lot to argue with here, other than the usual exceptions thrown up in response to a concrete definition written to an equally concrete word count. And indeed, there’s something about the definition that feels a little too concrete.

Let’s forget for a moment whether a sub-genre can comprise existentialism, nihilism, and some of the more basic concepts of predeterminism, and instead go right back to its roots. Penzler states that noir “has its roots in the hard-boiled private eye story that was essentially created by Dashiell Hammett in the pages of Black Mask Magazine in the 1920s,” and while I think it’s safe to say that the PI archetype (as opposed to the amateur sleuth or consulting detective) originated in its most popular and credible form with Hammett, my own feeling is that the roots of noir go much further back than the early part of the 20th century. Indeed—and you’ll have to forgive me for sounding like a substitute English teacher here—I believe noir can be traced right back to a trio of bad-asses named Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles, the fathers of tragedy.

As evidenced in the work of the above and defined by Aristotle, the tragic hero is a man “who neither is a paragon of virtue and justice nor undergoes the change to misfortune through any real badness or wickedness but because of some mistake.” This mistake needn’t be an action on the character’s part, either—it could be and often is an inherent personality flaw, hubris, or a failure of the spirit that leads to his eventual doom. But the point is that there are no purely evil characters, that in even the worst of the tragic heroes, there is a spark of humanity that keeps him compelling to an audience. It may not be the most pleasant spark, but it’s there. And it’s that spark that makes noir characters compelling. After all, there isn’t that much separating the motives of Oedipus and Bill Rhodes, Macbeth and Jaime Figueras, or Ferdinand and J. J. Hunsecker, and Penzler’s assertion that “noir is about losers” who pretty much deserve their fates robs noir of its humanity and renders it instead a series of quickie morality plays with horny puppets double-crossing each other to death.

It is the critic and bookseller’s first instinct to categorize, of course, but the danger in this is that only the broad strokes are seen. Defining noir fiction by its lust-driven losers and doom-laden outsiders brings us perilously close to cliché, and cliché can only lead to stagnation. It’s the same thing that crippled the PI sub-genre, and while there are certainly some excellent writers working in a more traditional vein (Laura Lippman, Sean Chercover, Michael Koryta, and Russel D McLean, to name but four), I still think we’re waiting for someone to shake that sub-genre up the way Pelecanos or Crumley did.

So then, with an open mind, why can’t PI fiction be noir fiction? Well, the fact is, it can.

The first novel that springs to mind is Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg. If you haven’t read it, you’ve probably seen the sterling 1986 adaptation Angel Heart, which moved the story from New York to New Orleans and certainly made me think twice before eating another hard-boiled egg. The book opens with a quote from Aristotle, from Oedipus the King, no less— “Alas, how terrible is wisdom when it brings no profit to the man that’s wise!” —and a typically retro hard-boiled first line:

“It was Friday the thirteenth and yesterday’s snowstorm lingered in the streets like a leftover curse.”

Although there’s a strong element of pastiche in Falling Angel is a one-off, and PI fiction by its nature tends toward the series, which is perhaps why I can think of more noir movie PIs than I can literary. But I think the first four Jack Taylor novels (ending with The Dramatist’s final bleak tableau) certainly count as a noir cycle, and the only reason I don’t include the others is that Bruen hasn’t finished the series yet, and I’d be surprised if Jack lives happily ever after. And I might as well admit that I have a dog in this particular fight myself. He’s not a particularly big dog, but he’s proven game enough to make it through four books. There does, however, seem to be a distinct lack of properly noir PIs. If you have any suggestions, I’d love to read them—comments are open.

Also, this lack of crossover reminds us of how fixated we can be as both authors and readers (yes, readers—you’re the ones dictating taste here) on the window dressing of a sub-genre as opposed to what made it compelling in the first place. And while every sub-genre waxes and wanes in popularity, isn’t there also a chance that every wane may be its last?

Ray Banks is the author of the Cal Innes novels, the last of which, Beast of Burden, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2011. He’s also written a bunch of short stories that have been anthologized in such places as Dublin Noir, Damn Near Dead, Expletive Deleted, and Shattered. When he’s not mouthing off over here, he can be found mouthing off over at his website, www.thesaturdayboy.com.

Crime Fiction and Fact: Real vs. Hollywood

If there’s one thing I know about, it’s crime. I’ve dealt drugs, used drugs, been shot at (and shot back), participated in high-speed chases with the cops, and lived with a call girl. I’ve been involved in stabbings, check-kiting, armed robberies, and some other tricks and stratagems of the hustling trade. Even spent two-plus years in prison, in one of Indiana’s then two maximum security prisons, Pendleton, back in the sixties on a 2–5 for second-degree burglary.

I also have this weird desire to write true accounts of the criminal mind in novels, something I’ve seen very little of. Very few novels, other than true noir, ever come close.

What’s the reason most miss the true nature of the criminal mind? That’s easy. Most who write have never been criminals.

Let’s look at three of the most common inaccuracies:

Continue reading “Crime Fiction and Fact: Real vs. Hollywood”

Sex and Violence, Please

The announcement of Little Brown’s new suspense line, Mullholland, is a cause for rejoicing in mystery-writer circles…and not just because an attractive new market for the craft has revealed itself.  The launch reaffirms the notion that neither the book nor the mystery is dead, and that’s always good news to a writer trying to keep the customers entertained and the bills paid.

The larger argument over the life and death of the book – especially that sub-category known as the novel – will have to wait.  I can only say that while I am unlikely to purchase an e-book reader, having grown up loving the physical object that is a book, I have no prejudice against whatever delivery system is devised to get my content out there.  My son Nathan – now translating books and video games from Japanese into English – grew up on computers, even as he was surrounded by books, and he loves both the old-fashioned physical object but is, of course, comfortable with an electronic delivery system.  He grew up with computers the way I grew up with comic books (another reviled delivery system for storytelling, before the term “graphic novel” came along).

The specific concern of the mystery writer, however, is that the genre itself – and all its subdivisions – will survive in an age where the 24-hour news cycle comes up with more sex, violence and absurdity than we could ever hope to fathom, but much less fashion.  No self-respecting editor would allow a writer to invent an embezzler named Madoff, or a self-destructing movie queen called Lohan.  Reality has outstripped us, and in our weak moments, we feel threatened by “reality” TV (quotes needed).  That I hear my Hollywood agent casually using the phrase “scripted content” as the exception to the rule of current TV series, I get understandably nervous.

But the mystery story – the thriller – isn’t going anywhere.  The human craves storytelling, and liars like me will always have a place at the campfire.  Seems likely that a lazy but creative lout like yours truly created the fictional story by staying home from the mastodon hunt, cowering somewhere, only to come up with a whopper (lie, not burger) to earn himself a prehistoric steak come dinnertime.  That story probably was at least as scary as what the hunters came up against, possibly containing twists and turns to explain why the lout wasn’t able to make the trip with the other guys who went out on the hunt.

Continue reading “Sex and Violence, Please”

The Mulholland Muse

Most people know the name Mulholland Drive from the eponymous David Lynch movie. If you go deeper, you recognize the roman à clef elements that were interpreted into the plot of Chinatown — the Noah Cross character played by John Huston is heavily derived from the machinations of William Mulholland during the period know as the “California Water Wars.”

An Irish immigrant who became chief engineer of the Los Angeles Water Department, it was Mulholland who conceived and oversaw the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, that “stone river” that bisects most of the San Fernando Valley, scene of innumerable auto chases in cinema (you’ll know it when you see it) and best remembered as the place a gang of giant, atomically mutated ants established an L.A. beachhead in Them! Mulholland also helped build the Panama Canal, the Colorado River Aqueduct, and the Hoover Dam.

Mulholland’s biggest folly was the construction of the St. Francis Dam near Saugus in San Francisquito Canyon. Built in 1926, the dam burst at three minutes before midnight on March 12, 1928, wiping out a sixty-five-mile swath between Oxnard and Ventura, virtually destroying everything between it and the Pacific Ocean under twenty-five feet of water, with blast waves cresting at seventy-five feet. More than five hundred people died. Mulholland, acquitted of malfeasance, later committed suicide in 1935 at the age of seventy-nine. The sole monument to him is a fountain in the Los Feliz area of Los Angeles.

Continue reading “The Mulholland Muse”