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The Dark Heart of Noir

Chess BoardSeven years is a long time for anyone to do anything; on the basis of stamina alone you gain a reputation for being some sort of expert. Perform cerebral commissurotomies for seven years, and you lose the right to start sentences with, “Well, I’m no brain surgeon, but . . .” Edit a line of noir crime novels for seven years, and people will look to you for insights on what makes the genre tick, doubly so if you’ve been foolhardy enough to write three of the things yourself.

Which is why I periodically get e-mail asking me to explain what noir is.

It’s a question germane to Mulholland Books because although the line has a much broader mandate than just noir, its initial presentation to the world — even its name — owes much to iconic elements of film noirand noir literature, and several of its authors are ones sometimes thought of as noir writers.

So, what does it mean when people describe a crime novel as “noir”? That it’s dark, to be sure (sometimes, that it’s dark and French).  But all crime fiction is dark. Even comic crime fiction concerns matters such as murder, assault and robbery, incidents that are dark in substance, however light the presentation might be. And even the stoniest noir purists wouldn’t deny the existence of noir comedies.

What, then, is the particular shade of darkness that we label “noir”?

The five dozen books I’ve published in the Hard Case Crime series would offer at least five dozen different answers to this question, as would the squabbling denizens of the invaluable Rara-Avis discussion group, who lob competing definitions at each other like soldiers manning mortars on the Maginot Line. But there’s a definition that I haven’t seen bandied about that has grown on me in recent months, and I present it here for your consideration:

Noir is crime fiction written by pessimists.

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See You in the Darkness

Barbara Stanywck and Fred MacMurray - Double Indemnity 1944One chilly February evening back in 2008, mystery writer Alan Gordon drove me home from a book launch for Queens Noir (Akashic, 2008), an anthology of dark tales set in my home borough. Both Alan and I live in Forest Hills, a pretty serene neighborhood set deep into Queens. As we approached the police precinct at the corner of Yellowstone and Austin that night, we noticed a burst of activity out front, including TV cameras and roving reporters. The next day, Alan e-mailed me: “So, all those camera crews at the precinct last night were about the arrest of the orthodontist’s wife for contracting his murder. My wife said, ‘I always knew she was crooked.’ ”

I knew the case vaguely. Back in October 2007, Daniel Malakov, a local man the newspapers described as a “prominent member” of Forest Hills’s Bukharian Jewish community, had been shot and killed in a nearby playground in full view of his four-year-old daughter. Ultimately, his estranged doctor-wife, Mazoltuv Borukhova, was convicted of first-degree murder and conspiring with a distant cousin to kill Malakov, with whom she was embroiled in a fierce custody battle. The key piece of evidence: a homemade silencer discarded at the scene. The silencer was traced to Borukhova’s cousin, whose fingerprints were on file for evading a subway fare. Shortly thereafter, police found that an astounding ninety-one calls had been made between the cousin and Dr. Borukhova during the three weeks preceding the murder. The jig was up.

In my reply to Alan’s e-mail, I remember noting that the whole story was in fact the classic noir tale — wife hires man to kill husband, only to find herself trapped in her own web of deception. Double Indemnity come to life. But, of course, beneath the genre staples, the case speaks to something far more elemental about the enduring attraction of crime fiction — particularly noir, with its emphasis on the fickle finger of fate. There is a tendency to dismiss crime novels as lurid, as trivial, as escapist. These dismissals always strike me as anxious attempts to diminish the genre’s actual, visceral lure. That, instead of being disposable yarns to be consumed quickly and tossed aside, crime novels speak to our very essence, to the often painfully compelling (impelling) emotions that, for all the layers of “civilization” and modernity that lay atop us, still can’t be soothed. Desire. Greed. Wrath. Envy. Revenge. These are timeless drives. Universal ones.

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’70s paranoia thrillers and why we need them now more than ever . . .

It was never going to last that long. Golden ages rarely do. But for a while there in the 1970s, that’s what we had.

Ten years after Richard Hofstadter coined the phrase “the paranoid style” (in a lecture he delivered just days before JFK was assassinated), the national traumas of Vietnam and Watergate were in full swing. Hofstadter’s point was that “they” weren’t out to get you at all — you really were being paranoid. But by the early ’70s, this paradigm had been shattered. The point now was that they really were out to get you, whether you knew it or not, and generally you didn’t until it was too late.

This dark mood of suspicion and disillusionment was reflected at the time in a glorious run of movies — including Alan J. Pakula’s great troika Klute, The Parallax View, and All the President’s Men; Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor; and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. In an almost fetishized landscape of impersonal architecture and encroaching technology (with taut, dread-laden scores, usually by Michael Small or David Shire), these movies chart the gradual alienation and disempowerment of the individual in modern society, the stripping away of privacy, and the growing influence of shadowy power structures.

Although very different from these, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (sun-drenched 1930s L.A., unforgettable noir score by Jerry Goldsmith) is perhaps the greatest of them all. That moment at the end when Lieutenant Lou Escobar instructs Loach to handcuff J.J. Gittes to the wheel of a car, thus rendering him powerless to determine the outcome of events, was a major psychological turning point in American cinema, and it mirrored the greater shift going on outside the movie theater. It was like a changing of the guard. Here, suddenly, were serious, challenging stories where the individual had no moral compass anymore and could casually be crushed by malign, unknown forces.

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