Down and Dirty in the Country: A Quick Look at Rural Noir

Noir is a genre usually identified with the city. Concrete and steel cut off our anti-hero, throwing an endless shadow over him or her. At the same time, however, authors were also looking at the darkness, isolation, and evil in small towns or farms. When we weren’t looking, the sub-sub-genre of rural noir took over like kudzu.

The roots of rural noir come from the Southern Gothic authors. One could argue that William Faulkner was an early practitioner. As I Lay Dying uses many noir tropes with a stylized point of view, family secrets, dark humor, and a bleak look at class. Flannery O’Connor is another author whose influence shows itself in the works of current rural noir authors. Her use of religion and perspective of evil can be seen in the work of Jake Hinkson in such modern classics as Hell On Church Street

“Noir is a genre usually identified with the city…at the same time, however, authors were also looking at the darkness, isolation, and evil in small towns or farms.”

One of the first great examples of rural noir is James Ross’ They Don’t Dance Much. Using Southern speech, much like Chandler used the Southern California dialect, Ross tells the story of jack McDonald, a failed farmer who ends up running a road house owned by schemer Smut Mulligan, who later pulls Jack into a robbery and murder. A power play ends up between the two involving Lola, the wife of the town proprietor Smut is having an affair with. It took the James M. Cain noir structure and themes and put a country spin on it.

Jim Thompson wrote many tales from the city, but some of his best dealt with shady small town lawmen. The Killer Inside Me, still one of the most chilling books ever written, features West Texas deputy and psychopath, Lou Ford. Lou pretends to be a dim hick, who mainly tortures the town citizens, many with their own dark secrets and agendas, by talking in cliches and platitudes. When he develops a brutal relationship with a prostitute, he and the town both violently spiral downward.

“…the violence almost becomes redemptive in this black satire on small town culture and bigotry…”

Thompson took the bad lawmen to new heights in the Sixties with Pop. 1280. MysteryPeople screens Coup de Torchon, French director Bertrand Tavernier’s Algerian-set film version of the Pop. 1280, on Sunday, July 7, as part of our Double Feature Film Series. Screenings will be followed by a discussion of the book and film, and all screenings are free and open to the public. Nick Correy is the lazy, philandering sheriff of a small Southern town during the Nineteen-Teens. When he’s challenged in an election and kills to stay in the lead, we learn how smart and dangerous he is. What is odd is how Nick keeps his genial tone and how the violence almost becomes redemptive in this black satire on small town culture and bigotry. It is interesting to note that Thompson’s father was an Oklahoma sheriff who was caught embezzling when the writer was young.

The author who truly opened the door for rural noir was Daniel Woodrell. Originally writing about Rene Shade, a police detective in a corrupt Louisiana parish, in his Bayou Trilogy, he later moved his settings to the Ozarks, were he was born and raised, in such novels as Winter’s Bone (screened last year as part of our Noir Double Feature Film Series) Woodrell’s novels are somewhat the country cousins to George Pelecanos’ D.C. novels, including the recently released and critically acclaimed The Martini Shot: A Novella and StoriesWoodrell and Pelecanos both create character-driven stories, where criminals are motivated by extreme poverty and drugs (crack for Pelecanos, meth for Woodrell) plague an entire community. Woodrell dives into his stories on a personal level with a poetic prose style. The beginning paragraph of Tomato Red, with its page-long, run-on sentence, is work of great humor and craft. He delves into the lives of the working class and the poor from his area, inspiring a wave of other writers to use their rural background in their noir.

“…rural noir has a strong lineage, an established canon, and the manifest destiny to travel down every back road and tell its story…”

Several of these writers inspired by Woodrell have already established themselves in the rural noir cannon. Frank Bill built a reputation through his short stories dealing with hard men and harder women pushed to the brink of violence and beyond, exemplified in the collection Crimes In Southern Indiana. His debut novel, Donnybrook, is about several characters and the trail of blood they leave behind as they head to a bare knuckle fight. Donnybrook shows how meth in the Midwest has fused the drug and culture together. Another great take on the subject is Matthew McBride’s relentless A Swollen Red Sun. McBride sets a Missouri county aflame when a deputy takes seventy-two thousand dollars from a meth dealer’s trailer in a moment of weakness. The book is reminiscent of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest in its look at how a corrupt society destroys itself. Benjamin Whitmer’s anti-heroes get ping-ponged from their country homes to the city, trapped by their violent compulsions, developed of necessity but leaving his characters isolated and alone. Both of his books, Pike and Cry Father, are emotional gut punches.

the genre of rural noir is expanding rapidly, and it has room to do it. Both David Joy and Jamie Kornegay have shown new back roads with their novels Where All Light Tends To Go and Soil. Jamie Kornegay joins us Monday, May 4, for Noir at the Bar at Opal Divine’s. Frank Wheeler, Jr.’s debut, The Good Life, set in rural Nebraska, hopefully ushers in a long career writing great rural noir set in Midwestern wastelands. We also have yet to see many female writers and authors of color embrace the sub-genre. As rural noir grows in self-confidence and acclaim, I hope to see many more diverse voices in the genre, but already, rural noir has a strong lineagean established canon, and the manifest destiny to travel down every back road and tell its story. Like Hank William’s country boy, the genre can survive, and even thrive.

Crime Fiction Friday


Frank Bill is one of our favorite new voices. His brand of rough and tumble, visceral country crime fiction has a fresh hard boiled style that has landed him respect with the literary set as well as crime fiction fans. His books Crimes In Southern Indiana and Donnybrook have received some great praise. If you haven’t experienced his work, here’s a taste from a story published in Beat To A Pulp earlier this year.


“Life of Salvage” by Frank Bill

“Tobar Hicks and Molly Sellers’d led a life fueled by blistered hands of bad luck and the greasy-boned labor of living below the poverty line, scrapping everything from spent trailers, fridges, washing machines and A/C units to barter an existence from salvage yards in and around southern Indiana and northern Kentucky. With the windows down and the 10 a.m. sun bringing the burn of another thick day, sweat bucketed down Tobar’s forehead as he wheeled the ’88 Ford Ranger with four slick treads from Freedom Metals’ tin-sided exit. Chris Knight blared from the CD player singing “Jack Blue.”

The truck coughed, jerked and lost power….”

Read the rest of the story.

MysteryPeople Interview: Frank Bill

Donnybrook by Frank Bill

With just two books, including our Pick Of The Month Donnybrook, Frank Bill has become one of our favorite new authors. Frank seems to like us too, since he was willing to talk to us about fighting, writing, and movies.

MysteryPeople: Is it true you got the idea for Donnybrook by talking to a fellow martial arts student?

Frank Bill: Part of the idea came from a student I ran around with and studied with, yes. This was back in the mid-90’s. He worked for a printing company and the rumor around his work was that men were hosting these underground fights at unknown locations, but none of us ever went, that is if they even existed. But that rumor stuck in my head.
MP: The story has a loose and rollicking style, but it comes to a logical conclusion. How much of it had you planned out before you started writing?

FB: I never outline, so I never really plan anything. For me everything starts with a moving description. Followed by ideas and scenes I scribble down in my journal. Then type them out to hardcopy. Print them. Line edit and build everything from there by re-writing and revising obsessively.
MP: One thing that’s remarkable about the book is how, you have several characters and plot lines, but there’s an incredible momentum to the narrative. Do that many characters make it a challenge or do they actually help you keep it moving?

FB: For me, the multiple plotlines/characters keep things moving. I have a hard time with attention, so my mind tends to bounce and wonder back and forth, hence my multiple story lines and the movement within them.
MP: Donnybrook has some of the best fight scenes I’ve read. What do you try to keep in mind when writing these kinds of moments?

FB: I break everything down the same as we did with my teachers when I studied and trained in martial arts. Its like choreographing the fight. Looking at the details of a situation and how one acts and reacts. Footing. Body mechanics. In some cases I actually stand up and go over it in mind, and in front of a mirror. Reflecting on how the body moves.

Crimes in Southern Indiana by Frank Bill

MP: You wrote a great novel and one of the best short story collections in recent memory. Do you have a preference of either form?

FB: Thank you. I dig each of them, but I do like the novel, as there’s a bit more room to build the tension and offer backstory and characterization.
MP: There’s a visceral feel from your books you generally associate with film. Are there filmmakers who inspire you as much as authors?
FB: Tarantino, Rob Zombie, PT Anderson, Xavier Gen, Nicolas Winding Refn, Alejandro Gonzalez, Takashi Miike, David Ayer, Neil Labute, just to name a few.

What Scott’s Reading

This week I’m reading books that will soon be coming into the store. The first two will be on our shelves next week. The third goes on sale in March.

Standing In Another Man’s Grave by Ian Rankin

Rebus returns, and this time, the retired inspector gets pulled into a missing persons case and set in the sights of Rankin’s new character, Complaints Detective Malcolm Fox. The book has great deadpan exchanges, like this one between a criminal and Rebus:

Criminal: “You’re pretty much the same, except a little older and fatter.”

Rebus:”I can’t argue with that.”

The Heroin Chronicles edited by Jerry Stahl

A mix of crime and general fiction authors, some recovering users themselves, tell short fiction stories revolving around the the drug, providing an interesting meditation on addiction. If you can handle the first story, Tony O’Neill’s Fragments Of Joe, you can probably take on the rest.

Donnybrook by Frank Bill

Frank Bill delivers on the promise of his debut collection, Crimes In Southern Indiana. It is like a great psycho-billy album in book form, with several deranged hard cases all heading to a bare knuckles contest. Both the action and dialogue pack a wallop.

Frank Bill’s DONNYBROOK Out in Spring 2013

Our buddy Frank Bill knocked everyone in both crime and literary fiction out with his no-holds-barred short story collection, Crimes In Southern Indiana. It’s just been announced that his first novel, Donnybrook, will be released in March by FSG. His Crimes In Southern Indiana story Cold, Hard Love serves as a prequel to the book. From what I hear from one crime writer who got an early peek, this potential cover is a subtle reflection of the content: