(Extremely) Unauthorized Relationship Advice Inspired by Crime Fiction: Part 1

  • Post by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

A few months ago, I realized that while I had read plenty of domestic suspense involving terrible relationships, and enjoyed quite a few stories of detective couples solving crimes, the genre may not be the best source for relationship advice. I immediately began to imagine what relationship advice these characters might give to those experiencing similar dilemmas, thus inspiring the following blog series.

In honor of the month of love, MysteryPeople presents unauthorized (and frequently ill-advised) relationship advice from fictional characters. Our first installment features Hammett’s Nick & Nora on drinking with your partner, James M. Cain’s Phyllis on how to get out of a relationship quick, and Daphne du Maurier’s Mrs. de Winter on adjusting to life as a second wife. Readers should not take the following relationship advice – but y’all just might enjoy reading it!

Read More »

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.

Double Feature Film/Book Series Kicks off this Wednesday with Double Indemnity

double indemnity

On Wednesday, June 25th, at 6PM, we’ll be kicking off our Double Feature screenings. Each Double Feature will include a noir film based on a book, with discussion afterward. We’re starting with the classic early noir, Double Indemnity.

James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity is practically a blue print for noir in any medium. The story about insurance man Walter Huff and Phyllis Nirdlinger’s scheme of killing her husband for his policy money, barely over a hundred pages, provides a bare basics of the boy-meets-girl, boy-commits-murder-with-girl, (spoiler alert) boy-ends-up-dead-or-in-prison-because-of-girl tale that many writers and filmmakers have put their own spin on. One of the first was screen writer/director Billy Wilder in his 1944 adaptation.

Cain, a former newspaperman, had a clean writing style that stripped a story to its marrow. Indemnity was written as a follow up to his
successful novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. While both of those books share many similarities, Double Indemnity‘s propulsive quality and less-than-humane humanity, bring out a sharper, cynical edge.

And who could have been drawn to a cynical story more than Billy Wilder. He got hard boiled master Raymond Chandler to work on the
script with him. Chandler didn’t much like the book, finding it a sleazy story about amoral people. It appears he found an anchor in making
Neff’s friend and the insurance companies investigator, Keyes, into the conscience of the story. Keyes observations about life and murder
could easily be quoted by Chandler’s private eye, Phillip Marlowe.

There are several other major differences between film and novel, beside changing Keyes’ role and changing Walter and Phyllis’s last names to
Neff and Dietriechson.  One is the relationship  between Walter and Phyllis. With the novel, it deteriorates right after the murder with Phyllis kicking him of the car. Wilder’s direction and Fred MacMurray’s performance suggest Neff as something of a dupe, lured into the scheme of a femme fatale. The book had revealed early on that he was thinking about doing something like this for some time. Cain appears to have them drawn together more by mutual sin than passion, with little left after the murder is done.

The film follows close to the plot, until the third act. It may come as a shock to the reader more familiar with the movie. Wilder kept the corruption personal, between Walter and Phyllis. Cain, the cynical reporter, had all of society in on the scam in a way that Hollywood wouldn’t have been ready to express.

That said, Cain seemed very pleased with the adaptation, saying ” …It’s the only picture I ever saw made from my books that had things in
it I wish I had thought of. Wilder’s ending was much better than my ending, and his device for letting the guy tell the story by taking out the office dictating machine – I would have done it if I had thought of it.”

Both book and film set the template for the look and attitude of noir. They both present a quality both stripped down and stylized that
contributes to the genre’s malleability. It’s about that short cut to the American dream, that questions the trip and maybe the dream
itself.


Double Feature Stats

Adherence To Book (Scale Of 1-5) – 4

Adherence To Quality Of Book – 5

Fun Fact- The supermarket scenes where Walter and Phyllis meet after the
murder had armed guards on the set. It was filmed during World War Two
and due to rationing, the market was afraid  the cast and crew would steal
groceries.

Other Films- The Prowler, Gun Crazy, Body Heat, and The Last Seduction

Other BooksMiami Purity by Vicki Hendicks; They Don’t Dance Much by
John Ross; Tomato Red by Daniel Woodrell

3 Books to Read in September

Luther: The Calling
by Neil Cross

The creator of one of the best cop shows in recent years (now showing on BBC America) gives us a prequel to his brilliant and damaged detective.

 

Cocktail Waitress
by James M. Cain

Our Friends at Hard Case Crime unearthed this lost book from the man many consider the father of noir fiction. Megan Abbott gave it a thorough review for Publisher’s Weekly, saying, “…The Cocktail Waitress still offers much of the addictive weirdness of vintage Cain: delirious coincidences, the hidden kinks of the middle class, and a prime example of what has always been one of Cain’s greatest talents: the turn-of-the-screw moment when we realize just how trapped our narrator has become.”

Cogan’s Trade
by George V. Higgins

The author who gave us The Friends Of Eddie Coyle also wrote this funny, gritty, at times violent tale of an enforcer who is brought in to set things “right” when a mob poker game is robbed. Read it before the film version, Killing Them Softly, comes out in October.