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.

Molly’s Top Ten Mysteries of 2014

post by Molly

As the year comes to a close, it is time to compile as many lists as possible of our favorite books of the year. Here are my top ten –  you’ll see quite a bit of overlap between my top ten international list and this one, but I’ll also profile a few books from inside  the states. You may notice a paucity of female authors – one of my New Year’s resolutions is to read more female mystery writers, so you will see more on the list next year. The following  books are in no particular order of preference – all are equally fantastic.


in the morning1. In The Morning, I’ll Be Gone by Adrian McKinty  
McKinty brings his Troubles Trilogy to a (literally) explosive close as Detective Sean Duffy gets assigned by British secret service  to track down an old classmate turned IRA bigwig.


fever2. The Fever by Megan Abbott

Abbott takes on middle class paranoia and the dangerous lives of adolescent girls in this modern update to the Salem Witch Trials.  Teenage girls are falling ill in a small, polluted New England town and parents, teenagers, and the CDC work to find the cause before  the contagion can spread.


williammcilvanneylaidlaw3. Laidlaw by William McIlvanney

McIlvanney wrote this early Tartan Noir in the mid-1970s, and several decades later, it’s back in print and available on our shelves.  DI Laidlaw is a dour but compassionate man, working to find a criminal and put him in custody before a murdered girl’s family can take  their own revenge.


day of atonement4. The Day of Atonement by David Liss

Liss takes a break from his Benjamin Weaver character to take us into a stand-alone tale of revenge best served cold – a Jewish Count  of Monte Cristo, if you will. A young converso, after fleeing to England, embraces his Jewish heritage and returns to Lisbon to visit  revenge upon the inquisitor who betrayed his family.


the good life5. The Good Life by Frank Wheeler

Wheeler takes us deep into the messed-up head of a corrupt Nebraskan sheriff taking control of the drug trade in his small town. As  the body count got higher, my willingness to ever visit rural Nebraska got steadily lower. But hey, that’s what people think of Texas,  too.


ghostmonth6. Ghost Month by Ed Lin

Ed Lin sets his latest novel in Taipei’s historic Night Market as a college dropout/food vendor tries to find out who killed his ex- girlfriend. Full of vast conspiracies, bizarre foods, and a whole lot of Joy Division lyrics, Ghost Month is the best kind of  international noir.


last winter we parted7. Last Winter, We Parted by Fuminori Nakamura

A reporter is assigned to write a book on a photographer imprisoned for burning his models alive in a quixotic attempt to capture  their essence. As the reporter learns more about the photographer and the photographer’s sister, he begins to question the nature of  reality while at the same time getting ever closer to discovering the pair’s nefarious secrets. The most literary noir I’ve read this  year.


rose gold8. Rose Gold by Walter Mosley

Walter Mosley’s long-running protagonist Easy Rawlins returns to the page in this wild romp through the swinging sixties and the  nascent Black Power movement. Mosely creates a sympathetic portrayal of characters marginalized by society and once again immerses us  in his diverse vision of historic Los Angeles.


the black hour9. The Black Hour by Lori Rader-Day

This was my favorite debut of the year. Rader-Day crafts an intricate mystery set in the echoing halls of the Ivory Tower, addressing  school violence, battles over funding, and just about every other collegiate controversy you can name. I can’t wait to see what she  does next.


final silence10. The Final Silence – Stuart Neville

Stuart Neville has actually written a believable serial killer narrative set in Northern Ireland and seamlessly integrated into the  history of the Troubles. I thought it couldn’t be done, and I was wrong. Thank you, Mr. Neville.


secret history of las vegasHonorable Mention: The Secret History of Las Vegas, by Chris Abani

I just started reading this one, so I don’t want to put it on the official list, but judging by the first ten pages, this will be one  of the most beautifully written mysteries I have ever read. Given the psychopathic crimes, conjoined twins, and Las Vegas setting,  this will also be one of the creepiest.

 


Copies of each book are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.

MysteryPeople Review: THE GOOD LIFE, by Frank Wheeler, Jr.

the good lifeReview By Molly

Frank Wheeler Jr. has just published his second novel, The Good Life, and boy, is it a doozy. Wheeler’s first book, The Wowzer, was well received as a debut novel upon its release in 2012. In The Good Life, Earl Haack Jr., raised by his policeman father to take a rather flexible approach to civil liberties, corruption, and brutality, works to take control of the drug trade in his hometown and carry on the family legacy. Haack is joined by his idiot brother and formidable ex-wife in his efforts to extend control over a huge and warring territory in what feels like equal parts Bad Lieutenant, The Godfather, and The Killer Inside Me.

The Good Life goes well alongside MysteryPeople’s September Pick of the Month, Benjamin Whitmer‘s new book Cry, Father – both star characters that go by Junior and have been virtually destroyed by the legacy of their fathers. While Whitmer’s tale focuses on the ways in which a father can try hard and still mess up, Wheeler’s novel takes a much more Machiavellian approach, showing the damage that can be done by a powerful and dangerous figure who deliberately sets out for his children to follow in his (bloody) footsteps.

Each part of Wheeler’s latest is both terrifying and tongue-in-cheek, starting with the title. “The Good Life” is the state motto of Nebraska, from whence the author hails and where the novel takes place. Another meaning for the title comes from Haack’s belief that he is creating a better world.  By taking out the most violent drug traffickers and moderating the level of violence in the community through his own control of the drug trade, Earl Haack, Jr., thinks he can establish “the good life” for his hometown. Earl also understands that through his corrupt actions, he also gains for himself and his ex-wife “the good life” of a gangster, in stark contrast to any morally driven part of his character. The novel, like the title, draws attention to Earl’s hypocrisy throughout, and although the novel consists mainly of snappy dialogue and extreme violence, Wheeler takes just the right amount of time to meditate on the nature of morality.

Wheeler’s new novel is not only impeccably plotted but also perfectly choreographed, with stylish dialogue and hard, tight writing. Wheeler grounds the narrative well in his native Nebraska, but abstracts the struggles of his characters to represent much of the struggle of modern America as a whole. The Good Life reads like rural noir, but feels like a gangster flick. The entire novel is cinematic in its scope, and if Quentin Tarantino teamed up with Francis Ford Coppola to make a movie about small-town corrupt cops in Nebraska starring Mathew McConaughey and Salma Hayek, it might look something like this book.  Hint, hint, Hollywood.


Copies of The Good Life are available via bookpeople.com and are coming soon to our shelves.

3 Picks for August

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MysteryPeople’s 3 Picks for August

As the summer winds down, we often end up wondering where the time went. To keep us from wistfully looking back at what could have been, we’ve assembled three picks to look forward to this month…

 

after i'm goneAFTER I’M GONE by Laura Lippman

One of the best books of this past year is soon to be in paperback. Laura Lippman uses a cold murder case tried to an even older missing person’s  one to look at family, feminism, and class over fifty years. One of the smartest and unique books I’ve read in recent memory.
Paperback to be released 8/12

 

 

a walk among the tombstonesA WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES by Lawrence Block

This title is finally due to be back in print before the September release of the film version. One of the best of the Matthew Scudder series, with the unlicensed PI facing some of the darkest of human  behavior when he takes on a kidnapping case. Scudder set the template for the likes of Dennis Lehane and Reed Farrel Coleman.
New edition to be released 8/26

 

THE GOOD LIFE by Frank Wheeler Jr.

NewPulp gives us another great debut to be released this month. This tale of a young man taking his fathers job as sheriff of a corrupt Midwest town is violent, poetic, and utterly human. Fans of Frank Bill and Jim Thompson will love it.
Release date to be announced