What’s a nice Buddhist like me doing writing neo-noir crime fiction? Good question. This article, which appeared in Shambhala Sun magazine, takes on that very question. It seems to have disappeared from the website, so it appears below. It was accompanied by a very short story showing the style and values of noir with a more hopeful, more Buddhist message. You can find that story here.
by Brian Haycock
When I started writing crime fiction, I wasn’t really interested in crime. It was just a way of writing about the people I’d known, ordinary people who got a little too close to the edge sometimes. People who could go either way, depending on what came along. I wrote about a down-on-his luck musician back home working a speed trap for his uncle, a small-town sheriff. A convict whose three-year sentence over a bar fight leads to trouble in prison and another twenty years added on to his sentence. A punch-drunk ex-fighter being used by a mob boss he works for. I didn’t really know any punch-drunk ex-fighters, but I could picture people I knew getting into scrapes, things they couldn’t really handle. And paying the price for it.
Before long my stories were appearing in Thuglit, Yellow Mama, Pulp Pusher and other upstanding publications. And Swill. That’s right, Swill. The genre seemed to suit my spare writing style. I was never much for description and inner monologue. And I didn’t have much trouble picturing people getting in trouble. I’d seen some of that over the years.
I realized I was writing noir fiction when I noticed that most of my protagonists were dying off after a few thousand words. The death rate was running about 70 percent. Most of the others were looking at long prison stretches. Not all of them: the ex-musician at the speed trap solved a murder. But the bodies were piling up.
I had a thought about that: you are what you write.
I’m a Buddhist, and it seemed like I’d have a more healthy, optimistic view of life. I really wanted to write something more uplifting, more hopeful. If I’m going to make a difference in this world, I’d like to help people get more out of their lives, not depress them. I was determined to take a more positive tone. It wouldn’t play at Thuglit, but there were plenty of other outlets.
My next story was about a forklift driver at a glass plant whose boss won’t let him have a day off to visit his father on the day he is to be executed for murder. After another worker dies of heatstroke after being overworked he snaps and beats the boss to death. The story ends with him on the road to the prison to see the old man one last time before he’s arrested for murder himself. It wasn’t what I started out to write, but that was how it wound up. Well, I told myself, at least he’s not dead.
Noir fiction grew out of hardboiled crime fiction in the 1930’s, when writers like James M. Cain and Cornell Woolrich started writing about ordinary people hanging on in very hard times. Desperate people making some bad choices. And everything they did to get out of trouble only pulled them in deeper. Given the moral codes of the day, they always paid for their sins, even if the only payment was to remain stuck in their dreary, hopeless lives.
In the 1950’s, noir flourished as paperbacks became popular. Writers like Day Keene, David Goodis and Charles Williams became household names, their books sometimes selling more than a million copies. But noir started to change. It became confused with film noir, a genre that has more to do with the look and tone of a film than with the flaws and fates of the characters. And the popular idea of noir broadened to include a wide range of hardboiled stories. For many people today, noir simply means a dark, cynical tone and a hard edge to the writing.
The moral codes have changed as well. Modern noir stories often have no moral compass at all. In today’s neo-noir fiction — like the stories in Thuglit — the criminals often walk away grinning. And reloading. I was writing noir fiction, old style. My characters were getting what they deserved, more or less.
In classic noir fiction, ordinary, flawed characters are ruled by their desires, leading to wrong choices and, ultimately, their undoing. It’s sort of a formula, a fall-from-grace, bad karma morality play.
One of the best-known works of noir fiction is the 1934 novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain. It was a bestseller, and it was made into several movies. The plot defines classic noir. Frank Chambers is a drifter who takes a job at a roadside diner and falls hard for Cora, the owner’s wife. (Lana Turner in the 1946 movie, which explains a lot.) They want to run off together, but Cora doesn’t want that life. Instead, they wind up hatching a plan to kill the owner, Nick, an older man that Cora married to escape her job in an L.A. hash house. Their first attempt fails and Frank leaves, but he keeps thinking about Cora. He returns, telling himself that he and Cora can make a life together. But they wind up killing Nick in a staged auto accident.
The district attorney is sure the accident was staged, and cons them into turning on each other, but a slick lawyer gets them off. Now they have what they wanted. There’s insurance money, and they own the diner. And they have each other. Of course, they’re not satisfied. Frank wants to go back on the road. Cora wants to build the diner into a moneymaker. They quarrel. Their last quarrel leads to another accident. This time, Cora flies through the windshield and dies. In the end, Frank is on death row, convicted of killing Cora.
(By the way, there’s no postman. And nothing rings. The title is a non sequitur. Or a koan.)
Frank is ruled by his desires. At the beginning, he’s a drifter, always wanting to hit the road in search of something better. When he meets Cora, he quickly becomes obsessed with her. As he says, “I had to have her, if I hung for it.” When he wins $250 playing pool and thinks he can use that to take Cora away from Nick, he tries to win more and loses it all. Later on, when Cora leaves town for a week, he takes up with another woman as soon as she’s gone. As much as he wants Cora, he’s not satisfied once he’s with her.
And Cora is ruled by her desires as well. She escapes her Midwestern roots, then marries Nick to escape from her life in L.A. She kills Nick to escape the marriage. Later, she plots to kill Frank. Like Frank, she’ll never be satisfied. Inevitably, their cravings for something better — or just something else — lead to something much worse. An unhappy marriage, death in an accident, a murder conviction, death by hanging.
We’re all ruled by our desires. That’s the appeal of noir fiction. We can all see ourselves being taken over by desire and making the same bad choices. We can relate.
That’s the world of noir. There are no happy endings. No one lives happily ever after. And that’s our world, too. That’s the appeal of noir fiction. It’s not an easy life, and it often ends too soon. We all want something better, but we have a choice. We can deal with the world as we find it, living in the present and appreciating that. Frank and Cora had that choice. They could have loved each other and found a way to work through the complications that caused. They told themselves that murder was the only way they could be together. They told themselves that they weren’t really murderers, that they were better than that. But they weren’t. They chose not to be.
Critics often characterize noir fiction as being about people who are doomed to suffer. They live in a cold, hard world, and they have little chance of finding something better. I don’t agree. They have choices. We all have choices. We can create our own karma, day by day. The choices aren’t always easy, but we are not doomed by mere circumstance. We are only doomed by ourselves.
I’m trying to be more positive, both in my day-to-day life and in my writing. In my most recent crime story a man is on his way to a job interview at a prison. He stops for a drink to loosen himself up, has five or six. He robs a drug dealer behind the bar and gets ripped on meth, PCP and Xanax. He takes on a roomful in a bar fight. He’s chased across the desert by armed bikers. Okay, let’s just say he has a few adventures. When he stumbles into the prison with his clothes ripped and blood all over him, hefinds that he’s what they look for in a prison guard. He’s hired.
It’s a comedy.
Okay, he’s not a bodhisatva. And he’s not making great choices. But he’s not dead. And he’s got a job. At least it’s a happy ending, so maybe I’m making some progress. Besides, I had fun writing it.
That’s the important thing.