Dark Angels

To some, crime noir is a subgenre set in grim urban environments, featuring petty criminals and desperate characters, permeated by a sense of disillusionment. I favour a wider lens. In the North Noir (Detective Eva Naslund) series, crime noir is less bleak. It is more like life itself: not always dark, not always light.

Crime noir is linked to film noir, to movies such as The Maltese Falcon, which was first a novel. In a noir detective novel, the main character is sharp-witted and/or sharp-tongued. No quarter is given. Criminals try to rig the system, but fail.

Of course, noir detectives aren’t lily white. They cross lines, some more egregious than others, which they breach for the sake of efficiency or to apprehend criminals. Noir detectives are crime fiction’s dark angels. They know darkness, but follow the light.

Poe’s Legacy: Hominid Detectus

Edgar Allan Poe (1809 – 1849) is best known for macabre stories such as “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Tell-tale Heart.” He is regarded by many as the inventor of the detective genre, which has expanded into multiple forms now considered to be sub-genres; for example, crime, mystery, detective, thriller, etc.

In the decades since Poe’s death, hundreds of authors have fleshed out his prototype: Homo detectus, a man or woman with a wide-ranging mind, ever seeking, ever suspicious.

A detective doesn’t believe everything people say. In fact, when on a case, he or she can’t afford to believe anything people say. Although humans like to believe each other — belief builds cooperation; it’s a societal glue — detectives default to the opposite: they distrust others. What a way to live. As a society, we’re indebted to them. While we enjoy each other’s company, detectives probe dark holes and darker hearts.

New Odysseys

The word novel is derived from the Latin novellus. As an adjective, novel means new, fresh, unique. Centuries after its birth, it also began to be used as a noun meaning story.Hey, AMP,’ you say, ‘enough of the etymology.’ Right. Onward.

Novels are adept at delivering ideas and emotions, as well as action, setting and mood. If an author concentrates on one thing – for example, what people say – the story can fall flat. Talk by itself isn’t dramatic. Discussion devoid of action is a debate, not a story.

We all expect different things from novels. In my case, I want them to tell a complete story. Not just that some guy, let’s call him Odysseus, travelled for years, but how and where he travelled, and when and why, and who helped or hindered him – which are all included in Homer’s epic.

Beyond that, I want novels to tell a new story. ‘But, AMP,’ you say, ‘nothing is ever new under the sun.’ Fair enough. However, there will always be twists and shades: different settings, fresh perspectives, new odysseys.

A little winter levity: Why Aren’t Your Novels set in the Winter? They’re Supposed to be NORTH Noir

The first novel in the North Noir series (Bay of Blood) is set in the summer. The next two will be set in the spring and the fall. “Why no winter settings?” you ask. “No blizzards? No frozen bodies? It’s supposed to be NORTH noir.” Valid point. However, I have a reason – based on research. Well, on observation.

The short answer: Not as many murders take place in the winter. “Why?” Because it’s winter. In Canada, outside the cities, things slow down. Call it hibernation.

“Are you telling me that murderers are huddled next to their fireplaces? That it’s too cold to go out and kill someone?” Maybe. Hell, sometimes it’s too cold to go outside. Besides, murderers can’t risk harming their weapons. Take an axe. If you overuse it chopping wood, it’ll be too dull to whack someone. Consider a shovel. If you break the handle trying to clear ice, it won’t be available to crack someone on the head – a dozen times, of course (we’re talking noir, people). As for a shotgun, if you try to fire it at Minus-30, the barrel will explode or it’ll backfire. Forget about rendering it useless for murder. You’ll be dead yourself.

Windows into Other Worlds

To give a book is to give a window into another world. Do you only give – or recommend – books you know? In my case, I give ones I’ve enjoyed. Even if I like a particular author, I rarely give one of their books blindly, without first reading it.

Books are entirely subjective. You never know if a book will satisfy someone or, better yet, thrill them. You can’t say, “I love this, you better too.” But you can give what you’ve read and admired.

Here are some titles I recommend (most are recent):

NON-FICTION

Figures In A Landscape by Paul Theroux, 2018. Essays for all seasons, from travel pieces to literary criticism to profiles of Elizabeth Taylor, Oliver Sacks, and Robin Williams. Full disclosure: One, I skimmed a few non-travel essays that didn’t grab me. Two, I’m not a fan of any of Theroux’s fiction.

The Rub of Time by Martin Amis, 2018. Essays and Reportage, 1994-2017. A smorgasbord of Amis treats, mostly literary or political, with topics ranging from Saul Bellow to Donald Trump. Amis is regarded by some as the Bad Boy of Brit Lit. They say he’s crass. I say he’s entertaining. Full disclosure: One, I skimmed a few of the almost 50 essays; they weren’t in my wheelhouse. Two, I find Amis’s latest fiction unrewarding.

{As an aside, I feel no compunction to read everything that comes my way – even if it is supposed to be “good for me” or part of the canon.}

FICTION

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood, 2019. 2019 Booker Prize Co-winner. Sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. Clear-eyed, sardonic, accessible. Atwood doesn’t aestheticize The Testaments. The narrative is straightforward. As with all good novels, the prose is subservient to the plot.

Last but not least, my crime pick:

Standing In Another Man’s Grave by Ian Rankin, 2012. One of my favourites from the King of Scottish Noir. Rankin delivers brilliant banter and black humour wrapped in a cracking whodunit.