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 TheMaltese 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.
Elmore Leonard lived most of his life in Detroit, a working-class city, a ‘waste-not, want-not’ city. It’s no surprise he didn’t waste words in his fiction. Papa (Ernest) Hemingway is regarded by many as the ‘Father of Succinct Prose’: few adjectives, fewer adverbs. If Hemingway is the father, Leonard is the first son. In my view, he’s more Hemingway than Hemingway.
Leonard isn’t a traditional mystery writer. He doesn’t focus on sleuths trying to solve crimes. Instead, he delivers what I call Crime + Suspense. He keeps you guessing. You know the ‘hoods’ in his novels are going to pull a heist or execute a hit, but you don’t know how or when they’re going to do it.
Leonard generally writes from the point-of-view (POV) of criminals. In Get Shorty, for example, he creates an ambiance that sympathizes with – if not glamorizes – the criminal world.
As an aside, the majority of mystery novels feature detective leads, not criminal leads. When mystery authors use a murderer’s POV, to keep the whodunit in play they hide the murderer’s deepest thoughts – thoughts of murder. I’m not a big fan of using a murderer’s POV in a mystery novel. Not that it can’t work. An author can be inside a murderer’s mind, but not reveal everything that’s going on in there. Or, if the author reveals who the murderer is, they can keep the reader on the hook by slowly unveiling the how and why. In a sense, they deliver a howdunit.
Back to Elmore Leonard. He often presages what will happen near the start of a book, and then unravels how it happened. He knows how to tell a story: clean and fast, with lots of snappy dialog. That’s the signature of an Elmore Leonard novel. It’s noir, just not mystery noir.
Bay of Blood retells the story of Tom Thomson’s mysterious death.
“There are many clever details in Potter’s Bay of Bloodwith close parallels to Thomson’s life and death (1917). However, Potter takes his readers on a fascinating 21st-century chase, with bells and whistles never dreamt of 100 years ago.” ~ Dr. Sherrill Grace, UBC Killam Professor Emerita and Thomson Scholar.
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.
Why do writers write crime novels? Why do readers read them? We’d have to delve into the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). 😉 We’d need a thousand hours – no, a million.
Let’s look at things from the reader’s side of the page. That’s what really matters: why readers read, not why writers write. It’s a large question. However, I’m going to take a succinct approach. Crime fiction suffuses the zeitgeist. Crime readers have favourite styles: cozy mystery, private investigator, police procedural, etc. Regardless, they’re all fascinated with one thing. Murder. Why?
I see it as a two-headed compulsion. One, readers want to experience the other side of life: death. Two, they want to experience fear. They crave it, but only fictionally: fear of the unknown, fear of the invader, fear of reprisal, fear of something that will disrupt their life – or end it. Fictionally, of course.
PS: Book sellers claim that everything hinges on sales, i.e., on book buyers. I beg to differ. Buyers are great, but everything hinges on readers. Period. That includes those who borrow from libraries or share a book a dozen times. The more shares (the more readers), the merrier.