Byways in Noir Fiction

For Me, It All Started With Film Noir

My friends Alain Silver and Jim Ursini, whose many books on the subject are in my library, introduced me to the joys of film noir. In time, I decided to investigate the fiction from which these films were adapted. I was already familiar with the triumvirate of greats—Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and James M. Cain—but I decided to dig further.

Of the novelists who wrote two or more books that I read were:

  • David Goodis: Black Friday, Down There (Shoot the Piano Player), Of Tender Sin, Dark Passage, The Moon in the Gutter, The Burglar, Nightfall, Cassidy’s Girl, and Street of No Return
  • Jim Thompson: Numerous titles, the best being The Killer Inside Me, Pop. 1280, After Dark My Sweet, and A Swell Looking Babe
  • Cornell Woolrich (aka William Irish): I Married a Dead Man and The Bride Wore Black
  • Charles Willeford: Pick-Up, The High Priest of California, Understudy for Death, The Burnt Orange Heresy, and the four Hoke Moseley novels
  • Robert Edmond Alter: Carny Kill and Swamp Sister

Then there is the category which I refer to as Oddities and One-Shots, people who were either famous for a single work or, if they wrote more, I only read one of their books. They include, in no particular order: W. R. Burnett (High Sierra); Don Carpenter (Hard Rain Falling), Elliott Chaze (Black Wings Has My Angel); Horace McCoy (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They); Kenneth Fearing (The Big Clock); William Lindsay Gresham (Nightmare Alley); Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley); and Chester Himes (The Real Cool Killers).

Reading these books, one becomes painfully conscious that the streets of America are not paved with gold. Life is not necessarily a walk through the park—unless it is night and the forces of evil are lurking in the shadows.

The Eight Rules of Writing

Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007)

Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007)

I admire the simplicity of Kurt Vonnegut’s eight rules of writing, as set down below:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted. [Maybe this is the best rule of them all.]
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Now these rules pertain almost exclusively to writing fiction. I wonder if I could adapt them to writing blogs. I’ll have to get back to you on that.