What I learned reading noirs all summer
Updated: Aug 4
Back in May, I was reading a series of essays from How to Write A Mystery: A Handbook from the Mystery Writers of America. I am in the process of writing a mystery and I was looking to fuel my writing fire. What triggered me to action was the essay on noirs.
I was done teaching and grading and I needed direction. I decided to make it Noir Summer.
I love noirs but whenever I look for good examples of noirs to read I come across the same list of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hamill, etc. Obviously, I want to read well-written canonical landmark books, but I didn’t want it to turn into school work. Most of my projects end up being overly ambitious and academic. I just wanted to have fun.
I wanted to enjoy the process of reading noirs and not turn it into grad school again. I found a list of the top neo-noir authors – Megan Abbott, James Elroy, and Michael Connelly and picked the synopsis that sounded the most fun.
Megan Abbott, I was already familiar. But I ordered one of her pulp novels, Queenpin. I was uncertain about the James Elroy because all I knew from his work was L.A. Confidential, but Clandestine’s plot centered around the search for a serial strangler in LA which intrigued me. And then I grabbed, the first three books of the Bosch series because I like to begin a series at the beginning so I don’t miss anything.
In addition to books, the Noir Study gave me more direction when it came to the movies I was watching, the series I was binging, and how I looked at the firmness or looseness of this genre I am suddenly super into.
The great thing about noir is its adaptability. You need a detective, a seducer in distress, shady dealings, secrets and lies, and a geographical or political environment that supports these secrets and lies. LA is the traditional setting, but noir happens in New York, the deep American south, or the halls of a high school.
Noir Summer 2022:
The books (some of these are in process )
Megan Abbott – Queenpin
James Ellroy – Clandestine
Michael Connelly – The Black Echo
Michael Connelly – The Black Ice
Michael Connelly – The Concrete Blonde
Michael Connelly – The Lincoln Lawyer
Michael Connelly – The Brass Verdict
Michael Connelly – The Reversal
Attica Locke – Black Water Rising
Tana French – The Tresspasser
Tana French – The Witch Elm
Tana French – In the Woods
Gillian Flynn – Sharp Objects
Gillian Flynn – Dark Places
The Big Sleep
The Long Goodbye
The Maltese Falcon
Devil in a Blue Dress
Pretty Little Liars
The Lincoln Lawyer
Only Murderers in the Building
Somehow on this journey, I found myself knee-deep in the work of Michael Connelly. Connelly is one of those writers I have avoided merely due to his popularity. I do that. If I am in a bookstore and see whole shelves devoted to a single writer, I usually assume the writer has enough support and doesn’t need me. Connelly has written a lot of books and now has three streaming series adapted from his work. I decided I needed to see what the fuss was about. Connelly is a noir writer but works his noirs within the system of the Los Angeles Justice System. I started with his first novel which features the legendary detective Harry Bosch: The Black Echo.
What did I learn:
Structure: the novel’s chapters indicate the time which is passing while the investigation goes on. This means chapters are long and meaty. This type of structure is not favored anymore. Most writers work with short chapters because it encourages the reader to keep going. In fact, Connelly’s later work has chapters in the 100s. I am on the fence about shorter chapters. While I think it’s a little ridiculous to read a book and be not even a third of the way through it and already at chapter 20, longer chapters create exhaustion midway through.
Description of the protagonist: Connolley did this move that was incredibly deft when describing the physicality of Harry Bosch. “The newspapers, when they described him, called him wiry.” (10). The book is written in the third person. There is more physical description, but by adding this, it establishes a specific word that another person would use to describe the character. It removes the subjectivity of the storyteller, despite the fact that it’s all coming from the subjectivity of the author. It gives the illusion of an outsider’s opinion.
Unlikeable protagonist: The character Bosch is an asshole. This is known. And with characters who are assholes, they usually need something more. Something that makes the reader root for them. Usually, it’s a partner, love interest, or kid. I’ve been really thinking over this considering I am trying to write a novel with investigative partners. I’ve been thinking about that balance. Except even with a partner, Bosch is a lone wolf. His partner is even checked out of investigations – he just wants to sell houses. The connection to Bosch comes across when he encounters the character of Sharkey. Sharkey is a character who lives by his wits on the street. When Bosch speaks to him, it’s with respect and relatability. This is where Bosch’s back story comes into the novel – his own life growing up on the street after his mother died. It’s not making the character likable, but showing an interaction that makes them human. He and Sharkey together bring out the human in Bosch.
I don’t know how much I want to write about cops: I love a good cop show or a cop book. But where those narratives always lose me is in the politics of the systems. The Black Echo also hates the politics, because the antagonists are not only the murderers but also the people within the system that stand in the way of the investigation: internal affairs officers trailing Bosch, Irving Irving who sent internal affairs after Bosch in the first place, and the jurisdictional cross-alliances and counter alliances between the LAPD and the FBI. Each time I would reach these sections, the mire, and red tape, I would stop reading and tell my husband that it was the most frustrating and boring part of the book. I know I am supposed to feel frustrated and bored – Connelly wants me to demand that “everyone just get out of Bosch’s way!” I come across the same issues when I am reading about the officers in Tana French’s Emerald Noirs: careerist cops, corrupt cops, and a mixture of the two. I just think that writing about investigators who are not cops allows more freedom.
This thought about my lack of desire to understand the bureaucracy of cops led me to my next Connelly, The Lincoln Lawyer. Lawyers are far more fun. They are smart, investigative, intuitive, and if not shady, definitely mischievous.
Lawyer stories are either driven by the mystery or driven by the lifestyle. Connelly is not glamorizing the lifestyle – Mickey Haller’s clients are shady, his associates are shady, and he is shady. But Mickey Haller is charming and the most fun to read about. He loves a good fight, loves a solid vehicle, and loves to get paid. He’s not an investigator but somehow ends up doing that anyway.
But even to write about lawyers means to have some awareness of the law. Being married to a lawyer has given me some insight, but not enough confidence to write a realistic way of using the law to jump through the loopholes of a legal system. However, it is definitely fun to read about them.
The PI and the amateur detective are much more appealing because they’re not officially trained, they don’t have to adhere to any specific rules or regulations, and they’re usually driven by something other than a job. Also, you can set up an amateur detective in high schools. Veronica Mars and Pretty Little Liars are two high school set noirs where the risk of exposure is a bigger threat than violence, and friendships are worth dying for. Amateur detectives can be reporters, like in Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects, or victims of violence like in Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places, or Tana French’s The Witch Elm. The possibilities of the amateur detective are what fuels many podcasts, and spoofs of podcasts – like Only Murderers in the Building. We all want to believe that we know better than those in charge of solving crimes.
And while my summer concludes soon and I will be returning to teaching, I don’t want Noir Summer to end. I am a little sad that I was unable to read all I wanted to read or watch all I wanted to watch. I’m hoping to continue with this study well into the fall.