Domestic Noir

Troubled Daughter - Twisted Wives

Not long ago I read a blogger’s book review which suggested that Lifetime Channel made-for-cable movies are the contemporary counterpart of the suspense stories written 50 – 75 years ago that might have appeared anywhere from a crime pulp magazine to a woman’s glossy…brooding, often incredibly dark stories about women on the run, women contemplating crimes, reckoning with duplicitous lovers, seeking revenge on abusive spouses or grappling with their own personal demons. An accurate assessment? Well, I don’t know if I’d go that far, and if you routinely watch Lifetime Channel films, you can decide on your own.

“Domestic Suspense” or “Domestic Noir” isn’t a new genre subset, just a label being used more frequently, perhaps. Sarah Weinman’s 2013 anthology Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives is about as excellent an introduction to the roots of this mystery/crime fiction sub-category as you could ask for, with stories by writers you’ll likely want to learn more about residing side-by-side with luminaries like Patricia Highsmith, Margaret Millar and Shirley Jackson. I didn’t buy this as soon as it came out, but wished that I had, even if my own tastes do run more towards gunsels, gangsters and thugs. If the anthology’s stories, taken as a whole, accomplish one thing consistently, it’s a mastery of the ‘ominous and the foreboding’. And who better than Sarah Weinman to assemble this anthology? Weinman’s the editor of the classic Library of America Women Crime Writers series as well as co-editor of an edgy anthology like Sex, Thugs And Rock & Roll, and I say that alone makes for a solid resume (not that it’s where hers ends).

I’ll let the more educated and experienced critics, reviewers and writers debate the pro’s and con’s of genre sub-categories and the inherent risks of ghettoization. Myself, I’ll just enjoy dark mystery masters’ work, and Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives showcases 14 such masters at the top of their game and laying the foundations for contemporary dark suspense.

 

No Hoods Left In The Hood?

Noir Gentrification

Background research on settings? Search engines can only yield so much, and eventually you just have hop on a bus or get in the car, ready to pound the pavement if you really want to get the look and feel of a place for whatever it is you’re writing about. Obviously that’s a problem if you live in Newark and your project’s set in Novgorod. But if it’s just another neighborhood in your home town, you’re good to go. For some (me, for example), the trick is accessing a time machine in order to capture not just a place, but a place-in-time.

Adam Abramowitz, the Boston writer of A Town Called Malice and Bosstown, had a terrific piece in the March 19th CrimeReads (link below), “Noir In The Era Of Gentrification: What Happens To Spenser & Scudder When Their Cities Are Gone?” He opens by recalling childhood trips to neighborhoods that were ripe with danger and which later became settings for his writing. But in the ensuing years, those blocks once lined with strip joints, gin joints and sundry other joints populated by lethal predators were gentrified building-by-building into rehabbed lofts and pricey rebuilds, the strip joint now a Starbucks, the gin joint a trendy bistro, and the only predators still lurking about are snooty sales clerks in fancy boutiques.

“Big city noir is under siege,” he writes. “As a noir reader, I become as attached to a city as to the main character working those pitiless streets…(Gentrification) threatens to render our stories sentimental and nostalgic until we all sound like a lamenting grandparent: Back in the bad old days.” Abramowitz refers mostly to New York and Boston, but acknowledges the same for James Lee Burke’s New Orleans and even Chandler’s and MacDonald’s Los Angeles.

Here beside the coast of the ‘inland sea” (the Great Lakes), it’s no different. Endless blocks south and west of Chicago’s Loop seemed destined for permanent skid row status after WWII. Now the South Loop has exploded with residential hi-rises, and west of downtown where independent food service distributors stretched for a mile beneath the Lake Street El and the Fulton Market strip, McDonald’s erected its new headquarters, just over from Google’s Chicago HQ, and suburban corporations are elbowing each other aside, determined to find suitably sized industrial lofts to gut or tear down so they can erect faux-rehabs. The SRO’s and their hoboes, homeless, hookers, pimps, muggers and wino’s have been pushed a couple miles south and west once again, and if the migration continues, eventually they’re going to cross the border into Indiana or be halted at the Mississippi.

Brighton-Archer

My own work is set in a very particular time and place, and while that place has changed considerably, it definitely hasn’t been gentrified. 1959 landmarks like the sprawling Miami Bowl 24/7 100-lane bowling complex or the once-luxurious Brighton Theater are long gone, along with countless Mom & Pop storefront bakeries, bars, hardware stores, dress shops, jewelers and deli’s (and all of the loan sharks, card games and B-girls that worked their back rooms). Some are no-brand phone stores and vaping shops now, others just vacant. The discreet Mowimy Popolsku signs in their doors have been replaced by a different language, perhaps, but I’m sure there’s no shortage of punks, thugs and crooks around. They’re just busy spray-painting their colors on garage walls before they get down to business these days. Now the word is that retiring Yuppies and monied Millenials from landlocked Chinatown are buying up two flats as investment properties. Not exactly gentrification, but enough change to make it hard to recognize anything from the old B&W photos sourced online.

Still, there’s no substitution for actually walking the main streets, side streets and even the alleys (which were only paved with cinders from the nearby ComEd plant back in the era I’m writing in). The sights, sounds and smells are all a little different from what my characters experienced in 1959, I suppose. But as Adam Abramowitz writes in his CrimeReads essay, “Don’t cry, noir lovers. Change is cyclical and as long as the slums of the heart keep burning, there’s always going to be material to mine.”

https://crimereads.com/noir-in-the-era-of-gentrification/

8 Minutes Of Noir Bliss

poster

Can a deliciously dark neo-noir film be nearly perfect, even if it’s less than ten minutes long?

Venezuelan writer, director and filmmaker Sebastien Guiterriez is an inventive artist and clearly a fan of classic Hollywood film noir. Not a name popping up on TMZ and People magazine? No, Guiterriez is not, but he creates some unusual work, like the screenplays for films like Gothika and even the over-the-top Snakes On A Plane. He directed the 1998 blink-and-you-missed-it neo-noir crime thriller Judas Kiss, and wrote and directed a truly unusual blend of horror and neo-noir, Rise: Blood Hunter in 2007 with Lucy Liu and Michael Chiklis, a movie I hope to chat up here later at some point. (I mean it’s definitely a horror film, but it’s also a pretty darn good neo-noir crime film in its way.) But Guiterriez is quite the entrepreneurial sort, writing and directing one of the first wave of regular ‘feature type’ films intended exclusively for online distribution, 2011’s Girl Walks Into A Bar, and then turned to Kickstarter to launch the great Hotel Noir, a faithful homage to classic Hollywood film noir and sundry genre classics, which later saw limited theatrical release, renamed City Of Sin.

Definitely more about that one later.

tell-tale 1Carla Gugino by Greg Williams 4telltale1

But it’s his 2010 internet short Tell-Tale, directed by Greg Williams, that intrigues me. Short? How about really short, as in eight minutes short. Yet to me, it’s practically perfect. Dark. Claustrophobic. Steamy. Relentless. Surprising.

Carla Gugino, Guiterriez’ one time and maybe still partner, works alongside Alan Arkin and others in Tell-Tale, and as the title suggests, the film’s kind of a riff on Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart. Carla Gugino plays a dangerously alluring woman accused of murdering her lover, while her husband’s grilled for the same crime in the adjoining interrogation room, the questioning interrupted by flashback cuts to a torrid love scene. Yet, there’s much more happening here than a love affair gone bad, or something simple like a jealous spouse’s rage. But it would be unfair of me to spoil it, and c’mon, it’ll only take you eight minutes to see for yourself at YouTube or wherever.

tell-tale 2tell-tale 3

Sets, camera work, wardrobe, acting, dialog (brief as it is)…all dead on, so a big round of applause to director Greg Williams, and to Guiterriez…and to all involved.

Also worth pointing out, Tell-Tale demonstrates something I’ve always contended: sex on screen can literally sizzle till the film melts even without gratuitous nudity. Creative cinematography, artful editing, wardrobe, sets, and of course, the actors’ performances can all work together to generate memorable scenes likely to make you squirm in your  seat. Yet, once they’re done, you realize that it all happened through the sheer magic of crafty filmmaking.

I stumbled across this gem by accident. Then I watched it again. Then returned to it a couple more times, and expect I will do so again. After all, it’s only eight minutes long. You could knock it off during a coffee break (not that I’d advise doing so at the office). As movies go, it’s more of a sketch than a fully fleshed out film. But if you’re in the mood for a quick shot of delectable darkness, go look for Tell-Tale.

 

Femme Noir

SunBurn Femme Noir

“It creates a whole new category…’femme noir’.”

I can’t accuse a publisher of well-intentioned marketing hyperbole, since the quote comes from a Wall Street Journal review of Laura Lippman’s 2018 novel Sunburn.

Not that Lippman’s neo-noir homage to fellow Baltimore writer James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce isn’t ‘femme noir’, because it certainly is, but only that writers like Sara Gran, Vicki Hendricks, Megan Abbott and quite a few others might rightfully argue that ‘femme noir’ has been thriving for more than a couple decades before Sunburn’s release a little over a year ago. So lets agree that Lippman’s novel – and really, her entire body of work, including the essential Tess Monaghan detective series – builds on, enriches and strengthens the continually expanding ‘femme noir’ category.

Sunburn had been on my end table’s ‘to-be-read’ pile longer than it deserved till an Anna Holmes Topic interview link from Lit Hub reminded me that the book was still waiting for me. Holmes’ interview, “The Accidental Crime Novelist” (link below) covers a lot of ground with the writer, including her transition from reporter to writer and the genesis of the initial Tess Monaghan detective novel, which in a way mirrored Lippman’s own career path at that time, to her thought-provoking remarks about where the mystery/crime fiction genre is — and has been — and its peculiar (and overdue for reassessment) reliance on women as anonymous victims. Consider Holmes’ excellent interview a companion piece to Laura Lippman’s own January 2019 Topic.com Monologue, “The Problem With Dead Women” (link also below).

Sunburn

Lippman’s one of those writers who unintentionally makes me (and many others, no doubt) feel woefully inadequate and ready to delete all works-in-progress from my computer. There are masters of language who can write with an economy of words, yet somehow choose the right words all the time. Is it magic, God-given talent, or the result of endless editing and rewriting to purge all the fluff and writerly nonsense? Presumably, it’s some combination of all three. Sunburn is a prime example of this skill at work. Just shy of halfway through, I’d be challenged to point out an unnecessary paragraph, wasted phrase or random word that could’ve been deleted. Yet, every word is precisely the right word. Doing just that is what I aspire to.

Some online reviews have whined about Sunburn’s pace or complained that it takes too long to get going, but I think they miss the point. ‘Noir’, whether ‘neo-noir’, ‘femme noir’ or any other sub-category of this ever-expanding thing we call ‘Noir’ isn’t necessarily the same as mystery. It often includes a mystery, just as it may include private eyes, cops, crooks, femmes fatales and murders or other sundry forms of mayhem. But there doesn’t have to be a body discovered by the end of the first chapter or a colorfully quirky investigator on hand to solve the crime. Holmes deftly draws that from Lippman in her interview. So many of the best writers working in Mystery’s various sub-categories know it well, as Lippman clearly does.

You’re probably more on top of new releases than I am, so I’ll bet you read Laura Lippman’s Sunburn months ago. Even so, do check out Anna Holmes interview with the writer, and Lippman’s Topic.com monologue.

https://www.topic.com/the-accidental-crime-novelist

https://www.topic.com/laura-lippman-the-problem-with-dead-women

 

Waiting (For ‘The Man’)

julia van Os by drew jarrett 2017

The lines laid down on the ladies room vanity have all been sniffed clean. That’s when smoldering glances were exchanged, promises of more in the limo, so here she waits in her four hundred dollar shoes and her eight hundred dollar dress and the earrings she stole from her roomie’s jewelry box, perched on the curb in the alley and hoping she doesn’t see another rat scurry by before that Mercedes finally arrives.

I’m hearing Lou Reed singing something suitably New York-ish when I look at this Drew Jarrett photo of Julia van Os from 2017.

Stumptown

Stumptown-5

One way for rabid readers to keep from going broke is to learn to love their public library. I have. The one closest to me is a charming and well-designed facility, though all that décor apparently left no funds for books. But the next library over is an enormous two-story treasure trove, and its graphic novel section could outdo many comics shops. That’s where I came across writer Greg Rucka and artist Matthew Southworth’s great contemporary hard-boiled series, Stumptown.

Stumptown 1

Dex Parios is my favorite kind of ‘stiletto gumshoe’: Wonderfully flawed. Army vet and inveterate gambler, Dex is both bad-ass and wise-ass, and occasionally a bit of a screw-up. It makes for a lethal combo.

Stumptown 4

Sounds like near-future small screen options won’t be short of intriguing girlz-with-guns and lethal ladies, even though I’m still processing the sad news that Netflix cancelled the amazing Jessica Jones series with Krysten Ritter.

Cobie Smulders

ABC just announced a new Stumptown series by Jason Richman and Ruben Flesicher. Hard-boiled Dex Parios will be played by Canadian actress Jacoba Francisca Maria Smulders, better known as Cobie Smulders. Marvel universe fans know Cobie as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill from the Avengers. TV channel surfers know her as Robin Scherbatsky from syndicated-everywhere How I Met Your Mother sitcom reruns. Seems like a good casting decision to me, and I’m betting she can bring Dex Parios’ hard-boiled grit and glimpses of vulnerability to life on screen just fine. Looking forward to this one. And still enjoying Rucka and Southworth’s comics.

Stumptown Hardcover

David Goodis

Goodis Midnight Classics

Hard-boiled, noir, pulp, crime novelist and screenwriter David Goodis was born today, March 2nd back in 1917.

My own introduction to Goodis’ work was The Blonde On The Street Corner and The Moon In The Gutter in used bookstore 1990’s trade paperback editions from Midnight Classics (wish I still had those). From there I looked for more of his work, and confess to finding it a little uneven. Digging deeper, I discovered I wasn’t alone in that conclusion.

Four David Goodis Novels

Goodis, apparently, almost seemed to emulate one of the characters in the bleak, noir-ish world of his writing, hanging out in lowlife taverns and greasy spoons, poorly dressed, prone to depression and bouts of anger, and unlucky in love. But after laboring for years over low-paying aviation and adventure pulp magazine stories, Goodis was finally at the top of his game by the mid-1940’s. He had a couple successful hardcover novels to his credit, a lucrative six-year Warner Bros. screenwriting contract, and a hit movie based on his own novel, Dark Passage, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Yet within a couple years, he left Hollywood behind, had to move in with his parents in Philadelphia, and spent the remainder of his life cranking out paperback originals for Gold Medal and Lion Books along with – once again – pulp magazine stories. A lawsuit against the producers of the hit TV series The Fugitive, which Goodis asserted was based on his work, wasn’t resolved until just after his death. And by that time, not one of his books was even in print in the U.S. Yet, he was revered in Europe, with nearly a dozen critically acclaimed novels in France alone.

Goodis A Life In Black & White

David Goodis: A Life In Black And White by French writer Philippe Garnier was published in France in the mid-eighties, but wasn’t translated and published in the U.S. until 2013. It’s available through the Film Noir Foundation (it was edited by Eddie Muller), and at Amazon. In the mean time, you’ll find that “The Mysterious Life Of David Goodis” by Andrew Nette in a February 2015 edition of the Los Angeles Review Of Books (link below) provides a terrific capsulized overview of who Goodis was, what was great and not-so-great about him and his work, and even why European readers honored him so much more than his own American compatriots.

https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/mysterious-life-david-goodis/ – !

The Noir Chanteuse: Ute Lemper

Ute Lemper

Broadway actress and recording star, or is she really a cabaret chanteuse at heart? German singer (and so much more) Ute Lemper just seems to have a way of evoking a decadent Weimar era German basement nightclub when she’s singing or merely posing for a photo. Maybe it’s her association with roles like Lola in The Blue Angel, Velma Kelly in Chicago (publicity photo in that role below) or Sally Bowles in Cabaret. Then there’s that whole Kurt Weill songbook thing.

Ute Lemper: The Noir Chanteuse.

ute lemper as velma kelly 1998

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑