When I found this photo, I knew it would be the perfect prompt for a scene for country noir.
Who is this character? Is he walking away from a heinous crime he’s committed? Is he about to commit a heinous crime? Maybe he’s trying to prevent a heinous crime. In all that fog, at least one heinous crime should be hiding in there.
Here’s how I would start the scene:
“Hunching my shoulders, I walked slowly, listening. If I could hear them before they saw me, I had a chance. I could also turn around and run. I stopped, my ears straining. Fight or flight? Which gave me the best chance at survival? I started waking. Neither one, as far as I could tell. Might as well face them and get it over with. One way or the other.”
How would you use this photo as a scene for country noir?
When I mentioned to my brother-in-law, an ardent sf and fantasy fan, that I was looking for a new kind of mystery, he recommended two books from the 1950’s, The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov. These mysteries, set in the distant future, feature human police detective Elijah Bailey and his robot humanoid partner R. Daneel Olivaw.
I like The Naked Sun better than The Caves of Steel but I almost put it down because of how technology ruins suspense. Bailey is asked to investigate, with the help of Daneel, a murder on a distant planet settled by humans. Because Daneel is a robot, and this is an Isaac Asimov novel, Daneel is programmed with The Three Laws of Robotics. This means Bailey’s safety is Daneel’s first priority. It also means that in the first part of the book, when anything exciting, or even mildly interesting, is about to happen, Daneel’s programming kicks in and prevents Bailey from taking any action that’s even slightly risky.
The fun thing is that Asimov has Bailey realize his partner’s protection is hampering his investigation. He trick Daneel into inactivity, and then the plot gets more exciting when Bailey is almost killed.
Smartphones are reality’s equivalents of Asimov’s robots:
Main character gets lost in a dangerous section of city. GPS to the rescue!
Main character meets mysterious stranger. Does online search for stranger. Mysterious no more!
Main character notices someone following her. Calls cops while walking!
In the book reviews I read, I find a lot of novels are set in the recent past — 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s. Maybe that’s because authors know how technology ruins suspense. At a presentation, author Karen Harper, who writes contemporary suspense, mentioned how she had to keep inventing ways to get rid of smartphones to place her characters in danger.
That’s one reason why I like country noir. Many rural places in our country still have no reception. While driving through West Virginia, on a major highway, my oldest lost connection with my niece because the mountains loomed so high above us. A few days ago, I met my cousin and her family at a state park. As the kids went creeking, I glanced at my phone. No bars. A perfect place for a bad guy to lure a good guy.
In my short story, “Debt to Pay” in From the Lake to the River, the teenage main character and his brother live in a small house in Wayne National Forest with no cell reception. This inconvenience is a key ingredient in my plot. I also had to think of a realistic reason for a character to have lost a phone. I don’t want to tell the reason because I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, but when I had other people read my rough drafts, no one said it was unbelievable.
What do you think? Have you read a mystery or thriller set in the present that convincingly works around smartphones?
After doing some online research, I have discovered country noir goes by several names like “rural noir” and “southern noir”. Besides Mr. Woodrell’s novels, another example is the series Justified. The themes of poverty and violence described in the nonfiction book Hillbilly Elegy are common in country noir. Many country songs, like “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia”, would qualify.
Opinions differ over what should be included in country noir, but I think stories should echo themes originating in film noir, the classification that started all the noir subgenres. That’s why I categorize my short story which will published in September as country noir.
Classic Film Noir
In Film Noir, eds. Paul Duncan and Jurgen Muller, the classic period for film noir is listed as 1940-1960, but other experts say it ends in 1958 or 1959. Along with a distinct visual style which often included low-key lighting and deep shadows, classic film noir contained at least one or more of the following elements:
A weak, male character
A femme fatale — she manipulates the weak male
A private eye — who may be either weak or strong
A determined, good woman — usually, she is trying to rescue the weak male. (These weak, male characters are a a lot of trouble.)
Corrupt authorities — including the police
An innocent man or woman convicted of acrime — see weak, male character
Characters doomed by fate or their pasts
Greed and opportunities to make huge scores
Caper film — from Film Noir by Alain Silver, The audience sees a crime from the criminals POV. And during or after the execution of the crime, Something Goes Wrong.
Couple on the Run — from Film Noir. The couple can be innocent, fleeing from a trumped up charge, or guilty and trying to escape the police.
What draws me to country noir is the combination of noir elements in a rural setting. The country landscape gives noir themes a fresh twist.
If you are interested in learning more about film noir from the classic period, check out Noir Alley on TCM ( Turner Classic Movies). In September, the series will begin again on Saturdays at midnight and Sundays at 10 a.m. The introductions by the hose Eddie Mueller, the Czar of Noir, have taught me so much about this style.
Another aspect of country noir I like is that it limits technology. Next time, I will write about the problems I’ve encountered with technology dissolving tension.
Have you read or watched anything that can be called “country noir”?
What are these three people going to do? Are they friends? Relatives? The boys appear energetic, enthusiastic, while the girl may be looking at her phone. Perhaps she doesn’t want to go on this hike. Are they trying to work in one last adventure before school starts? Maybe a series of misadventures?
I am very excited to announce the upcoming publication on September 1 of my first short story in From the Lake to the River: Buckeye Christian Fiction Authors 2018 Anthology. The theme for the nine stories is that they are all set in Ohio, whether in the present or the past. To give you a hint of what’s inside, here are four summaries:
Soldier’s Heart by Tamera Lynn Kraft
Noah Andrews, a soldier with the Ohio Seventh Regiment can’t wait to get home now that his three year enlistment is coming to an end. He plans to start a new life with his young wife. Molly was only sixteen when she married her hero husband. She prayed every day for him to return home safe and take over the burden of running a farm. But they can’t keep the war from following Noah home. Can they build a life together when his soldier’s heart comes between them? 150 years ago the history of America changed forever.
Surprised by Love by Sandra Merville Hart
Set during the tragic 1913 Great Miami River Flood in Troy, Ohio.
Lottie’s feelings for an old school crush blossom again during the worst flood her town has endured in years.
Desperate circumstances throw Lottie and Joe together. Can tragedy unite the couple to make her long-buried dream of winning his love come true?
Summer Song by Michelle Levgine
Dani has growing doubts about mixing marriage and a music ministry on the road. Then again, with as little time as she and Kurt can spend together, despite working for the same ministry, she might never see that engagement ring. Four weeks at a teen music boot camp gives them time together, but the egos and politics that converge in one place might threaten everything.
Debt to Pay by JPC Allen
While cutting wood near their home in Wayne National Forest, a teenager and his older brother stumble across a dying millionaire, who claims his plane was rigged to crash. Do the brothers seek justice or cash in?
As you can see, our anthology offers a romance and history, as well as crime fiction. In fact my story qualifies as “country noir”. What is country noir? I’m so glad you asked! It’s a sub-genre of crime fiction which I will discuss in my next post.
I am a huge fan of anthologies because I can sample the works of many different authors. What are some of your favorite anthologies?