Characters are taken over by their desires and make bad choices—that’s the appeal of noir fiction, says Brian Haycock, because we’re all struggling with our desires. Here, Haycock offers a hardboiled story with a Buddhist twist and his thoughts on the bright side of writing noir.
McCall rises from the cushion and stands in the room. He feels the stillness around him. His legs are stiff and there’s an ache in his right thigh, where the bullet passed through. He tries a few steps to get the blood moving.
He walks to the window and pulls the curtains open, raises the sash. He lets the city sounds come in. Then he climbs out through the opening onto the fire escape and stands on the steel grate, looks down at the avenue. It hasn’t changed. People on the sidewalks, standing on the curbs. Sirens in the air. The avenue never changes.
But he’s changed. He watches the neon flashing in the night, the cars cruising slow in the right lanes, the steam rising from the manhole covers, swirling in the air. He watches it all, lets it go by him.
He’s looking for her. Emmy. He tries not to, but he can’t see the street without wanting her. He forces himself to look up, over the slate roofs, at the half-moon with the shadow clouds passing across.
He’s been six months sober and still he wants another hit. He spent four years on the avenue, chasing the high that would make it all make sense. In the end he hadn’t cared about sense. He only cared about the high. And he cared about Emmy.
He looks back down at the avenue, watching the people in the shadows. He knows that life. It’s almost all he knows, really. He can tell who’s dealing, who’s hustling the girls in the rooming houses, who’s waiting for a chance at a snatch and grab. And he can tell which ones are just standing in the shadows with nowhere else to go but down and down. He has a sense for that. He knows about down.
There’s a man under an awning. Fidgeting. He’s wearing a denim jacket with the collar up, hands in his back pockets. He thinks it’s Rodrigo, but he knows better. This happens to him. He’s outlived his friends and most of his enemies. Now when he looks down at the street he sees them, alive as they were before they overdosed or killed each other. There’s another man stepping out to the curb to cut a deal with someone in an old Buick. It could be Grady. But Grady took six bullets in an alley and died trying to get one last hit off a square of foil.
And still he wants to see Emmy. But he won’t. He sees everyone in the street, but he never sees Emmy.
A man comes out of the pizza shop, balancing a pizza box. He stands in the light and looks up and down the avenue. He’s tall and thin as rails, with stringy black hair and skin the color of paper. McCall can’t see his eyes, but he knows they’re black and empty. It’s Karek. McCall has been looking for Karek. Karek, who’d sold smack laced with lye. Karek, who’d ratted out everyone he knew to cover his own ass. Karek, who’d come into McCall’s with a .45 looking for whatever he could steal, firing into the darkness, putting one through McCall’s leg and bouncing another off his ribcage. Putting one though Emmy’s forehead as she slept, passed out after three days of hitting lines off a three-inch mirror. Karek.
McCall watches Karek turn and come toward him. A cold wind blows. The man keeps his head down, turns a little as he walks. McCall can go down the stairs, out into the street. He can follow Karek until he’s alone on some side street. He can come up behind, take him before he knows. Make him suffer. Make him pay. McCall feels his blood hot under his skin. He’s waited for this. He’s wanted this.
Karek knifes into the wind, half a block away. He looks up, sees McCall on the fire escape. They lock eyes.
It isn’t Karek.
McCall remembers. They told him Karek was dead. Shot down by a Jamaican drug gang he’d owed money to. He’d owed almost everyone and robbed or snitched out everyone else. He’d just been another desperate loser out on the avenue, trying to get by a little longer. Like McCall. Like all of them. And like Emmy, who’d been stretched out on a mattress in McCall’s apartment only because he had more coke than anyone else that week. That was the life. That was what they all did.
McCall climbs back through the window. He settles back on his cushion. He takes a long, deep breath, lets it out slowly. Then another. He’s outlived them all, and this is what he has left. His next breath. His next moment. And the moment after that. He feels everything else fall away. And he lets it go.
When I started writing crime fiction, I wasn’t really interested in crime. It was just a way of writing about the people I knew, ordinary people who got a little too close to the edge sometimes. People who could go either way, depending on what came along. I wrote about a down-on-his luck-musician working a speed trap for his uncle, a small-town sheriff; a convict whose three-year sentence over a bar fight leads to trouble in prison and another twenty years added to his sentence; and a punch-drunk ex-fighter being used by a mob boss he works for. I didn’t really know any punch-drunk ex-fighters, but I didn’t have much trouble picturing people getting in trouble. I’d seen some of that over the years.
Before long my stories were appearing in Thuglit, Yellow Mama? Pulp Pusher, and other upstanding publications. And Swill. That’s right, Swill. I realized I was writing noir fiction. The genre seemed to suit my spare writing style—I was never much for description and inner monologue—and it suited my plotlines. I noticed that most of my protagonists were dying off after a few thousand words. The death rate was running about 70 percent. Most of my other protagonists were looking at long prison stretches. Not all of them: the ex-musician at the speed trap solved a murder. But the bodies were piling up.
I had a thought about that: you are what you write.
As a Buddhist, it seemed like I should have a healthier, more optimistic view of life. I really wanted to write something more uplifting, more hopeful. If I’m going to make a difference in this world, I’d like to help people get more out of their lives, not depress them. I was determined to take a more positive tone. It wouldn’t play at Thuglit, but there were plenty of other outlets.
My next story was about a forklift driver at a glass plant whose boss wouldn’t let him have a day off to visit his father on the day he was to be executed for murder. After another worker dies of heatstroke due to being overworked, the forklift driver snaps and beats the boss to death. The story ends with him on the road to the prison to see the old man one last time before he’s arrested for murder himself. It wasn’t what I started out to write, but that was how it wound up. Well, I told myself, at least he’s not dead.
Noir fiction grew out of hardboiled crime fiction in the thirties, when writers like James M. Cain and Cornell Woolrich started writing about ordinary people hanging on in very hard times. Desperate people making some bad choices. And everything they did to get out of trouble only pulled them in deeper. Given the moral codes of the day, they always paid for their sins, even if the only payment was to remain stuck in their dreary, hopeless lives.
In the fifties, noir flourished as paperbacks became popular. Writers like Day Keene, David Goodis, and Charles Williams became household names, their books sometimes selling more than a million copies each. But noir started to change. It became confused with film noir, a genre that has more to do with the look and tone of a film than with the flaws and fates of the characters. And the popular idea of noir broadened to include a wide range of hardboiled stories. For many people today, noir simply means a dark, cynical tone and a hard edge to the writing. The moral codes have changed as well. Modern noir stories often have no moral compass at all. In today’s neo-noir fiction—like the stories in Thuglit—the criminals often walk away grinning. And reloading.
I was writing noir fiction, old style. My characters were getting what they deserved, more or less.
In classic noir fiction, ordinary, flawed characters are ruled by their desires, leading to wrong choices and, ultimately, their undoing. It’s sort of a formula—a fall-from-grace, bad karma morality play. The world of noir is the world of the first and second noble truths without the redemption of the third and fourth. It’s a world of people ruled by their desires. Desire for money. Desire for revenge. Desire for a better life. Or, pretty often, desire for a dame.
One of the best-known works of noir fiction is The Postman Always Rings Twice, a 1934 novel by James M. Cain. It was a bestseller and was made into several movies. The plot defines classic noir. Frank Chambers is a drifter who takes a job at a roadside diner and falls hard for Cora, the owner’s wife (played by Lana Turner in the 1946 movie, which explains a lot). They talk about running off together, but Cora doesn’t want that life. Instead, they wind up hatching a plan to kill the owner, Nick, an older man that Cora married to escape her job in an L.A. hash house. Their first attempt fails and Frank leaves, but he keeps thinking about Cora. He returns, telling himself that he and Cora can make a life together, and they wind up killing Nick in a staged auto accident. The district attorney is sure the accident was staged and cons them into turning on each other, but a slick lawyer gets them off. Now they have what they wanted. There’s insurance money, they own the diner, and they have each other. Of course, they’re not satisfied. Frank wants to go back on the road. Cora wants to build the diner into a moneymaker. They quarrel. Their last quarrel leads to another accident. This time, Cora flies through the windshield and dies. In the end, Frank is on death row, convicted of killing Cora.
(By the way, there’s no postman. And nothing rings. The title is a non sequitur. Or akoan.)
Frank is ruled by his desires. At the beginning, he’s a drifter, always wanting to hit the road in search of something better. When he meets Cora, he quickly becomes obsessed with her. As he says, “I had to have her, if I hung for it.” When he wins $250 playing pool and thinks he can use that to take Cora away from Nick, he tries to win more and loses it all. Later on, when Cora leaves town for a week, he takes up with another woman as soon as she’s gone. As much as he wants Cora, he’s not satisfied once he’s with her.
And Cora is ruled by her desires as well. She escapes her Midwestern roots, then marries Nick to escape from her life in L.A. She kills Nick to escape their marriage, then she plots to kill Frank. Like Frank, she’ll never be satisfied. Inevitably, their cravings for something better—or just something else—lead to something much worse: an unhappy marriage, death in an accident, a murder conviction, death by hanging.
We’re all ruled by our desires. That’s the appeal of noir fiction. We can all see ourselves being taken over by desire and making the same bad choices. We can relate.
That’s the world of noir. There are no happy endings. No one lives happily ever after. And that’s our world, too. That’s the appeal of noir fiction. Life isn’t easy and it often ends too soon. We all want something better, but we have a choice. We can deal with the world as we find it, living in the present and appreciating that. Frank and Cora had that choice. They could have loved each other and found a way to work through the complications that caused. They told themselves that murder was the only way they could be together. They told themselves that they weren’t really murderers, that they were better than that. But they weren’t. They chose not to be.
Critics often characterize noir fiction as being about people who are doomed to suffer. They live in a cold, hard world, and they have little chance of finding something better. I don’t agree. They have choices. We all have choices. We create our own karma, day by day. The choices aren’t always easy, but we are not doomed by mere circumstance. We are only doomed by ourselves.
I’m trying to be more positive, both in my day-to-day life and in my writing. In my most recent crime story a man is on his way to a job interview at a prison. He stops for a drink to loosen himself up, has five or six. He robs a drug dealer behind the bar and gets ripped on meth, PCP, and Xanax. He takes on a roomful in a bar fight and he’s chased across the desert by armed bikers. Okay, let’s just say he has a few adventures. And when he finally stumbles into the prison with his clothes ripped and blood all over him, he finds that he’s what they look for in a prison guard. He’s hired.
It’s a comedy.
Okay, he’s not a bodhisattva. And he’s not making great choices. But he’s not dead. And he’s got a job. At least it’s a happy ending, so maybe I’m making some progress. Besides, I had fun writing it. That’s the important thing.