A Celebration of Noir

Philadelphia may be the City of Brotherly Love, but it is also the birthplace of David Goodis (1917‚ 1967), the author of such noir novels as Shoot the Piano Player, The Moon in the Gutter, and Dark Passage (later turned into the classic film starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall). Three years ago a group of authors and fans gathered in Philly to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Goodis’s death. That tribute weekend, GoodisCon, morphed a year later into NoirCon 2008, a four-day celebration of dark crime fiction writing. This past weekend (Nov. 4-7) the Society Hill Playhouse in Philly’s historic and charming Society Hill neighborhood once again was the headquarters for NoirCon 2010, Despite the genteel surroundings, the 100 or so attendees (including such hardboiled mystery and noir writers as Reed Farrel Coleman, Christa Faust, Megan Abbott, S.J. Rozan, Scott Phillips, David Courbet, Wallace Stroby, and Vicki Hendricks) enthusiastically plumbed the genre’s depths.

“One of the things I love about noir is ugly sex, dysfunctional sex, sex that doesn’t work, ” declared Christa Faust (Money Shot) at an eye-opening 9 am (!!!) program on Pornography in Noir Fiction. She and her co-panelists agreed that the best noir had a strong sexual component. “It’s not about the money, it’s about the vagina.”

What is the appeal of a genre that offers no happy endings? At an afternoon panel entitled Writers on Noir, Vicki Hendricks (Iguana Love) argued that noir fans have a “noir brain.” ” We enjoy the abnormal, ” she said. “Noir is the crazy person living in a sane world. The appeal of this kind of character is that he or she starts at a ground level and corkscrews lower.” In other words, noir characters are fucked.

Author George Pelecanos, recipient of the David L. Goodis Award, offered a more elegant definition. “Basically there’s no way out. Nothing is going to be all right ever. That’s not my world view, but noir is an American art form like the blues or jazz. It can’t be duplicated anywhere else.” In a Q&A session with Laura Lippman, Pelecanos revealed that he had not been much of a reader until he took a college course on hard-boiled fiction that changed his life. Of the noir writers he read, he found Goodis to be the most original. “Most modern noir seems artificial to the point of parody.”

George Pelecanos

Also honored at NoirCon was Akashic Books founder and publisher Johnny Temple, who received the Jay and Deen Kogan Award for Excellence in Publishing. Cited for his popular Akashic Books Noir series, which now stands at 41 titles, Temple discussed his unusual route from the rock music world as a member of Girls Against Boys to book publishing. “I never intended to be in book publishing, let alone a noir publisher.” The idea for the regional crime fiction series was also unexpected, coming only after the surprising success of Brooklyn Noir.

The goal of the series, said Temple, is to establish authenticity and capture the particular flavor of a city, since the residents of the cities profiled are the books’ intended primary audience. “We don’t want the series to be formulaic.” In deciding which cities to include in the series, Temple said it is a mix of responding to queries and going after certain people to edit the volumes. “For Boston Noir I went after Dennis Lehane. I’m interested in Caribbean literature, so for Haiti Noir I asked Edwidge Danticat.” He is in the midst of recruiting an editor for Jerusalem Noir, and Joyce Carol Oates is currently working on New Jersey Noir. How did he bring in such big names? “The quality of the series speaks for itself,” explained Temple. “It’s a reflection of the literary merit of the books. Oates loved the series, which is why she agreed to do it. Established authors recognize the importance of independent presses.”

Johnny Temple (right) with Tim McLoughlin

Wilda Williams About Wilda Williams

Wilda "Willy" Williams (wwilliams@mediasourceinc.com) is LJ's Fiction Editor. She specializes in popular fiction and edits the Mystery, Science Fiction, Christian Fiction, and Word on Street Lit columns.