The Legacy of Black Mask

I heard something the other day that turned my head around full on Exorcist style: Dashiell Hammett said that he based the character of Nora Charles on his lover Lillian Hellman.  That’s like saying Betty Boop was based on Dorothy Parker.  Don’t get me wrong, one of my favorite movies is The Thin Man – that movie had a lot to do with getting me hooked on writing in the first palce – and I’ve always harbored a secret crush on Nora Charles but can you honestly imagine her saying, “Belief is a moral act for which the believer is to be held responsible.”

And this is the problem with genre fiction.  Very often a woman like Hellman, a successful playwright, author and aggressive left wing idealist, gets translated into an adorable dingbat like Nora Charles on her way to the page.  You certainly don’t have to scratch very deep in Chandler’s work to find the misogyny.  Just look at the difference between the book and the movie of The Big Sleep.

In the book, there is no love story between Marlowe and Vivien Rutledge.  She’s just another conniving, manipulative woman.  As a female in a Chandler novel, that’s about the best you can hope for.  Otherwise, if not mentally incompetent, you’re either a mannish ice queen or a ruthless killer.  I even winked at this in The Vengeance Season by having one character start out as the mannish ice queen and work her way through the other phases until she ends up a mental incompetent.

It sounds like I’m bagging on Chandler, but I’m really not. The first time I read The Big Sleep in college it was like lightning snapped through my synapses.  Every word on the page elevated what had been a pretty trashy genre to the level of literature.  It was amazing.  It was the first time I didn’t feel guilty for wanting to write genre fiction.  And that misogyny did not enter detective fiction through Chandler.  It was already well established by the time he came along and it continued on long after he died.

Watch Out of the Past or The Killers or especially Double Indemnity and you get right away why the French added the femme fatale as a critical ingredient in any film noir.  Carry that forward to one of the best faux noir ever made, Body Heat, and you find Matty Walker, the finest example of the vicious, self-serving woman so crucial to these stories.

How do you turn that around?  Frankly, I don’t know that you can remove that character from detective fiction entirely.  There is a portion of the genre’s archetypes that couldn’t function without her.  I had the same problem in The Vengeance Season and could never get rid of her completely.  In the end, I made sure the other two female leads were empowered females not looking to suck the life of the nearest man.  Maybe that’s all we need, some more fully developed characters to balance out the sometimes necessary ugly stereotypes.

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Write What You Can

Everyone has their list of island books, the novels they would want to have with them if stranded on a desert island, and that list says a lot about them.  I used to use it as a sort of litmus test when meeting new people, but nobody in my industry seems to read anything but programming manuals anymore so I had to give it up.

My list: Dune, Neuromancer, Snow Crash, The Cryptonomicon, The Time Traveler’s Wife, Ready Player One.  What does my list say about me?  Well, for one thing, it begs the question why I am a crime fiction writer when I obviously love science fiction so dearly.  The answer to that is a resounding, “I don’t know.”  I even came to write my first detective novel via science fiction.  Roy Doyle was originally a time traveler stuck in 1946.  When my agent couldn’t figure out how to market that story, I cut out all the science fiction and, in the process, found my voice for writing about detectives and criminals.

That still doesn’t explain why my writing voice is so radically different from my reading preference.  Anyone who has ever had trouble finding a voice, as I did for so long, will tell you that when you find it, you don’t spend a lot of time questioning it.  You just start using it.  I continue to dabble in science fiction but I never feel the same “click” I do when I’m fomenting a murder mystery.  That genre just feels so natural to me I’ll probably never be able to work comfortably outside of it.

The other possible reason for the dichotomy between what I read and what I write is that I don’t find a lot of the crime fiction I read to be very compelling.  I read a lot of crime/mystery fiction and, while many of them are good, most have the airy weight of something that is essentially redundant.  The only really innovative detective novel I’ve read in the last ten years was The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon.  And that one?  It’s built on a speculative fiction chassis, an alternate reality in which the refugees of the Holocaust were given land in Alaska as a temporary homeland after the fledgling state of Israel collapsed in 1948.

Maybe I should put that one on my island list.  And, as long as we’re talking about Chabon, I have to add Summerland, the best baseball fantasy story ever told.  (Yes, I’m one of those guys who doesn’t like The Natural.)  But that’s the problem with the island list.  The more you think about it, the longer it gets.

To circle back to my point, your Creative Writing 101 instructor pounded the phrase, “Write what you know” into your head freshman year of college and every book on writing will tell you the same thing.  Does that mean that, as forklift operator, all your stories should revolve around warehouse management?  No.  What those instructors and books should be telling you is, “Write with authority.”  And the best way to write with authority is to find a voice that feels natural in your brain and sounds right on the page.