Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Significance of Setting in Noir

by Harley Mazuk

I’d like to welcome guest blogger, Harley Mazuk to the blog! A little bit about Harley:

Harley MazukBorn in Cleveland, he majored in English literature at Hiram College in Ohio, and Elphinstone College, Bombay U. He worked as a record salesman (vinyl) and later served the U.S. Government in Information Technology and in communications, where he honed his writing style as an editor and content provider for official web sites.

Retired now, he likes to write pulp fiction, mostly private eye stories, several of which have appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. His first full length novel, White with Fish, Red with Murder, was released Feb. 28 of this year, by Driven Press. Harley’s other passions are reading, his wife Anastasia, their two children, peace, running, Italian cars, and California wine.

I had the pleasure of reading an advance copy of his novel, and I certainly recommend it! (See blurb at bottom)

Now, take it away, Harley!    – Alan


I’m in my “setting” period. I don’t claim it as my idea. John Straley put the notion in my head. John, a very good crime writer from Sitka, Alaska, was the first instructor I ever had who stressed the primacy of setting.

I think about setting in terms of noir. I favor noir, both in my reading tastes and my writing style. I could look up “noir” on Wikipedia, and maybe tell you what some Frenchman thinks it is, but I have a simple rule of thumb:

· If the protagonist gets married at the end (or otherwise lives happily ever after), the story is comedy

· If the protagonist dies, the story is tragedy

· If the protagonist lives but would be better off dead, it’s noir.

However, it takes more than an ending with a lost and lonely character who deserves to die to make a good noir tale. That is where setting comes in. All the elements of fiction--plot, setting, character, point of view, and theme must work together, but of these, the most important to the noir author is setting.

The first note I took in John Straley’s class reads, “Ecology is about place.” Everything starts with “the place.” So it is with noir, wherein the plot and the characters are often rooted in or develop from the landscape of the story. While there are many fine rural noirs, we most often associate an urban setting with noir. Some extremely good examples might be the books of David Goodis. Goodis set his tales in blighted urban landscapes, (often his hometown of Philadelphia), and populated them with lost souls. Consider these book titles in his bibliography:

· Street of the Lost

· The Moon in the Gutter

· The Blonde on the Street Corner, and

· Street of No Return

Or contemplate this quote from Goodis’s Of Tender Sin:

“Winter was gray and mean upon the city and every night was a package of cold bleak hours, like the hours in a cell that had no door.”

That’s just one sentence, which illustrates it needn’t take a good author a lot of words to describe the setting.

If Philly’s not your cup of tea, consider Jean Claude Izzo’s Total Chaos, depicting Marseille’s dark side--poverty, drugs, organized crime and police corruption.

“Marseilles isn't a city for tourists. There's nothing to see. Its beauty can't be photographed. It can only be shared. . . . In Marseilles, even to lose you have to know how to fight.” 

A story has to know where it is not only in place, but also in time. You can do noir in the present or modern era, or even in the distant past. But when we write we can take advantage of all the images our readers carry in their subconscious by creating a story world that allows readers to make connections to other stories, written or in cinema, and to all the images they may have experienced from that time and place. For my money then, the best time to set your noir piece is in the ‘20s or ‘30s of Dashiell Hammett, the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s of Raymond Chandler. Give me my news in black and white newspapers, from which the ink comes off on my hands. If I need to make a call, give me a phone with a dial, and even a separate receiver and mouth piece. Coin slots are optional. If I go into a bar, there should be no nonsense about whether I can smoke indoors, and if I do, my cigarette will most likely be unfiltered.

“I puffed at the cigarette. It was one of those things with filters in them. It tasted like a high fog strained through cotton wool.” —The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler

If a blonde in the bar smokes, let her blow her smoke out in someone’s face. The gritty analog world beats the digital world for noir feel.

Newspapers, telephones, cigarettes—these are details which can give life to the feel and poetry of a place. The feel or atmosphere is also part of the setting. You can create a noir atmosphere, an atmosphere of dread, with your use of details. Maybe it’s bad weather, the threat of a storm. Consider the hurricane in Key Largo. Consider L.A. It’s normally sunny in Hollywoodland, but it rains throughout many critical early scenes in The Big Sleep, which Chandler developed out of his short story, “Killer in the Rain.” In the rain surfaces are shiny, poppy, vivid . . . and foreboding. Details can give your story a threat or undercurrent of menace--portents, a character in ill-health, a lost child, an oppressive atmosphere, even a crooked picture frame on the wall— noir writing should be prickly with detail.

I’ll leave you with this example from Raymond Chandler in which the master uses mundane details of setting to create atmosphere:

“There were 280 steps up to Cabrillo Street. They were drifted over with windblown sand and the handrail was as cold and wet as a toad’s belly.” —Farewell, My Lovely

Something bad is about to happen. It’s noir.

Get your copy today! Here’s what one blurber thought (okay, it was me):

White with Fish“Harley Mazuk’s WHITE WITH FISH, RED WITH MURDER is a delicious throwback to the PI stories of Hammett and Chandler, when all the dames had shapely gams. With shamus Frank Swiver on the case, no suspect goes unsuspected and no clue goes undetected. An entertaining, fun ride with colorful characters and snappy dialogue, this one’s a treat! Mazuk’s uncorked a real winner—good to the very last drop!”


Paul D. Marks said...

Welcome, Harley! Good piece. And I love Goodis, poet of the losers. Also your line about "· If the protagonist lives but would be better off dead, it’s noir."

Art Taylor said...

Great post, Harley--and congrats again on the new novel! Love you definitions of comedy, tragedy, and noir--and some great authors and quotes you've zeroed in on here too.

Harley Mazuk said...

Thanks, guys. I'm glad you two enjoyed it. I'd be happy to sit down with you for a noir evening sometime--perhaps in Toronto?
P.S. bring your own Camels

Art Taylor said...

Yep, see you in Toronto!

Paul D. Marks said...

Unfortunately, I don't think I'm going to be in Toronto. But have a PBR for me.

Unknown said...

Sorry to pop in late, but loved your post, Harley Mazuk, the way it rolled along, a pleasure to read in itself.

Harley Mazuk said...

Thanks for the kind words, RM!
BC Blues, eh? I will look at some of your work. Blues music, particularly old Delta blues is another theme I like to use in my writing.
Thanks again for commenting.

Barbara B Brown said...

Great pearls of noir wisdom...thanks Harley! I'm going to buy your book...BBB