I have to say it seems counter-intuitive. After all, it never rains in Southern California, we have Albert Hammond’s word on that, and he’s always been reliable in the past.
Noir is the French word for black, but when we borrow it to categorize books and films, it morphs from color to mood. It’s been defined in various ways; more often it’s left undefined, and one could say of noir what Potter Stewart famously said of pornography: he knew it when he saw it.
The definition I like best is Charles Ardai’s. He’s the publisher of Hard Case Crime, a line of books that is the very epitome of noir, and I can think of no one who’s more at home with the genre. He defines it as crime fiction written by a pessimist, and the only change I’d make would be to tuck in the words “as if” between “written” and “by,” because the world of a novel does not necessarily reflect the world view of its author.
Dark crime fiction, pessimistic crime fiction. It would seem to call for rain, or at the very least the threat of rain. Dark streets, broken streetlamps, shadows in which something—anything!—might be lurking.
But in Los Angeles? Noir in the land of surf and sunshine? Noir in Beach Boys Country?
You’re kidding, right?
No, don’t tell me about Chandler. I know all about Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald, and a few other California writers, and their work so embodies noir that you’d swear they invented it. Mean streets and all that, and never mind that the meanest streets Chandler ever saw were in La Jolla, where the streets were paved, if not with gold, then at the very least with good intentions.
All that bright light. All that fucking sunshine. . .
I was in Pompano Beach, Florida, when John Schoenfelder called with a proposition. How would I like to write a short story set in Los Angeles in the late 1940s? I’d be in the company of some prominent writers, and our efforts would be linked to a video game. We’d be decently compensated, and would benefit from the considerable publicity the game company would generate.
I was in Pompano for a month, holed up in my cousin’s spare apartment, working on a book. I told John I’d like to think about it, then went out for the hour’s walk I took each afternoon once my day’s work was done.
It was a good day for it. The sun, in Robert B. Parker’s eloquent words, was shining its ass off. I walked north on A1A for two miles, then turned around and came back. Somewhere in the course of the second mile I got a story idea, and by the end of the third mile I had the story fairly well in mind.
I called John. Or maybe I emailed him, whatever.
“I’m in,” I said.
You know what? It’s the weather that does it. Not the nasty Santa Ana wind Chandler talks about, in a passage one can hardly forbear to quote:
“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. . .”
No, forget the wind. All the wind does is sharpen the knife. It’s the good weather, the beautiful weather, the relentlessly perfect weather, that makes Los Angeles the capital of the kingdom of Noir.
The sunshine makes the shadows darker.
LA Noire. With an E on the end of it. Why an E?
Because that’s the way they want to spell it. You got a problem with that, friend?
I didn’t think so.
Lawrence Block is a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America and the New York Times bestselling author of A Drop of the Hard Stuff, the newest in the highly respected Matthew Scudder series, as well as over fifty other books.