When things seem to be going badly in a society, people sympathize with characters who distrust or operate outside of that society’s governing systems…In eras tinged with chaos in the popular imagination, noir thrives.” –Megan Abbott
One of my handful of jobs–because I can’t spend every hour of the day making up murders–is teaching playwriting to college students. None, to my knowledge, have read my books, or at least they don’t admit to it. Which is very kind of them.
That means when I’m with them I’m not plagued by the stereo chattering of my own ego and insecurity. Instead, I have the freedom to listen to what they’re saying; try to interpret what they need; and give them the best feedback.
Mostly that means figuring out the right questions to ask in the moment. The ones that will set them on a path that might crack open their manuscript and give them the space they need to tell their story.
Frequently those questions come down to two things. The first is identifying what challenges they’re facing. The second is searching for the solution, which often comes by interrogating their first intentions. Why did you start writing this play? What do you want to explore? What do you want your audience to walk away thinking about?
First intentions can be key.
My first intentions when I began the Pentecost and Parker series were pretty simple:
—tell fun, twisty mysteries in a vintage hardboiled style but with modern sensibilities.
—subvert the tropes of the genre and queer the narrative wherever possible
—give my heroes the space and circumstance to grow and change
Those intentions dictated a lot of my early decisions, and it’s hard at this late date–four books into the series–to pick apart what resulted in what. But some forks in the road I distinctly remember.
One was setting the series at the end of World War 2. If I wanted to put Will Parker and Lillian Pentecost in the heydey of the hardboil, I could have started them earlier. But unlike their inspiration, Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe, I wanted to show them change. So I set that first novel in 1945 specifically so that, should I be lucky enough to keep writing them, I could have my protagonists run face-first into the ‘50s, McCarthyism, the Lavender Scare, and everything that comes with it.
Another choice I distinctly remember making was deciding exactly how noir I wanted to go.
If you’re wondering what the difference is between noir and hardboiled, you’re not alone. And if you’re looking for a firm answer, you could do worse than author Megan Abbott’s explanation in the interview with Literary Hub that I quote above.
Both styles tell messy crime stories with a flawed hero at the center. But with noir, the lines between good and evil are so blurred as to be nonexistent. There are no moral absolutes, no good choices. It’s a fallen world, and we’re just trying to stay standing. Holding onto our souls is negotiable.
Noir isn’t just a style or aesthetic, it’s an ethos. During that first book, Fortune Favors the Dead, I chose to veer away from it. I sent Will Parker down a path that left her battered in body, but not in spirit.
Partly it was because I wanted to keep the tone of the series light. In hindsight, I just didn’t want to hurt my girl.
But times are changing. In the real world and in the world of Will Parker and Lillian Pentecost.
Recently I had the pleasure of leading a conversation with Lev Rosen, author of The Andy Mills series. Andy is a gay ex-cop turned private detective working in 1950s San Francisco, and Lev’s writing is deeply inspired by period noir.
During the talk, I asked him about that inspiration and how much the ethos of noir, where law and justice rarely meet and where even when you win you lose, intersects with the queer world of 1950s San Francisco.
Those worlds, he said, overlap perfectly.
“Being gay in the 1950s was an inherently noir experience,” he explained. “Noir is about paranoia, about the world closing in on you, about being afraid people are going to find out, and that is what it was like to be queer in the ‘50s, especially during the Lavender Scare.”
Near the end of the event, someone in the audience asked if our respective protagonists would get along should they ever meet. Maybe even partner on a case. It would all depend, I said, on what kind of woman Will Parker, who is bisexual and currently in a relationship with another woman, will be by the time she reaches 1952.
I think about that a lot.
Because if I stick to my first intentions, she won’t be the same. Queering the narrative of the golden age of America means showing the fear and violence that were the cost of building the post-war dream. Having my heroes change means showing how those years will bruise, batter, and reshape them.
Four books in and it’s already begun. The gap between law and justice is growing wider; villains are gaining ground; my heroes find themselves making deals with devils, bartering off pieces of their souls.
Will’s voice remains the same: quick-witted, self-aware, tongue firmly in cheek. And the tone of the books is still primarily light and fun, with a lot of humor and a dash of pulp adventure for flavor. But the darkness that’s existed around the edges has started to move closer to the center. That creeping noir.
It’s creeping in elsewhere, as well.
In my classes, I still ask about first intentions a lot. But there are other questions that come up now. Those questions asked privately before or after class. About how this or that student is doing. What they’re struggling with. How their life outside the classroom is going. How that emergency trip home went. Are they getting the help they need?
These are mostly theater students, and because theater lets you slip safely in and out of other people’s skins, that means a lot of queer and gender-nonconforming students.
The world has become much darker for them in recent years.
Their sexuality may be demonized where they live, their gender criminalized. These are students who may not feel comfortable, or maybe even entirely safe, with their own family.
How they are all not noir as hell, I have no idea.
Because it’s been a long, hard season. For them and me and many others. And I can’t tell them, “don’t worry, it gets better” with as much confidence as I used to.
Funny thing, though. While the stories my studies are creating are certainly growing darker–there are more dystopias, more grim revenge fantasies–there’s also cutting satire and family drama and fantasy and romance. Even in their bleakest imaginings there are threads of humor and love.
If I had to pick a single defining characteristic that I’ve seen more of in students’ work in recent years, it’s love–a search for it, an exploration of its meaning, and interrogation of what it could be. How its presence, or lack thereof, can be transformational.
Which brings me to something else Lev said during our talk. He noted that film noir frequently used romance “to find the brightness in the darkness of a noir situation.” But in his books that romance is replaced with community.
He said, “By finding your people, whether romantic or otherwise, you find hope in the darkness.”
As Will Parker and Lillian Pentecost’s story approaches the midpoint of the 20th century and their world grows increasingly more dangerous, I suspect they’ll find their own light in similar places. In community. In love.
Which is maybe the answer for all of us when the noir starts creeping in. To find comfort in the people standing with us–the friends, the lovers, the drag queens, the librarians, the night shift medical examiners, the sexy bartenders, the con artists with hearts of gold, the students sitting around a table telling stories.
Anyone willing to stand with you against the dark.