Lone Star Sleuths: An Anthology of Texas Crime Fiction from the Wittliff Collections (UT Press, 2007) included a bibliography of 196 Texas authors, past and present. Likely there are enough now to fill every one of the state’s 254 counties. Among the names—from Texas or writing about Texas—were some of the best in the business: Jim Thompson, Joe R. Lansdale, James Crumley, Rick Riordan, Patricia Highsmith, James Lee Burke, Harry Hunsicker, Rolando Hinojosa, Walter Mosley, Jay Brandon, Kinky Friedman, Lee Child, Dan Jenkins. An updated list today surely would include Attica Locke, Cormac McCarthy, Meg Gardiner, Nic Pizzolatto, Kathleen Kent, Lisa Sandlin, and Fernando Flores, just for a start.
But what does such a bumper crop mean? Can it get a Texas crime fiction writer a free cup of coffee and 72-ounce steak at The Big Texan in Amarillo without having to eat the whole damn thing? It cannot. But maybe there’s something else. In a marketplace where you can’t have too many genres, subgenres, and consumer-oriented classifications for shelves in a bookstore or links on a website, doesn’t Texas crime fiction deserve a cool new title of its own?
Hell yes it does. And it is noir. And it is from Texas. And it shall be known as Texas noir. The label easily covers the Wittliff list entries, and already has been bandied about here and there in various online and print publications. Also in a glancing, short story way by indie Brooklyn publisher Akashic as Lone Star Noir. But Akashic also does Houston Noir and Dallas Noir collections and for that matter brings out urban noirs just about anywhere around the known world. Close, but no cigar.
To be as legit as a made-up literary category can be, Texas noir, not unlike the bearded lady or sword-swallowing tents at a Del Rio carnival, deserves explanation. As in, how come did this come about? Does a fascination with chronicling life’s grim shadows and soulless mazes mean Texas is bursting with unflinching creativity? Or is it that the stretch of land from Texarkana to El Paso is just really fucked up and requiring constant moral maintenance and inquisition?
Let’s explore. Starting with the big dog, Joe Lansdale, born, reared and still living in East Texas, and author of more than 50 novels so far, including The Bottoms, winner of the Edgar Award (one of a stadium-full of similar honors, including some from France) and also the popular Hap and Leonard series that SundanceTV was damn foolish to drop.
“I think in terms of crime fiction more than noir itself, but I’ve always felt that noir is an attitude and can be rural or urban. It’s dark deeds in dark places for dark reasons. Adding the taste of a location just makes it richer.
“When I first started writing my stories, crime fiction in Texas was a small endeavor. It’s grown greatly. East Texas was pretty much me. My parents were older when I was born, so I was sharing versions of stories I had heard them tell. Same with other relatives. I mixed all of that in with novels and stories that had influenced me, music, film, paintings, old radio shows, plus my own experiences which took place after the Depression, but in an East Texas Southern culture that still had much in common with the thirties. I chose Texas because it’s what I know.”
More on that to come, but to understand the constant, insatiable, unrelenting pressure to give Texas its noirest deserts (that would be called wild exaggeration, also an alleged Texas trait) we need to give some thought to what a Marxist analyst (not as common as noir writers) would call an exegesis of the commodification of value towards exploitation of the artistic proletariat through control of means of production, value assessment, and designation of signs and symbols as discussed ad nauseam, even if true, in Critical Theory and the Frankfurt School. But I’ll just go with how the concept of genres and subgenres have led us to this entire discussion. Please continue with your 72-ounce steak if you are having lunch in the Panhandle.
Works of crime fiction, variously called mystery, thriller, and sometimes even horror, are powerhouses in the book industry. Taken together, the overall genre ranks second only to romance novels in sales. But the crime fiction label itself has been subdivided internally into subgenres. To casually and violently condense a lot of literary history, these have mostly come to be known as crime noir or noir fiction, borrowing the name from early French films. Noir made its first big push in the ‘30s, twisting its form and content out of the hard-boiled, crime-solving novels of the ‘20s, which were dominated by tough guy detectives, cops, and private dicks, and often ranked as pulp fiction.
Noir made some important changes that greatly expanded the audiences of its genesis. It added not only an atmosphere of moral fallibility and ambiguous, dark outcomes (Black Wing Took My Angel, Elliott Chaze; In a Lonely Place, Dorothy B. Hughes), but a whole new cast of characters. No longer were plots based in good-versus-evil law enforcement templates, they could be wrapped around anything or anyone; say, a lovestruck insurance guy falling for a murder-minded housewife, or a returning war veteran stopping at a roadside diner where the postman always rings a couple of times. That re-defined some sure-enough PIs introduced by gold-label names—Hammett, Chandler, Himes, McDonald—but also added some new meat. Including plenty from Texas: an ambitious psychopathic chameleon named Ripley (Patricia Highsmith, born in Fort Worth), a tough LA PI (Walter Mosley, born in Houston), a gallery of East Texas heroes and villains (Lansdale), and, most recently, a tortured but honor-bound sheriff, also in East Texas (Attica Locke, born in Houston). And an abundance of satanic-class badasses, especially in pretty much everything Jim Thompson (younger years, Fort Worth) ever wrote.
All parts of the U.S. were fair game to this genre shape-shifting, but some regions, such as the South, the big cities, the Southwest, and whatever Florida is, seemed especially fertile to creative new confrontations with foul play. Pretty soon the noir label itself got subdivided. Subgenres gave us a French adjective for just about anything related to crime stories. What kind of noir do you want? “Whaddya got?” as Marlon Brando said in The Wild One, perhaps a cinematic precursor of are-those-really-bikers noir.
Well, we got Southern noir, urban noir, cowboy noir, hillbilly noir, redneck noir, possibly academic noir, ugh. We got noir for all occasions. And again, Texas is in there punching. In San Antonio, the Gemini Ink writers center hosts a “Nights of Noir” reading club. There’s also “Noir at the Bar,” a frequent flyer in Dallas (at The Wild Detectives and Bouchercon 2019) and Austin (local bars, help from BookPeople buddies). The noir-child of Texas-born Eryk Pruitt, now a North Carolinian bar owner and prolific writer, “Nights” is a moveable feast of authors, readers, and drinking. I had the pleasure of meeting Joe Lansdale in 2015 at such a gathering in Dallas. Pruitt, whose hardboiled novels reflect his admiration for Jim Thompson, is 100 percent in favor of “Texas noir” as a tag, a concept, possibly a way of life.
“I think Texas has certified, grade-A noir sensibilities. You can’t spell the word noir without Texas because that’s where Jim Thompson learned to write. We’re home to shady cowpokes, some of the best cult leaders, and presidential assassins ever to grace the word Noir. What is Jack Ruby and Joe Campisi if not noir? We’re home to Bonnie & Clyde, Michael Irvin, David Koresh, and Lee Harvey Oswald. We’re the reason Joe R. Lansdale and Harry Hunsicker haven’t run out of stories yet to write.”
But back to Lansdale’s point: “I chose Texas because that’s what I know.” What is there to know about Texas that feeds a noir appetite? I can help a little with that. The Cliffsnotes summary is constant oppression, brutal racism, social injustice, and extreme anti-intellectualism. If “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” as Dr. King said, in Texas it stands damn near upright.To survive in this persistence of eternal darkness, Texas writers become outsiders. Rebels.
Writers share this kind of alienation in locations everywhere, but my experience growing up here as a seventh-generation Texan is that, as a result of the oppressions, writers, as artists, are never given quite the same status as, say, quarterbacks, cowboys, or roughnecks. And that’s just the males. Female writers are doubly suspect, as being women, as being literate, and taking the fight or independence and equality to entirely different levels. Whatever the demographic, writers are at best mavericks, and at worst dangerous trouble-makers and outcasts. Writers of noir fiction may be the worst.
To survive in this persistence of eternal darkness, Texas writers become outsiders. Rebels. Members of a resistance that they often have to create. The only way they can: telling stories. If the stories run a certain way, you can bet there’s a reason. Kathleen Kent (The Burn, The Dime) remembers hers:
“The characteristics of noir crime in general—lonely outsiders who break the rules, dangerous women, unexpected violence—fits well into the Texas landscape. My own fascination with crime, and the darker side of humanity, began at ten years of age when JFK was assassinated. I lived in Dallas at the time with my family and that event destroyed forever my sense that the world was a safe place. From that point on I became increasingly aware of the horrific crimes being committed in Texas by such men and Dean Corll (aka The Candy Man) and Carl Eugene Watts (aka The Sunday Morning Slasher).
“I chose Texas, and Dallas in particular, as I thought that it would make an unusual and interesting place to set the (Detective Betty) series. New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston had all been well visited by crime writers. Coming back to Texas after being away for over twenty years let me see the city through new eyes. It’s a wealthy city, filled with pretty people and pretty neighborhoods, but Big D has all of the urban blight that her sister cities experience—gangs, drugs, corruption, violence—we just do a better job of hiding the bodies.”
If noir is about the fight to maintain some kind of defense against the dark side of human nature, it prospers in the book world because that’s a battle familiar to people who face reality every soul-crushing day. It was no coincidence that hardboiled and crime fiction grew at a time in the twentieth century during and between wars, and when America was far more working and agrarian class. What we might think of as real people.
They were not immune to the more literary levels of writing found in the universities and educated circles, but what they could get their hands on and minds around were stories of themselves. As Walter Mosley, famed and acclaimed for his Easy Rawlins series and more, put it in an essay for an anniversary issue of Mystery Writers of America (3,000+ members):
“What makes us different is not our work per se but our audience. All kinds of people read our work because the know (consciously or not) that we (like Arthur Conan Doyle before us) open doors that no one else has invited their readers through.… There have been crimes that have been committed and that must be solved and also resolved. We are not commodities. We are not for sale. We are not ad campaigns, selling points, or a publisher’s idea of what the market will bear. We are artists who wallow in reality and who understand that the world we create is the world that created us.”
Post-war Texas was full of such people, from the farms and ranches to the new industries and military bases that were rapidly changing the state. Still is. Some of these people turned into writers. Often enough telling stories of crime that sounded right next door, not far away. The results assumed a somewhat insurgent role in literature similar to that of country/western, blues, and even a little jazz in the emergent music industry.
Or today, among new Texas writers like Fernando Flores, axe-shredding psychedelic surrealism. His no-boundaries foray into noir, sci fi, mystical philosophy, via a mission to find a fanciful creature of great value creates a wildly imaginative vision of a dystopian Texas. It caught attention he never expected.
“Tears of the Trufflepig is my first published novel, but really the third or fourth manuscript I had completed by that time. My writing before that tended to be overly realist, influenced by the 20th century American literary canon, mostly because I was afraid, as a writer, to just allow myself to really go out there and make stuff up.
“I really took a good look at my work and asked myself: What am I doing? I could see that other writers out there, especially the two or three Mexican-American writers currently (at that time) publishing, were telling stories with similar themes in their already published books, and doing it very well. I really had to face myself, my work, what I’d dedicated my life to, and decided to write about what I knew nothing about, something I thought would be completely unpublishable and that I’d never seen, with made up words in English and Spanish, language with different meaning, and an imaginary creature, but told within very strict parameters; in this case, within the South Texas border.”
Is it noir? “Maybe to call (something) a genre is like what they say about pornography, also a genre: I know it when I see it,” says Flores. “There’s something about life and the aesthetics of Texas that can provide for not only its own crime fiction, but fantastical fiction, realist literary novels, and every other categorization in between. If I had to classify Tears of the Trufflepig in any way it would be ‘border dream noir’. But if you ask me another day I’d probably say something else.”
It all comes down to the usual suspect: place. Just as plot comes from character, so character comes from place. A sense of place cannot be underestimated. Texas, for better or worse, and often the latter, is its own place. Noir is in its GPS. The word “Texas” is as much an adjectival accelerant as is noir. Duct-taped together, they signal an unmistakable and compelling orientation. A literary pheromone. Edgar Award winner Attica Locke breaks it down as well as anyone:
“Texas has such a unique identity that is unlike any other state’s in the nation. As for all the things that inspire me to write crime fiction set in Texas: there’s the Lone Star Swagger, the dark humor that folks there have an appreciation for; there’s the secrets that go deep. And, of course, there are the cultural contradictions and political messes and all kinds of high crimes and misdemeanors that go on in the state, which often have a touch of the macabre and the absurd.
“Let’s not forget that Texas Monthly ran a “Meanwhile in Lufkin” column for years, that was essentially just a reprinting of the local police blotter. Mini-sagas about everything from serious drug crimes to theft of someone’s snake they were planning to barbecue. I made that last one up. What can I say, crime is just more interesting in Texas.
“Setting as a character in the story is a part of noir. The best James M. Cain novels are all very much informed by where and when they take place. You can’t really understand character apart from the time and place in which someone is living. Setting is a huge inspiration for me as a writer. It was the entire inspiration for the Highway 59 series (Bluebird, Bluebird; Heaven, My Home) with Texas Ranger Darren Mathews. I conceived of the series as being a string of novels that take place in different small towns along the highway that runs through East Texas.
“I come from a long line of black Texans going back to slavery, and the book is very much a love letter to my ancestors. It’s an exploration of the parts of Texas that I will always love and always appreciate as part of my makeup. I like to think that I’m tough, but warm; serious, but wryly funny; classy, but maybe a little gaudy sometimes; and that I have a deep love for a good tall tale that offers some wisdom about this life we’re all in. And I think that describes most of the Texans I know. I wanted to write a book that captured some of that spirit.”
She did, and does. As do Lansdale, Kent, Flores, and their many Texas-rooted peers. What they, and those yet to appear, will capture in the coming years will further define and validate Texas noir. For better or worse. Same as marriage.