He Knows if You’ve Been Bad or Good...

A reader wrote to me about Poisoned Justice—and he wasn’t entirely happy: “I’ve never been a fan of hard-boiled detectives… I need to like somebody in the story [and] Riley just wasn’t a guy I wanted to spend time with, and I’m not sure how he could have been and still been believable in the role he was given.”

My reader is right—mostly. Riley is dealt a hand which makes being gentle, trusting, and law-abiding unrealistic. In the tradition of noir, he confronts genuine ethical dilemmas. I tell my students that ethics is not about deciding between good and evil (if you struggle with which to pursue, you’re a sociopath—do the good thing!). Ethics and noir are about choosing among evils.

This doesn’t mean that the (anti)hero must be despicable, even if the situation is unpleasant. I tried to weave in likable features (Riley’s love of music, devotion to family, loyalty to friends, and authentic struggles to understand a fast-changing set of social norms). But in the end, the (anti)hero of noir is a hard figure—from Phillip Marlowe to Sam Spade.

[Spoiler Alert!] Riley also pushed my reader’s buttons when and how he killed the villain. As a writer, that was a tough call. But in noir's existentialist tradition, the (anti)hero takes responsibility for his actions rather than acceding to social norms—even if this means rendering justice outside of what is expected of “good citizens”. Of course, there is a fine line between vengeance and justice (for Riley, as well as for our legal system).

Noir reflects real life wherein we cannot be assured that good triumphs over evil. Moreover, often it's not evident what the right thing to do is given the complexity of life—and death. The noir world is sensuous and violent, shedding light on those dark places in society where intellectualism gives way to pragmatic and primal realities. Noir is human, if not humane. It's not a particularly comforting or elevated genre. It’s not for everybody—but I hope it might be for you.

The mystery writer ZJ Czupor wrote: "So you wanna write some noir?... The first thing you need is courage. The courage to turn off readers with nasty people doing bad things [and, I would add, with good people doing nasty things]. The courage to… stay true to the form. To sum up 'There ain’t no noir lite.'”


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