Are you imprisoned by the genre you write?

Jim Thompson may be the godfather of noir fiction.
Jim Thompson may be the godfather of noir fiction.

WRITERS THESE DAYS are trapped in a quagmire of genres, and the genres keep changing all the time. I came from a time when we simply had mysteries, romances, westerns, fantasy, historical, literary, and science fiction, And into the fray come such genres as steampunk, urban fantasy, and speculative fiction.

All most of us want to do is tell stories, and we don’t worry about being tied up by a specific genre. Yet, the booksellers want to pack our words away in certain little cubbyholes. Did you write a mystery, a thriller, a police procedural, an action adventure, a caper, a cozy mystery, romantic suspense, legal thriller, medical thriller, crime novel, detective novel, private eye novel, or do you use an amateur sleuth?

Does it really matter?

As I’ve said before, I thought I was turning out thrillers.

“No,” I was told, “you’re turning out historical fiction.”

“Why?” I asked

“They take place in the 1940s.”

“They possess all of the earmarks of thrillers,” I argued.

“Wrong time,” I was told.

Wrong place.

I’ve studied it, and I’ve read the works of Raymond Chandler Dashiell Hammett, and James Thompson, and I don’t believe I write historical fiction after all. I think I write noir fiction.

They did.

And I like what they wrote.

Their narrative and dialogue had style.

They wrote in a distinctive voice.

Hard-boiled, perhaps.

Mostly dark.

Always gritty.

And distinctive.

Now it’s called noir fiction.

When they wrote it, their short stories and novels were labeled as pulp fiction or the stuff of dime novels.

I feel comfortable writing pulp fiction. Dime novels work just as well.

Noir, I read, describes a dark novel written like a black and white movie and using dramatic lighting, gritty settings, and iconic visuals to tell gripping tales full of deceit, nihilism, paranoia, and crime.

It works for me.

Dashiell Hammett
Dashiell Hammett

Raymond Chandler said that Hammett wrote for people with a sharp, aggressive attitude to life. They were not afraid of the seamy side of things; they live there. Violence did not dismay them; it was right down their street. Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse … He put these people down on paper as they were, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes.

How did Hammett treat them?

Take a look at his dialogue?

“She grinned at me. ‘You got types?’
‘Only you darling – lanky brunettes with wicked jaws.”


“Who shot him? I asked.
The grey man scratched the back of his neck and said: Somebody with a gun.”

Or from The Maltese Falcon:

“We didn’t exactly believe your story.’
Then –?’
‘We believed your two hundred dollars.’
‘You mean –‘ She seemed not to know what he meant.
‘I mean that you paid us more than if you’d been telling the truth,’ he explained blandly, ‘and enough more to make it all right.”

In the words of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade:

When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. Then it happens we were in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed, it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it. It’s bad all around – bad for that one organization, bad for every detective everywhere.

Hammett was a brilliant writer.

So was Chandler.

But even their work paled when compared to the prose of James Thompson.

He was he king of pulp fiction.

He invented American noir.

Just read a passage from his novel, Pop. 1280:

I’d been in that house a hundred times, that one and a hundred others like. But this was the first time I’d seen what they really were. Not homes, not places to live in, not nothing. Just pine-board walls locking in the emptiness. No pictures, no books – nothing to look at or think about. Just the emptiness that was soaking in me here.

“And then suddenly it wasn’t here, it was everywhere, every place like this one. And suddenly the emptiness was filled with sound and sight, with the sad terrible things that the emptiness had brought people to … Because that’s the emptiness thinking and you’re already dead inside, and all you’ll do is spread the stink and the terror, the weeping and wailing, the torture, the starvation, the same of your deadness. Your emptiness.

It was called pulp fiction.

Now it’s referred to as noir.

But their words read like literary fiction to me, literary fiction that’s lost and adrift on the bad side of town, the wrong side of the streets, abandoned in a dark alley where literary fiction is never allowed to go.

Of course, here is the difference between noir fiction and literary fiction.

The noir writer would end his or her story this way: The pistol fired only once, but it was enough to make her scream and make him forget a lifetime of disappointments.

And the literary writer’s final line would be: He had already told everyone goodbye, and none of them cared if he was leaving and probably wouldn’t remember him when he was gone, except at Christmas time when his card with the five dollars tucked inside didn’t arrive on time.

Same story.

Same ending.

Same difference.

Only the genre was changed to protect the innocent.

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