Reverse-Gentrification of the Literary World

Akashic Books

||| |||

News & Features » September 2015 » Joe Meno’s Introduction to Chicago Noir: The Classics

Joe Meno’s Introduction to Chicago Noir: The Classics

To celebrate the release of Chicago Noir: The Classics, the latest in Akashic’s Noir Series, we’re pleased to give you a look at the history of noir and crime writing in Chicago with editor Joe Meno‘s introduction, “Language of Shadows.”

Events: Don’t miss Joe Meno at the launch of his latest novel, Marvel and a Wonder, this Thursday, Sept. 10, at 7:00 PM at the Book Cellar (4736-38 North Lincoln Avenue) in Chicago! Joe Meno will then embark on an extensive book tour around the US, with stops in New York, DC, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Milwaukee, Ann Arbor, Iowa City, and many more! Click here to find out if Joe Meno is coming to a city near you.

Language of Shadows

Noir is the language of shadows, of the world in-between. The shape a stranger’s mouth makes murmuring in the dark, the color of a knife flashing in a dead-end alley, the sound of an elevator rising to an unlit floor; noir is the language of stark contrasts, life and death, good and evil, day and night.

First defined in the 1940s and ’50s by French academics to describe a specific kind of bleak, black-and-white crime film produced by Hollywood in that era, the term gained popular relevancy in the 1970s and since then has also been applied to various works of literature as well: crime novels, detective stories, mysteries, suspense thrillers, each with elements of the gothic or traditional tragedy. Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, and James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice all defined the genre with their conflicted heroes and antiheroes, mysterious plots, murky atmospheres, and punchy, stylized writing. These novelists and their counterparts who published short fiction in pulp magazines like Black Mask depicted the moral uncertainty of the modern age—the human struggle to find meaning in a world that by its nature is necessarily obscure.

Noir writing, like the night, is also, by its very definition, somewhat borderless. The history of crime writing in America bears this out. Black Mask, the pulp magazine that first exposed these sorts of stories to the public, was initially created by journalist H.L. Mencken and drama critic George Jean Nathan to help finance their literary journal, the Smart Set. This dynamic tension between the “highbrow” and the “lowbrow”—between the literary elite and the man on the street—is one of noir’s most enduring qualities. Recent award-winning books by the likes of Michael Chabon, Denis Johnson, Jonathan Lethem, Roberto Bolaño, and Cormac McCarthy attest to this liminal phenomenon.

Over the years, the literature of noir has proven to be as essential as any other writing genre. Although highly riveting, it’s much more than mere entertainment. It’s modern mythology at its most powerful. Like its musical equivalent, jazz, I believe it may be one of America’s most enduring cultural contributions.

Considering these aspects of the literature of noir, the city of Chicago is arguably its truest embodiment; more corrupt than New York, less glamorous than LA, Chicago has more murders per capita than any other city its size. With its sleek skyscrapers bisecting the fading sky like an unspoken threat, Chicago is the closest metropolis to the mythical city of shadows as first described in the work of Chandler, Hammett, and Cain. Only in Chicago do instituted color lines offer generation after generation of poverty and violence, only in Chicago do the majority of recent governors do prison time, only in Chicago do the dead actually vote twice. With its public record of bribery, cronyism, and fraud, this is a metropolis so deeply divided—by race, ethnicity, and class—that sociologists had to develop a new term to describe this unfortunate bifurcation. As Nelson Algren best put it, Chicago is and has always been a “city on the make.”

The stories collected in this volume all explore this city of shadows, of high contrasts, spanning nearly a century, tracing the earliest explorations into the form. Harry Stephen Keeler’s “30 Seconds of Darkness,” first published in 1916, demonstrates both the influence of Edgar Allan Poe and the high-minded formality of Charles Dickens. In the 1910s and ’20s, Sherwood Anderson—a uniquely American writer with his interest in crime, the grotesque, and the underrepresented—influenced the still-developing genre with Winesburg, Ohio and his popular literary stories including “Brothers.” Andersons’ work alone would go on to inspire William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and Nelson Algren, whose story “He Swung and He Missed” echoes much of Anderson’s character-driven fiction. Midcentury writing like Richard Wright’s “The Man Who Went to Chicago” and Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt depict the outsider’s view of an ambiguous, foreign place where anonymity reigns and racial and sexual mores are less constrained. Several modern pieces, like Stuart Dybek’s “We Didn’t,” with its poetic repetition and lyrical imagery, and Hugh Holton’s “The Thirtieth Amendment,” with its dystopian elements, help to expand and redefine the form in new and surprising ways.

Chicago’s history of crime writing is extensive, perhaps deserving an encyclopedia all its own. Many fine writers were not included in this collection, though their work has been no less influential: pulp writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs, with his dedication to horror and science fiction, mingling crime with decidedly otherworldly elements; newspaper reporters and fiction writers like Ben Hecht and Ring Lardner, who explored noir in their daily columns and stories (though both of them, well aware of the preferences of the New York publishing apparatus, chose to set most of their noirs in New York City); memorable literary novelists like James T. Farrell and Leon Forrest, who both depicted the grim lives of citizens on the city’s South Side. Other important crime writers like Eugene Izzi, with his brand of raw, late-’80s noir, seemed less interested in the short story form, preferring instead to produce unflinching novel after unflinching novel.

Chicago—more than the metropolis that gave the world Al Capone, the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, the death of John Dillinger, the crimes of Leopold and Loeb, the horrors of John Wayne Gacy, the unprecedented institutional corruption of so many recent public officials, more than the birthplace of Raymond Chandler—is a city of darkness. This darkness is not an act of overimagination. It’s the unadulterated truth. It’s a pointed though necessary reminder of the grave tragedies of the past and the failed possibilities of the present. Fifty years in the future, I hope these stories are read only as fiction, as somewhat distant fantasy. Here’s hoping for some light.


Joe Meno

JOE MENO is a fiction writer and playwright who lives in Chicago. He is the winner of the Nelson Algren Literary Award, a Pushcart Prize, the Great Lakes Book Award, and a finalist for the Story Prize. He is the editor ofChicago Noir: The Classics and the author of two short story collections and multiple novels including the best sellers Hairstyles of the Damned and The Boy Detective Fails;Office Girl; and his latest novel, Marvel and a Wonder. He is a professor in the Department of Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago.

Posted: Sep 8, 2015

Category: Akashic Insider | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,