Nov 232012

by Alexandra Sokoloff

One place you will NOT find me today is in a mall. Instead, we’re having Noir Friday here on Murderati.

So I’ve professed my undying love for Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention, many a time on this blog, but I do have a serious beef with this year’s line up.

The noir panel was all men.

I mean, really? In 2012?  When Megan Abbott and Kelli Stanley and Cornelia Read are attending? When Christa Faust is not only in the room, but up for an Anthony?

I guess all the women were stuck in binders or something.

(Kudos to the one panelist, John Rector, who knows a little about noir himself,  who jumped to point this absence out.)

Bouchercon was over a month ago and this noir sans femme thing is still rankling me, so I decided to blog about it.

 This is also partly because I was asked (multiple times) to take part in the latest author blog hop, The Next Big Thing, in which authors post their answers to a set of ten questions about their latest books on their blogs and then tag five more authors for the next week, and possibly Kevin Bacon is involved, and then we take over the world. 

So my horror/thriller author pal, the wildly dark, or darkly wild, Sarah Pinborough, tagged me two weeks ago, ad I did my ten question interview on Huntress Moon last week – here –  and now it’s my turn to tag five authors and link to their interviews this week. 

And because I am still seething over the noir panel, I chose a theme of fantastic dark female characters, and tagged my authors accordingly:

– Michelle Gagnon is a thriller writer who has recently brought her powerhouse female perspective and adrenaline-charged storytelling to the YA thriller genre with her latest, Don’t Turn Around. Noa is a terrific tenage role model; I hope we’ll see more of her.  Read her Q & A here




– Christa Faust knows noir backward and forward, and has virtually created a whole new direction for the genre and its characters. Angel Dare is an alt heroine who brings OUT everything that noir anti-heroines like Gloria Grahame were doing in a coded sense, and Butch Fatale takes the “two-fisted detective” archetype to a new meaning.  Read her Q & A here



 – Wallace Stroby. As Anyone who reads this blog knows, I am VERY picky about men writing “strong women”, and on the dark side, Stroby is as good as it getts, both shattering and reversing noir gender stereotypes. His Crissa Stone series presents a thief who doesn’t just hold her own, but leads and controls motley collections of male gangsters. And I’m even more fond of Stroby’s Sara Cross, who mirrors the classic noir paradigm; she’s a truly good woman whose near-fatal flaw is a tragically bad man.



in the Charlie series is set in New Orleans!  

Zoe Sharp needs no introduction here. As we know, she actually DOES write a kick-ass female lead, Charlie Fox, who works as a bodyguard and makes the physical reality of her job perfectly plausible (I’ve learned a lot about self-defense from these two…) while she battles uniquely feminine psychological demons. And her new installment in the Charlie series is set in New Orleans!

(Right, that’s only four.  I can count, at least up to ten, but getting authors to do anything on deadline is like heding cats.)




I really encourage you all to click through to their interviews, especially for the fun question on who they would cast in a film or TV version of their books. Always a good exercise for any writer, you might get inspired!

So not everyone above is writing noir, exactly. Stroby, definitely. Faust has a lot of noir influence but I’d say her work is more like female-driven pulp, with a strong emphasis on camp humor, too. Sharp and Gagnon write dark and intense, but it’s not noir any more than I’m writing noir, which is not at all.

I’m also no way a noir scholar, and let’s face it, the lines are blurry (Is it noir? Pulp? Neo-noir? Just a good old B movie?) and I’d like to leave the question open for David – I mean everyone – to jump in and define it for us in their own words.  Personally, I know it when I see it!  No, really – for me, the key difference is that, for example, in Zoe’s and Michelle’s story worlds, there is the possibility and even probability of redemption, while in the classic world of noir, there is none, or very little. Doom and fate figure predominantly.

I liked  John Rector‘s capsule summation on that B’Con panel: “Noir pushes people to extreme circumstances and there is no happy ending. The hero/ine is fighting the good fight… but loses.”

So I guess the personal line I draw between “noir” and “dark” is about that possibility of redemption and at least temporary triumph. You can win the battle even when you know the war rages on. In my own books, there’s plenty of dark, but not noir’s overwhelming sense of inexorable fate; my own themes are more about the people caught up in a spiritual battle between good and evil. And no matter how dark it gets, there’s always the presence of good. 

In fact, some of my favorite dark thriller writers: Denise Mina, Tana French, Mo Hayder, Karin Slaughter, Val McDermid, seem to me more fixed on exploring that spiritual evil than fate. As dark as they get, I wouldn’t call what they’re writing “noir”, because it IS more spiritual, they’re dealing with a more cosmic evil.  Or maybe the evil they depict is so rooted in a feminine consciousness and feminine fears and demons that it doesn’t FEEL like noir. But that could be me splitting hairs, you tell me! That’s what this blog is about.

And there’s another element that I consider classic noir:

Threatening women.

Threatening to men, anyway, apparently! 

But the presence of shadowy – or maybe the word I mean is shaded – women is key. For my money some of the most interesting women ever put to page or celluoid are noir femmes, and part of that is because quite a few noir writers and filmmakers and actresses actually made a point of exploring the dark sides of women.

And noir takes on significantly different meaning when the leading roles are played by women instead of men. These days Sara Gran, Megan Abbott, Gillian Flynn, Christa Faust and Wallace Stroby are all doing really exciting work genre-bending by putting women in the protagonist’s seat and then absolutely committing to what it would look like and feel like and mean for a woman to take that lead in circumstances we don’t usually see women in.

I was enthralled by Sara Gran’s Dope, which explores a noir standard, addiction, and the noir paradigm of the tarnished white knight committed to a hopeless and destructive person – all from a completely feminine point of view. Likewise Wallace Stroby’s Sara Cross (in Gone Til November) is a committed knight… lawman… lawperson… who very nearly falls because of a fatally seductive man, and any woman who’s ever been tempted will understand her struggle. 

Gran has created another classic yet entirely unique noir heroine in her latest, Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead; I can’t think of another noir character so reliant on my favorite force in the world: synchronicity. But also, back to addiction: is that synchronicity drug-induced?  Claire’s pot habit might be useful juice for her detecting instincts, but one gets the feeling it’s playing hell with her personal life.

Megan Abbott layers a specifically feminine addiction, the pathological narcissism that anorexia can be, into her latest, Dare Me – to chilling effect. And I’ve never seen anyone else portray the feminine counterpart of criminally sociopathic male athletes, but you better believe these cheerleaders are exactly that.

Abbott, Gran and Flynn (in Sharp Objects) are also sometimes writing female protagonists battling female antagonists, with men relegated to secondary roles. I find it a deliriously welcome reversal of the traditional order.

I suspect it’s easier, or really I mean more natural, for women to achieve a genre bend with noir and thrillers because we’re working against a very entrenched male tradition. If we’re just fully ourselves, it’s going to look new to the genre.

But men can get there. I think Dennis Lehane did a brilliant genre bend with his male characters in Mystic River by going places that men don’t usually go in their own psyches  – they’d rather assign that scary stuff to female characters to distance themselves from the experience instead of having to put themselves into those vulnerable positions. Which  personally I think is cheating.

And as Stroby is proving, consciously committing to the physical and emotional reality of a complex female protagonist is possible for a male author, too.

By looking at crime through a specifically feminine lens, these authors are creating a new genre. I don’t know what to call it, but I know I love it.

I know there are more of these authors and books out there, and I want to hear about them, so let’s have it. Who are your favorite dark female leads – and villains? Which authors in our genre do you think are portraying ALL the facets of women, black, white, and every shade of gray in between?

And yes, what is your definition of noir?  I’d love to know.



Setting the Stage: A Writing Exercise

 Michelle Gagnon, writing exercise  Comments Off on Setting the Stage: A Writing Exercise
May 032012

by Michelle Gagnon

For a change of pace today, I thought we could tackle a writing exercise. One of the things that’s struck me during our critiques lately is that I’m not alone in sometimes neglecting to include enough descriptive prose to set the stage for my stories. In fact it’s such a weakness of mine, I rarely add much detail in first drafts. I get the plot and dialogue in place, then go back during the editing process to flesh everything out. In all honesty, scenery description is my least favorite part of the craft of writing. 

For one, remembering to include all five senses is always a struggle; I have a terrible sense of smell, and have to remind myself that my characters might not. Also, describing anything from a basic room to a crowd scene is rife with pitfalls; there isn’t a writer alive who hasn’t caught themselves typing out a trite cliche about the shape of the moon, or something similar.

So when my book is set somewhere specific, I rely heavily on photographs. The corkboard behind my desk is always layered with photos representing nearly every scene in the manuscript. I find that looking at them triggers sense memories, especially if I’m writing about somewhere I’ve been. I remember how streets in Paris are always wet in the morning, having been freshly washed by maintenance crews just before dawn. Or how the light in Central Park shifts dramatically season by season, or how the air in South America just tastes different (maybe my sense of taste is stronger, to compensate for that lack of smell).

Below I’ve pasted three photos. Pick any one and describe it in a paragraph, or use it as the jumping off point for a scene. Take care to avoid overused metaphors: “The sea was dark as slate,” for example, or, “The sky was as blue as a robin’s egg.” 

Bonne chance!

Apr 192012

by Michelle Gagnon

Today’s first page critique submission is entitled, DON’T SAY A WORD. As Joe said yesterday, we’re accepting 350 words max of works in progress. We aim to provide an overall assessment of the work based on what we’ve learned through our own publishing experiences. We hope it will be helpful not just to the author of each work, but to all of our readers.


“All right, Marconni, see Valentino. There. Mickey’s the one in the red silk,” I said, pointing to the three gang members of the Valentino family gathered in the New York City Italian restaurant.

Assistant FBI Director John Marconni drew in a deep breath as we watched the surveillance feed. The lights inside glowed dim, and the closed sign appeared in the window with the red checkered curtains two hours ago. The last public patrons were long gone.

“They won’t be there long. Valentino doesn’t socialize well,” I said, running a hand over my neck, massaging the tight muscles.

Marconni nodded. “He’s not slipping out this time, Aiello.”

“You won’t take him alive,” I said, shaking my head, “he’ll never testify.”

I grimaced and felt adrenaline pumping into my system. At least at this hour, whatever went down, no more civilians would die at Valentino’s hands.

Marconni raised his hand and spoke into the mike. “Hold, Team one. Eyes open, Team two!”

I saw it.

Movement on the street caused Marconni’s hesitation.
A figure appeared out of the shadows and walked toward the restaurant. A woman, dressed to the nines, clingy red scrap-of-a-dress, four inch heels, body to die for. Long brown tresses cascaded to her waist. She fished in her purse for something.

“We got her, boss. She’s going in. Team two, hold position. We got a renegade on approach.”

My heart slammed into my chest.

She inserted keys into the lock and for a fraction of a second, as she opened the door to the Valentino hideout, the dim lights inside illuminated her face.

“You seeing this, Tony?” Marconni asked.

“I see it,” I growled, the recognition flooding into me, twisting my gut.

I watched as the woman walked over to Mickey Valentino. He pulled her into his arms and they embraced. Kissed. His hands roamed all over her, and I watched with revulsion as she responded to him.

“We gotta go in, Tony. I’m sorry,” Marconni whispered where only I could hear. Then he spoke into his mike, “Go, Team Two. Take ‘em alive. All of them.”

As an opening page, I really enjoyed this submission. The author does a good job of dropping the reader into the middle of a scene without an inordinate amount of exposition. The stage is set nicely for whatever is about to transpire.

I do wish that I was given a better sense of where the narrator is vis a vis the action; is he in a van? I assumed so, based on the surveillance feed line, but a single sentence of clarification would be helpful. What does it smell like inside the van? Maybe it reeks of take out, since they’ve been there for awhile. Perhaps our narrator is hungry, since he’s been stuck there for hours. Also a few lines about the restaurant, and/or the surrounding area. Is there anyone else outside? Is it summer, spring, fall? This is another opportunity to provide a few key details that really set the stage. I understand that it’s late; can he hear garbage trucks collecting trash from dumpsters? A few cabs sliding past on the nearly empty streets? Are homeless people dozing in nearby doorways?

And what does Marconni look like? Is he in a sharp or rumpled suit? Old, or young? Again, just adding in a sentence here or there to build a sense of what the characters look like and what they’re feeling would be helpful.

There’s a nice noir feel to this piece, and I think it would be great to expand on it a bit. But some of the phrasing is a bit trite: grimacing, heart slamming into my chest, adrenaline pumping into my system. These are all nice and descriptive, but a bit overused. I would aim for more subtlety, and coming up with a way to illustrate these sensations that is more original.

All in all, I would definitely keep reading. I’m curious to find out what the narrator’s relationship is to this woman, and to discover what’s about to happen in the restaurant. Well done.

Oh, Sweet Irony

 amazon, bookstores, Michelle Gagnon  Comments Off on Oh, Sweet Irony
Feb 162012

by Michelle Gagnon

I suppose it was inevitable once Amazon started their own publishing wing. A company that was founded on the premise that you need never set foot in a bookstore again (which expanded to never setting foot in any store, for many) has started opening…wait for it…stores. They’re sussing out their first bricks & mortar location in Seattle, where their corporate headquarters is located.
Mind you, this won’t really be a bookstore; apparently the focus will be on pricier items such as tablet computers (and, I’m guessing, their rapidly expanding Kindle line).

It’s an astonishing reversal for the company that insures there’s a UPS driver coming down my street every day, sometimes even multiple times a day.

Mind you, I don’t intend to launch a bout of Amazon bashing here–I’m as guilty as my neighbors when it comes to online ordering. I signed up to have kitty litter, toilet paper, and coconut water shipped to my door every month once I realized that it was cheaper than buying those items in the supermarket. I did the vast majority of my Christmas shopping online this year, a significant chunk of it while getting my hair cut, which is a far cry from past Decembers when I drove from store to store trying to cross everyone off my list. And most importantly for me as a writer, thanks to Amazon I consistently sell backlist copies of books that vanished from store shelves years ago.

So I’m definitely no Amazon hater. And once Barnes & Noble, Books a Million, and other stores issued statements declaring that they would (understandably) refuse to stock titles from Amazon’s new publishing imprint, launching their own physical retail wing made sense.

Still, it is ironic, isn’t it? When companies like Amazon first arrived on the scene in the heady days of the dotcom boom, they loftily promised that within a decade, no one would have to leave their house for anything (fantastic news for agoraphobes; maybe not so great for the rest of us). Websites would sell everything from beds to orange juice to mouthwash and deliver it to your front door, all for less than you’d pay in a store since the overhead of rent, utilities, and payroll would be largely removed from the equation.

And lo and behold, here we are a little more than a decade later, and they were largely right. Except that there no longer are a slew of websites providing the online equivalent of roaming from store to store: instead it’s a one-stop shopping experience. Amazon has become a behemoth, the place where you can buy pretty much anything you desire and have it delivered to your front door, usually within two days. And now, after driving so many mom and pop stores out of existence, they’re backtracking and opening a place where you can get the personal touch; one-on-one interaction with a sales staff.

I have very mixed feelings about all of this. For one thing, the tech boom has spawned a modern day equivalent of the types of monopolies that held the nation at their mercy around the turn of the last century, with Amazon and Microsoft replacing Standard Oil and U.S. Steel. In some regards, aren’t Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg contemporary robber barons?

And now that so many stores that I loved have shuttered, it seems unseemly that the company that helped drive them out of existence is stepping in and taking over the shelf space they helped destroy. (For the record, I buy all of my physical books in bookstores, and I still buy as many as I did before I got my Kindle. I’ve actually found that having an eReader has increased my weekly book consumption).

But I’m also guilty of getting those deliveries every month, of using them to make my holiday shopping easier; and I’ve received the gains in sales that wouldn’t have been possible if my books were only available in print. And I have many friends whose contracts weren’t renewed, but managed to continue publishing their books independently thanks to Amazon, an outlet that wouldn’t have been available to them otherwise.
So I’m curious; what do you all think about Amazon’s latest move?