Little Caesar, based on the novel by W.R. Burnett, was one of the first successful "noir" films.

by Hugh Gilmore 

My four-day visit to my friend, the writer John O’Brien, and his wife, Becky, in Green Bank, W.Va., had been both fun and poignant. During the day, John and I would tour and talk, and toward late afternoon we’d sit and talk. John’s porch overlooked a lovely valley that spread far and wide. The valley ended at the edge of the sort of forest that tempted you to saunter down there and walk in, just to see what mysteries it held.

One afternoon John said during a quiet moment, as we both gazed across the valley, “Darn, Hugh, look at all that – it’s just so beautiful, I don’t want to die.” I sensed he wasn’t so much complaining about the cancer that was eating him as he was trying to express the thought that losing such beauty was more than he could bear.

There’s nothing you can say in consolation at such moments, nothing believable, except maybe to agree that the view from his porch certainly was beautiful. It’s a lovely state, West Virginia. I guess when you’re dying, they all are.

On the train, on the way back to my home in Philadelphia, I thought a lot about the things John and I had discussed. One part of my thinking was devoted to some questions John had raised in his book, “At Home in the Heart of Appalachia.” John believed that Appalachia was a state of mind, mostly in the minds of outsiders. He defended country people and their way of life. He felt the extreme mountain “types” depicted in books, cartoons, movies and TV were stereotypes. They were not worth writing about, not when so many decent people were being tarred with the same brush.

An important question for fiction writers is this: If you create a story that stars a mean, drunken, nasty, lowdown, lowlife duck, does that reflect poorly on all ducks? This question, expressed in more cultured language, has a long and bitter history.

Does Chaucer’s, or Rabelais’, or Moliere’s depiction of a rogue priest harm the church? Does Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock demean Jews? Is Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom an “Uncle Tom”? Do fictional drunken Irishmen, thick Poles, conniving Turks, murderous Italians, superficial Frenchmen, et al., insult their respective ethnic groups?

John died in 2004, three years after his quiet masterpiece was published. If he were still around, we could continue our near-weekly telephone conversations and debates. Maybe he would have loosened up, maybe he wouldn’t, on this topic. West Virginia had a great champion while he was alive and still does through his lovely book.

So, though one-sided as the argument will now be, I’ll press on. And I’ll begin by saying I love reading the Kentucky writer Chris Offutt. John dismissed Offutt as “Southern Gothic,” a category of writer who deliberately exaggerates the negative backwoods eccentricities of his characters, just to sensationalize – just to make that cash register ring.

Offutt, I must say, does not belong to any category though he’s got milieu (in his fiction) to spare. He’s just a darned good writer. However, when people (not people, really, but critics and journalists and publishing biz marketers) start lumping contemporary writers together, they toss Offutt into the recently popular category of “country noir” (aka: hillbilly, redneck, Ozark, Appalachian, backwoods noir).

I’d like to just go on and talk about some of the writers who are getting tagged this way nowadays, but a certain problem lies like a fallen timber across that road. We can’t avoid this problem anymore: Define “noir.” What do we talk about when we talk about “noir”?

The term “noir” (meaning: black, or dark) is of French origin and was first used to describe American films and novels of the 1940s that went beyond ordinary mysteries, through “hardboiled” mysteries, and evolved into a kind of crime story that threw some important previous conventions aside.

First, though a noir story nearly always involves crime, it is not told through the eyes of someone outside the crime. Detectives do not come to the scene and read clues and apprehend the bad guy. The story is told, instead, from the point of view of someone involved in the crime, either as victim, perpetrator, or suspect. There is usually no law or institutional legal force to be counted on.

“Little Caesar,” by W.R. Burnett (1929) is widely said to be the first successful noir film. James M. Cain is thought of as the master of the genre. In Jim Thompson’s “The Killer Inside Me,” (1952), the first-person narrator is the detective assigned to a serial murder investigation, and he turns our to also be the murderer.

Sex and violence also permeate these noir novels and used to be cast as defining attributes of noir. These two aspects of human life, however, saturate nearly every form of contemporary entertainment, so I think their presence can be taken for granted. The key ingredient of noir is that the only moral compass in the story is that of the protagonist – even if he or she is a criminal. Noir puts the shock in “shocking.”

By and large, hardboiled and noir fiction had been an urban genre. After all, that’s what cities did – they corrupted people. How did corruption come into the countryside? Doesn’t all that clean, fresh, unpolluted air help keep people on the straight and narrow? We’ll take a look next week.

Hugh says: If you promise to read John O’Brien’s “At Home in the Heart of Appalachia,” he will give you a free paperback copy. He has four to give away.