This week’s blog is by author Tom Llewellyn, whose YA mystery, The Shadow of Seth, was published by the Poisoned Pencil last week. Tom Llewellyn lives and writes in Tacoma, Washington. His first novel was The Tilting House, an MG book published by Random House in 2011. He is co-founder of Beautiful Angle, a letterpress poster project.
What is teen noir? And why should I care?
Sure, my latest novel, The Shadow of Seth, is a YA murder mystery. But more specifically, it’s teen noir. In other words, it takes great inspiration from the classic noir stories of the 1930s and 40s, then updates that style into present day, with a teenaged hero.
So let’s spend a few minutes on a noir primer.
Most people associate the term noir with films, particularly the shadowy, pessimistic crime movies of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, such as Murder, My Sweet, Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon, and my favorite, The Big Sleep. What defines these movies as noir? As this is a style created by countless directors and actors, there’s no truly accurate definition, but here are some typical characteristics of a noir movie:
· Low lighting, with plenty of shadows
· A bleak, urban setting
· Characters who are world-weary, many of whom are corrupt
· Crime—usually a murder or two
· Tough, sharp dialogue
Check out this list of Top 50 Film Noir titles, as selected by IMDB users.
Where did film noir come from?
Imagine you were a mystery fan in the 1920s. Most of your choices were in the style Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle–well-mannered murders that occurred in a conservatory with a candlestick. The murderers were ladies and gentlemen who always paused in their killing to partake of afternoon tea.
American crime writers kicked this stuff out the @#$%ing window and began writing in a style that actually considered the kind of people involved. Murder is a desperate act, performed by desperate men and women. This new hardboiled style reflected that. It wasn’t polite.
Suddenly, you had Raymond Chandler writing about criminals who packed heat, slept around, drank too much, shot up heroin, and carried dirty pictures in their wallets. James M. Cain wrote about a drifter who murdered his landlord so he could make off with the guy’s wife. Dashiell Hammett’s characters threw around racial slurs, slapped women, and left wakes of dead bodies. Dorothy B. Hughes told love stories, but filled them with sociopaths and street thugs.
These masters wrote in a truly American style–with short, sharp sentences, language full of street slang, and a taste for violence. But they also wrote with a point. They had something to say. Amidst the killings, their characters talked about the human condition, about moral struggles, about love and mortality.
Hollywood noticed. Many of the best noir movies had their start as the best hardboiled crime novels.
Where does teen noir fit in?
Imagine the shadowy, violent, atmospheric style of these classic books or movies. Then imagine updating that style into modern day and making the protagonist a teenager. That’s about it. You love S.E. Hinton’s classics, don’t you? The Outsiders, Rumblefish, That Was Then This is Now. I consider those to be teen noir classics.
But if you want a more sensory explanation, just watch Brick. This great 2005 indie movie, written and directed by Rian Johnson and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is the best example I can think of.
This movie is what made me think it was time to kickstart teen noir. I hope The Shadow of Seth helps do that.