Guest Post: Noir! Part 1

by Ruby on May 4, 2010

What inspires an author to write a certain type of fiction? Emily St. John Mandel (one of Patrick’s favorite authors with a podcast to prove it, and author of Last Night in Montreal) is back at Vroman’s this Thursday, May 6th, with her new book, The Singer’s Gun. The LA Times gave it an excellent review, and of course goodreads is loving it. The book is on shelves today, and in celebration, Emily has graciously taken the time to write an untitled piece you will only find on the Vroman’s blog. The subject was noir, and the loose topic was ‘why do you write it?’ She very conveniently provided me with a post in two parts, so to heighten the suspense (and anticipation for the event!), you only get the first part today. Keep your eyes peeled for part two…


Emily St. John Mandel


I have a weakness for noir. This is probably apparent to anyone who’s read my work—one of the major characters in my first novel, Last Night in Montreal, is a private detective; the title of my second novel, The Singer’s Gun, refers to a Beretta stolen from a lounge singer. I like fedoras and fast writing, books driven in equal measure by plot and sheer atmosphere.

There’s something about California that’s oddly conducive to the genre. It’s partly the staggering beauty of the landscape; all beautiful landscapes suggest vaguely sinister undercurrents, to me at least, and I think that part of the appeal of noir lies in the tension between beauty and brutality. What I find in any discussion of California noir is that all roads lead to Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, and I’ve spent a great deal of time in the landscape of that film; my father grew up in a town just north of Los Angeles, a district of orange and lemon orchards and backroom deals for water rights.

My father’s hometown has appeared in countless movies. The chances are good that you’ve seen it on TV. The town’s appeal as a film set is understandable; it’s beautiful, a few bright streets surrounded by orange orchards and hills, and it has the kind of classic 1920s-era Main Street that can stand in for any Main Street, in any idyllic small town, in any climate where palm trees grow. I was last there a decade ago, visiting my father—he’d moved back temporarily to look after my grandmother—and the place was changing so rapidly that he said he hardly recognized it. The region was awash in drugs. There were rumors of small planes flying in laden with narcotics to a local private airstrip; rumors of gangs fighting over the territory. The local teenagers were addicted to unsettling substances. Even the landscape was changing: the orange orchards were dying, allowed to go unwatered after the land was bought by developers. It was easy to come away with the impression that this town with the movie-set streets was slipping—turning into its own dark shadow, a kind of inversion of itself.

A set-up for a noir film or novel if ever there was one. But most of Chinatown takes place in Los Angeles, and I’ve always been drawn most strongly to cities, both in life and in fiction. I’m attracted to the literature of hotels and blind alleyways, nightclubs and urban corruption. “It is not a fragrant world,” Raymond Chandler wrote in a 1944 essay for The Atlantic Monthly, “but it is the world you live in.”