For all of its interesting variants (from cozies to serial killers and from volunteer detectives to police procedurals), the traditional mystery or detective novel remains arguably one of the most conservative of all genres. At least in terms of how its narrative arc is structured, the classic mystery starts with a disruption of the social order, most often in the form of a murder. No matter how unconventional its characters, how chaotic its narrative progress, or how unpredictable its dénouement, the whodunit inevitably ends with a restoration of order. The puzzle is solved. Justice is served. We don’t tire of reading well-wrought mysteries any more than we tire of listening to blues songs, having a pint after work, or seeing a Shakespeare play. If you know what you like, why not enjoy it as often as possible?
That said, one of the things I love about the grittiest crime of fiction is how fiercely it struggles to break the genre’s tendency toward that expected, conservative outcome. These days, the term “noir” has one of the most overused and least understood terms in discussions of our genre, but I would argue that, properly speaking, the label “noir” belongs to fiction that shows us bad people doing bad things. I learned my craft at the feet of noirists like James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, and Patricia Highsmith, who care much more about depicting the inner lives of criminals than explaining how they get caught. Cain gives us desperate men doing awful things and trying to get away with them. Thompson’s narrators are the chattiest psychopaths since Poe’s. With her talented Mr. Ripley, Highsmith created an anti-hero so charming he spawned a series.
Published this month by Cloud Lodge Books, my debut crime novel, The Lawn Job updates the noir novel for the 21st century with text messaging, violent video games, legalized marijuana, heavily armed militias, and contemporary rainbow of race and gender identities. But my work also stays true to its roots, offering readers an unsavory protagonist who struggles against people just as amoral and self-serving as he is. It’s a noir thrill ride all the way to the bottom, and I provide the reader with lots of twists and turns to keep them guessing. However, we all know bad characters come to bad ends. Just as in other types of crime fiction, ultimately noir cannot resist the arc toward an essentially conservative restoration of the social order. Justice must still be served, even if it’s only accomplished by fate. If the cops can’t catch these noir criminals, their own bad luck and foolishness still conspires against them. There’s a reason Cain titled his first noir masterpiece The Postman Always Rings Twice. The letter always arrives at its destination.
The Lawn Job by Chuck Caruso is out 21st July (£9.99, Cloud Lodge Books)