Noir novelist Kirk Curnutt is also an expert on F. Scott Fitzgerald. His works of literary criticism include A Historical Guide to F. Scott Fitzgerald (editor, 2004) and The Cambridge Introduction to F. Scott Fitzgerald (2007). His novels are Breathing Out the Ghost (2007) and Dixie Noir (2009).
1. What’s the first crime novel that you remember reading?
The first crime book was Ed Sanders’ The Family, the first Charles Manson history, soon overshadowed by Helter Skelter but in many ways a much more interesting work because Sanders (of the Fugs, of course) was a counterculture icon. I read it at about ten years old, and it scared the bejeepers out of me. The style is still so freakily Beat it’s disturbing. But fiction-wise, I was a huge Erle Stanley Gardner fan. This was mainly because there was a paperback trade shop in downtown Midland, Michigan, where I grew up, and as my mother and her friends were slipping Fear of Flying into brown-paper sacks I could nab used copies of The Case of the Vagabond Virgin or The Case of the Cautious Coquette for twenty-five cents. These were novels that could usually be read in the same span it took to watch a Perry Mason episode. But the downside of bingeing on Gardner was that it left me addictively attached to alliteration in my own writing.
2. Hammett or Chandler?
Tough call, but I’m going with Hammett, in part because he could rock a prematurely gray coif, something I had to come to grips with before I hit forty. Chandler’s plots are a little too tangled for me. I usually lose the thread about two-thirds of the way through. My favorite Hammetts are Red Harvest and The Glass Key. Plus the story “The Second Story Angel” from Nightmare Town—a pretty witty piece of metafiction on the competitive noir market in the golden age. (It’s online at http://arthursclassicnovels.com/hammett/secstor10.html.)
3. What the noir-est thing that F. Scott Fitzgerald ever wrote?
Fitzgerald actually ceded to the noir voice in the late 1930s when he realized his brand of romanticism was a done deal. He didn’t write crime fiction, but he did hardboil his style for Esquire, something he had resisted for a long time because doing so signaled his acknowledgment that the Hemingway school of minimalism had won out. There is an interesting if virtually unknown story Fitz did called “On an Ocean Wave” that I think deserves more attention. It was published shortly after his death under the pseudonym “Paul Elgin.” It was probably at the printer when he keeled, to be honest. Then there is a piece called “Shaggy’s Morning” that is generally considered one of the worst things he ever did. It’s actually not that bad if you read it as a parody of noir. It’s told from the perspective of a dog—seriously. Just to give the flavor: “I woke up after a lousy dream and as soon as the old beezer came alive I went around the yard trying to pick up something interesting but the wind was too strong. There was an old biscuit in my dish and if there’s anything gloomier than one dead biscuit on a windy morning I don’t know about it.” That’s (sorta) funny!
4. What’s the noir-est thing about the South?
It might be easier to list all the things that aren’t noir-y. I’m not sure sweet tea is noir. Or the Marshall Tucker Band—they weren’t either. But I think “the burden” as we all call it is a good umbrella term for the underbelly. To me Southern guilt and complicity are best manifest in the politics, especially when it comes to racial issues. Most certifiably Southern cities struggle to resolve the opposing legacies of the Civil War and Civil Rights. Those two historical forces create a gyre that has a lot of noir potential—I think Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising is a great example of how that drama can be realized (though BWR isn’t pulpy noir but more straightforward crime fic). There’s also an element of exaggeration in the Southern character that expresses the kink of noir very nicely. You look at some of the more flamboyant personalities that continue to rise in the South and they make Popeye in Faulkner’s Sanctuary look dull. Frank Melton, who was mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, from 2005-09—and voted the worst mayor in America during his one staggeringly corrupt term—seemed to have stepped straight out of a noir novel. He died on election night when he realized he wouldn’t get reelected! Chester Himes could not have created that guy and made him any more realistic.
5. What famous noir novel does your novel Dixie Noir most resemble?
Wow—really tough question. I’d hate to reveal all the sources I ripped off. . . .I was trying to write a corrupt-city noir, a sort of Southern LA Confidential. I wouldn’t say Dixie resembles that book, though. I wanted a page-turner instead of a wide-screen panorama. Maybe some Red Harvest in there, along with some Sanctuary. You know, the more hallucinatory type of noir where the violence seems almost phantasmagoric.