Daylight Noir

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Conjuring Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles

Better Call Saul writer Vince Gilligan commented in a recent interview in NY Magazine, that he and fellow series creator, Peter Gould, have been “ripping off Edward Hopper shamelessly over the last two years”. Gilligan was referring to Hopper’s painting Nighthawks, in which two lonely people sit at a counter drinking coffee in an all-night diner. Gilligan says: “We love that image of an island of light surrounded by an ocean of darkness.”

That phrase, “an island of light surrounded by an ocean of darkness” also seems like a good starting point for describing Catherine Corman’s photographs in Daylight Noir. Corman’s book is an attempt to visualize and photograph locations described in Chandler’s novels, from The Big Sleep, to Lady in the Lake.

Each of the scenes she photographs is captured in high contrast black and white, many using a technique known as vignetting, where the brightness or saturation is reduced at the periphery the image centre to create a dark halo or border around the photograph. The technique not only draws attention to the centre of the frame, but emphasizes the effect of “an island of light surrounded by an ocean of darkness”.

The images mirror Chandler’s writings, which often seek out moments of grace and beauty to highlight the darkness and corruption that surrounds them.

Here’s one example where Chandler uses a sort of literary vignetting in a passage from The Big Sleep.

A yellow window shone here and there, but most of the houses were dark. A smell of kelp came in off the water and lay on the fog. The tires sang on the moist concrete of the boulevard. The world was a wet emptiness.

The lit windows form the centre of the image, and highlight the dark, dank world surrounding Philip Marlowe. It’s the moment where Marlowe is driving Vivian Sternwood back from Eddie Mars’s gambling club. Marlowe is attracted to Vivian, even infatuated with her, but has also begun to realise that she is corrupted by the murky world around her too. The two are trying to flee the “rotten little town” for a moment of escape and intimacy, but the darkness follows them.

Corman uses this quote to accompany her image of the Del Rey Beach Club (above). The building glows white, just off centre, surrounded by dark hills, and palms silhouetted against an ominous sky.

Corman’s haunting photographs highlight the melancholy of sunny places tarnished by shady goings on. Here sunshine is not a cause for carefree joy, but offers only a starker, crueller contrast to corrupt world it illuminates.

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Interview with Leigh Redhead

Fans of antipodean crime fiction, this is worth reading, especially if you have yet to discover Leigh Redhead…

International Crime Fiction Research Group

Outdoor, Vietnamese Grafitti & Stencil

Australian Crime writer Leigh Redhead  spoke  at Belfast’s “Setting the Scene”  conference, organised by the ICRH at Queen’s University. Prior to embarking on her literary and academic career, she worked on a prawn trawler, as a waitress, exotic dancer, masseuse and apprentice chef. She burst onto the crime fiction scene in 2004 with Peepshow, which introduced the trouble-finding, fun-loving, ex-stripper, PI Simone Kirsch, to readers. Simone made her next appearance in Rubdown (2005), followed by Cherry Pie (2007) and Thrill City (2010). In 2005 and 2006 Leigh was one of The Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelists and also won the Sisters in Crime Davitt Reader’s Choice Award. She is currently working on the fifth Simone Kirsch book, as well as wrangling a couple of toddlers and completing a PhD at the University of Wollongong.

[Dominique Jeannerod]  How would you introduce your novels to someone who had not yet read them?

[Leigh Redhead] 

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Peter Corris on Cliff Hardy, writing about Sydney, and Gun Control

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Australian novelist, historian and columnist Peter Corris is often referred to as the Godfather of Australian crime. In an interview on ABC News Radio, he discusses his new Cliff Hardy novel Gun Control.

It’s his fortieth Cliff Hardy novel to date. In this brief but absorbing interview, Corris touches on everything from his writing process and plot techniques to the influences of Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald on his early writing.

Crime writing fans, enjoy: http://www.abc.net.au/newsradio/content/s4188117.htm

And here he is on Radio National, discussing the book in-depth. http://mpegmedia.abc.net.au/rn/podcast/2015/03/bps_20150322_1430.mp3

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Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime

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A new exhibition at the Wellcome Institute in London, Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime, reveals the history, science and art of forensic medicine through original evidence and forensic instruments, archival material, film footage and art work.

It’s at once a chilling and fascinating exhibition, examining our fascination with the dark side of humanity, but also our desire for closure and resolution. Yes, there are some grisly images of 19th century crime scenes, specimen jars and black and white photos of a body farm. There’s even a Royal Doulton mortuary slab from the 1930s. But there is also evidence of how the cruelty of an untimely death can prompt very touching human responses.

Sejla Kamerić’s artwork, Ab Uno Disce Omne, is a memorial to the victims of the Bosnian conflict of the 1990s. A walk-in mortuary fridge is fitted with a screen that flashes up random images selected from thousands of photographs, documents and video that are being searched in the almost impossible task of accounting for the 30,000 people who went missing during the conflict.

But perhaps the most haunting images come from Patricio Guzman’s Nostalgia for the Light. It documents the efforts of a group of women in Chile’s Atacama Desert, who sift through the sand searching for body parts of loved ones, dumped unceremoniously by Pinochet’s regime. The dedication and love with which they do this task seems like a ritual that redeems the horror they and they have suffered.

Some may see forensics as a macabre and grisly science, only concerned with cataloguing and describing the physical characteristics of the dead, but this exhibition also reminded me that it is a very human science – one that is very much about helping the living. It helps individuals and societies deal with the process of mourning, it gives names to their nameless sorrows and hopefully offers ways of understanding and moving on from the suffering.

Anyone interested in learning more about exhibition can visit Wellcome. You can also read Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime by Val McDermid.

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Robert Macfarlane’s words for rain

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Robert Macfarlane is a writer, Cambridge academic and tree hugger, in the best sense of the word. Macfarlane (pictured) loves exploring, walking in and writing about the English landscape and his latest book, Landmarks, is released this week.

A big theme in Macfarlane’s writing is the relationship we share with our environment and how that relationship is breaking down. One of the ways we develop a relationship with nature, he says, is through language, and in Landmarks he laments the decline in our ability to name the elements of our natural world.

He notes that in the Oxford Junior Dictionary, words such as “conker”, “heron” and “acorn” have been replaced by new words like “broadband”, “bullet point” and “celebrity”. As the virtual world replaces the real, he says, our children begin to lose contact with the natural world.

In Landmarks, Macfarlane goes on to list all sorts of delightful, but now rarely used words for natural phenomena.

There’s Weet, to rain slightly, and Williwaw, a sudden, violent squall, and Wewire, to move about as foliage does in wind, and that’s just the Ws. Other wonderful words include Up’tak for the rising of the wind, Slomp, to walk heavily or noisily and Fuddle, to potter around.

Reading Macfarlane’s lists of words for the natural world, and how they describe our place in it, made me think that it isn’t just England that needs to think long and hard about the loss of a natural language.

I grew up in semi-rural Australia and learned a lot about the environment through exploring the surrounding countryside, through my own reading and speaking with my parents, but not so much from school. I also remember that a lot of the books and television shows I saw were English or American, and so I learned more about British and American plants than I did about my own native environment.

I dimly recall the odd field trip to a creek to look at tadpoles, but other than that, there was precious little information about our natural environment. I wonder how many schools take their students out to the coast or the bush now and get them to identify rock forms or plants and wildlife. I know computers are important, but surely our relationship to our environment is to.

Part of the reason for our disconnect from the Australian landscape is that so many of us live in the city. Another reason is that we have failed to really engage with the many indigenous communities of Australia who have their own incredibly subtle languages, visual and verbal, to describe the environment.

I’d like to see a similar project to Landmarks happen in Australia, with words gathered from around the continent, describing the natural phenomena, the plants, the cloud formations, the moods of weather and the animals from the coastlines and the mountains to the deserts.

I did a bit of searching and came across some words for the seasons from the Noongar people around Perth: Kambarang, a time of lessening rain from October to November when sweet gum is gathered. Birak, a time of hot, dry, daytime easterly breezes from December to January when the banksia blooms. Makuru, a time of cold and rain from June to July, when the watersheds fill and people keep warm with smouldering banskia branches.

And here are some words from Gadigal, from the indigenous community around Sydney. Walan Yilaba, means heavy rain. Ngarunga means a calm in the water. And the beautiful Mulumulu, which describes a cluster of falling stars.

Perhaps it’s time to gather these terms, teach them at school and incorporate them in our everyday language in the way we have incorporated words from so many other languages.

And perhaps it’s also time to create new words to describe our changing relationship with the environment. Words are essential to our relationship with nature, our understanding and love of it. If we cannot name the late summer rain, the flowering gums, the fast and slow flowing rivers, will we value them enough to protect them?

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Richard Rayner’s ‘A Bright and Guilty Place’

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Richard Rayner’s 2009 book A Bright and Guilty Place uses stories of disaster and true crime in Los Angeles in the 1920s and 30s as a way of identifying and examining the essence of the city. It’s a jaunty and engaging if somewhat ghoulish trawl through the glamorous but grim history of LA, that explicitly courts fans of LA noir, from Raymond Chandler and Chinatown, to LA Confidential.

British-born, LA resident Rayner is perhaps best known for Los Angeles Without A Map, a part-fiction, part-travelogue tale of a writer who follows an aspiring starlet to Hollywood, which was turned into a movie by Mika Kaurismäki. In A Bright and Guilty Place, Rayner moves from the self-referential to the historical, beginning his story in the heady days before the 1929 crash and ending mid-Depression.

Rayner’s book seems to ask not only what makes Los Angeles the city it is today, but also identifies the raw materials for the great noir tradition that emerged from the city’s malaise. If his story of high rollers, financial ruin, fallen starlets, murder and corruption seems as compelling as a Chandler tale, it’s because Chandler sourced many of his stories from the same newspapers Rayner’s uses as archival sources in his book.

A Bright and Guilty Place is a fascinating look at how this sun drenched, rain starved city conjured its own fantastic mirage of success from the desert, and paid the price for its hubris.

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Inner City Beat! Detective, spy and thriller themes

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As I write this post I am listening to a great new collection of tunes from Soul Jazz Records, the supremo reissue record label, which you can pick up at the fabulous Sounds of the Universe, in London’s Soho, or sample on the Soul Jazz webpage.

I’m working on a crime novel at the moment, and this killer collection of funky detective, spy and thriller themes from the 1960s and 1970s is the perfect soundtrack. The music spans pulsing ominous heart-racing beats, zippy urban jazz, catchy mod tunes and high-octane orchestral soundtracks.

Soul Jazz has trauled through the archives of British library music companies (DeWolfe, KPM, Conroy, Amphonic) who supplied music for use in detective and spy tv programmes and films during this period. Many of these tracks were never broadcast, others were used as incidental or title music in little-known or long forgotten cult crime shows.

Listening to these tracks summons up memories of The Streets of San Francisco, Quincy ME, The Sweeney, The Rockford Files, Kojack and The Saint. Aural inspiration for crime writers, or the perfect soundtrack for a noir themed party.

 

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