Writers Explain the Appeal of Urban Noir In The Maltese Falcon, San Francisco is a character. The Big Sleep is all about Los Angeles. In mystery stories, there's a distinct sound to every city's mean streets, and the setting can be as important as the crime. Mystery writers talk about why they choose to imagine crimes in the cities they love.
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Writers Explain the Appeal of Urban Noir

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Writers Explain the Appeal of Urban Noir

Writers Explain the Appeal of Urban Noir

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary, sitting in for Neal Conan. It was a dark and stormy night, but how dark and how stormy depends on the place. In mystery, and especially in hardboiled noir, the city is a character. If you want to hide the body in Chicago, you can head for the lake. But in Baltimore, you better know of an empty, row house basement. And while Manhattan femme fatales may be clicking along a dark alley in sky high heels, the lady sneaking around St. Paul, Minnesota, might just be wearing snow boots.

A new series of noir-themed anthologies features mystery writers stalking the hidden neighborhoods of their cities. We'll talk to some of those writers about why they choose to imagine crimes in the cities they love. From killings on the carousels of Coney Island, to poisoned mojitos in Miami, what's your city hiding? Tell us the mysteries you're reading and what you don't dare put down.

Our number here in Washington, 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK, and our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. Later this hour, we'll look into the latest religious controversy. This one involves history textbooks and Hinduism. But first, my guest is Eddie Muller. He's written a series of crime novels set in San Francisco, as well as three acclaimed nonfiction books about film noir. His story, Kid's Last Fight, appears in the anthology, San Francisco Noir. He joins us from member station KQED in San Francisco. Welcome to the program.

Mr. EDDIE MULLER (Author): Hi, Lynn. Thanks for having me.

NEARY: So what got you hooked on noir?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MULLER: Well, truthfully, my city got me hooked on noir. My father was a sportswriter in San Francisco. He worked for Hearst's Examiner for a long time, ever since he was a kid, and I really think that my interest in noir stems from my desire to sort of understand the city that my father grew up in, and what it was like in his prime, and so I've sort of traced my whole interest in film noir and Roman noir back to that. So it really does have something to do with the city.

NEARY: Are you interested in the San Francisco, the past or of the present, in terms of noir?

Mr. MULLER: Well, both, both. I mean, really my interest in noir, in general, is in the continuum, if you will, how what we originally thought of as noir, and whether that stemmed from hardboiled crime fiction, or even earlier than that, up through what Hollywood did with it in the 1940s, and how that manifests itself today, and how each generation seems to influence the next.

NEARY: What sets noir fiction apart from other kinds of mysteries, or other kinds of crime novels, for instance?

Mr. MULLER: Well, it's a willingness to explore the darkest side of human nature, I think. These days, I've taken to explaining to people that, if you look at something like, just as an example, let's say the whole O.J. Simpson thing as a true crime thing. If you wanted to fictionalize that, and you wrote it from the authorities' perspective, that would be just a crime story.

If you actually wrote it from O.J.'s perspective, that would be a noir. Whether you found him to be guilty or innocent, that would be a noir, because he would be a man trapped by circumstance, accused of a crime he didn't commit, or it would be a tale told from the perspective of the killer.

NEARY: Huh. So, how does the city play such an important role in noir? Why does a city play such an important part?

Mr. MULLER: Well, because noir, as we think of it, is really an urban phenomenon. I mean, when you think of it, you don't think of cozy mysteries set in the countryside. It really does have something to do with people being desperate, and I think an urban environment, generally, if, like, there's too many rats in the cage,and how does that affect people, and make them want to commit a crime? Because basically, that's, in noir, a crime is committed. Somebody goes too far, steps over the, you know, that moral line, and they will commit a crime. That is a given in what we think of as noir, whether it's film or fiction, so.

NEARY: Let me go back to what you were, the example you were giving before about, you know, the O.J. Simpson trial, the O.J. Simpson situation. Because I always think of noir also as being something that, like, involves a detective in some way, that it's a detective story. Am I wrong about that?

Mr. MULLER: Not necessarily. There are a lot of noir stories that are detective fiction. Yeah, I've said in the past that the example that I always give is if somebody walks into hire the detective in his shabby office, and he takes the job, and he investigates this, you know, the husband hires him to see if his wife is cheating on him, and then he does that, and he uncovers all kinds of family secrets, and then he sort of sets that story right, solves the case, then goes back to his lonely office, that's detective fiction.

If the detective is hired to investigate where the wife's cheating, the wife seduces the detective, she talks the detective into killing her husband, he does it, that's noir.

NEARY: Well, let's talk about your city, San Francisco, because we're talking about a series of books that are coming out, based in different cities, noir stories based in different cities. Yours is San Francisco...

Mr. MULLER: Mm-hmm.

NEARY: ...which, of course, has quite a noir heritage. But what really makes it such a good city, such a good setting for those kinds of stories?

Mr. MULLER: Well, geographically, it's seven miles by seven miles, and it's, there's a certain sense of, as much as people love the geography, there is a certain sense of entrapment in San Francisco, because you're surrounded by water on three of the four sides. But, what's, one thing that distinguishes San Francisco from some of the other cities that you might see in this collection, or this series, is San Francisco is a place that you don't escape from. It's a place you escape to. And I think that has a big bearing on the kind of stories that are told here.

If you've committed a crime someplace else and you're on the run, you might run to San Francisco. And the other thing that's interesting about it, particularly from a contemporary standpoint, is in noir, there's a real, one of the themes is identity, and people trying to escape from who they are, and assume a new identity, and that's generally why a lot of people come to San Francisco, is to live the life that they really want to live, and to get away from the past life. And if that past follows you, now, that's a very noir thing.

NEARY: All right. Well, if Eddie Muller is the czar of noir in San Francisco, Laura Lippman is the doyenne of crime in Baltimore. Winner of the Edgar, Shamus, and Agatha Awards, she is the author of the Tess Monaghan crime series, and two standalone novels, as well. She edited the forthcoming Baltimore noir series. Her story, Easy as One, Two, Three leads the collection, and Laura Lippman joins us now from member station WYPR in Baltimore. Thanks for being with us.

Ms. LAURA LIPPMAN (Author): Thank you for having me.

NEARY: So, what's the relationship between your writing and your city, Baltimore?

Ms. LIPPMAN: I grew up in Baltimore. I was the daughter of a newspaper man here, and wanted very much to come back here to work, but it took a long time. I had to spend about eight years in Texas before I could convince my hometown newspaper to hire me. And coming back as an adult, I saw this real difference between the city I had romanticized and even fetishized in my mind.

I tell people that Baltimore is a little bit like this eccentric uncle you had, who, as a child you adored and looked up to. But as an adult, you begin to see some things that aren't quite as affectionate, and you find out secrets and back stories that make it more challenging to love it, and yet you love it still.

NEARY: And Baltimore recently has been the setting for a number of programs and films about crime. Why? Why do you think that is?

Ms. LIPPMAN: Well, I think part of the reason that is, is because a young Baltimore Sun reporter named David Simon wrote a book called Homicide back in the 1980s, and indirectly set himself on that career path. I mean, it's been very natural for him to follow that up with other books, and then a miniseries, and now the television show The Wire. And so, part of that's just luck and coincidence, you know, just something that happened. I guess in interest of full disclosure, I should add that that's the person I happen to share my life with, but that's also just luck and coincidence.

We don't really sit around at night plotting homicides, or thinking of dastardly crimes to commit in fiction. The more real answer, and it's one that disturbs politicians when we talk about it, is that Baltimore has a murder problem that won't go away. Other major cities have enjoyed really significant declines in their murder rates since they peaked, most in the crack/cocaine epidemic of the '80s and early '90s. Baltimore continues year in and year out to be in the top five per capita. The past week in Baltimore is notable for it being the first in 2006 without a homicide.

NEARY: It's interesting, too, Eddie Muller mentioned earlier that his father was a journalist, your father was a journalist, and you yourself started out as a journalist. Did journalist just automatically get interested in writing noir stories, or what's the connection between journalism and noir, Laura?

Ms. LIPPMAN: I think part of it is that journalism is such a wonderful entrée into the lives of all sorts of people from all parts of society that you would never meet. You find yourself going, I covered poverty and Social Services for a long time, and after growing up here for the first time, I was going inside these row houses on McCullough street that I had just driven past as a little girl. I was discovering how people lived. At the same time, I was going into the mansions of Gilford, and seeing how those people lived. So, I think part of it is just how much more information you have, because you've been able to travel through this city so widely.

NEARY: So, in terms of your city, what's the best setting for noir? Is it the mansions of Gilford, or the row houses?

Ms. LIPPMAN: I think it's the row houses. You know, I think, I loved the fact that Eddie noted that San Francisco has this claustrophobic fact to it, that it's surrounded by water.

Baltimore has a political, it's not unique, but it's very unusual. Baltimore City lies in no county. So, it can't annex, it can't expand. And in these old, row-house neighborhoods that are, where the houses are so close together, and people really do live cheek by jowl, and that's getting ever more interesting now as you have, and I guess I'm one of them, I can't stand apart from it. You have this sort of yuppie influx into some very old working class neighborhoods.

I was very amused in my neighborhood when the locals, the people who had lived there a long time, protested the coming of a wine bar. And said, we don't want those kinds of people in the neighborhood. They preferred it a more normal tavern.

NEARY: And a wine bar is not a particularly good setting for a noir mystery either, I think.

Ms. LIPPMAN: No, no it's really not.

NEARY: A good old Baltimore bar I think is, fits much better into the noir genre.

Well, we are wandering the city this hour, looking for trouble. And it's all about noir, as you have been hearing. We're going to continue our discussion in a moment, and you can join us by sending us an e-mail at talk@npr.org, or by calling us at 800-989-8255.

I'm Lynn Neary, its TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington sitting in for Neal Conan.

We're talking about crime fiction this hour. If you know where the bodies are buried in your city, give us a call and tell us what you're reading. You're invited to join the discussion. Give us a call at 800-989-TALK. Our email address is talk@npr.org.

My guests are Eddie Muller, crime writer and noir expert, who appears in San Francisco noir, and Laura Lippman, doyenne of Baltimore crime writing. She edited and appears in Baltimore Noir.

Eddie Muller, before we just went on that break, Laura Lippman was saying that, telling us the best neighborhood for setting a crime novel in Baltimore. What about San Francisco, what's the neighborhood do you think of as the place to go to set a mystery novel, a dark mystery?

Mr. MULLER: Well, first off all, I love the fact that I'm the czar, and Laura's the doyenne, that's very good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MULLER: Hi, Laura.

Ms. LIPPMAN: Hi, Eddie.

Mr. MULLER: Well, actually, it was funny. When you were asking that question, it occurred to me that one of the great pleasures of crime fiction is that the protagonist always moves between these various social strata, which to me is always the most exciting thing about it.

I don't actually choose one or the other. I have to say, if there's one thing about the San Francisco Noir collection that I was slightly disappointed by, and I hope Peter Maravelis the editor is not listening at this moment. It's that there wasn't enough upscale crime. There was no, there really was no Pacific Heights crime committed in that anthology, which somewhat disappointed me.

When I write my books, I really, one of the great things that I take pleasure in is going from, like I say, the outhouse to the penthouse, is, I think, what really makes it interesting when you examine how a city is structured, and how it works; to be able to move between all of that is fascinating to me.

NEARY: All right, let's see if we can get a listener in on this discussion.

Kate in Portland, Oregon. Hi Kate, go ahead.

KATE (Caller): Hi, Lynn.


KATE: The books that I'd like to talk about are not actually set in the city, but they've got a real sense of place to them. They are by Julia Spencer Fleming, and they take place in the fictional Miller's Kill, New York, upstate.

The protagonist is the Reverend Clare Ferguson, she's an Episcopal priest who's an ex-Army helicopter pilot. And the cold of the winters, and the icy brooding presence of the mountains just suffuses these books. And it just, it has such a sense of presence, and really contributes to this very dark happening of this one small town.

NEARY: Are you a big mystery fan?

KATE: I like some mysteries. They have to have a really good story, and be well written.

NEARY: And what about the kind of noir fiction we've been talking about, the ones that are set in the big city? Do you read any of those?

KATE: I do and I actually think that these books do qualify. Because oftentimes, the author will give you the perspective of the victim or the murderer. And so, you kind of get both sides, from the law hunters to the law breaker's perspective.

NEARY: All right. Well, thanks for calling, Kate. Bye-bye.

KATE: Sure thing.

NEARY: That goes a little bit against something you said earlier, Eddie, which is that to be noir it has to be set in a city.

Mr. MULLER: Well, you know, that's just a generalization, but boy does Karen know how to rub salt in a wound. When I was nominated for all those awards that Julia won...

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Well, you know, it's interesting. We've been focusing, Laura Lippman, with you on Baltimore, but talking about setting. Your stories appear in three of these noir books, in this series we're talking about.

Ms. LIPPMAN: It's true.

NEARY: In Baltimore, in D.C., and in Dublin, which I found very interesting, because I don't somehow think of Dublin as a noir city, particularly.

Ms. LIPPMAN: The Dublin story--I was recruited by the editor, Ken Bruin(ph). It should be noted that the crime writing world is extremely cozy. I know Eddie, we've met many times, he's done me many a favors.

I knew, I know a lot of the people who are editing the noir series, and I was invited to write about Dublin, about which, I knew only what a tourist would know. And Ken said, well, then you can write from that perspective.

D.C., which was edited by George Pelicanos was easier for me. I have friends and relatives in the area. My family actually lived outside D.C. when I was very young. So, that one I thought I could pull off, at least. And that one I did set in a very upscale neighborhood in Northwest Washington. So yes, I'm a big of the noir slut, I'll actually appear in a fourth volume later.

NEARY: All right, we're changing that doyenne title now, but I won't, anyway. But which was easy, which was, so was Baltimore the easiest, because that's the city you really know, and the one you grew up in or the...

Ms. LIPPMAN: Baltimore, in some ways, was the easiest. Certainly, I knew the neighborhood best. I set it in a neighborhood not far from where I live. But it was the only one of the stories that was written from a man's perspective. So, that made it rather challenging.

It's a story about a contractor, and it was inspired by something that happens because of all the renovations and changes that are going on in the neighborhood. There is a tendency, if you hire a bad contractor, and the contractor in my story is a very good one, and they're trying to raise your house in order to give you a full basement, every now and then they screw it up, and the house just collapses.

NEARY: Ah-ha.

Ms. LIPPMAN: And I've seen this happen twice in my neighborhood in the past year, where this house that someone just spent, you know, a couple hundred thousand dollars for to obtain in the shell of the house, just ends up a pile of rubble on the lot, because they hired someone to excavate the basement who didn't know who to do it. I sort of liked that idea, I just sort of had the line running around in my head. You know, another house collapsed last week.

NEARY: Uh-huh. Okay, let's take a call from James. He's calling from Charlotte, North Carolina. Hi, James.

JAMES (Caller): Oh hi, great discussion, I'm enjoying it very much.

NEARY: Okay.

JAMES: I had a question about the setting. You, talking about San Francisco, Baltimore, and they're pretty famous, you know, there's a stereotype of Baltimore, maybe one of San Francisco. But in a new city like Charlotte, where there's not so much history, could you envision a noir novel set in a city like Charlotte? Do you think you could pull it off? And I'll take some comments off the air.

NEARY: Okay, thanks so much for calling, James.

Ms. LIPPMAN: I don't know if I...

NEARY: Does a city have to be old, does it have to be steeped in history to be a setting?

Mr. MULLER: Oh, I don't think so at all. No, I think they...

Ms. LIPPMAN: I think the New South is a great setting.

Mr. MULLER: Yeah.

NEARY: Why do you think it is a great setting, Laura?

Ms. LIPPMAN: Again, I mean, you know, Eddie defines noir better than anyone I know. I should say, whenever anyone asks me what noir is, I always say, go ask Eddie Muller. But, I think one of the things that is common is it's a story about dreamers who end up being cheaters or schemers. People who might start, may start with a fairly honorable desire, they want to earn more money, they want to get the girl or the guy. And then the way in which they end up doing it turns out to be not the most legal way, or the best way, or the moral way. And I think cities like Atlanta and Charlotte and Dallas are full of stories like that.

NEARY: Eddie?

Mr. MULLER: I totally agree. One of the things I said at the top was about this continuum that I'm fascinated by, and I think that, in some ways, noir fiction, the way it's written by some people, like Laura and like George Pelicanos, is a social history of a place.

And I do think that, like, in San Francisco, you can certainly see very noir stories about San Francisco during the Gold Rush era, and what was that like during the Barbary Coast? And what was it like when San Francisco had this huge influx of people during the war effort, and the ship yards sprang up here? And what was it like during the summer of love in the 1960s? And what's it like today?

I do not think that it has anything really to do with a particular time and place. I think it has to do with human nature. And a city that is just in the early stages of its development, I find very ripe for noir. And I think Laura's definition of dreamers turning into schemers is spot on; that's brilliant.

NEARY: Well, let's get another writer into the mix, and another city into the mix. William Kent Kruger writes a Minnesota crime series, and his story, Bums, appears in the forthcoming Twin Cities Noir. His book, Blood Hallow, won the Anthony Award, and he joins us from Minnesota Public Radio in the dark, dark city of St. Paul, Minnesota.

Welcome to the program, William.

Mr. WILLIAM KENT KREUGER (Author): It's a pleasure to be with you, Lynn.

NEARY: And it's not a city I think of as a dark city. It's a city I think of as a very light city, actually. So how do you...

Mr. KRUGER: Minnesota nice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: That's right. We've all heard Guy Noir, of course, from Garrison Keillor, but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KREUGER: Oh, sure.

NEARY: How does St. Paul work, as a setting for a noir mystery?

Mr. KREUGER: Well, it was interesting, the comment that the caller just made about Charlotte, could that possibly be a setting for noir? And I'm sure people who think about the Twin Cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul, think: a noir anthology about those places? Give me a break.

In fact, I think all of the authors have done a terrific job in bringing out the dark underbelly of the Twin Cities. It's been just an enjoyable project. I'm actually trying to create the noir sense in a place like St. Paul.

NEARY: Now, in the collection, your story is set in St. Paul, but your crime series is mostly outside of the city. So, did you have to write differently when you're writing for a crime story in the city, and in that sort of noir feeling, as opposed to when you're writing for a mystery that goes on outside the city?

Mr. KREUGER: Yeah. Actually, it was the noir part that I found the most challenging because noir--hi Eddie, hi Laura.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MULLER: It is a small community.

Mr. KREUGER: I think that for me noir really is more about atmosphere and tone and style than it is about place. And you can create a noir story in Kansas just as easily as San Francisco or L.A. Although those are the places we typically think of as noir. So for me to create the story in St. Paul was really ok, how do I adopt this noir style to the story that I want to tell here. And it was just a hoot. I had a lot of fun with it.

NEARY: All right. Let's see if we can get a call now from Frank and he is calling from San Francisco. Hi Frank.

FRANK (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

Mr. MULLER: I don't owe you money, do I Frank?

FRANK: I just want to say the difference--sorry?

(Soundbite of laughter)

FRANK: I always wanted to say the difference between San Francisco and Boston is we know we're crazy, so. Anyway, in--I was looking for more books by George V. Higgins who wrote about Boston's underworld and, you know, the vast gap between the social strata there, which San Francisco doesn't have. And I notice in Boston they have like a society column for gangsters, you know, while we have the society column for society, you know. And I thought that was interesting. They have the...

Mr. MULLER: And sometimes you can't tell the difference.

FRANK: So that's--I just thought there was an interesting comparison between Boston and San Francisco and I thought maybe, you know, you had some thoughts on that.

Mr. MULLER: Well, they are like sister cities. I've always felt that. And, yeah, I love George V. Higgins and The Friends of Eddie Coyle is one of the great crime books of the '70s and there are some other ones out there, but...

FRANK: Yeah, I was looking for his books and I asked somebody why isn't he writing anymore. Well, he's dead. Well.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LIPPMAN: He died a couple of years ago. He was writing the...

NEARY: That's kind of noir answer I think.

Mr. MULLER: Yeah.

NEARY: Ok, thanks so much for your call Frank.

FRANK: Thank you.

Mr. MULLER: That's a career ender.

NEARY: I wonder if each of you could talk a little bit about--do most cities have a, you know, their Empire State Building, they all have their own landmarks. Do landmarks from your different cities play a role in any of your stories or in any of these stories? Let's start with you first Bill Kreuger.

Mr. KREUGER: You know, the landmark for the Twin Cities is the Mall of America.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KREUGER: I can think of lots of disaster movies that would be (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KREUGER: I don't think it's appropriate for noir.

NEARY: All right then. Moving on to Eddie Muller.

Mr. MULLER: Well, I think that some of us who contributed to the San Francisco anthology were almost adamant about avoiding certain landmarks because you feel like you're pandering to the postcard crowd if you put, you know, the Golden Gate Bridge or Coit Tower or cable cars in your story. And it's funny, in my novels I sometimes just amuse myself by figuring out how to use the expected thing in a different way.

I mean, I'll obsessively focus on the Bay Bridge instead of the Golden Gate Bridge and if there's a scene set on a cable car it will somehow play totally against the tourist expectations or something. So, yeah, I mean, there are those things in San Francisco and I'm from here, I mean, I'm a native San Franciscan and so I take all that landmark stuff with a grain of salt. I mean, it's all just, it's all the same background to me.

NEARY: Laura before I go to you I just want to remind our listeners that you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And Laura is there a landmark in your stories?

Ms. LIPPMAN: Well, there are two kinds of landmarks in Baltimore. My former Baltimore Sun colleague Lynell Smith, who happens to be the granddaughter of Ogden Nash once observed that Baltimore is a city where you give directions according to what's not there anymore. And if you're an old Baltimorean you say, oh remember where Hubfers(ph) was on Howard Street, so you go there and you make a right. But Baltimore has wonderfully quirky landmarks.

I've used the Domino's Sugar sign quite a bit in my fiction. It really does seem to follow you wherever you go in the city. It's quite visible from a number of angles. And it also has the just utterly delightful Bromo-Seltzer tower, which still turns blue at night but no longer has the Bromo-Seltzer bottle on top of it. Much to my disappointment.

NEARY: All right. Let's see if we can get another call in here now. We've got Hawk in Cleveland, Ohio. Hi Hawk.

HAWK (Caller): Hi, how are you?

NEARY: Good.

HAWK: I just thought I'd--I was curious if I could get a comment from your panelists about Richard K. Morgan's Altered Carbon. It takes place, I think, about 600 years in the future in what's called Bay City, but it's San Francisco and there's an old rusted Golden Gate Bridge. And there's a trilogy and the first is definitely, you know, crime noir. And I'm just curious what they thought of it, because it didn't seem to be very big in the U.S.

Mr. MULLER: I know nothing about it. So thanks for tipping me.

NEARY: Does anybody know anything about that one?

Ms. LIPPMAN: I missed that one. I really feel badly about that.

Mr. KREUGER: It sounds like something we should know about now, though.

Ms. LIPPMAN: Yeah.

HAWK: It's worth checking out. It's sci-fi and it's pretty gritty and gruesome. But some of the--there are two other books that follow it, that follow the same character that are slightly different plots, but...

Mr. MULLER: What's the author's name?

HAWK: Richard K. Morgan. He's online.

NEARY: All right. Thanks for your call Hawk.

HAWK: Thanks a lot.

NEARY: Great name.

Mr. KREUGER: Look for Cleveland noir coming soon.

NEARY: All right. Let's see if we can get one more call in here. We've got Valentine now in Hartford, Connecticut. Valentine, go ahead.

VALENTINE (Caller): Hello. I'd like to thank everybody for the education I'm getting in noir fiction. I love mysteries with a sense of place, but I'm never sure if they're noir or not. I just discovered a new author who writes about Edinburgh, called Ian Rankin.

Ms. LIPPMAN: Yeah. He's doing pretty well. He's been responsible for--the figure is like 10 percent of the books sold in the U.K. are written by Ian Rankin, something like that. It's really pretty astonishing.

Mr. MULLER: If he keeps at it he could amount to something.

(Soundbite of laughter)

VALENTINE: I think it says something about the Mall of America. I think that it's so improbable that it would be a great setting for noir, because it's so bland and respectable. That, you know, Hitchcock said he would set a crime by a country stream in the sunshine, so.

Mr. MULLER: Really? You think Edinburgh is respectable?

VALENTINE: No, no. I've gone to the Mall of America now.

Mr. MULLER: Oh, I'm sorry.


VALENTINE: I was disagreeing with what you said about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

VALENTINE: Well, I called about San Francisco. I'm afraid, I'm just yet another one, but I wanted to say that an author I love is Marcia Muller.

Mr. MULLER: No relation to me.

VALENTINE: She has such a feel--what I love about San Francisco more than anything, though I don't live there anymore, is the many neighborhoods and how each one has a different personality. And she is able to take her characters to this one and that one and moving between them I agree is not setting everything in one setting, but the contrast of people who go from this to that. What she...

NEARY: Valentine I'm going to have to interrupt you and I'll let our guests, some of them, talk to you when we return.


NEARY: We'll continue this discussion, but William Hunt Kreuger we're going to say goodbye now. Thanks so much for joining us from Minnesota.

Mr. KREUGER: It was a pleasure. Thank you.

NEARY: And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington, sitting in for NEAL CONAN.

Today we're talking about urban crime fiction. My guests are Eddie Muller crime writer and noir expert who appears in San Francisco noir and Laura Lippman author of ten crime novels and the Tess Monaghan crime series. She's the editor of the Baltimore noir collection. And thanks for staying with us.

And I wanted to just read an email to both of you because the last caller we had was extolling the virtues of San Francisco, but here's one about a city that's also a great noir city and that's Miami. It's from Amada who now lives in Gainesville.

Not only is Miami my home town, but it's so magical and mysterious with wonderful spots for crimes, like Little Havana, Coconut Grove, or even upscale Doral(ph) and Coral Gables. Such a great mix of different cultures and classes that could bring in all types of characters into a suspenseful noir.

And Eddie and Laura, I think Miami has been the setting for many great crime novels, has it not? Eddie?

Mr. MULLER: Absolutely. I think that Florida as a state is definitely taking over from California as the leading producer of noir fiction. Absolutely. And, you know, in noir reality too perhaps.

NEARY: Why do you think that is? What is it about it?

Mr. MULLER: I don't know. I mean, I've only visited Florida. I mean, it's--in many ways it's the same thing as California. There's a strange, you know, the bedrock of it is an unusual geography, but there's a strange transient nature to the people who go there. There's this weird vacation community that happens all over the place, which, of course, when people are transient there is crime. I mean, that just, you know, it's like ants on overripe fruit or something. I mean, that's just the way humans behave. So, I think that's part of it. Laura may know more about it than me.

Ms. LIPPMAN: I don't know more about Florida. I will say that I think Miami Purity by Vicki Hendricks is one of the great noir novels written in the last 50 years. It's written by--it's almost an inverse of The Postman Always Rings Twice, in which it's the woman who's more of the predator and it takes place in a dry cleaners. I cannot begin to say enough great things about this book. It is one of the most vicious, hilarious books.

Mr. MULLER: Yeah. That a great book.

Ms. LIPPMAN: And it's, you know, it's really hard for a lot of women to pull off noir. I hate to make that kind of generalization, but you don't see many books like Vicki's.

NEARY: All right. Let's take a call from Les in Boise, Idaho. Hi Les.

LES (Caller): Hi, this might be kind of an amateur question about like noir in film, but I just wanted to get the panelists take on films like Heat and Collateral and to some extent Ronin, just about cities being a silent character in movies like that. And I'll take my comments off the air.

NEARY: All right Eddie, you've written about film noir. So what's the relationship between the books and the movies?

Mr. MULLER: Well, I don't think that's an amateurish question at all. I think it speaks to exactly what I was saying all along. I do think that, you know, Heat is a story that is in the great tradition of caper style, you know, it's The Asphalt Jungle or The Killing, Stanley Kubrick's movie The Killing. I mean, up through you see it in, you know, African American cinema like the movie Dead Presidents or something like that. Because noir has to do with like Laura was saying earlier, dreamers who become schemers. The big score is the American dream and if you can't get it legally, you're going to get it illegally. And I think that's what you see in a lot of that stuff and that happens in big cities because the scores are bigger.

NEARY: Ok. Let's take another call from Kevin. And he's calling from Grand Rapids, Michigan. Hi Kevin.

KEVIN (Caller): Hi there. Something that I'm always fascinated by with noir, more so in film maybe than in fiction, is the way the people talk, the dialogue. It's real snappy. It's real witty and it's not really the way that people talk in real life. I'd just like hear the comments of the commentators there on what it's like to write that dialogue and then also as an aside are there any good Detroit stories. I would think Detroit would make a great setting for noir.

MR. MULLER: Elmore Leonard. Um...

Ms. LIPPMAN: I think...

Mr. MULLER: Go ahead Laura.

Ms. LIPPMAN: I was going to say, I think there might be a Detroit noir in the works. But if we're going to talk about Detroit noir, we have to mention Loren Estleman, who gets credit for asking to define noir is known to have said, Well it's very simple. It's French for black.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEVIN: All right, well Detroit's a prominent city in the genre then. How about the dialogue?

Mr. MULLER: Well, you know, it's funny, I think that probably more writers of crime fiction have been influenced by Raymond Chandler than anybody else, and I think that that was probably one of Chandler's greatest strengths as a stylist, was his dialogue. I think that the stuff you're talking about is really what you find in the films of the 1940's, that really snappy repartee. I don't really think you see it in that much crime fiction today, and part of the reason is because in the 1950's, I mean Hollywood leads the way in determining a lot of these things, and in the 1950's, of course, the post-classic film noir era, there was a real change toward naturalism in writing and acting.

And I think that people don't accept that kind of banter for the very reasons you pointed out; it is not real, it's a super-stylized thing, and I think that if you actually saw that in a movie today, a contemporary film, it would be rejected. The audience would reject it much the way when Curtis Hanson made LA Confidential, he consciously did not have the characters wear fedoras, which would have been technically correct for the period, but he said an audience today will reject that. They'll think it's a dress up movie from the 1940's and they'll laugh at it, they won't take it seriously.

So there are things that we love about the classic noir that you have to stay away from if you want people to accept it today.

NEARY: All right.

Ms. LIPPMAN: And when it comes to...you know, when it comes to dialogue, I think that one of our greatest writers in novels and in film is Richard Price. And what's interesting is to compare the dialogue he writes for film to the dialogue he writes for novels. It's very different. There's a different artifice in both. But in film you can never get away with sort of these long, gorgeous monologues that Price writes in his novels. It just, it wouldn't work in terms of rhythm and tone.

But both have, both are not the way people talk. You wouldn't want to read a book in which people spoke as they really did, there would be far too many ums and ahhs and sort of vaguely, you know, sort of, sentences just meander on. It's just that the artificiality is changed so it seems real.

NEARY: All right. Laura Lippman and Eddie Muller, thanks so much for being with us today.

Mr. MULLER: Oh it was our pleasure. My pleasure,at least (laughs).

Ms. LIPPMAN: Thanks for having me.

NEARY: Eddie Muller is the author of three acclaimed books on film noir, and his story, Kids Last Fight, appears in San Francisco Noir. And Laura Lippman is author of ten crime novels and the Tess Monaghan Crime Series, and she is the editor of the Baltimore Noir collection.

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