Saturday, March 03, 2012

Guest Post - Chris F Holm

Chris F Holm's fantastic debut novel, DEAD HARVEST, came out this week.  I read it a while back before he was cool.

Okay, that's a lie.  Chris has always been cool.  And he's offered to make this blog a little bit cooler by his presence.  

And so, dead readers, here's Chris to talk a little bit about DEAD HARVEST.  And raise some shit talking about that one thing that noir writers LOVE to talk about.

No, not penises.


Free Will's A Bitch

Since Stephen was kind enough to hand over the reins of his blog today, I thought I'd repay him by stirring up a little internet-ire. See, DEAD HARVEST is a funky little fantasy/noir crossover, the first in a series that recasts the battle between heaven and hell as Golden Era crime pulp. So it seemed only fitting, given the name of this here blog, that the the trashcan fire I stoke while squatting here, eating my baked beans straight from the can, comes in the form of the most dreaded question in all of crime fic:

"What is noir?"

Yeah, I went there. And I bet at least a few of you winced when you read those three little words, because you know just what a can of worms they represent. Truth is, a lot of ink's been spilled by readers and writers of crime fiction alike on the topic of noir, and rightly so: as literary movements go, it's a hard one to pin down. One of the few definitions to get any traction of late is noir preservationist Eddie Muller's take on noir as "working class tragedy," due in large part to the fact that definition's been championed by no less than Dennis Lehane. "In Greek tragedy, they fall from great heights," sayeth Lehane. "In noir, they fall from the curb."

Now, that definition doesn't strike me as half bad, but it's more descriptive than prescriptive; I'm not convinced "working class" is a necessary condition of noir, so much as a common ingredient. A shorthand for where the subgenre's often been, as opposed to an instruction manual for where it's going. To my mind, noir boils down to this: shit options, bad decisions, and dire consequences. The difference between Greek tragedy and noir ain't the height of the fall, but the reason: those who fall in Greek tragedy do so because they're destined to; those who fall in noir choose to their damn selves.

In short, free will's a bitch.

When I sat down to write DEAD HARVEST, it was that notion I wanted to explore: namely, the curse of free will. I'm from a family of lapsed Catholics, and I've long been fascinated with the Church's teachings, particularly with regard to free will. On the one hand, we're told God gave to humankind, his most beloved creation, the gift of free will, and on the other, that said gift resulted in the humankind's expulsion from paradise, and a taint that's passed to every one of us at birth. We're taught that three-quarters of everything we do -- or even think -- is sinful, and we should beg forgiveness at every turn lest we wind up burning for all eternity. We're taught that even good people can go to hell if they don't play by God's rules. And we're taught that if they do wind up in hell, it's all their fault.

I'm not trying to knock my family's faith. But I will say being raised in such a faith can scare the ever-loving shit out of you. It puts no small amount of pressure on you to make good decisions, and no doubt has filled the pews for damn near two thousand years of Sundays with folks trying desperately to reconcile their decisions and their beliefs with a rulebook that is both dense and difficult to comprehend. Because by God, if they don't, they're gonna take a fall.

Sam Thornton, the protagonist of DEAD HARVEST, is a man who understands that all too well. Or, rather, he was. See, Sam's dead. Has been since the Forties. In life, he spent his Sundays in church. In death, he's condemned to an eternity in hell. Was Sam a bad guy? Nope. But his life was one of Muller and Lehane's working-class tragedies. Dirt poor and rendered unemployable by a bum leg picked up when a strike-buster took his job a tad too literally, the only thing he'd had going for him was the love of a good woman, his wife Elizabeth. Until she fell ill, that is. Not content to watch her die, Sam struck a bargain with a demon: his immortal soul for Elizabeth's life. And now, in punishment, he's forced to collect the souls of the condemned for all eternity, forever forced to relive the moment he was torn from his beloved.

Sucks, huh? Well, you don't know the half. Because he begins to suspect that Kate, the teenaged girl he's sent to collect at the outset of DEAD HARVEST for murdering her family, is innocent of the crime for which she's been condemned. That someone -- or more likely, some thing -- conspired to set her up. Sam's not about to let an innocent soul rot in hell for all eternity, so he does something no Collector's ever done before: he defies hell's orders, and sets out on a quest to prove Kate's innocence. A quest that, if he's not careful, may just shatter the fragile truce between heaven and hell, and jump-start the Apocalypse.

Like I said, free will's a bitch.

1 comment:

PaddyWagon said...

Thank you for spawning a fun debate, a friend and I thought about it for a while =) It went kind of like this:

"I thought the noir cliche always started with trouble walking in the protagonist's door."

and my reply, though I can swear I've read its like before I can't track down a reference:

If they investigate that trouble it's a police procedural. If they hit on trouble's girlfriend it's crime pulp fiction. If trouble's girlfriend just took them both for a ride, it's noir.