I had an instructor in my writing program, a very good writer herself, who insisted that everything had been written about love and death, that the persistence of young writers in writing about love and death was what accounted for so much bad writing. The really great writing, she maintained, remained in the investigation of small things—this was the frontier, the penetration of the matter to the molecular level, to the explication of adhesion even in the atom. This was how she approached an emotional, psychological, or an intellectual subject for investigation. So many moths, so many deaths!
Well, we all have our prejudices, that is to say, our prejudgments, and the important thing is to recognize them, be honest about the fact that we have them. On my part, I’ve never been interested in reading anything that didn’t involve love or death, which explains my affinity to The Sun Also Rises and The Old Man and the Sea, and equally explains my instructor’s detestation of the same.
In creative nonfiction the requirement that everything we write be true is a binding in chains to show the reader how freely we can move. In fiction we begin free, the nature of the art form being our imaginings of character and plot. Nowhere are our imaginings given more freely to impulse than in the noir mystery. While the stable of whodunits is concerned with the puzzle, with the solution of the crime as an intellectual problem, the noir mystery is a whydunit. The noir mystery has, of course, a plot—which is to say, things happen. But in the classic noir, James M. Caine’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, we know almost from that first instance when the young drifter Frank Chambers arrives at the roadside diner and begins working for the old Greek who has the young, beautiful, unhappy wife named Cora, that things are not going to turn out so well for the Greek. We’re only on page eleven when Cora yells to Frank “Bite me! Bite me!” when they kiss, and he bites her lips so hard he can feel the blood spurt into his mouth. In another couple pages, Cora confesses: “I hate the Greek.”
So we have a man who likes the taste of blood in his mouth and a woman who wants to put it there. What happens in a noir is not rocket science. The essential ingredients are: murder, betrayal, adultery (if the betrayal involves the adultery or is precipitated by it—even better), and a protagonist who struggles against a certain naïveté—rather like the Hitchcock characters, for example, the hapless Cary Grant in North by Northwest. Whereas Hitchcock’s characters are a kind of everyman buffeted by events which they cannot comprehend, the Frank Chamberses of noir are buffeted by emotions that they cannot control.
I was drawn to write the noir Jones Trilogy, three books that fall into the legal thriller category, because of the challenge: the landscape where murder and a lustful wife are de rigueur is difficult hunting ground for the writer. From the beginning, you run the danger of being over the top. But it is in extremis that we investigate those dark places of the human heart. After all, MacBeth and Hamlet are not about the deaths of moths. The beauty, the appeal of noir, is that ordinary people, flawed people, people who are not kings—anti-heroes, if you will—experience grand emotions, and just like kings, sit down at a banquet of consequences.
In my case, I have chosen to write about lawyers and the law. It is easy enough to say that lawyers are generally misunderstood—but that doesn’t make it any less true. Lawyers, in fact, move in a tightly circumscribed world of competing ethical and moral considerations which are as inscrutable as Chinese ideograms to the society in which they move. There is not a lot of good celluloid about lawyering. Erle Stanley Gardner himself detested the cinematic renderings of Perry Mason.
In drawing the characters in The Jones Trilogy, I tried to take the conventions of noir and make noir new, and I infused into the characters the real tensions that I experienced as a practicing trial lawyer who also sat as a judge pro tempore. Lawyers in Love is the first offering of The Jones Trilogy.
Thank you for reading,