03 September 2021
Inga Vesper talks about reinventing the noir genre from a women's perspective
The noir genre relies on many staple tropes. The action starts late at night, down-town. Rain lashes against a shuttered window. A traumatised detective drinks alone in a seedy bar. And there’s always a dame; buxom, alluring and secretive.
Noir was created by men, but increasingly, women are writing in the genre and making it their own. Since February, when my crime novel The Long, Long Afternoon hit the shelves, I am one of them.
But I broke a lot of rules. To highlight my characters’ inner turmoil, I chose not to write in dark, dank settings, but set my novel during summertime in 1950s California. No rain or late nights in Sunnylakes, the fictional neighbourhood where the story takes place. Here, everything is pastel-coloured and picture-perfect. It’s noir, but with hot sidewalks, ice-cream and starched aprons.
The drive to expose the darkness that underpins the lives of women, even today, was part of the novel’s creative process from the start. My inspiration came when I was surfing Wikipedia one day and found a list of mysterious disappearances, starting somewhere around 3000BC. Up until the 1940s, it was almost exclusively men who disappeared, and they did so in war, during adventures or while exploring the world. From the 40s onwards, women start disappearing mysteriously—or at least their disappearance gets noted—and it is almost always because they likely have been murdered.
Men have adventures, women are killed. That realisation made me furious. And then she popped up, Joyce Haney, my happily married housewife, who disappears one day and leaves nothing behind but two terrified children and a bloodstain in her perfect kitchen. She is no buxom femme-fatale. But she has a lot of secrets.
As a woman, I have always been sceptical about nostalgia, especially for the 1950s. For men, this was indeed a simpler time, when hierarchies – defined by race, sex and class – were clear and they held all the power, as long as they were white and middle-class. For women, it was a terrible time. After the second world war, women experienced a huge constriction of their rights and freedoms. And some women, like my main character Ruby Wright, never had many of these rights in the first place, due to the colour of their skin.
Writing Ruby, a Black woman from Los Angeles, was a difficult task, but one that I found imperative to make the novel work. I wanted to include the rampant, openly lived and legalised racism of the 1950s, and not ignore it. During a trip to America, I went to see an exhibition by the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia. The shocking display brought home to me how far racist thinking had suffused mainstream society at the time, and how hard it must have been to fight against it. The exhibition drew a tentative link between racism and sexism – two very different problems, but with common cause: fear of change, inferiority complexes, the inborn privileges of white men. I became curious about how two very different women – Ruby and Joyce – would respond to this, and so their amazing and unspoken friendship was born.
So far, so noir. But I still needed a detective, a proper tough-talking, trenchcoat-rocking gumshoe. I created Mick Blanke, my hard-boiled New York cop, and then I subverted him by making him…happy. Mick has a wife and two daughters, and his career is going well – apart from a minor blip which earned him a transfer to California. He thinks of himself as enlightened, as a good guy. And it’s that conviction – that sense of being on the right side of things – that ultimately blinds him to the intricacies of the case.
I never set out to write a book about feminism or race. I wanted to write a gripping crime novel with fresh, fascinating characters and a riveting plot. But just like the male writers of the 20th century used their experiences to build the classic noir style, my own life as a 21st century woman – and all the anger, uncertainty and joy contained therein – have informed both the bright lights and the darkness in this book.
The great joy about writing is that it allows us to change the world on paper, even if we still fight for such changes in real life. In fiction, we can take the 'official' narrative of any time, place or event and make it our own. We can look at things a little differently, we can open the shutters, let daylight in and ask the secretive dame what she really thinks. Her answers, dear reader, may surprise you.
The Long, Long Afternoon by Inga Vesper is published by Manilla Press.
Want to read more about portraying women in crime fiction? We recommend Lara Thomson's piece on why writers should resist the 'dead women' trope.