–Lester Freamon (Clark Peters) in “The Wire”, episode six of The Wire‘s first season
Okay, so you know how several weeks ago, I said you could find the episode on iTunes, and then this blog went dark? Sorry about that. I’ve been meaning to update about some of the noir I’ve been watching and viewing, but as is often the case, real life intrudes. As this blog continues, I’ll hopefully double back to talk about some of them when discussing other projects and other episodes.
But for now, the first episode of New York Noir, “Rain” is up on iTunes at last. You can find it by searching for “Red L Radio Plays” or “New York Noir” in the general iTunes Store search. It’s about 15 minutes long.
If you don’t have iTunes, you can download the podcast directly from Red Elevator’s official NY Noir site here.
I’m going to have to save my commentary on it for a second post, because as I start to write about the path that led me to this series, I realize it’s going to be one very long post if I attempt to do both.
So you can read about my journey into the dark heart of the second America after the jump.
I was a weird kid growing up, but especially in middle school. I got into true crime early after reading a book about the Secret Service and another about the FBI’s adventures in the 30s. It was the latter that set off fireworks in my brainpan and I became a little bit obsessed with Dillinger, Barker, Bonnie & Clyde, and their Depression-era cohorts. The librarian Somers Elementary recognized that I was an advanced enough reader to handle the “high school” material on these guys (including a series of coffee table books, each devoted to a different crook), which made me feel like one of the cool kids for once. My coolness, along with my library privileges, were soon revoked when they found out I was passing the crime scene pages around.
Around the same time, the gifted class I was in did a unit on Sherlock Holmes, Edgar Allen Poe, and the murder mystery. We didn’t really study the modern guys, focusing instead on the appropriate-for-sixth-grade guys, but I already had a passing familiarity with both those authors. (When my three-year-old brother had to go to the hospital in the middle of the night after puking up blood, I took along a collection of Holmes stories to try to read, operative word being tried.) The class, however, helped me to understand the history of the genre, and I came away from that course with more of an interest than I had in the past.
By middle school, I took it as a point of pride that I’d read Capote’s In Cold Blood something like five times between the seventh and ninth grades. In spring 2006, I wrote an essay about the 20 books that most influenced me as a writer/thinker thus far, and here’s what I wrote about In Cold Blood, at no. 7:
This was the book that got me into true crime and non-fiction, and man, was I a demented little junior high-schooler. I think my line is that I read this about seven times in two years. I can’t really remember if that’s 100 percent true, but I’m betting it’s close. Along with Ellroy’s ‘L.A. Confidential,’ I found comfort during those miserable days (and I was more miserable in junior high than I was in high school) in these two books. On a stylistic level, I found myself wowed by how Capote told me a story that was true but felt like a great novel. Like Norman Mailer’s “Executioner’s Song,” this is true crime as classic literature, and it was the book that made me get serious about my writing and about my future. I don’t think I would have applied to a private prep school if it weren’t for this book–Capote made me realize, in a weird sort of way, I wanted to get to a place where I could attempt something like this. I wanted other experiences–and I wasn’t getting them in Mogadore, Ohio.
My dad, who’d written his senior thesis on detective fiction, encouraged this, although he sometimes wasn’t that hot about the reading material I’d check out of the Mogadore Public Library (Lorenzo Carcetta’s disturbing and full of shit Sleepers). He was the one that gave me Jay Robert Nash’s epic Bloodletters and Badmen: A Narrative History of American Criminals from the Pilgrims to the Present for Christmas one year. That book was my education into the folklore and history of this country they weren’t teaching us in school — the stories of Leopold & Loeb, Evelyn Nesbitt & Stanford White, Jesse James, John Dillinger, and the latter-day one-name boogeymen like Dahlmer, Gacy, Bundy, and Ramierez — and it was that history that sent me off into the world of fiction.
Enter James Ellroy. To say he was an influence on me before he should have been is a criminal understatement. I read L.A. Confidential in the bleachers during lunch time and gym class. I later saw the movie when it was one of my family’s first DVD purchases; it remains my favorite film of all time and one I can quote large sections from, in no small part because I recorded it to tape so I could listen to it in class. But that was after I took American Tabloid on our eighth grade D.C. trip, an act whose irony still makes me lol.
A few years back, I got to meet Ellroy at a book signing and tell him what his writing meant to me. I wrote an essay about it, which is printed over at my now-defunct livejournal. It provides a more expansive explanation as to what he means to me, especially relating to the death of my mother at an early age. That link is here.
Tabloid does have one of my favorite ending sentences to a novel (“The roar did a long slow fade. He braced himself for this big fucking scream.”) and one of my favorite openings, which is as follows:
America was never innocent. We popped our cherry on the boat over and looked back with no regrets. You can’t ascribe our fall from grace to any single event or set of circumstances. You can’t lose what you lacked at conception. Mass-market nostalgia gets you hopped up for a past that never existed. Hagiography sanctifies shuck-and-jive politicans and reinvents their expedient gestures as moments of great moral weight. Our continuing narrative line is blurred past truth and hindsight. Only a reckless versmilitude can set that line straight.
Through high school and college, I continued to read a lot of crime and detective fiction. I had my mind blown by Oliver Stone’s JFK and tried to write my own take on it. I’d check out anything that looked interesting from the library, even though my greatest curse as a writer/reader continues to be my short attention span, so many of those books would get returned. But one of them that I still remember was Thomas H. Cook’s The Chatham School Affair, a beautiful, haunting, and tragic murder mystery set at a New England prep school. I can’t recommend it enough.
Since we’re already at over a thousand words, I won’t go point by point through my life as a crime fiction junkie, but I think it’s worth pointing out that high school was also the time I became interested in the form of radio drama. My dad, as I mentioned, is responsible for turning me onto crime and detective stories in the first place. A television historian and journalist for going on almost 30 years, he spent much of the late 90s researching a biography of Dragnet creator Jack Webb. (In one of those odd artistic passing things, Webb inspired Ellroy, who in turn inspired me.) This research included buying tapes of the radio drama version of Dragnet. When I wasn’t falling to sleep to Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks (single greatest album ever recorded), I listened to those tapes over and over, drifting off to dreamland with Webb’s strangely melodic monotone. (You can say what you want about Dragnet, but you can’t deny there’s a lyrical quality to the back-and-forth of it all.)
Now, New York. Since the name of the series is New York Noir, the choosing of my pick for the greatest city in the world deserves at least a little explanation. I hope that the majority of it will come as I discuss the episodes and my process behind them, and that my love for the city will become clear, but for now: New York is my home. I don’t live there right now, but it’s my home. There is no other place that feels like that to me. I belong there. I love it for what it represents and for what it is.
I moved there several months after September 11, and I don’t want to be one of those assholes who automatically brings up 9/11 when talking about NYC, but living in the city for three years immediately following that, being there for the 1st anniversary, meeting and having a best friend who was in the city that day, and, at least for me, seeing Ground Zero after refusing to go on a quiet, cold October night when it was lit up and no one was around, it changes you. I’ll never be able to understand it, and I wouldn’t dream of pretending to, but I feel like I have a greater empathy now than I did, both for what happened and for the city itself. The city that will not fucking die, ever.
I bring this up because this is a pretty controversial time for New York — the era of “gentrification.” Every year, it gets harder and harder to live in the city, whether you’re in Manhattan or one of the boroughs. People say that New York is in danger of losing its character, losing what’s made it the city it is. I don’t want to believe that. It’s enough of a being — and it is a living, breathing organism — to decide its own fate. And hopefully the stories that we tell with this little radio series will reflect that.
I’m going to jump ahead in the narrative to 2004. By this point, I’ve moved to New York, attended NYU briefly, and am living in the dorms somewhat illegally after dropping out. I have a job but no real goals. So what do I do with my time? I go to the library.
Enter Lawrence Block. Here’s what I wrote about his novel Eight Million Ways To Die, which I actually read after I left New York:
That [A Dance at the Slaughterhouse, which is fucked up.] was the novel that introduced me to Block, now my favorite crime writer, and Matthew Scudder, my favorite detective and one of my favorite heroes of fiction. However, I think I learned more from this one. The great thing about “Eight Million” is that you read the entire novel thinking it’s about solving the mystery and–even when you know how it’s going to work out, because you’re an idiot and read them out of order (like me)–the final sentence hits you like a sack of nuts. That’s when you realize THIS was the real story, even though you’ve been waiting for Scudder to finish the mystery and get back to that storyline the whole time. It’s also one of the great dark New York novels full of wonderful descriptions of my favorite city in all its turgid, miserable, pre-Disneyfication glory, including a couple that work in the title (“You know what you got in this city, this fucked-up toilet of a naked fucking city? You got eight million ways to die.”…”What does happen, if you’re lucky, is that the word gets around. There may be eight million people in the goddamn city but it’s amazing how they all talk to each other.”) and one, referencing ‘Watership Down’, that takes my breath away still:
“Do you know, I think New Yorkers are like those rabbits. We live here for whatever it is that the city provides–the culture, the job opportunities, whatever it is. And we look the other way when the city kills off one of our friends and neighbors. Oh, we read about it and we talk about it for a day or two days but then we blink it all away. Because otherwise we’d have to do something about it, and we can’t. Or we’d have to move, and we don’t want to move. We’re like those rabbits, aren’t we?”
Okay, so my prose is a little purple there, but I truly believe that Block and Scudder have done for NYC what Chandler and Marlowe did for L.A. There have been a lot of detectives working in dusty offices with circular fans over the years, but none more quintesentially New York than Scudder. I think that’s because first of all, the man will not die, and he will not leave New York, no matter how many friends it kills off or how many horrors he witnesses. He refuses to — where else are you going to live? Where else is anybody going to live? Even though the last book, All The Flowers Are Dying, functions as sort of a post-9/11 finale to the series, Scudder won’t leave. Why would you want to?
In case you hadn’t figured out, I adore this character and Block is one of the masters. He should be read, and read often.
Perhaps you’re wondering why I haven’t written about cop shows, which is probably my favorite genre of television, or crime/noir movies, at this point. Well, like I said, see the note above — to do so would probably take another 2500 words to talk about why I consider Homicide: Life on the Street‘s “Three Men and Adena” to be one of, if not the, finest hour of broadcast television in history, or why I love John Munch and Lennie Briscoe (R.I.P.), or the genius of Jules Dassin, or how there were moments in Hill Street Blues (“How you doing, J.D.?”) and The Wire (too many to mention, but “This is not on you” and “Makes me sick, motherfucker, how far we done fell.”) that were so moving, so brilliant, that I had to back up my DVDs so I could watch them again. So I hope that as I discuss this series you guys, once again, my love and inspirations will become evident when they need to be.
(I worked in what will probably the first of many Wire/Tom Fontana/cop show/noir flick homages in the first episode. See if you can find it, win fabulous prizes.)
So let’s skip ahead in the narrative to now, or when I say now, I mean, late December last year. The founders of NYC-based production company Red Elevator Productions includes three actors from Redemption Falls, a feature I wrote and directed that has nothing to do with crime at all (unless you consider statutory rape to be a crime, which it is, but you know what I mean). We’ve just wrapped production on the film (and by just I mean August), and they were interested in bringing back the radio drama through podcast. This is not a new idea, to be sure, but when they asked me if I’ve got any ideas, I told them I would think about it. I always have ideas and no follow through. See: short attention span.
However, at the time, I’m reading Manhattan Noir, a short story collection edited by Lawrence Block. As I’m going through the stories, which are just short enough for me to read on the crapper or while I’m sitting in the freezing cold ski shed at work all afternoon, I keep thinking “wow, this would make a nice little short film.” Or I think about the idea of a radio series, and how someone should take advantage of the creative freedom provided by podcasting and apply it to the anthology dramas of Old Time Radio, like Suspense or Lights Out or The Whistler. Then I come to “Rain,” a short story by my old literary friend Thomas H. Cook.
To be completely honest, I can’t tell you what I wrote first, the series pitch or the radioplay for “Rain,” although my gmail archives reveal the pitch was written first, and Red Elevator liked them enough to make it into a series. Like I promised, I’ll get into the writing process of “Rain” in the next post, but that’s how that happened. Considering that I’m neurotic/cynical enough at this point that I have a hard time believing that good things are happening to me even when they are, the relative speed with which this has all come together is both thrilling and shocking at the same time. But we’ll get into that with the next post.
I’ve spent almost 3000 words telling you about how I got here, to the first episode of this series, and all through it, I’m thinking,”Well, what do I say about what I want to do? What’s my pitch for why you should listen to this series? Where are we going?” And the fact is, the best way I can describe it to you is through a quote by Lawrence Block himself, from the introduction to Manhattan Noir:
“Noir doesn’t necessarily embody crime and violence, but that’s what we think of when we hear the word. Most, but not all of these stories are crime stories, but the exceptions take place in a world where violence always hangs around, if not on center stage.”
And as for New York’s place in this series, well, I give you Luc Sante, from his chronicle of the criminal New York Low Life:
“New York’s ghosts are the unresting souls of the poor, the marginal, the dispossessed, the depraved, the defective, the recalcitrant. They are the guardians of the urban wilderness in which they lived and died. Unrecognized by the history that is common knowledge, they push invisibly behind it to erect their memorials in the collective consciousness. The myth of the city insists on progress, bigger and better and more all the time; nostalgia of the usual sort is founded on regrets for vanished coziness and civility. The city’s unconscious is the repository that these two outlooks omit, the repressed history of vice and crime, misery and graft, panic and despair, chaos and saturnalia.”
And it’s that unconscious repository of New York that gives birth to, and informs, every detective novel ever written in or about the city, every film set there, and all the way down to this series.
Now that I’m done being a pretentious fuck, I can tell you that we won’t be focusing just on Manhattan — there are five other books in the Akashic series; two for Brooklyn (with one more on the way), one each for Queens, the Bronx, and Manhattan (one more coming for this one, too), and one just for Wall Street. And we won’t just be adapting stories from this series — I’m doing my homework, reading and re-reading both the greats and the underrated, and we’ve got about 70 years of material to draw from if you’re talking hard boiled fiction. Nor will we strictly stay lost in translation; there are some original stories and characters on the way.
You may see the femme fatales and smart-ass detectives or hoodlums over their head, but I hope that we can at least offer somewhat fresh takes on them, or at least offer entertaining variations on a theme. I love jazz almost as much as I love crime fiction (you could make the argument that the modern detective novel and jazz are among the few rare American cultural inventions; Poe did come before Doyle, after all), and the two are intertwined, both in the cliche of a wailing sax and in their construction.
In jazz and noir both, you learn the framework, the basic themes, study those who came before. Then you can experiment. Improvise. Explore. Soar.
I very much hope you’ll come play with us as we take you into the…(dramatic pause)…dark heart of New York.