Sunday, November 09, 2008

Noir is the New Black

Today’s special guest blogger is Jeri Westerson. Her debut mystery, Veil of Lies is out now from St. Martin’s Press. Be sure to visit her website by clicking here. (Note: I sure hope I can get Jeri to agree to appear at NoirCon in 2010. She’s got the right stuff. CB)

First off, the reason I'm here is to talk about my debut "Medieval Noir" Veil of Lies. It's not your grandfather's medieval mystery. It's its own little subgenre and features a hard-boiled-disgraced-knight-turned-detective on the mean streets of 14th century London. I didn't come to this idea lightly. It took some thinking, some researching, and a lot of great reading. But before we go into that, we've got to talk about "noir."
It's funny how the conversation about "Noir" as a concept is discussed and mulled and used as college course topics. Ross McDonald must be having a hearty laugh up there…or…down there?
I know that some prefer to keep noir where it came from: post industrialization, post modernist's German expressionist's view of the collapse of society's morals and loss of traditional roles or roles turned on its head.
But who says this has to be a modern concept?
We tend to think of our own era as the worst one, this breakdown of society beginning with the hiss of the first stroke of a steam piston:
"I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words. When I was a boy, we were taught to be discrete and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise and impatient of restraint."
Some lament by a latter day Upton Sinclair? It was actually attributed to Greek poet Hesiod, in the eighth century B.C. Feelings of isolation, sin running amok, collapse of society, hopelessness; these aren't modern concepts at all. There is "nothing new under the sun," says the Bible, and in fact, the Bible could be considered a helluva noir classic itself, especially the Old Testament before, as Mark Twain put it, God got religion.
So how do I see "noir" and how the hell does it have anything to do with the Middle Ages?
Noir, to me, is at once milieu and emotion. It's quite literally the black and the bleak. It's shadows and the dark longings in the soul. The medieval period seems perfect for this set up.
Don't get me wrong. I have great affection for the Middle Ages (a period roughly between 500 AD—known as the "Early Middle Ages" not the "Dark Ages"—and 1500 AD, the cusp of the Renaissance). My specialty period—the Late Middle Ages in 14th century England—was a fascinating social study of codes of conduct, rights of passage, a huge merchant class, wars, courtly love, intrigue, and the development of English as a language. So I never took the whole "dark" thing in a disrespectful sense (in other words, these weren't the "Dark Ages" where everyone just waited around until they'd all be enlightened by the Renaissance). No, it's dark in the sense of a brooding landscape, in the huddling around candlelight or the meager flames from one's hearth in a drafty hovel. To our "modern" sensibilities, there were also some less literal "dark" aspects to the time period. The Church, for instance, was all encompassing. Even the passage of time was regulated by the Church in that the days were enumerated by the communion of saints on the calendar and the hours of the day were ticked off by the canonical hours by which monks prayed throughout the day in the Divine Office, ringing bells to announce them. Though this and other Church doings were not necessarily deemed oppressive at the time, there were some who questioned the Church's interference in all matters public and private. But when individuals sought to change them, they ended up on the wrong side of a noose.
Many laws were in place to protect England's citizens, and indeed, these citizens made good use of it by suing one another. But not all laws were all good all the time, and the penalties could be quite severe. Corruption in high places is not a new concept. The sheriffs of London were appointed into these unpaid positions and found their own way through bribery to make their time count.
Each person was expected to live by a code, but if you were a courtier, your codes might be stauncher than others. A knight, for instance, owed his allegiance to an overlord and to the king, and if that code was breached, woe betide him.
This is the noir of my imagining. The dark places kept hidden in one's soul, the sense of hopelessness and frustration. And in one disgraced knight, the dark paths a man must travel to keep his tattered honor in tact.


LB said...

You have Noir on the head. No matter how you package it, the darkness,the abyss and the horrible emptiness of being alone has always been and will always be with us. I cannot wait to read VEIL OF LIES. Hopefully you will ride into NoirCon 2010 as an avenging crusader! Lou Boxer

Jeri Westerson said...

I'd love to, Lou. Can I bring my sword?

Anonymous said...

Interesting premise and placement in time. Reinforces the fact that Noir has been a constant throughout history. The Germans didn't have a monopoly. Look forward to reading the book and seeing you at NOIRCON 2010.

Deen Kogan