Every now and then, I pester my creative colleagues with five questions about their work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.
Axel is one of two hard-boiled fiction writers who educated me on the difference between film noir and noir fiction—although I fear I may have befuddled his convictions during our panel. Fortunately, SG Wong and others were there to set us straight.
While we haven’t (yet) spent much time together, I could tell from our first meeting at When Words Collide that we had plenty in common, including similar tastes in film (despite his unpardonable disrespect for a William Friedkin masterpiece), as well as a love for mixing humor with tough guys.
Axel does the latter with his novel Hot Sinatra. Check it out, and if you’re attending the Calgary Comics Expo next week, join us for some of our Writing 101 panels. There’s no homework, I promise
1. What is it about crime writers that draws them to previous eras like the 20s, the 40s, or even the 60s? Is it a matter of style? Of the absence of advanced technology like cell phones and the Internet? Is it something else?
For me, it’s certainly the style as, in Hot Sinatra at least, I used a modern setting and made the protagonist something of a throwback. I set out with the express intent of creating a modernization of hardboiled detective tropes without relying on the worn clichés that most movies fall back on. I keep seeing these films where—if there’s a detective—he has to be an exact clone of the Bogey/Marlowe/Spade archetype, from dress to dialogue. I specifically created a character with a reason to be connected and nostalgic of that era while still being a modern man, or at least my definition of it. Putting my own work aside and speaking as an avid fan of old movies, pulp novels, and jazz records on vinyl—I think the attraction is to a world we recognize, that we’ve seen a million times over in movies and TV, that is also so entirely alien to most of us. Something we know existed, we could see and feel and breathe deep of in our grandparents musty basements and dusty bookshelves, but we will never be able to actually experience ourselves.
2. You’re a horror fan as well as a crime writer. How much do those genres have something to offer each other?
I like to think the lines between all genres are constantly in flux. I mean, I’m talking to a guy who wrote kung-fu fantasy, right? Horror should be the most malleable of all literary categories. Any thriller—and most mysteries—are one step away from horror. Most sci-fi and fantasy incorporates horror tropes and elements. Fear is an intrinsic part of being human, second only to curiosity and self-preservation, in my opinion. Any good story should be made up of some amount of all of those elements. Crime fiction has a varied strata of subgenres from cozy mystery and sleuth stories to hardboiled, espionage thrillers and procedurals. Horror is a little harder to break up. Horror readers tend to lump things together by topic, rather than style, which makes it much harder to innovate or rework those tropes. Vampires have to have fangs and avoid sunlight. Zombies have to be born of science-gone-wrong. I’ve taken some flak in the past over playing with those conventions. Crime readers seem to be much more forgiving, I guess. That’s why I write crime under my own name and horror under “Grady Cole,” both of whom have stories in a new mashup anthology of weird western stories. I’m working right now on a collection of short stories as Grady Cole, and some new stuff in the crime vein, and a lot of it has crossover elements—supernatural occurrences, murder, religion, breakfast cereals..
3. Since you’re a film buff, I have to ask you to recommend five film noir and five horror films for the uninitiated.
Oh, lordy. Now you’ve opened the Pandora’s Box—which is a great silent classic, by the way. Okay, Dave, down the rabbit hole. Noir first:
Blade Runner: Depending upon which version you have seen. I first saw the original theatrical version on video back in 1983. I was nine years old and it changed my life. It is still one of my favorite films of all time, flaws be damned. Admittedly, the theatrical cut negated its own “noirishness” with that ridiculous tacked-on happy-ending, but it was my first taste of the noxious, smoke-drenched, rain-soaked streets of nobody-gets-out-alive. The visuals are unmatched, the depth of the world-building is almost incomprehensible, and I say that this is the best “modern” approximation of the films of the 40s and 50s.
Touch of Evil: Beyond the jokes about Charlton Heston playing a Mexican and the overwhelming number of hipster movie snobs who blather on about the infamous tracking shot intro—without a real handle on the rest of the film, this is one of the subgenre’s greatest heights. Stylistically, it’s flawless. The lighting is stark and mysterious, the shots are immaculately planned with psychological precision. Every weird angle and forced perspective tells its own story. The characters are filthy, hopeless, and broken. Orson Welles is the most charismatic crooked cop in the history of film. And that Henry Mancini theme, man, yowza!
The Lady from Shanghai: Most people list Gilda as the go-to for Rita Hayworth flicks or “noir” classics, but I love this one so damned much. Again, the technical side is textbook noir, especially the climactic scene inside the funhouse hall of mirrors. Orson Welles is the quintessential noir protagonist—an intelligent but aimless everyman waylaid by a sultry woman in an unhappy marriage. He lets his lust get the better of him and, despite his best intentions, gets dragged further and further down into the dark backward until he’s broken, bewildered, and totally devoid of hope.
The Long Goodbye: While I love Bogart as Phillip Marlowe in The Big Sleep (not to mention Bobby Mitchum, James Garner, Robert Montgomery and the other twelve guys that have played the ultimate gumshoe), my favorite Marlowe flick is Robert Altman’s version of The Long Goodbye with Elliot Gould playing the most washed-up, smart-ass, reluctant Marlowe imaginable. Mossimo Cole, the detective in my novel Hot Sinatra, is closer to Gould’s Marlowe than any other film detective I can think of. The Long Goodbye is also the most “noir” of the film versions and the next best thing to:
Chinatown: Holy hell is this a great film. One of the greatest scripts ever written, Chinatown is basically a love letter to noir. Disgruntled detective, messed-up femme fatale in a bad marriage, despotic wealthy father/industrialist, criminal underground, political intrigue, and the city of lost angels looming above everything else, like a gleaming picture of the magical Land of Oz, that leads you straight to the heart of darkness.
There are so many more. I could do this forever. Okay, okay. I’ll stick to five. Now for the horror stuff:
The Shining: I know, everybody has seen The Shining. Still. I saw this at the drive-in with my parents when I was six years old, and I’ve had nightmares ever since. A lot of films from that era (The Omen, The Exorcist, Saturn 3) are totally laughable when I watch them now. Not The Shining. It still scares the shit out of me. Every time. A lot of my own work focuses on people losing their grip on reality, or the juxtaposition of perceived realities, and this movie is probably why.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The original. I’m not entirely sure why, but this has long been an obsessive favorite of mine. I think just the pure, balls-out madness and terror of it appeals to me. There are few films that offer such a raw, visceral experience of absolute fright.
John Carpenter’s The Thing: This is another film that is just always with me. I have probably watched it at least once a year throughout my life since the age of thirteen. It’s another one that seriously flavors my writing. That mix of science fiction, horror, isolation, the idea of being replaced, of not being able to trust anyone around you… More than anything, probably the idea that we are all potentially monsters inside.
Dellamorte Dellamore (Cemetary Man): What kind of film nerd would I be, if I didn’t drop something obscure? I love the atmosphere of Italian horror films, from Bava to Argento and Fulci to Lenzi. Michelle Soavi’s weirdo surrealist zombie flick combines the best of that atmosphere, with comedy, gore, and surprising sweetness. Rupert Everett is gold. And it offers a strange twist on the living dead trope that really works without having to follow every convention (which I may have mentioned is a sore spot for me)
In the Mouth of Madness: John Carpenter kind of started to fall apart, structurally, in the mid-80s and never really recovered. Early classics like Halloween, Escape from New York, and the previously mentioned The Thing, were confident, well-constructed works of narrative. Later stuff like Prince of Darkness and Village of the Damned (and certainly Ghosts of Mars), while still entertaining, disintegrate into chaos more often than not. They Live is one of my favorite guilty pleasures, and In the Mouth of Madness, while chaotic and weird to the max, somehow captures my imagination in a special way. Probably being a writer, specifically a horror writer, and having weird plots constantly unspooling in the back of my brain, this is just warm, cheesy comfort food.
4. Like many writers of detective fiction, you’ve chosen first-person. Were there times when you found that decision handicapped you? When were times it made telling the story easier or more exciting?
I tend to go back and forth between third and first-person, depending on the project. I find it easier to get into a protagonist’s head writing in first-person, obviously, but then you have to get creative about discovery. How in the hell is your guy going to know everything that’s going on with every other character? You can’t have every conversation be, “So, since I last saw you in Chapter Four, this is everything pertinent that has happened to me.” It gets tricky. On the flipside, third-person often lacks the emotion and psychology necessary to forming a really compelling and memorable character. Therein lies the secret. Finding the balance between the two is what makes a successful piece of fiction.
5. If you were to write a horror/crime fiction mash-up, which two writers would you most hope to channel? Which two filmmakers?
The writer/filmmaker combo I get most often from people reading Hot Sinatra is Elmore Leonard/Quentin Tarantino, which—hey, I’ll take it!
Strangely enough, I usually do kind of consciously pair up a literary and filmic reference for every project I work on. I also try to change that up as much as possible, just to keep things fresh and interesting for me, let alone the eventual reader. That will most likely hobble me a little in my career, but that’s just my specific pathology. The western stuff I just worked on, believe it or not, was Clive Barker/Steve Niles meets Deadwood and Bradbury meets Peckinpah. I don’t know how well I pulled either of those off, but why the hell not?
As far as a concept for a horror/crime mash-up? Sweet sassy molassy, I’d love to do something like what Clive Barker did with Lord of Illusions (whose detective, Harry D’amor, is much different than in the short-story it was based on) or John Constantine from Hellblazer—some kind of occult detective with a really deep, archaeologically-based mythology—Hellboy, but instead of fighting monster, he’d be a reluctant, lazy, smart-assed detective. Yeah. That’s the ticket.
Elliot Gould’s Marlowe from The Long Goodbye in a world full of Elder Gods, mythological beasts and sex-crazy succubi-fatales. That’s a goddamn ten-book series right there.
Keep tabs on Axel’s next literary transformation at his website.