“The streets were dark with something more than night.” – Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder
“As the song wound down and the piano player intoned although I can’t dismiss the memory of her kiss, Colleen pressed up against me and I felt something stir below. She ran her hand down my spine until it rested on my .32. She brought her head up and scrutinized me, then whispered in my ear, “My, my, rods front and back. I hope you don’t plan to shoot me.” – Jack Kline, But Not For Me
“Once he’d had happiness but for so brief a time; happiness was made of quicksilver, it ran out of your hand like quicksilver. There was the heat of tears suddenly in his eyes and he shook his head angrily. He would not think about it, he would never think of that again. It was long ago in an ancient past. To hell with happiness. More important was excitement and power and the hot stir of lust. Those made you forget. They made happiness a pink marshmallow.” – Dorothy B. Hughes, In a Lonely Place
“I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit. I didn’t think anything of what he had done to the city’s name. Later I heard men who could manage their r’s give it the same pronunciation. I still didn’t see anything in it but the meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieves’ word for dictionary. A few years later I went to Personville and learned better.” ― Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest
If you’re not familiar with noir fiction, allow me to share a little of what I know. It comes from Roman Noir, which means black novel in French. This was used in the 18th century to describe the British Gothic novel (authors like Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, etc.) Later the Americans used it to describe the hard-boiled crime novels. Hard-boiled and noir are two separate genres that are closely related. In hard-boiled fiction, the protagonist is the detective, he’s tough and colloquial, and he sees his work through until justice is served. The story depends on the hero/detective maintaining their ethical high ground. Noir fiction is drenched in emotional and literal darkness. There’s a feeling of dread and doom with, most often, a tragic ending. Some common elements include night and darkness, fatalism, nihilism, mystery, crime, corruption, violence, the femme fatale archetype, sparse prose, and the antihero. There’s a lot of overlap between hard-boiled and noir and some stories can be both, like the novel this blog post will highlight.
And then you’ve probably heard of film noir, which extended from the early 1940s through the 1950s, influenced by German expressionism and displaying postwar disillusionment. Characteristics included the films being in Black and white, with shadowy, dramatic lighting effects, narration, an urban setting, and a bleak outlook on life.
7 years ago I had the pleasure of interviewing world-famous author Jack Kline. You can read about that here: Interview with world famous author Jack Kline
Once upon a time Jack and I took a noir fiction class at the University of Kansas and we absolutely loved it. As we were both a part of the school’s Literature, Language, and Writing program, he went on and wrote his own novel, But Not For Me, which was published last year. I’ve dabbled in writing some noir fiction (read it here ) and plan to expand on that piece, but in the meantime, I’ve used my creative energy and worked with a badass team of babes to physically transform into a 1940s femme fatale. You’ll see the photographs sprinkled throughout this blog post, but more importantly, this post is an interview with Jack about his new novel.
If you enjoy this genre and want to read a hell of a story, you can purchase Jack’s novel on Amazon: here
“I’d chosen a different road, and I’d live just fine with that hollowness, that longing. I always have.” – Jack Kline, But Not For Me
On to the interview with Jack! His novel is set in Kansas City during the 1930s. I was born and raised in Kansas City and still live there so it was awesome reading this book and picturing the same streets and areas of town I’m familiar with, but with a different feel and a different time.
What do you love about Kansas City?
Jack: Gee willikers, where do I start? I grew up in Kansas City, in middle class Johnson County, which at the time was virtually all white. I didn’t really know about segregation yet. Life there was kind of small town. Overland Park—where I lived—didn’t even become a city until I was eleven. When I was a bicycle riding kid there was downtown O.P. and no shopping centers.
And my siblings and I went to the magical Plaza on special occasions with my parents. Downton KC was vibrant then, lots of department stores and ritzy movie theatres like the Empire, Uptown, Midland, Capri, and Granada. There were towering (to me then) skyscrapers like the Power and Light Building, and Commerce Towers, which had a mock cobblestone street and three terrific restaurants on the building’s top floor (Irish, German, and French) where many special occasion dates like high school proms went.
Then in the late sixties and seventies downtown shopping and nightlife got blitzed by glitzy suburban malls. The downtown stores, theatres, restaurants, and businesses that were the life-blood of downtown Kansas City went out of business. Downtown became a crime-ridden ghost town at night. So Kansas City had the Plaza and a bunch of malls like Metcalf South, The Landing, Indian Springs and Oak Park.
But in the late-eighties and nineties downtown came back with a vengeance. It began at Westport in the seventies. Now KC is a hopping place, we have iconic structures like Bartle and its thing-a-ma-gigs, the Kaufman Center and Sprint, the Crossroads, City Market, Power and Light District and more. Those skyscrapers of my boyhood are now dwarfed by newer buildings.
I love the way downtown has risen like a phoenix. I love that Kansas City is a big city and still seems a small town. I love that in many ways we have gotten past our racist, segregationist past. I love that Kansas City Kansas and Wyandotte County have a vibrant thing going around the racetrack and the Legends. I love that people here are kind and friendly to strangers. I love that visitors come and say nice things about Kansas City. I love that they see what we Kansas Citians often take for granted. I love that a woman, Carol Marinovich, had the vision and the chops to turn around the fortunes of Kansas City, Kansas and Wyandotte County. I love that African-American mayors like Emanuel Cleaver and Sly James helped moved our city forward—that racism and sexism are on the decline here.
When I began researching Kansas City for my novel set in 1934—in the heart of the great Depression—I fell in love with that Kansas City, too. It was a town striving to survive the worst depression in its history. Movers and shakers developed huge projects like Municipal Auditorium, the Power and Light Building, and the Jackson County Courthouse—all of which are still in use—to help keep its citizens out of bread lines and soup kitchens. Yes, we had mobs and mob violence, but in many ways the mobs developed an underground economy that helped our people survive.
What do I love about Kansas City? I could go on and on . . .
We attended a noir literature class at the University of Kansas together. What was it that interested you about this genre in the first place?
Jack: Two things: Mark Luce was teaching the course. He was my favorite professor. And second, I loved noir films, The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity, Maltese Falcon, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Public Enemy, Angels with Dirty Faces, Little Caesar, and others. Though I have always been a non-stop reader I hadn’t read much (any?) noir fiction until I took that course with you, Lauren. And we read some damned fine Noir in that class.
Raymond Chandler comes back from the dead and visits you one evening. You sit down at the kitchen table and pour the two of you some Jim Beam. What’s the first thing you say to him?
Jack: “Gee whiz, Mr. Chandler, You’re my hero.”
I’m guessing you were hoping for something a little more dramatic, Lauren. So, for your blog I would then say to him, “Salud,” and we’d slam down those Beams. I’d pour us another—a double. Then I’d tell him why he was my hero.
But first he’d say, “Nice pour, pal. Call me Ray.”
And I would, and he’d call me Jack, and we’d put a pretty big dent in that bottle of Jim Beam.
And while we pounded the Beam here’s what I would tell him:
“Your noir heroes have more depth and heart than the others. Noir, by its nature tends to have hard-boiled, hard-loving, cold-blooded heroes who kill without remorse, who make love without loving. who kick ass and take names. “Ray, your heroes are complex, sentimental, often loners. They’re ethical and have consciences. Your dialogue is snappy, and funny, and gorgeous. Your metaphors and similes are those of a hard-boiled Shakespeare.
“Of all the icons of your genre—and I truly love James M. Cain—you are the writer whose heroes most imbody the kind of “tough guy” I wanted Phil Morris to be.”
“Damn, the bottle’s empty? That went fast.”
If you could cast your main characters in the Hollywood adaptation of your book, who would play your characters (must currently be alive).
Jack: If I could turn back the clock a couple of decades, Tom Hanks or Vigo Mortenson would play Phil Morris. If clock turning is not allowed, I would go with Chris Pratt, or Chris Hemsworth, just as long as Hemsworth could lose the accent and some of his muscle tone. Why these two? They are about the right age, they both can act, and they both can be funny. It is critical that the Hollywood Phil Morris have a twinkle in his eye, that he can poke fun at himself and others.
Michelle Williams will play Colleen Holloway. Williams blew me away in Manchester by the Sea and My Week with Marilyn. I am convinced that she can play any role, and play it well.
Emma Stone will play Jill Freely. I’ve got Miss Stone under my skin.
The other of the above Chris’s will play Rusty Callahan. Imagine the witty banter between those two as partnering private investigators.
Colm Meaney will play Tom Holloway. He can play one mean heartless bastard. Another Irishman, Brendon Gleason plays Conor Hannerty.
What are you working on now?
Jack: I’m working on a sequel to But Not for Me. Our pal Phil Morris, Rusty and Jill will investigate a mansion that was the scene of a family’s double murder/suicide a decade earlier to determine if the house is haunted. Is it haunted, or is it an elaborate scam perpetrated on the surviving daughter by someone out to steal her fortune and the family’s Russell Stover-like chocolate business?
I’m also collaborating with an old high school chum, Priscilla Myers, who lives in Phoenix. Priscilla has a journalist background. We are writing a magical twenty-year reunion story based on the age-old question: What if I could go back to high school knowing what I know now? The novel is set in Shawnee Mission, Kansas.
And I still tinker with short stories and essays.
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Jack: Start young (I didn’t). Read voraciously (I did).
Read with a discerning eye, a writer’s eye. How does the writer work his/her magic?
Steal from the ones you really like. Don’t steal what they’ve written. Steal how they write. Then the more you learn, and steal, the better you will become. And as you read and learn and steal technique you will develop your own style. Not only will you find a style that fits you, but, depending on what you write you can change styles to fit the work.
Edit, edit, edit. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Author James Michener once said, “I am not a very good writer, but I am an excellent rewriter.
Don’t let criticism get you down. Don’t take it personally. Listen to the critic’s advice if their criticism comes with it. Weigh it. Often it will be good advice that can make you a better writer. But just as often it won’t fit with your style or the specifics of what you want to write and how you want to write it. Don’t let someone who is more “advanced” than you change the way you write or what you’ve already written unless you want to make the change.
Oh yeah . . . and get a good day job. Becoming rich as a writer works as often as becoming rich as a lottery ticket buyer. But winning lottery tickets are 100% chance. Financially successful writers have to be really good writers in the first place, that is unless your name is Dan Brown (just kidding, sort of).
So, work hard to become a really good writer. Are you getting all of this Jack?
. . . Jack?
True to the genre, your novel contains hard-boiled slang which never fails to make me smile when I come across certain words and phrases. It must have been a hell of a lot of work to sprinkle throughout. I assume you spent some time reading within the genre and watching films to learn the vocabulary – how challenging was it to include all the slang and what other challenges did you face when writing this novel?
Slang: the kids I grew up with (the boys anyway) watched a lot of those old gangster movies, the good ones and the bad ones. And we watched Bogart, Cagney, and Edward G. Robinson among others. We imitated them. Every boy in my neighborhood could do a decent imitation of them. If I were speaking rather than writing, I would demonstrate. So, doll, that’s where the slang started—from old movies, see?
When I began reading noir, I had a sheet of paper on which I would write such words and how they were used.
When I edited first drafts of early chapters I looked for places to add the terms of slang. But by the end of the end of the book, my gumshoe’s voice began to use them naturally.
And I must confess, doll, Mark Luce with the Kansas University mob, turned me on to this terrific web site . . . ah the wonders of the www.
I’d never written a novel, and didn’t know exactly how to go about it. I don’t (and won’t ever) outline. I know how to begin a story and usually where I want it to end. Then I just start and see where the story takes me. There are all kinds of surprises that pop up along the way. It’s almost as if two of us are writing. There’s Jack who begins each writing session, purposefully, doggedly moving forward. And then there’s “the Jackster” lurking, looking for an opportunity to take over and fly off in a new direction. Once Jackster relinquishes the controls, Jack has to write his way back in and deal with what the Jackster has wrought.
Some examples: I never intended for Phil to take on a partner. I never intended to have Phil attend a live boxing event. There weren’t supposed to be any mobsters from Detroit, or any Beverly Cresto dame. I could go on . . .
The other significant challenge was to set the book in Kansas City in 1934. I wanted it to be historically accurate in both place and the events happening around our pal Phil. I wanted anyone who knows Kansas City to be able to follow Phil around the streets and landmarks as they were in 1934 without bogging down readers who don’t know KC. That meant keeping descriptions brief. Joe Blow from Kokomo who reads the book doesn’t want a half page description of the newly built Municipal Auditorium. But my Kansas City readers, who know the place demand accuracy. And I had never done much research before, not for anything but class term papers and the like.
There is some disagreement about the femme fatale archetype – some argue it is sexist to portray a woman as a manipulative, calculating succubus, and others think it is empowering to portray a woman who is comfortable with her own sexuality, and willing to use it in pursuit of her own ends. Femme fatale is French for “fatal woman” as this character is often fatal to the men she tangles with, usually being cast as a villain in the story. Core characteristics include being manipulative, selfish, intelligent, driven, a survivor, and a temptress. Often cynical and forced to grow up quickly, and is a rival to other women, with few female friends. Colleen Holloway, the bombshell blonde in your book, exemplifies some of these femme fatale characteristics – was it your goal to also challenge the traditional stereotype?
Jack: Wow! What an erudite, well composed question. I should be interviewing you.
I love to write women characters. And I’ve written a few short stories from inside the head of a women. I certainly don’t claim to know what makes them tick, or to be any kind of expert. But, it seems like almost half the people I know are females. Hmm.
I have known them when they were girls and teens and women. I have dated them, and loved them, and gotten dumped by them and dumped a few myself. I have them as friends, a daughter, one who was my mother, and one as a wife.
Writing But Not for Me in first person, from the viewpoint of Phil Morris, made writing women more easy. I wrote women as Phil sees them.
I wanted Colleen Holloway to be much of what you describe above—a femme fatale. But at the same time, I want my characters to be multi-dimensional. I wanted to show a little of what makes Colleen tick. There is a scene in the book where Colleen and Phil meet for lunch. Phil suspects Colleen is manipulating him and withholding important information. But dammit, he’s falling for her anyway, despite his better judgement. At lunch he wants to probe her for information. She resists. She wants something else.
They talk about their childhoods, their mutual affinity for horses. Phil learns what a messed-up rich girl childhood she had. He promises to take her to see the Flint Hills someday, and to ride horses with her there.
I wanted the reader to see the fragile unhappy girl inside the manipulative, disingenuous woman. I wanted readers to care about her on some level. I would like to expand on this here, but to do so would give away an important part of the book. But I will say that the lunch scene I described is my favorite scene in the book, both as I wrote it, and now reading the book after it was published, trying to do so as any Joe Reader-Person would.
Writing Jill Freely was much easier. Jill is no femme fatale. She’s a straight shooter with a razor-sharp sense of humor and an ability to banter toe-to-toe with both Phil and Rusty. I wanted male readers to have the hots for Colleen, and want to marry Jill.
Overall, the 1930s was a sexist time. The term sexual harassment didn’t exist yet. There was no #MeToo. Men had all of the power. I wanted to be true to the times, but I wanted Phil to respect women within the limits of the genre. I hope I created some strong, non-stereotypical female characters, and a tough guy who is perhaps too attracted to them, and realizes this weakness.