Archives for posts with tag: Detective fiction


by John S. O’Connor
Reprinted from (2009)

This year I’m teaching a new class called Literature and Film. Since I’m always thinking of ways to use poetry in the classroom, we started the year by screening Run Lola Run while we read Oedipus the King (the brilliant Robert Fagles translation replete with devastatingly ironic line breaks). In our film noir unit, we read some terrific noir poems from Kevin Young’s Black Maria and some excerpts from Robert Polito’s fine new collection, Holywood and God. (Check out the podcast on Poetry Noir from Poetry off the Shelf.)

Then, while we were examining mise-en-scene (for our purposes, the physical setting of the film) in movies such as Double Indemnity and Chinatown, I asked students to write noir poems of their own. As a first step, I had students work in small groups to make a list of 50 concrete nouns, objects that fill the frame. When they were finished, I asked them to write down 10 “tough guy” lines. With that group-generated word pool, I asked individual students to tell a story that uses no verbs or adjectives that were not on their lists. (They could feel free to add “small words” such as articles and prepositions). For the sake of coherence, I didn’t really care if they broke these arbitrary rules, but for the most part they stayed within the parameters I laid out. Here is an example from Michael:

Candle-lit brooches blinds the darkness

Whiskey perfumes the pearled dame:

Her thin eyebrows, false lashes, painted red lips. Manicured nails

Put pen to pad to pistol

Bourbon shadows suffocate

Every crowded bar
Police fire on the heels of her fur coat

Streetlamps spit halos of light in the boozy night

The Fedora City lights like a knife

A neon scream hits my gut like a brick

Gasping for my life, my lungs find only stale air

I need a drink
The broad beat it outta there quick,

dangling rope

earrings her only trace

A doll on the run,

a run in her stockings–
Camera to crime to cuffs.

Set match to photograph

Smothering the city in Venetian streaks

The blinds are drawn shut

Case closed.

Photo: Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, based on Dashiell Hammett‘s novel.


We’re in the final stages of editing the Silver Birch Press NOIR Erasure Poetry Anthology — a collection of poems from authors around the world based on the writings of hardboiled detective novelists such as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Ross MacDonald. A special thank you to Guy Budziak, of, for his beautiful cover art.

The Silver Birch Press NOIR Erasure Poetry Anthology will be available by December 1st. Stay tuned for updates.



(from introduction to Snoopy’s Guide to the Writing Life)

I once named a character Frank Matisse, but he acted older than his age; and for some reason he wouldn’t talk as much as I wanted him to. I changed his name to Jack Delany and couldn’t shut him up.

Because I use a lot of dialogue in my stories, the characters must be able to talk in interesting ways. So I audition them in opening scenes to see which ones will have important roles in the plot. If a character doesn’t speak the way I want him to, and changing his name doesn’t work, he could be demoted to a less important role.

The best kind of character is one who starts out in a minor role – sometimes without even having a name – and talks his way into the plot. He says a few words, and I see this guy has an interesting personality and I look for more ways to use him in the story.

I write my stories in scenes and always from a particular character’s point of view. Then I may rewrite the same scene from a different character’s point of view and find that it works better. After I finish a book, I continue to think about my characters and wonder what they’re up to.

ELMORE LEONARD (1925-2013) was the bestselling author of nearly forty books, including Get Shorty, La Brava, Cuba Libre, and Stick, many of which have been made into films.

SNOOPY’S GUIDE TO THE WRITING LIFE is available at books is out of print, but used copies are available for around $7.50 plus shipping.)

Photo: Elmore Leonard at his home in Michigan, photo by Carlos Osorio/AP, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


One of my best all-time thrift store finds was a pristine-condition Vintage/Black Lizard edition of Black Money by Ross Macdonald.

Born Kenneth Millar on December 13, 1915 in Los Gatos, California, and raised in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, Ross Macdonald has been called the heir to Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon) and Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep). Most of his novels — starring detective Lew Archer — are set in Los Angeles and the fictional Santa Teresa, based on Santa Barbara, where he lived most of his life with his wife, and fellow detective novelist, Margaret Millar. Macdonald passed away in 1983 at age 67.

In Ross Macdonald, a Biography, author Tom Nolan writes: “By any standard he was remarkable. His first books, patterned on Hammett and Chandler, were at once vivid chronicles of a postwar California and elaborate retellings of Greek and other classic myths. Gradually he swapped the hard-boiled trappings for more subjective themes: personal identity, the family secret, the family scapegoat, the childhood trauma; how men and women need and battle each other, how the buried past rises like a skeleton to confront the present. He brought the tragic drama of Freud and the psychology of Sophocles to detective stories, and his prose flashed with poetic imagery.”

Here are a few lines from the opening page of Black Money“I walked around the end of the fifty-meter pool, which was enclosed on three sides by cabanas. On the fourth side the sea gleamed through a ten-foot wire fence like a blue fish alive in a net. A few dry bathers were lying around as if the yellow eye of the sun had hypnotized them.”

Find Black Money by Ross Macdonald at


The Moving Target — originally published in 1949 — features Lew Archer, an L.A. private investigator, who appears in a series of novels by Ross Macdonald.

While reading the work of this amazing wordsmith/poet, I was struck by its similarity to the best passages in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald — and figured somebody somewhere must have written about this. A quick Google search revealed more than I’d hoped.

My research uncovered a fascinating article entitled “Ross Macdonald’s Marked Copy of The Portable F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Study of Influence” by Robert F. Moss. In the article, Moss demonstrates how Macdonald learned from Fitzgerald on a variety of levels, including language, plot, structure, and technique. Macdonald is quoted as calling Fitzgerald “a dream writer,” “our finest novelist,” and “my master.” Read the entire article here.

To give a sense of Macdonald’s command of language, here is the opening paragraph from Chapter 4 of The Moving Target:

We rose into the offshore wind sweeping across the airport and climbed toward the southern break in the mountains. Santa Teresa was a colored air map on the mountains’ knees, the sailboats in the harbor white soap chips in a tub of bluing. The air was very clear. The peaks stood up so sharply that they looked like papier-maché I could poke my finger through. Then we rose past them into chillier air and saw the wilderness of mountains stretching to the fifty-mile horizon.

The Moving Target was made into Harper, a 1966 movie starring Paul Newman. Legendary screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance KidAll the President’s Men) adapted the novel for the screen — and considered The Moving Target his breakthrough script (it was his second screenwriting credit). Newman also starred as Lew Harper (the screen name for Lew Archer) in the 1975 movie The Drowning Pool, based on Ross Macdonald’s novel of the same name.


“A good story cannot be devised; it has to be distilled.”


In searching for an image to accompany this quote, I discovered an interesting project from 2010, when Just Beer, a brewery in Westport, Massachusetts, released a 12-part hardboiled detective story — on the labels of the company’s India Pale Ale.

According to an article at“The Case of the IPA” is a hardboiled detective farce printed chapter by chapter on 12 bottles of a newly released India Pale Ale. Each 22-ounce bottle not only has 22 ounces of brilliantly deduced IPA [India Pale Ale], but also 1 of the 12 chapters of the story. Each case has 12 bottles, which makes for the entire tale told in a case. And so, “The Case of the IPA” is indeed a case of the IPA. Brewer Harry Smith proposed the idea to author Paul Goodchild and they quickly agreed on a format: a noir-ish detective serial. Smith brewed up a batch of hoppy craft brew whilst Goodchild penned the story. It’s a mystery of zany brewers and their intrigues; sure to tickle the ribs and please the belly of any fan of craft beer. As this is a bottle by bottle mystery, Just Beer reminds all to “please read responsibly.”


Chapter 1 from The Case of the IPA

I do not boast. My credentials are those of an intrepid adventurer. They are both obvious as the scar on my cheek and subtle as the squint in my eye. For several years now, I’ve been a two-bit shamus in a dirty, gritty, bluesy, and cool city of some renown. I stepped when the boil got too hot on The Case of the India Pale Ale. It started with a summons from a wealthy brewer named Cornelius Fuggle(no relation). He lived in a swank starter mansion in the ‘burbs. The casual staff showed me to his office, knocked once then gestured. I opened the door, pushing against a stack of papers and books. ‘Mind your step,’ came a distracted disembodied voice. I weaved through the OCD towers of yellowed tomes into a clearing dominated by a giant repro of an ersatz antique chart. Fuggle was plotting a route from Blackwall to the sub-continent, getting data from a mildewed log, fiddling with dividers and a straight edge, drawing with a quill dipped in a well of his own blood. ‘Authenticity!’ he exclaimed then passed out.

Photo: Just Beer’s India Pale Ale with labels that feature “The Case of the  IPA”



  • A writer who is afraid to overreach himself is as useless as a general who is afraid to be wrong.
  • Technique alone is never enough. You have to have passion. Technique alone is just an embroidered potholder… The moment a man begins to talk about technique that’s proof that he is fresh out of ideas.
  • The most durable thing in writing is style, and style is the single most valuable investment a writer can make with his time. It [style] is a projection of personality and you have to have a personality before you can project it. It is the product of emotion and perception.
  • The challenge is to write about real things magically.
  • The more you reason the less you create.
  • Don’t ever write anything you don’t like yourself and if you do like it, don’t take anyone’s advice about changing it.
  • I am a writer, and there comes a time when that which I write has to belong to me, has to be written alone and in silence, with no one looking over my shoulder, no one telling me a better way to write it. It doesn’t have to be great writing, it doesn’t even have to be terribly good. It just has to be mine.

Photo: Raymond Chandler’s novels

“I had a funny feeling as I saw the house disappear, as though I had written a poem and it was very good and I had lost it and would never remember it again.” RAYMOND CHANDLER, The High Window

Photo: “West Hollywood in the Early Morning Fog” by

There are still a few more days until the Sept. 15, 2013 deadline for the Silver Birch Press NOIR Erasure Poetry Anthology, a collection of passages from hardboiled detective novels — by Raymond Chandler, Dashiell HammettRoss MacDonald, and others — with sections marked out to create poems. If you’re unfamiliar with erasure poetry, check out our posts that feature erasure poems by james (w) moore and  Cathy Dee. For more about hardboiled fiction, visit Wikipedia.

TO SUBMIT: Photocopy a page from a noir/hardboiled novel, mark out passages with magic marker or whiteout (or another form of your choosing) to create a noir poem. On a separate sheet, list your name, address, phone, and email, along with the title of the novel, author, edition, publisher, page number, and any other identifying information. Include your one-paragraph bio along with a typed version of the poem(s).

SEND TO: Silver Birch Press, P.O. Box 29458, Los Angeles, CA 90029 (DO NOT FOLD, AS WE WILL FEATURE THE ORIGINAL SUBMISSIONS IN THE BOOK) or email as an attachment to

DEADLINE: September 15, 2013

PAYMENT: All contributors featured in the book will receive a paperback copy of the Silver Birch Press NOIR Erasure Poetry Anthology

We look forward to reading your inspired NOIR erasure poems! 

And thank you to everyone who has already submitted. We plan to review all submissions by the end of September and release the book in late fall.

Cover art: Guy Budziak,

CAPTION: “If I hire you to find my husband, will you turn some lights on in your office?”

CREDIT: New Yorker cartoon by Ward Sutton, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Prints available at