Sunday, January 30, 2011

Roman Noir - Is It or Isn't It? by Kelli Stanley

Kelli Stanley is an award-winning author of crime fiction (novels and short stories). She makes her home in Dashiell Hammett’s San Francisco, a city she loves to write about. She is the author of two crime fiction series, one set in 1940 San Francisco (featuring hardboiled female PI, Miranda Corbie), the other in first century Roman Britain.

Her novels include CITY OF DRAGONS, NOX DORMIENDA, THE CURSE-MAKER, and CITY OF SECRETS (September, 2011). “Children’s Day”, a prequel to CITY OF DRAGONS, was published in the International Thriller Writers anthology FIRST THRILLS: HIGH OCTANE STORIES FROM THE HOTTEST THRILLER AUTHORS

Kelli earned a Master’s Degree in Classics, loves jazz, old movies, battered fedoras, Art Deco and speakeasies. You can learn more about her and the worlds she creates at

Roman Noir - Is It or Isn't It?
by Kelli Stanley

Kaye’s blog is one of the most auspicious hangouts on the internet, filled, as it is, with the warmth and goodness and loveliness of the woman herself. So when she invited me to write—a distinct and cherished honor—I thought, “What better date than the day before the launch of a book called THE CURSE-MAKER”?

It’s kind of like saying “ex-jinx”, one reason why my original working title was “Maledictus” [Cursed]. Sounds a bit softer in Latin, don’t you think? But Latin or English, as a relaunch to my first series and sequel to my first book, THE CURSE-MAKER embodies a dream realized, and I want to attract all the good luck I can.

One question that has popped up in interviews—in addition to the natural one of how crazy am I to try to publish two books in one year—is whether or not it’s possible to write a “Roman noir” novel with a (happily) married protagonist.

Doesn’t that violate some noir law somewhere?

The short answer is no. The long answer is a little more involved.

THE CURSE-MAKER (and the Arcturus series as a whole) is an affectionate homage to the hardboiled genre. Even “Roman noir” is a pun, since it’s the French term for a detective story as well as a description of my setting and tone. THE CURSE-MAKER was inspired by Hammett’s Red Harvest and The Dain Curse, yes, but it was also inspired by The Thin Man and Chandler’s unfinished manuscript of Poodle Springs (later completed by the wonderful Robert B. Parker).

The Thin Man is much more of a biting satire than the classic film franchise would lead you to believe, but it does feature two people who love each other, one of whom is a detective. In Playback, Chandler’s final finished novel, iconic loner PI Marlowe is headed for the wedding aisle. In Poodle Springs, he’s taken the plunge.

So I thought—why not? Let’s see how and where and why the more recognizable elements of noir insert themselves—and see if pairing up Arcturus and Gwyna—actually, I had no choice, they paired themselves up, as characters sometimes do—see if writing about a couple in love (and not the crazy “amour fou” type found in noir lit and film noir) can still preserve the dark atmosphere I was trying to capture.

In other words, I had precedent! Noir is such an elusive topic—we’re forever trying to define it at conventions—and writing a protagonist that can see the darkness, yet have a little light to hold on to, doesn’t negate the fact that the setting is frightening (a necromancer who raises the dead and communes with spirits, ghosts in abandoned mines, and a titular curse-maker whose curses come true), dark and captures the desperation of a spa town where people go to heal.

Except in Aquae Sulis, far too many are turning up dead.

So the classic themes are all there. And I, as a writer, really enjoy the challenge of capturing that darkness, as well as the love and passion between the two lead characters. This makes THE CURSE-MAKER lighter than CITY OF DRAGONS and the upcoming CITY OF SECRETS in the Miranda Corbie series (Miranda is suffering from a tragic loss and PTSD, as well as other issues in her background), because the emotional heart of the novel is about Arcturus and Gwyna’s relationship … not about the darkness around them.

So is it still “Roman noir”? You bet. It’s a hardboiled detective story with plenty of vivid (and seedy) characters that will make your skin crawl. Curses have a unique history in Aquae Sulis (today’s more genteel Bath), and I’ve shared some original research in the novel on how and why they may have been used in first century Roman Britain. “Roman noir” is a lens through which you can hopefully see the past a little clearer, not as a distant and removed and alien landscape, but one populated with the same kind of people who may live down your block.

And as always, through the Roman-ness and the noir-ness speaks a tough man and a good doctor, who walks the mean and muddy streets of Britannia both slightly tarnished … and occasionally very afraid.

Thanks and hugs to Kaye for the honor of hanging out on Meanderings and Musings!!

Photo of Bertie: canis fidelis! (it means faithful dog in Latin) ;)


jenny milchman said...

That does like one unique book, Kelli--wow! Big congrats on its release, and what better place to tell the story behind the story than M&M!

Neil Plakcy said...

Sounds great, Kelli. Can't wait to read it!

Kelli Stanley said...

Thanks so much, Jenny!! :) And you're so right--there's no cooler place than Kaye's!! :)

Kelli Stanley said...

Thanks a million, Neil!! :) And it was great to get to see you in NYC!!


Kaye George said...

Kelli, I had the great good fortune to review The Curse Maker for Suspense Magazine. Loved it! Let me know if you want a link. I hope you're working hard on the next one!

Kelli Stanley said...

Kaye, thank you so much for letting me know--I'm so happy you liked Arcturus and company!! :)

And I'd love a link to the issue of Suspense!!

Thanks again for stopping by and for reviewing it--I've definitely been thinking about the next installment! :)

Kaye George said...

Sure thing, Kelli.

Vicki Lane said...

Sounds fascinating! When I visited Bath, it was its Roman history that I found the most interesting.