Years ago, when I first started writing what would become my first crime novel, My Darkest Prayer, I had a fellow writer tell me they didn’t like “country” or “rural” noir. When I asked them why they said:
“I just don’t buy it. I can’t believe all that crime happens in the country.”
I’ll clean up my response to that inane comment but essentially it amounted to:
“Are you freaking kidding me?”
There is an inherent belief among a lot of writers and readers that Noir, big “N” is inexorably tied to the urban jungle. The cynicism, fatalism and moral ambiguity that traditionally defines noir can only exist in the land of steel and concrete. Or so they think.
I am not the first nor will I be the last writer to dismiss this idea as totally and unequivocally nonsensical. Daniel Woddrell David Joy, Steve Weddell, Greg Barth, Daniel Ray Pollock, Eryk Pruitt, and others have proved the fallacy of this idea. Rural locations whether in the belly of a dead racist regime in the South or in the sweeping farmlands of the Midwest can provide as much misanthropic and pessimistic nihilism as the mean streets of the naked city.
That’s not to say I didn’t read and enjoy books set in New York or Chicago or L.A. Quite the contrary. As a kid I devoured the works of the great like Chandler, Hammett, Macdonald (Ross and John D.) Walter Mosely, Chester Himes and many others. Their stories were and escape and an education for me. I grew in a town without a stoplight or sidewalks. Reading about dark alleys and speakeasies was exhilarating. Yet when I metaphorically was ready to put pen to paper, I had a deep and unwavering desire to take all the element of what I loved about Noir writing and meld them with the rich and varied tapestry of my own rural upbringing. Then I wanted to filter all of that through the prism of an African-American point of view.
And I wanted it to be a kick-ass story too.
My Darkest Prayer didn’t come to life in a vacuum. I am blessed to count many fantastic writers among my friends. A lot of them gave me early reading and made invaluable suggestions. In the beginning I found myself stuck on how to depict the main character. I didn’t want to write him as a traditional PI because in a small town there isn’t a huge amount of work for private detectives. One night I found myself on vacation in New York City drinking at the Shade Bar. Todd Robinson the publisher of the late great ThugLit and a fantastic writer himself gave me a great piece of advice.
“He doesn’t have to be a PI. Your day job is working at a funeral home. Make him a guy that works at a funeral home. You got some ready-made stories there.” It was like a light went off in my head. I went back to my hotel room and wrote the first three chapters long hand on a legal pad. Then when I got home, I used a Rosetta stone to decipher my scribblings and got to work on the rest of the book.
There are a lot of things I attempted to say with My Darkest Prayer but the main thing I wanted to accomplish was tell a compelling story. No matter what themes and ideas you are trying to elucidate no one is going to care if the story is trash. Or if the characters are wooden. Or the dialogue is trite. A story that moves is the foundation of a novel in my opinion. You build the book on the basis of narrative propulsion. If you are doing it right people can’t wait to get to the end. Once they get there, they may be surprised to find a message or two got through.
The best Noir stories are the one that present us with characters and situations that challenge our mores and make us examine the social contract. They examine the outer edges of human frailty and depravity. They push us to recognize the dark side that exists in us all. When it comes to rural noir those sentiments are compounded by family secrets, gothic aesthetics and the pastoral bleakness that envelopes you as you sit on a porch watching the sunrise in a house that the bank will soon own.
I’m not saying My Darkest Prayer is among the best in Noir but there was a high bar I had in mind. I don’t know if I reached it but I definitely tried my best. If anyone enjoys reading it half as much as I enjoyed reading, they are in for a good time.
Bio: S.A.Cosby is a writer from southeastern Virginia. His work has appeared in numerous anthologies and collections including ThugLit, Crime Syndicate Magazine, Baby It’s Cold Outside, TOUGH, and many others. HIs debut crime novel MY DARKEST PRAYER was published by Intrigue Publishing in January 2019.