Something More Than Night

Learning the Language of Noir

Something More Than Night by Ian Tregillis
By Ian Tregillis

“The law was something to be manipulated for profit and power. The streets were dark with something more than night.” —Raymond Chandler, Trouble is My Business

Something More Than Night was simultaneously the hardest and the easiest book I’ve written. I’ve never had more fun as a writer.

The seed rattled through the dark dusty corners of my mind for almost two decades before it took root. I wanted to tell a story set inside a medieval depiction of Heaven, populated by the strange and terrifying creatures of the angelic choir. Cherubim, Seraphim, Thrones, Dominions, and the rest: a menagerie pulled from a madman’s bestiary.

The idea needed water and sunlight. For years, it received neither. Until I speculated that one of the characters might speak in the antique argot of a noir detective. Bayliss, my fallen angel, was born.

But if he was to walk down those mean streets among dames, loogans, molls, and jaspers, I’d have to become fluent. Not only with the genre’s delicious language, but also its conventions. So I spent a year studying the works of writers such as James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, and, of course, Raymond Chandler.

At first I feared I’d burdened myself with a tedious research assignment. Instead, it was a joy—and it led me to discover one of my favorite writers. Raymond Chandler truly was one of the great American writers of the 20th century. His Philip Marlowe novels transcended the genre. Marlowe’s descriptions of the world around him are always perfect, yet unique as a fingerprint. (My favorite appears in The Long Goodbye: “The girl gave him a look which ought to have stuck four inches from his back.” Wow!)

To get a handle on the complicated, colorful language of the genre, I read widely—pencil in hand—noting every unfamiliar word. In the course of mastering Bayliss’s patter, I built a noir slang glossary containing over 750 definitions. (I’ve posted the glossary on my website.) Hard work, but the book would have been impossible to write otherwise.

In contrast, plotting the book was a snap. Chandler himself plotted stories like a toddler sticking Lego blocks together. He had a set number of plot blocks, and for each book he’d just grab a random handful and cram them together. Thus the recurring events and themes in Marlowe’s adventures: “Marlowe Finds A Dead Body.” “Marlowe Meets A Woman With A Secret.” “Marlowe Gets Grilled By The Bulls.” “Mistaken Identity.” (Certain blocks, such as the old standby, “Marlowe Gets Knocked Out,” occasionally appear more than once.) So while mastering the language was a formidable task, mastering the plot conventions was not. I merely followed the formula established by my betters.

The Marlowe novels are steeped in their time; they touch racism and anti-Semitism. Plus they’re unremittingly sexist from end to end, with paper-thin characterizations that relegate every female character into one of only three narrow categories. (Which happens to be true of much of the genre.)

Refuting that tedious genre convention became the heart of the novel. If I was going to put a “dame” in the story—and a noir pastiche practically demands it—she’d be an actual human being. So I paired Bayliss with Molly Pruett: a modern woman with no patience for his shtick or the angels’ belligerence. She doesn’t fret quietly and wait for rescue, nor is she a conniving sexpot with a heart of ice. She’s something else entirely. She’s smart, strong, and bold.

But, then again, she is the hero.

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2 thoughts on “Learning the Language of Noir

  1. In contrast, plotting the book was a snap. Chandler himself plotted stories like a toddler sticking Lego blocks together. He had a set number of plot blocks, and for each book he’d just grab a random handful and cram them together.

    –And of course, if he thought things were getting too quiet, he’d throw in trouble for the hero (“add ninjas”, to quote Doyce Testerman).

  2. “Something More Than Night” is great fun. Ian really does nail the prose and the plot conventions are made use of with clever effect. Science and angels dance a jig like a tarantula in a blender.
    Highly recommended.

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