New England doesn’t scream noir, not in the way of movies set in New York or Los Angeles, or Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles Trilogy, or any book coming out of Scandinavia these days. But it’s there, New England Noir, from The Crucible to the opioid epidemic, with a flavor all its own.
Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton
I know Edith Wharton doesn’t exactly read like Dennis Lehane, but her storytelling powers are awe inspiring. House of Mirth, set in New York City, features a heroine trapped in an unforgiving system, and the twists are cruel. Better yet, for this roundup, is Ethan Frome: weirder, even more gripping, a tragic love story that takes place in the grim, made-up town of Starkfield, Massachusetts. I went back to it recently—my new novel, The Last Kid Left, a gothic love story of sorts set in a made-up town in New Hampshire, features a character with a limp like Mr. Frome’s—just to breathe the prose again. The twists get ridiculous, but that’s part of the fun.
Go With Me, Castle Forman Jr.
This book got pressed into my hands a couple years ago by a bookseller friend. I’ve given away so many copies that I keep re-buying it. It’s a Vermont crime novel originally published in 2009 in which a band of locals in the backwoods teams up to defeat a local villain. The movie version, Blackway, transplanted to the Pacific Northwest, isn’t much, but the novel’s superb.
What says New England better than little white church steeples poking out of the green hills? In Orson Welles’s The Stranger, from 1946, a church belfry plays a crucial part in a hunt for a Nazi lurking in Connecticut—a Nazi no one can identify except by his obsession for clocks.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle, George V. Higgins
My favorite crime novel, with an antihero to give Tony Soprano bad dreams. The dialogue—it’s mostly dialogue—is fresh and new each time I read it, no matter how many times I read it. Characters love to talk in this book—lowlifes, cops, bank robbers. It sings.
Noir, as a genre, has a lot of room for melodrama—the big emotions, the archetypes. I’m too young to know what it was like to watch Peyton Place when it first aired, but the original season, in black and white, is a guilty pleasure. One of the United States’ first soap operas, the show’s set amid tolling church bells—tolling with judgment, with doom for wayward decisions!—in a small New Hampshire town stocked with sexual affairs, combustible mental states, and murder. Not to mention the pressures of a Puritan small town on any women who should transgress. A starring role for Mia Farrow, who quickly left the show and made Rosemary’s Baby.
“The Chain,” Tobias Wolff
From Wolff’s collection The Night in Question, this is about as taut as it gets, with a violent, beguiling start after a sledding trip turns ghastly and a man is compelled to bite a dog. All the hallmarks of noir fiction are here—the confined world, the aura of crime, the protagonist with a fight, the impossibility of justice, the hard choices, the melodrama—but it’s Wolff’s unending sympathy for his characters that holds it all together.
Rosecrans Baldwin is the author of The Last Kid Left, You Lost Me There, and Paris, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down. He lives in Los Angeles.