The Masters of Narrative Drive

Over the past year, I’ve become obsessed with the writers of paperback noir/crime/sleaze novels from the late 40s through the 60s.

Having now read at least 100 of them (no small feat, considering how difficult they are to find), I can say with authority that these guys knew better than any other authors of their time (and today, for the most part) how to hook the reader and keep him hooked.

And yes, the covers were eye-catching, but as titillating as they were, they weren’t enough to keep men reading if the story sucked.

This skill of keeping the reader reading is known as narrative drive or, as Larry Beinhart says on page two of this book, it’s “the promise—or threat or tease or suggestion—that something is going to happen.” Given the number of titles that came out around this time, it’s amazing that these authors achieved such variety within a fairly common framework.

The general plot structure, which each author tweaked depending on his style and the quirks of the story he wanted to tell, was as follows:

A competent man, usually with a drinking problem, is either a stranger to town or stumbles into an unfamiliar situation.

Usually on page one, he meets a femme fatale, a sexy and often younger temptress. The woman draws him into her web with a tale of how she is trapped by her circumstances, but with his help, they can kill the guy in the way (the overbearing husband) and keep the loot (a bag of money, gold, or an insurance policy like in DOUBLE INDEMNITY by James Cain).

The two of them then engage in crazy animal sex in every place imaginable. The man is now hooked on the woman and will do anything she wants. He convinces himself that he’ll be able to get the money and the girl, if he can only commit the murder perfectly.

Most of the time, though, the guy’s drinking gets in the way, and there’s always some annoying twerp/blackmailer that catches on and comes in towards the end to foul things up, so they have to kill him/her as well and screw it up.

The temptress then double-crosses the competent man who helped her and absconds with the money, sometimes killing the man herself.

As I said before, that’s the framework. There are dozens of variations on this structure. Mind you, I’m not making fun of it; in fact, I’m working on a novel of my own that follows a similar structure.

What amazes me is this: even though I’ve read dozens of these stories and know how they’ll end, every time I find myself hoping, and in some cases believing, the pair will get away with it—that they’ll have each other and the money and get away with killing the schmuck who usually deserves it.

And every time, it ends badly for them.

The fact that I continue reading when I know, every time, that it won’t end well, is a testament to the skill of narrative drive these authors possessed. I can’t tell you how many nights I’ve lain awake well up to 2 or 3am reading one of these sons of bitches. Here are my favorite authors in this genre:

1. Gil Brewer
2. Charles Williams
3. Harry Whittington
4. Jim Thompson (his work went well into the 70s)
5. Hank Janson

And in case you were trying to think of a nice little gift to buy me (friends & relatives, listen up), I’m looking for the following titles to add to my collection:

TALL, BLONDE AND EVIL by Greg Hamilton

SNOW BUNNIES by Joan Ellis

NAKED ON ROLLER SKATES by Maxwell Bodenheim

NUDE ON THIN ICE by Gil Brewer

SATAN IS A WOMAN by Gil Brewer

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to my novel, in which a competent stranger shows up and a sneaky vixen tricks him into killing her husband…

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By Chris Orcutt

Writer — The Dakota Stevens Mystery Series, Short fiction, Plays — Editor & Speechwriter for Hire — Avid Golfer, Chess Player & Awesome Wood-Splitter — Twitter: @chrisorcutt

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