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March 5, 2009

Neo-Noir

The Cold books are heavily influenced by the 50s Gold Medal classic authors such as David Goodis, Charles Williams, Jim Thompson, Harry Whittington, Peter Rabe, Bruno Fischer, Gil Brewer, and Donald Westlake (Richard Stark). For those of you who don’t know, Gold Medal was a paperback publisher noted especially for its crime fiction. Unless you live and breathe this kind of writing (and even if you don’t, you should keep your eyes open when hanging around the secondhand shops), you’ve probably only heard of one or two of those names in passing.

But they were all something special back in the day-many of them massive bestsellers—and even if they’re mostly forgotten now, they remain special in their own right. You’ve seen a lot of movies based on their books, even if you didn’t know it. Their influence is felt throughout the entire mystery genre. And there’s been a recent resurgence in this specific kind of noir/hardboiled material. Current authors like Charlie Huston, Duane Swierczynski, Sean Doolittle, Jason Starr, and Ken Bruen have run with noirish tropes and taken them to new heights…or, more accurately put, new depths.

When I started work on THE COLD SPOT and THE COLDEST MILE I went in with the hopes of distilling just about everything I loved about the form, the themes, the action, and the humor, and pouring all of that into my own work. Creating my protagonist, Chase, who lived in the underworld of crime but still had his own code of honor, and finding out what might push his buttons. What might bring out the best in him, and the worst. And what might force him to consider breaking that code and becoming the person that he most hated in the world…his own grandfather, Jonah.

If it’s one thing those classic writers knew about, it was how to keep a story moving at full-speed. I also wanted to stomp the pedal and let the engine scream. I wanted to write hardboiled but with some real heart and soul. Moments of grace and reflection. I thought it was important to have more thoughtful elements in the books to help balance the story out. It’s a part of who I am and what my worldview is. Action is terrific but you need a greater context. The work has to actually be ABOUT something. I’ve got things I want to examine and scrutinize. Things that genuinely matter to me. The hardboiled and noir elements are there to underscore and dramatize all the other stuff. The Cold books are as much about family, loss, love, and heartache as they are about guns and scores and wheelmen. And sometimes the bloody action scenes and the emotionally-charged ones are the same.

That’s one of the things I like best about the crime genre. You never know when someone is going to shake hands or pull a S&W .38. Or betray a friend or save a life. Or fall in love or dive into lifelong hatred. The whole human condition from best to worst can crop up at any second.

Tom Piccirilli

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