When we hear the word “noir,” our minds flash to black-and-white movies driven by hard-boiled, big-city detectives. But in the 21st century, a new genre of crime fiction has risen from the swamps, mountains, and suburbs of the South. Norris Eppes interviews seven rural noir masters to make sense of a thrilling literary genre that rings true to our region.
Story by Norris Eppes
Header photo by Amanda Greene
The book collection in my grandmother’s house seemed enormous to me. Hardbacks with ink illustrations, the text laid out in three newspaper-like columns on paper just shy of Bible-thin. Stacks of paperbacks were on the glass-topped table beside the chair where she read.
But Frankie Norris Eppes did not give me a paperback that day as I sat on her wicker couch. Instead, she rested an Arthur Conan Doyle book on my lap. Drawn by its accompanying illustration, I read the 1892 Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.” I felt a sensation of suspense, terror, and excitement like nothing in my reading experience up to that point. My grandmother was a writer, and she loved mysteries and crime novels best.
The mystery genre is a tree with many roots. There are the traditional mysteries featuring intelligent and crafty European investigators — Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot. There is the hardboiled crime fiction of Raymond Chandler’s and Dashiell Hammett’s coffee-drinking, cigarette-smoking, big-city detectives — from which sprang countless films noir. There are the legal thrillers of John Grisham and others.
But what’s next for mystery fiction? I’ll tell you right now: the genre of “rural noir” that’s been rising to prominence right here in the South.
The defining feature of rural noir is its settings — the mountains of northeastern Georgia, the sprawl outside Houston, or Pennsylvania farmland.
Arguably, the two novels that first exemplified the genre are Intruder in the Dust by William Faulkner and Deliverance by James Dickey. Stories about crime and mystery have always filled Southern fiction. In the work of Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, Dorothy Allison, James Dickey, Harper Lee, Barry Hannah, and Larry Brown, it’s a challenge to find a story that does not include crime or mystery in its plot. But the few Southern novelists considered capital-M mystery writers were rarely included in the canon of mystery-fiction greats. Only with the recent rise of rural noir has their contribution to the crime genre gained more notice.
I talked with seven of today’s rural noir writers to learn about the genre and their work. Their novels run the gamut from traditional detective stories, to backwoods-mafia feuds, to legal thrillers. What they all have in common, though, is their movement away from the big-city settings that once characterized the mystery genre.
Rural noir, by contrast, comes from deep in the woods and hollers of country life, and from the suburbs into which so many small-town Southerners have moved.
Brian Panowich is a rural noir writer whose debut novel, Bull Mountain, read like northeast Georgia’s very own The Godfather. The sequel, Like Lions, landed a place in The Bitter Southerner’s 2019 Summer Reading Roundup.
“When you think about crime fiction, one of the main places that comes up is the city and the dark alley in the rain,” Panowich says. “If you take that and you strip it down to nothing but a dirt road in the sunshine, it is just as ominous in the daylight as it is at night.”
Ace Atkins is a wildly popular rural noir novelist from Oxford, Mississippi. His novels include two Edgar Award nominees — The Lost Ones and The Ranger. His most recent is The Sinners, the eighth novel in his series centered on a character named Quinn Colson.
Atkins believes crime in Southern fiction is part of a great tradition, though he does not think “a lot of people are on to it or understand it.” He cites a simple reason why so few 20th century Southern writers were part of the classic mystery canon: Today’s publishing industry quickly positions writers within a genre that sells.
“Years ago, authors could weave in and out of the genres,” Atkins says. And he points to Faulkner as a prime example, declaring his 1948 Intruder in the Dust as the pinnacle of rural noir.
“You do not get more of a crime novel than that,” Atkins says. “There is a missing body, they have got to dig it up. They have got to look for bullets. There is a wrongly accused man. It is really To Kill a Mockingbird, written before To Kill a Mockingbird, and a much more complex book, because it is in no way a white-savior book.”
Flannery O’Connor’s fiction also casts a long shadow over contemporary rural noir writers. O’Connor’s writing had an enormous impact on Karin Slaughter, whose novels have been translated into 37 languages and have sold more than 35 million copies worldwide. Her 2015 Pretty Girls, for example, rips the veneer off a suburban Georgia neighborhood in a manner reminiscent of O’Connor’s stories.
“The biggest thing for me is that O’Connor was a woman, and she was writing about these violent things,” Slaughter says. “Instead of being recoiled from or denigrated, she was celebrated. I grew up in a very small South Georgia town. It was not acceptable for women to be interested in things that were considered manly things. Crime was one of them. But of course, everybody is interested in crime.”
She tells a story about her grandmother’s obsession with True Crime magazine — and how she was embarrassed for anyone to know she read the gritty magazine.
“I just thought: I am not going to be ashamed that I am interested in this,” Slaughter says. “Even when ‘CSI’ came on [television], a lot of women would say to me, ‘I am so embarrassed to say I really love this show.’
“That was when I first started writing,” she continues. “Now, a lot of women will say, I read your books, and because they made me interested in it, I became a criminal investigator. Or I went into forensic investigation. Or I went to school to become a forensic tech. That is what Flannery O’Connor did for me. She is not ashamed, and she is using violence as the fulcrum to pry the scab off the human condition.”
Slaughter began writing Pretty Girls after she set herself a challenge. She wanted to write a mystery novel not told from the point of view of a police officer. The novel’s two protagonists, sisters Claire and Lydia, are haunted by the abduction of their older sister Julia.
“I wanted to write about that experience in a way that I had not seen written about before, except perhaps in the time when a lot of women were writing semi-autobiographical work, like Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison. These stories were being told, but not through the frame of a crime novel.”
Slaughter notes many of the crimes in mystery fiction are crimes against women. She stresses how important it is for women to talk about their own experience of crime.
“Go back to the first American crime novel, The Dead Letter. A woman named Metta Victoria Fuller wrote it. She was the first person to use a normal setting and make a societal statement about crime and how it affects people and communities.”
In recent years, both true crime and rural noir have gotten boosts from non-print media. Consider podcasts like “Serial,” “S-Town,” and the ongoing “Murder Etc.” from Bitter Southerner contributor Brad Willis in South Carolina. Rural noir literature has also spawned TV shows like “True Detective” and “Ozark,” and movies like Hell or High Water and No Country for Old Men.
The Texas-born Attica Locke plays in both worlds; she is both a novelist and a screenwriter. She wrote the novels Black Water Rising, The Cutting Season, Pleasantville, and Bluebird, Bluebird, which won the 2018 Edgar Award for Best Novel. She was also a writer and producer for the Fox TV drama, “Empire.”
“I do think that rural noir is having a moment,” Locke says. “For me, being someone who watches a lot of crime on TV — like on ‘Dateline’ and ‘20/20’ — those stories are always happening in small towns.”
Locke’s novel Black Water Rising, published in 2009, is woven with political deceit and complexity. Her fiction explores the psychology of murderers and criminals.
“What I love that stories about crime offer us is the ways in which our larger ideological points of view — our larger political conflicts — get played out at the street level,” she says. Today, Locke lives in Sacramento, California, where her husband works as a public defender. “When a law gets changed in Sacramento,” she says, “I see the way that plays out in his clients, in their lives.”
Locke says the notion that "what happens at the 30,000 foot level of American culture and politics gets distilled down to the street” is always central to her work.
“The shoe leather of crime fiction keeps you grounded on the street,” she says. “Even as a writer, you cannot get too lofty or polemical about the things you want to say, because fundamentally the story has to solve a crime. It keeps me grounded as a writer.”
The tug of war between not knowing and wanting to know is a constant across human history. In Poetics, Aristotle considers suspense one of the essential building blocks of literature. Transpose that to the 21st century, and suspense is one of the essential elements of literature, film, video games, app design, advertising, and capitalism itself. Curiosity keeps us scrolling through Instagram and through Twitter. It keeps us logging in to Facebook. The same building blocks of mystery fiction are at the heart of addictive apps like Snapchat. Secrets keep pages turning. Secrets keep us scrolling. Secrets keep us hooked.
“I have argued before that all fiction is crime fiction,” Locke says. “What I mean by that is that whether you are talking about a literal crime or whether you are talking about a crime of the heart, novels are about conflict and transgression.”
And Locke says she believes it’s a crime to use “‘crime fiction’ or ‘mystery fiction’ as a pejorative.”
Writers of literary fiction commonly turn up their noses at genre fiction. But Ace Atkins recalls how the Arkansas-born Charles Willeford's mystery paperbacks influenced the late Mississippi writer Barry Hannah. Willeford wrote about the hardboiled Florida detective Hoke Moseley, and Hannah taught a “noir literature” class at the University of Mississippi.
“One of the last conversations I ever had with Barry (Hannah) was about a very rare biography on Charles Willeford I had given him. Barry called me and left a message and said that he really considered Willeford a personal hero of his.”
Alabama-born Tom Franklin’s novel Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter straddles the line between literary fiction and mystery fiction so precariously it might be the perfect example of the rural noir genre. It is as much a book about loneliness as it is a page-turning crime novel.
“Writing about a quiet, normal life is very hard to do,” Franklin says. “Something has to happen. It can be cancer, but I have no interest in writing about that. It can be love, or something like that, but you still need conflict. Is there a former boy- or girlfriend? For me, the stakes are higher if there’s mortal danger involved.”
Franklin reads to be transported “outside of my mundane life,” a feeling he believes countless readers share every time they pick up a book.
“Thankfully,” Franklin says, “crime is mostly outside my existence. It’s mostly outside most of ours, or at least violent crime is. I think a character pushed to extremes is worthy of deep observation, so we readers can avoid getting there ourselves.”
The western has influenced the rural noir genre, and the line between the two blurs easily. Both westerns and rural noir share a reliance on stock characters. Which raises questions: Is the rural noir genre in danger of perpetuating Southern stereotypes to the wider world? And how do rural noir writers reconcile themselves with writing the stock characters of small town Southern life? Franklin believes these stock characters can be dangerous, but it is “our job as writers” to struggle against the negative implications that accompany such characters.
“My writing captures the view from somebody who no longer lives in Texas,” Attica Locke says. “And certainly for me, being a black person from Texas, I have an ambivalent relationship with the South. It is a love that is so deep, and it is literally to the core of my being. But I also have feelings of….” Here, she pauses to examine those feelings.
In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, she continues, “This is the first time ... that I am nervous about returning home. I have never felt that way before. I am actually a little bit uncomfortable going home. That made me cry. I have lots of tears for that. I never want to feel like I cannot go home. But I get tired of talking to people about the South.”
Locke says she hoped her novel 2017 novel Bluebird, Bluebird would “help put my love for Texas in context.”
“The south is complicated, and I am hoping that my work captures that complication,” she says. “I feel this profound affection for the American South — also, at times, profound disappointment. They live together in my heart.”
John Hart is a rural noir writer from North Carolina. His novels include the Edgar Award-winning Down River and The Last Child. His most recent novel, published in 2018, is The Hush.
“These places exist,” Hart says. “The poverty is real. The ignorance is real. The bigotry is real. The religious bigotry is real.” He recalls a house in his hometown that, until a few years ago, was owned by the same family since before the Civil War.
“They still had the same wallpaper in the room they called the parlor because they just could not take it down — the original wallpaper from the 1850s,” he says. “Of course, it was horrible, but they were unwilling to let go of the past. That, to me, feels very Southern.”
Although born on the banks of the Mississippi River in Helena, Arkansas, James Sallis considers himself “a writer who writes novels, poetry, science fiction and fantasy, crime stories, essays, (and) songs.” He says his “model is more the European than American, people like Raymond Queneau.” Sallis is best known for his novel Drive, on which the 2011 film of the same name was based, and his Lew Griffin novels. His 2016 novel Willnot features a non-traditional protagonist, a small-town doctor named Lamar Hale. Willnot breaks almost all the traditional mystery novel molds. The day-to-day conversations Dr. Lamar Hale has are about Dostoevsky, Camus, and “Aristotelian either-ors.”
“The inherent structure of a mystery offers great freedom to explore recesses of character and a fine opportunity for social commentary,” Sallis says. “The mystery or crime novel also seems to me a direct reflection of how we live our lives: visited by violence, fed half-truths, forever struggling to understand.”
In Sallis’ book, something is clearly amiss in the sleepy town of Willnot. Dr. Hale and his partner Richard are going about their days at the hospital when law enforcement finds a mass grave. Ex-military snipers emerge in town, like drifters in a western. Willnot’s teenagers recreate the digging of a mass grave in the woods around town.
The mystery of these events and the story of Lamar and Richard unfolds in retrospection, in a manner reminiscent of John Le Carre's novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Willnot is a slow burner, as much a small-town love story between Lamar and Richard as it is a mystery novel.
Sallis emphasizes the role of the blues in his life. And if there is one place where the written word always falls short of TV and movies, it is the musical soundtrack.
Brian Panowich says the music of Son Volt is what his novel should sound like. In the end notes of Bull Mountain, he even includes a list of songs and bands that influenced his writing. He also sees a parallel between the rise of alt-country music in the 1990s and the rise of rural noir fiction.
“Alt-country music was happening prior to Uncle Tupelo [the band that later spawned both Son Volt and Wilco], but nobody really paid it no mind,” Panowich says. “Nobody knew where to shelve it in the music store until Uncle Tupelo gave it a name. Then the magazine No Depression happened, and the movement happened.”
Panowich believes rural noir now occupies the same space alt-country did before Uncle Tupelo gave it a label.
“The Bottle Rockets were not selling because nobody knew who the Bottle Rockets were,” he says of the longstanding band from the town of Festus, Missouri. “But once they had a section in the store under Americana, or under Alt-Country, then you could find them, and they started selling records.”
Today, of course, the alt-country genre of music is the core of SiriusXM’s widely popular Outlaw Country channel. But even though the authors interviewed here have sold millions of books in dozens of countries, we are still hard-pressed to find a Rural Noir shelf in our bookstores.
Perhaps all it will take to change that is more people like you wandering into your local bookstore and asking for rural noir by name.
Brian Panowich recommends:
Soil by Jamie Kornegay.
Any of Bitter Southerner contributor David Joy’s three novels.
Ace Atkins recommends:
Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze.
Deliverance by James Dickey.
Anything by John D. MacDonald.
Karin Slaughter recommends:
Anything by Lisa Gardner.
Anything by Lisa Unger.
Anything by Kathy Reichs.
The Dry by Jane Harper.
Attica Locke recommends:
Anything by Daniel Woodrell.
Dry Bones in the Valley by Tom Bouman and its sequel, Fateful Mornings.
Tom Franklin recommends:
Anything by Carl Hiaasen.
Anything by Tim Dorsey.
Anything by John Grisham.
Anything by Greg Iles.
Anything by Thomas Harris.
The Mississippi Noir anthology.
James Sallis recommends:
Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett.
The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler.
Anything by Patricia Highsmith.
Blind Man with a Pistol by Chester Himes.
Anything by Dorothy B. Hughes.
The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson.