ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
KAREN KESKINEN was born in Salinas, California. She has also lived in California’s San Joaquin Valley and in Wellington, New Zealand.
She now resides in Santa Barbara where she is a full-time writer. Keskinen is the author of Blood Orange and Black Current.
William Shakespeare stood tall on the shoulders of giants who tromped through the literary landscape before him, and he was more than happy to do so. Not me. For reasons I won’t embarrass myself by explaining to you, a rebellious streak blazes straight through me. Everything I write bubbles up from my own mind, without lineage or outside inspiration.
That’s nonsense, of course.
Yet it was true that I couldn’t see how I fit into the family mystery tree. Did I belong there at all? Humor and grief, pleasure and pain, sometimes all in a single page: several readers admonished me to choose one side or the other. Maybe I was writing books that were masquerading as mysteries, I sometimes thought. But recently, not long after the publication of my second book, Black Current, serendipity paid me a call.
It seems prosaic to say so, but I have the internet to thank for it. I was trolling online when I came across the phrase ‘Mediterranean noir.’ I opened the surprise package, and the name of my favorite mystery writer, Andrea Camilleri, jumped out at me. When I read that Inspector Montalbano’s Vigāta exists in the land of Mediterranean noir, tiny sun flares of recognition exploded in my brain.
Now I’m busy exploring my roots. I’m reading Massimo Carlotto, Jean-Claude Izzo - and James M. Cain. Why Cain? Izzo, in a fascinating little book called Garlic, Mint, & Sweet Basil, identifies him as the father of the modern Mediterranean crime novel. How is that? Well, no less a Mediterranean writer than Albert Camus stated he was strongly influenced by The Postman Always Rings Twice.
If you pull up a map of the world highlighting areas with Mediterranean climates, you’ll see they don’t seem like much: just strips of land tucked into the western leading edges of continents. But I propose to you that each little pocket of terra firma blessed with this gorgeous climate, wherever in the world it might lie, produces authors who write Mediterranean noir.
What differentiates Mediterranean noir from noir in general? I’ll answer in a sentence: the ocean, the sand, and the brilliancy of the light. Especially the light.
I love to read Scandinavian noir. But although I’m Finnish, Swedish, and Norwegian by extraction, I’ve never felt a personal connection to it. The frozen land, low gray skies, maddeningly long winters and killing cold, all of that flows along with the evil that is perpetrated. The natural world seems in collusion with Scandinavian noir: all is bleak, lonely, depressed. Even the northern summers, delicate and tender, are somehow melancholy, perhaps because they are so fleeting.
Meanwhile, here on the American Riviera, exuberance abounds. If I stand on the beach and shade my eyes from the light, I might spot a family of dolphins cavorting in the surf. From my house part way up TV hill, I can hear sea lions barking by day and coyotes singing by night. (If you don’t finish your work by noon in this town, you might as well let it go. You’ll drive yourself from your desk to the out-of-doors, not wanting to waste the light.)
Exuberance and beauty abound. Does that mean corruption is vanquished, as our Chamber of Commerce would have it? Come on - what do you think? Beginning at dusk, gangs of rats sup nectar from my giant-bird-of-paradise trees.
In a bit of ad copy I put together for my first book, Blood Orange, I wrote that corruption and evil lurk beneath the beautiful surface of Santa Barbara. Sometimes it seems that way, in this tourist city determined to present a carefree face to visitors. But by the time I came around to writing book two, I was already seeing it differently. Both beauty and corruption suffuse the sparkling air. One is neither more real than the other, nor more superficial. They both just are - and ever shall be.
All this dialectical dark and light creates a noir fiction shot through with reality. The world will never be put right, no matter how often the killer is caught. And yet, no matter how many murders are committed, there always exists a purity in the world. These are the two sides to the golden coin.
I don’t see Mediterranean noir as some branch of noir fiction, by the way. For me it’s the archetype, the trunk from which the story tree spreads. Izzo agreed: he saw the first Mediterranean noir novel as the killing of Abel by Cain.
But I think there is an even earlier noir story. It is a simple tale, and very Mediterranean.
In the beginning, the story goes, there was nothing. Then there was a star-studded sky, frothy waters and yellow sands. The land quaked, and beyond the sands the mountains rose up. Rains formed rivers that etched the mountains into arroyos. Live oaks, chaparral, lupines and woolly blue curls burst from the soil, and a garden was formed. Coyotes, bobcats, skunks, raccoons, gray foxes and rats bounded into the garden. But they weren’t the first creatures: already this was a noir garden, a garden of snakes.
Next came a man, followed by a woman. (Which is odd, if you think about it: what man is not born of a woman, after all?)
When a snake tempted the woman with an apple, she bit. But the snake was more than a snake and the apple was more than an apple... of what did she eat? Some man, no doubt, came up with an answer: sexual knowledge. As if the woman didn’t know all about that: come on!
No, what she took a bite of was love. Love for her children, her partners, for all the suffering ones. And just like that, the distinction between good and evil was muddled. What should prevail, love of God or love of man? The head or the heart, the law or transgression? Moral ambiguity had entered the world.
Some critics claim the mystery novel requires a distinction between good and evil, and is different from so-called literary fiction in this way. But I say every fiction contains that distinction, most particularly those novels that eschew it. What distinguishes noir is not the distinction itself, but rather an obsession with it, an obsession with disentangling the ambiguity, unbraiding the hundred thousand strands of the dark and the light.
The dark, and the light. Is it any wonder the noir novel was born in a sun-drenched clime?
Of course, most books penned in Mediterranean climates are not Mediterranean noir. Divorced from the natural world, they take no notice of a lizard soaking up the sun, or a hundred-year drought cracking the earth. Even so: if you are a mystery writer, and you live between the between the 30th and 40th parallels on the western edge of a continent, be aware you exist in an ancient and privileged storyland.
There is a woman here, and a man, and they dwell in a verdant garden of snakes. Fan palms, sages and poppies thrive in the green and gold light - and so do rattlers.
What more could a mystery writer ask for?
WHAT'S YOUR FAVORITE MEDITERRANEAN NOVEL? Tell us by commenting on the blog below or on our Facebook page and you’ll be entered to win a a copy of BLACK CURRENT (U.S. entrants only, please.)
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