If you’re thinking about attending one of our upcoming #WritingTimes workshops, the free, archive-inspired classes led by UEA tutor Dr. Jake Barrett-Mills, or just want to know more about the craft of creative writing, here are a few suggestions to get started:
Henry Sutton makes the personal criminal in a riveting talk about his journey to the genre and the craft of crime fiction.
On Wednesday, 27 April, Professor Henry Sutton from the University of East Anglia spoke to an engaged and enthusiastic audience about the craft of crime fiction. One of the roles of a UEA American Library Scholar is to bring the gown to the town (as we say in the States), to foster the connection between the university and the American Library with a series of public lectures. Since my area of research is crime fiction and Henry is a professor of creative writing specializing in this popular genre (and also my academic supervisor), it was a natural fit.
Henry billed his talk, ‘Cracking Crime Fiction: On Craft and My Journey as a Writer of Non-genre Literary Fiction to Crime Writer’ and we soon learned why. In an engaging and witty hourlong chat (with time for questions), he charted his path from an upbringing in a Norfolk seaside town, complete with eccentric relatives, to successful author and respected scholar. Along the way, he gave us a thumbnail history on the birth of noir and hardboiled fiction (the American connection) and spoke about how incorporating those genre elements into his writing helped him make the shift to a literary life of crime.
He began his career as a journalist, finding banging out news stories and features to be good training for crime fiction. But, as a young writer, he didn’t yet know that’s where he was going. He worked his way there gradually, publishing a number of well-received novels, starting with one set in his hometown that was an immediate hit. Gorleston—the book, the place and its people, stayed with him as he continued on his creative path. He called his earlier novels realism with the potential to be crime fiction. He was getting closer.
More than British Golden Age mystery writers like Agatha Christie, however, Henry was influenced by the American hardboiled and noir writers of the early to mid-20th century: Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, Patricia Highsmith, Jim Thompson. He defined ‘noir’—a notoriously slippery term—as thematic, a story that is dark or ends on a grim note. Hardboiled, he said, is more a style, a certain hardness and street vernacular. But, he noted, the two can—and do—overlap. James M. Cain may have been inventing a new genre in 1932 with The Postman Always Rings Twice, but he claimed to be writing love stories.
Under contract to write a police procedural, Henry found himself immersed in the nuts and bolts of crime fiction—the technical parts of the craft—and gaining a new appreciation for the elements in Golden Age detective fiction with its mantra, ‘stay one step ahead of the reader.’ His years of teaching also had him thinking deeply about the genre. Coming full circle, Henry arrived at his signature seaside noir, a series set in Great Yarmouth and Gorleston about an organised crime family, the Goodwins, led by a female crime boss: a younger version of his eccentric grandmother. Like James M. Cain, he’s writing love stories, with an ample helping of betrayal, jealousy, greed … and family.
Henry Sutton is Professor of Creative Writing and Crime Fiction, and the convenor of the Creative Writing MA Crime Fiction at UEA. He is the author of 15 novels and a collection of short stories, including My Criminal World, Kids’ Stuff (which was adapted for the stage, and received an Arts Council Writer’s Award), First Frost (co-written under the pseudonym James Henry) and Get Me Out of Here. His latest novel in English, Good Dark Night, was published by Little, Brown in 2019 (under the pseudonym Harry Brett), and is the third in The Goodwin crime family series. He is also writing a critical and practical approach to crime fiction for Manchester University Press, under the title: Cracking Crime Fiction. He co-edited, with Dr. Laura Joyce, a collection of essays, Domestic Noir: The New Face of 21st Century Crime Fiction (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), and is now co-editing a series of crime narrative critical studies for Cambridge University Press. He has been a literary critic for many years and has judged numerous awards. He is the co-founder of the Noirwich Crime Writing Festival.
February is Black History Month, ‘a celebration and a powerful reminder that Black history is American history, Black culture is American culture, and Black stories are essential to the ongoing story of America — our faults, our struggles, our progress, and our aspirations’, as President Joe Biden’s proclamation for 2022 affirms. The Biden/Harris administration became part of that history in 2021, with Kamala Harris serving as the first Black female Vice President.
The American Library also recognizes the contributions of Black Americans in WWII, with over 2.5 million Black men registering for the draft, many going on to serve in the Army, Army Air Forces, Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, despite continuing racial discrimination and segregation. Black women also served as nurses and in the Women’s Army Corps, as well as contributing to the war effort in large numbers as volunteers.
Below are some selections from our collection as well as links to online resources to learn more about Black American history and culture. Visit the American Library to check out these books, get more recommendations and browse additional titles! You can also check out ebooks from our online collection of titles by African American authors.
The Warmth of Other Suns : the Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson An award-winning account of the mass exodus, from 1915-1970, of Black Americans from the Southern United States, seen through the eyes of three individuals who made the journey in search of opportunity and a better life.
Beneath a Ruthless Sun : a True Story of Violence, Race, and Justice Lost and Found by Gilbert King A gripping true story of unequal justice in small town Florida by the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Devil in the Grove.
When They Call You a Terrorist : a Black Lives Matter memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele, foreword by Angela Davis A memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors, a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement that reignited the American civil rights struggle in the 21st century.
A Black Women’s History of the United States by Daina Ramey Berry ‘A vibrant and empowering history that emphasizes the perspectives and stories of African American women to show how they are—and have always been—instrumental in shaping our country.’
Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists and Progressive Politics During World War II by Farah Jasmine Griffin The stories of Black women artists in the WWII era, spotlighting choreographer and dancer Pearl Primus, composer and pianist Mary Lou Williams and novelist Ann Petry.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston An ‘African American feminist classic’ from one of the celebrated authors of the Harlem Renaissance.
Traveling Black: A Story of Race and Resistance by Mia Bay A history of segregated travel that ‘helps explain why the long, unfinished journey to racial equality so often takes place on the road.’
Letter to My Daughter by Maya Angelou Essays on American life and letters from the celebrated poet and writer.
Passing by Nella Larsen Two Black women, childhood friends, one of whom has chosen to pass as white, are reunited, upending both their lives, in this groundbreaking 1929 novel, now a critically acclaimed film adaptation.
‘Let me tell you something, kid. In the carny you don’t ask nothing. And you’ll get told no lies.’ – Nightmare Alley
Noir afficionados, including this one, are greeting the release of director Guillermo del Toro’s film adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel Nightmare Alley with rapture. Crime fiction writer and noir scholar Megan Abbott tweeted: ‘As a lover of both the original novel and movie, @RealGDT’s sumptuous remake is irresistible…’. TCM’s Noir Alley host Eddie Muller called it ‘extremely faithful’ to the novel’s ‘world view’ and ‘truly a color film noir.’ Bonus for purists (at least those resident in Los Angeles): a black and white version of the film will have a limited theatrical release in January, according to the Deadline site.
While I haven’t yet seen the 2021 picture, I’m a big fan of the novel and of the 1947 screen adaptation directed by Edmund Goulding, starring Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell. That version, however, traded the book’s dark ending for a ray of hope, at the insistence of studio boss Darryl Zanuck. In this writer’s opinion, such a change (while not uncommon in adaptations), violates one of the cardinal rules of noir: there are no happy endings. Another is that the characters, while believing themselves to be in control of their destinies, operate in a world subject to the capricious laws of fate.
Gresham embraced—and, indeed, helped to shape—that aspect of literary noir, structuring his novel on the trump cards in the tarot deck, which he uses to introduce each chapter. He begins Nightmare Alley with an epigraph from T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land: ‘Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel, And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card, Which is blank, is something he carries on his back, Which I am forbidden to see.’ To drive the point home, Gresham warns the reader by entitling the first chapter ‘The Fool’: ‘who walks in motley, with his eyes closed, over a precipice at the end of the world.’ But, like hapless noir protagonists, readers are by nature driven by hope (or else why read to the end?), rooting for the hero—or anti-hero—to triumph, for the villain to be punished, for a moving, entertaining or instructive tale. Nightmare Alley promises all of these but delivers its own funhouse version, along with a gritty tour of the noir universe of venality and lust, high hopes and low impulses, compulsion and despair, which, as readers (or voyeurs), we can safely experience from the front row.
Set in the topsy-turvy world of the carnival, Nightmare Alley is a story about a con artist who preys on people’s hopes and cashes in on their weaknesses. But carny folk aren’t all cold-hearted operators, or at least not when off duty. Some of Gresham’s cast of fortune tellers, strongmen, acrobats, geeks and freaks are sympathetic, welcoming the book’s protagonist, Stan Carlisle, when he has nowhere else to go, and showing him the proverbial ropes. At the Ten-in-One show, Stan finds a family of sorts, one that, in true grifter form, he will betray. He takes up with the show’s astrologist, Madame Zeena, who schools him in mind reading, a clairvoyant act helped along by coded questions and a shrewd knowledge of human nature, and in the arcana of the tarot. He soon outgrows her tutelage and joins forces with ingénue Molly Cahill, formerly ‘Mamzelle Electra’, and the duo take their show on the road as headliners, drawing a well-heeled society audience with a spiritualist act.
But Stan’s inner demons, including a thirst for liquor, are soon unleashed by his amorality and greed. He dumps Molly for Dr. Lilith Ritter, a psychiatrist and a suitable siren for Gresham’s modernist novel. Stan thinks he’s using her to exploit her patients’ darkest secrets, but in true femme fatale fashion, she’s a hustler too, playing Stan as relentlessly as T.S. Eliot’s ‘Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,’ must have played her marks. As deftly as a carnival barker on the midway, Gresham has conjured us into his world, palming our price of admission for a ticket to guess what happens in the end. Astute observers of human nature may believe they already know. Reader, could that be you?
‘This book formerly sold for a dollar, but for today I’m going to let you have it for two bits—a quarter of a dollar. Let’s hurry it up, folks, because I know you all want to see and hear Madam Zeena, the seeress, and her act does not go on until everyone who wants one of these great books gets one. Thank you, sir. And you. Any more?’
—post by Suzanne Solomon
 Carl Macek et al., Film Noir : An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, 3rd ed. (Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 1992).