Annapolis Noir, Baby

"Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip."

Elmore Leonard, from "10 Tips on Writing"

Long live Dutch.

Elmore Leonard died this week. He was 87 and was at work on his 46th novel. That's a book every other year if he had started writing fresh from the womb, which don't put past him.

Leonard, who preferred the name Dutch, was the pulp minimalistic master of the dumb crook genre from Get Shorty and Freaky Deaky to Out of Sight and Rum Punch. His lightning-rod dialogue lit up the page and showed readers -- and reminded writers -- that dialogue is action.

Stories abound this week on Leonard, including encore appearances of his tips for writers and his punchy first book lines. (One of my favorites: "He could not get used to going to the girl's apartment" -- from 52 Pick-Up.)

His passing has rekindled my loyalty to another writer of the art of dark fiction. Someone closer to home.

James M. Cain was born in 1892 to parents who lived in the Paca-Carroll House on the campus of St. John's in Annapolis. (His father taught there.) Young Cain skipped a few grades and landed at Washington College in Chestertown at age 14. He later taught for a while, but his heart wasn't in it.

Some years later -- and this warms my heart -- Cain became a newspaper man. He worked for The Baltimore Sun and became lifelong friends with H.L. Mencken. But newspaper pay, then and now, can be tough pull for the ambitious, talented, lucky or all three.

Cain went west to Hollywood and made weekly fortunes hacking for the studios. When he wasn't writing screenplays, he wrote novels.

Oh, but what hacking.

In the 1930s, Cain produced a trilogy of "hard-boiled" mysteries that remain an unparalleled string of noir classics. His low-down characters were prone to great violence, great sex, and great demise.

Allow me to tick off The Big Three:

The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Double Indemnity

Mildred Pierce.

And the stars of those movies:

Lana Turner

Barbara Stanwyck

Joan Crawford.

Allow me a moment to think about Lana Turner's Cora in Postman.

You don't read Postman -- you feel it in your bones. The violence is essentially off-camera but not the tension, the momentum, the attraction between Frank Chambers, the drifter who stumbles into the Twin Oaks Tavern, and Cora, the Greek's twitchy wife. They plot to kill the Greek so they can start a life together, so they can be free. They scheme to make it look like a car accident. The plan works until it doesn't.



"There's just one thing. We've got to be in love. If we love each other, then nothing matters."

"Well, do we?"

"I'll be the first one to say it. I love you, Frank."

"I love you, Cora."

"Kiss me."

They are doomed. It's only fair. They're killers. But we are in their pockets until the end. Just like I've been with them from the cable dramas in my life -- Dexter, Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad.

Dexter Morgan. Nucky Thompson. Walter White.

Frank and Cora.

Breaking bad until they're broken and leaving us wanting more.

This post has been updated since its original publication.