Looking over what I have so far for my most recent work, and the notes I assembled for Fall Of The Hammer and especially Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned, it hits me how much of a debt I owe not to science fiction or fantasy, but another genre: the hard-boiled noir, or the crime drama generally. (I pitched AONO to some folks as "GoodFellas meets Strange Days".)
But there's a specific flavor of material in that subgenre that appeals to me — something about the lone wolves who give their lives, sometimes without even knowing it, to a personal code of honor, only to find out it was the wrong life. It's Shoot The Piano Player and many of Georges Simenon's romans durs; it's Get Carter (the merciless originals, not the rather softhearted remake) and Sexy Beast; it's The Limey and The Hit; it's The Maltese Falcon and Red Wind; it's the Continental Op and Sanjuro; it's Patricia Highsmith and Sebastian Japrisot; it's Delacorta (Diva) and Jim Thompson*. It's about the ubiquity of human banality, the inevitability of human evil, and the tenacity of human good on top of it all. In other words, the good stuff.
What I didn't want to do — or maybe better to say, what I didn't only want to do — was write such things and have them be contained by that label, "noir", and leave it at that. If only because I knew it would take more worldliness than I have now to do it convincingly for any story set in something close enough to our world to be confused with it. It worked best when I was fusing it with something wholly invented, as a way to ... well, not "bring it down to earth", because the whole point of such invention is to be unearthbound. Maybe just better to say, "give it weight", the kind of weight that convinces and persuades.
Perhaps that's nothing more than one of my own prejudices at work, the prejudice that finds a story with some degree of learned faithlessness to be more true to life than one without it. More true to any life, not just the one we all know. But I also didn't want to fall into the trap that the more cruel and nihilistic a story is, the more "realistic" it also is. Reality is not defined exclusively by its cruelties or its faithlessnesses any more than it is only by its pleasures or its joys. It was the existential attitude I wanted most to draw on, not the nihilist one. It was the attitude of dogged determination in the face of what seems like either cosmic indifference or hegemonic hostility, about slugging on through and finding out what was real even if it hurt (but not because it hurt). The difference still isn't always clear to a lot of people.
* Although, I confess, not James Ellroy; he proved too long-winded and ultimately repellent for my tastes.