Writing & Reading Mediterranean Noir

What distinguishes Mediterranean Noir from Noir fiction in general?

I’d answer with three succinct words: ocean, sand, and light.

Reading Nordic Noir is a pleasure for many of us. The landscape colludes with the narrative. The frozen ground, low gray sky, and killing cold all moan of malevolence. Even the northern summers, delicate and tender, seem melancholy because they are so fleeting.

Meanwhile, here on the American Riviera, exuberance abounds.

If I stand on Arroyo Burro Beach and shade my eyes from the light, I might see dolphins cavorting in the surf. From my home perched high up on an ancient marine terrace, I can hear sea lions barking by day and coyotes singing at night.

So is corruption vanquished, as our tourist industry would have it? Take a closer look. At dusk, gangs of rats sip nectar from the giant Bird-of-paradise trees. Here in California, both beauty and corruption suffuse the sparkling air. One isn’t more real than the other.

All this dialectical darkness and light sparks Mediterranean Noir. The world will never be put right, no matter how often a killer is caught. And yet, no matter how many murders are committed, deep down there will always exist a certain splendor in the world. Two inseparable sides of a golden coin.

I first encountered the term ‘Mediterranean Noir fiction’ in connection with Andrea Camilleri. When I read that Inspector Montalbano’s Vigàta exists in a land called ‘Mediterranean Noir,’ I set about exploring such authors as Massimo Carlotto, Jean-Claude Izzo—and our own James M. Cain. Why Cain? No less a Mediterranean man than Albert Camus stated he was strongly influenced by The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Take a look at a map of the world highlighting lands enjoying a Mediterranean climate. Mere ribbons tucked into the western edges of continents, they don’t add up to much. But each ribbon, wherever in the world it might lie, engenders authors who write Mediterranean Noir.

And Mediterranean Noir is no mere variation on a theme. It is the archetype, the story of stories, the trunk from which the story-tree spreads.

In the beginning, nothing. Then came a star-studded sky, frothy waters and hot yellow sands. The land quaked and mountains rose up. Rains made rivers, carving arroyos. Poppies and lupine burst from the soil. Bobcats, skunks, and gray foxes bounded into the garden, but they weren’t the first residents. Paradise was already occupied: by a snake.

Of course the snake was more than a snake, the apple more than an apple. So of what did Mother Eve eat? I’d suggest it was love. Love for her children, her partners, and for all the suffering ones. And just like that—with one bold bite—the line between right and wrong was scuffed and muddied, forever more. Henceforth love could, and frequently would, over-rule righteousness. The world was to be forever confused.

Noir is obsessed with moral confusion! And Mediterranean Noir in particular is charged with the endless task of unbraiding the burnished strands of evil and good, darkness and light.