INSIDE THE INSTITUTION WALLS, under the thumb of corrupt authority figures, and beholden to arbitrary rules, the school day slowly passes, venetian blinds in every classroom casting the walls in striped shadows. When the bell rings — that ominous drone — students fill the hallways, bumping into one another in a one-two punch of fear and dread…
A bit much?
Or not nearly enough?
Much like classic noir, childhood is a series of perplexing interactions in a world that doesn't make sense and often feels unfair.
To a boy wondering whether his crush will sneer at his invitation to dance, aren’t all girls femme fatales?
To a girl in a strange neighborhood, aren’t all streets mean streets?
Finding a spot in the cafeteria or a seat on the bus requires careful navigation between various identities, some self-created, and some imposed on us unwillingly. Are cliques something you choose, or something that’s chosen for you?
In my YA mystery High & Dry, high school senior Charlie Dixon is dumped, framed, blackmailed, and pressured to throw an upcoming soccer match; drinking ensues. He lives in the desert town of Palm Valley, where the school bus is called “the yellow and black,” the girls’ choir is not to be messed with, and the student parking-pass lottery is rigged.
To prepare for writing my book, I studied the novels and short stories of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, and watched the films Double Indemnity, In a Lonely Place, and Mildred Pierce. I also developed a taste for modern teen and tween noir.
My favorites are:
You Killed Wesley Payne by Sean Beaudoin
Locale: Salt River, CA
Crimes: Clique. Click. Bang.
Best hardboiled line: “Why do we talk like this? It makes me feel empty inside.” / “So open your mouth. I’ll drop in a quarter and we can all listen to it clang around for a while.”
What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell
Locale: Palm Beach, Florida (and the aptly titled Le Mirage Hotel)
Crimes: Infidelity, murder, growing up
Best hardboiled line: “I loved him like a fever. Then he left. He kicked through love like it was dust and he kept on walking.”
Fake ID by Lamar Giles
Locale: Stepton, VA (Though the mysterious “Whispertown” within the city limits is second only to Dashiell Hammett's "Poisonville" for chill factor)
Crimes: Murder, money laundering, four-against-one fights.
Best hardboiled line: “Happy has a short battery life in my world.”
The S-Word by Chelsea Pitcher
Locale: Colorado Rockies
Crimes: Slut-shaming, self-harm, graffiti
Best hardboiled line: “Whoever said there’s no justice in the world wasn’t trying hard enough.”
My Own Worst Frenemy by Kimberly Reid
Locale: Mile High City (Denver, CO)
Crimes: Classism, theft, burglary (Welcome to Langdon Prep)
Best hardboiled line: “Based on the Jags and Benzes we saw rolling up, the Kate Spade bags on the shoulders of the girls getting out of them, and the swagger of boys who have never been pulled over for Driving While Impoverished, I bet Langdon’s budget can cover paper and whiteboard erasers without having to pimp out students to sell overpriced candy bars and stale popcorn in Christmas tins.”
The Big Splash by Jack D. Ferraiolo
Locale: “The Frank” (Franklin Middle School)
Crimes: Social “death” by water pistol, Pixy Stix addiction.
Best hardboiled line: “Trusting Vinny Biggs was like signing your own detention slip.”
The Wig in the Window by Kristen Kittscher
Locale: Luna Vista, CA
Crimes: Murder, identity theft, lopsided boobs
Best hardboiled line: “The director of counseling at Luna Vista Middle School had just butchered someone with a cleaver, and now she was cleaning up the body parts as if she were gathering some old odds and ends for Goodwill.”
Dani Noir by Nova Ren Suma
Locale: Shanosha, NY (Upstate)
Crimes: Infidelity, stepsiblings, forced summer internships
Best hardboiled line: “He bends down to pick up a lone popcorn kernel off the floor. Who knows how long it’s been there, maybe since last summer, the summer of slapstick comedy. A funnier, happier time, I’ve heard.”
The Thousand Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham
Why: Homage must be paid to Veronica Mars, the modern-day queen of teen noir, though this book is set after high school, when “Our Lady of Neptune” (“a town without a middle class”) is 28 years old. Triple bonus points if you listen to the Kristen Bell-narrated audiobook.
Sarah Skilton’s martial-arts themed YA novel, Bruised, is published by Amulet Books.