Society Hill’s streets, empty and sullen, were slick with rain, dull in a gloom that sunk into the city’s bones. To a small group gathered within the Society Hill Playhouse, the weather was perfect.
The second-to-last day of NoirCon 2014 was just beginning. A celebration of all things noir, from literature and film to art and poetry, NoirCon is a biennial conference produced and held in Philadelphia.
“Noir is empathy,” said Dr. Lou Boxer, co-chair of NoirCon 2014. “It’s giving the underclass without a voice a way to speak, because no one understands their day-to-day life. And noir is about life – because life is hard.”
Originally founded by Boxer and Deen Kogan – who opened Society Hill Playhouse along with her husband in 1959 – NoirCon was meant to bring together lovers of the mystery and crime genre to honor the unsung David Goodis, a writer of noir who graduated from Temple in 1938.
In addition to providing speeches, panels, readings and a chance to network, NoirCon offered an award in the name of Goodis to an outstanding author who exemplifies the style of Goodis. This year, Fuminori Nakamura, a Japanese writer known for the novel “The Thief,” took home the prize.
Tom Nolan, a mystery and crime novel critic at The Wall Street Journal, interviewed Nakamura during a panel at the event. Nolan said that the Japanese writer is a new favorite of his.
“There’s a quality of humanity within his books that puts them several cuts above the rest,” Nolan said. “And I think his work definitely has an affinity with Goodis’ in the way the protagonist sits on a dark edge of existence, but is still yearning for salvation and so persistent for it.”
With the help of a translator during his interview with Nolan, Nakamura told NoirCon attendees that reading saved him – though even now he is not “necessarily saved” – when he found solace in the companionship of literature.
The works of noir act as a crutch for many at NoirCon, as the convention has become a safe haven for people like Kevin Catalano, a 37-year-old writer. Catalano, who attended NoirCon for the second time this year, said that he appreciates how everyone at the event is a “little dark and a little twisted.”
“It’s cool to not be the weird one,” Catalano said, grinning lopsidedly as he pulled the brim of his baseball cap down a little further.
But noir is not dark simply for the sake of darkness, according to Boxer. Noir is about the pain that often comes with the human experience and condition, Boxer said.
“NoirCon is camaraderie,” he said. “It’s collegiality and the sharing of ideas, it’s being in a place where everyone’s on the same page.”
The authors featured at NoirCon are what Boxer called “underdogs” – people who have lived lives “fraught with ignorance and pain.”
The keynote speaker, Eric Miles Williamson, exemplified that kind of life. Williamson, now the author of five books that have been critically successful, grew up in what he called “the ghetto” in Oakland, California.
During his speech, Williamson said he grew up in a “house filled with music, but a house without books.”
“There are only two ways out of the ghetto,” Williamson said. “Sports or entertainment.”
In an attempt to get out, Williamson became “the best second-rate trumpet player,” but supported himself by working construction. During his time laboring on construction sites, Williamson said he saw seven people die.
Williamson paused, furrowed his brow beneath the tweed cap, and told the audience, “Death isn’t pretty, not like it is in the movies.” Despite these graphic life experiences that lent themselves well – if depressingly so – to a page, Williamson said he never saw himself as a writer.
That changed when Williamson attended college and “began reading like a fiend.” He wrote a short story that was quickly published.
“And I was like, what the f—, that was easy,” Williamson said.
From there, Williamson began writing about the people he knew – the people from the dark parts of Oakland. He met critical acclaim for his works of noir. Williamson is proud to be part of a movement that he said allows him to “say stuff America hasn’t heard, instead of more New Yorker stories.”
However, Williamson said he never considered the tales of underdogs to be noir.
“Maybe our realism is most people’s noir,” Williamson said. He spoke the words with a shrug, but was met with applause from the crowd.
NoirCon’s attendees and supporters said they want noir to continue to grow; they want “real people” to be represented by writers in every genre. Boxer in particular thinks that noir has a lot more to offer than a good read.
“Life is not all about happiness,” Boxer said. “I see that every day in my real job – I’m an anesthesiologist. People are scared. They’re looking for a hand to hold.”
Victoria Mier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org