Writer in Residence

The darkest of the dark! Short story noir!

By Lisa de Nikolits


Today we’re chatting to M. H. Callway about noir in short stories. Noir has a fantastically rich history when it comes to short stories and writing these tough little fellows is a real challenge. Many Toronto crime writers will be very familiar with Madeleine, but in case you're new to her work, Madeleine is the founding member of the Mesdames of Mayhem and the acclaimed author of Windigo Fire (Seraphim Editions), and her short stories have won and been nominated for many awards. You can read seven of her stories as well as two novellas in her collection, Glow Grass and Other Tales, Carrick Publishing. This evening we’ll be chatting about what makes a short story successful, particularly when it comes to noir. 


Lisa: Thank you for joining us today! What would you say makes a short story noir, as opposed to being simply short crime fiction?

Madeleine: Noir is dark crime fiction, the darkest of the dark. A friend of mine defined it as “life starts out dire then things get worse”.

The protagonists are outsiders, often criminals. They live by their own codes for good or ill. Their rules given them a nobility that engages us and compels us to keep reading. We care about the characters even if they are violent or devious men – or women.

Few happy endings in noir tales, but a rough justice prevails. The characters pay for their sins even though the justice they endure most often lies outside the law. No cozies or police procedurals here!

 Lisa: Who would you say are your top three Canadian short story writers? And we’ll exclude the Mesdames from the list so no one’s feelings get hurt by not making your top three!

Madeleine: First off, I do have to say that the Mesdames are my favorite Canadian short story writers so let’s get that out of the way! But to pick three favorite writers isn’t really fair. There is such excellent noir fiction being created.

That said, there are writers whose work I love to read and re-read. Hillary Davidson lives in New York City but she’s Canadian. Her dark stories and thriller novels often centre on vulnerable young people led astray into crime. After the first page, I can’t put them down.

Another ex-pat Canadian is an old timer many contemporary readers probably won’t know: James Powell, a regular contributor to Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Jim’s short stories have a surrealistic bent and often are set in twisted alternate realities with an equally twisted sense of humour. His Arthur-winning story, Bottom Walker was a straightforward crime story with an ending so chilling I still remember it word for word by heart.

And finally, I have to say that I enjoy the stories and novels of American noir writer Johnny Shaw, for their balance of dark humour and violence.

Lisa: Do you listen to music when you’re writing? If so, can you tell us your favourite three songs when you’re writing noir?

Madeleine: Actually I work best in complete silence. But I spark with ideas when I listen music by these favorite artists: The Transplants (punk and rock), Skinny Puppy (Goth), Green Day (American Idiot is my favorite of theirs), anything by Johnny Cash and of course, oldies like AC, David Bowie and Pink Floyd.

Lisa: You were a scientist and this is part of your bio:  

“My work was fascinating: I helped investigate a murder, toured the 3000 foot deep Falconbridge nickel mine and even met the Queen of England (though not all at the same time!).” Fascinating indeed! But you always wanted to be a writer? I’m sure many of your work experiences must come in handy now for stories?

Madeleine: I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a child. As a kid I used to write plays on my parents’ portable typewriter then cajole, beg and bully my friends into performing them. But I also wanted to be an astronomer so I ended up studying science in university.

Because of my scientific training (I have a PhD in chemistry) I had the good fortune to land interesting jobs throughout my career. My first job was as a scientific translator for a gold mining company. I drew on that technical experience to create the Archangel uranium mine for my thriller, Windigo Fire. I also got to know Northern Ontario and lurid tales the geologists shared found their way into my book.

I also worked eight years in public health in disease outbreak investigations. I loved the detective work to nail down the source of a food poisoning incident or infectious disease.  Did you know that you can knock out an army faster than bullets by giving everyone Salmonella poisoning? 

My area of expertise was chemicals, of course. One case I’m especially happy about was finding the source of lead poisoning in two Ontario children. It turned out to be lead paint from an old garage that the family had burned in their wood furnace.

 Lisa: What do you enjoy most about writing noir, and in particular, writing short stories as opposed to novels?

Madeleine: I end up writing noir because my sensibilities lean that way. I read darker crime fiction and enjoy gritty thrillers and action movies. I don’t view crime as genteel or as a disturbance in an otherwise idyllic world: in other words, no cozies though I have written two comic stories, Amdur’s Cat and Kill the Boss, which were a joy to create.  

Noir satisfies my craving for justice, which we often don’t see in the real world. My noir stories, like Glow Grass and The Dog on Balmy Beach, focus on vulnerable people who are confronted by violent crime but somehow manage to survive. My latest story, Snake Oil in the Mesdames’ new anthology, 13 Claws, is much closer to true noir. My protagonist is a grasping, desperate real estate agent who meets her match in the strange house she longs to sell.

In a short story, I’m free to explore a single idea: in The Ultimate Mystery I asked the question, what is a deity? At heart though I’m a novelist: I love to create settings and visit a longer time with my characters. I tend to “write long” so the novella form is especially appealing. 

For me, a novel has almost daunting complexity. It’s like running a marathon instead of a 5km run.

Lisa: Tell us a bit about the Mesdames of Mayhem and how you came up with the idea for that?

Madeleine: The Mesdames of Mayhem group was formed in 2013 by the two writing critique groups I belonged to. Because I broached idea, my friends named me the founder, but our group would not exist without our collective teamwork.

As established writers, we needed to ramp up our social media presence. We started with the Mesdames website and Facebook page. (Thanks to Donna Carrick of Carrick Publishing for designing both). Our logo was created by Sara Carrick who also designs the book covers of our anthologies. Do check us out at www.mesdamesofmayhem.com

Creating the Mesdames gave us a “brand name”. To introduce ourselves to readers, we decided to publish an anthology as a sampling of our works for readers. Thirteen was the result and a huge success. Two of its stories were finalists for the Arthur Ellis Short Story award

When marketing books, there is definitely strength in numbers. We support each other, tell our contacts about our new books, attend each other’s book launches and promote each other’s readings and blogs. At our Mesdames readings, readers get a chance to meet several authors not just one. And we write a wide range of crime fiction from comedy to noir! We continue to grow and now our number includes one Monsieur.

Lisa: You’ve just published the third Mesdames of Mayhem anthology, Thirteen Claws, which (clearly!) has an animal theme. Can you comment a bit about the range of stories in that?

Madeleine: Carrick Publishing brought out 13 Claws in September 2017 and I believe it’s our best story offering yet. This year, as part of our mission to support Canadian crime fiction, we ran a contest for authors previously unpublished in the genre. We’re delighted that the stories by the winner and the two runners-up are part of the book.

On the whole, our stories have become much darker. Several of the tales are true noir, especially the ones centred on snakes, an exotic fish and a pig…

 Lisa: Where do you see Canadian noir heading?

Madeleine: I believe that reader and author interest in noir is very strong. We live in troubled times and noir reflects that. Thanks to the hard work of authors Tanis Mallow and Rob Brunet, Noir at the Bar is flourishing in Toronto. It’s the best venue to discover new and leading Canadian noir authors. Do check out the Noir at the Bar Facebook page for the next evening.

Lisa: Thank you very much for being with us today and sharing these insights with us. I have just started reading 13 Claws, I was waiting for my hard copy – I simply can't enjoy a book as much on Kindle or Kobo! Anyway, I'm loving it and I'm honoured to have two pieces in the anthology!





The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Originally from South Africa, Lisa de Nikolits has been a Canadian citizen since 2003. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and Philosophy and has lived in the U.S.A., Australia, and Britain. She is the author of seven acclaimed novels, including her most recent novel, No Fury Like That (Inanna Publications). She has won the IPPY Gold Medal for Women's Issues Fiction and was long-listed for the ReLit Award. Lisa has a short story in Postscripts To Darkness (2015), a short story in the anthology Thirteen O'Clock by the Mesdames of Mayhem, and flash fiction and a short story in the debut issue of Maud.Lin House.