January 28, 2023

Michigan Writers and Northern Noir

A picture of Sleeping Bear Dunes from award-winning photographer Stacy Niedzwiecki's YouTube video

Northern Michigan was Ernest Hemingway’s favorite place in the world. Sleeping Bear Dunes, voted the most beautiful place in America, has much competition for the most beautiful place in northern Michigan. Edgar winner Steve Hamilton, born in Detroit and a Michigan grad, uses Lake Superior again as the location for his latest novel, Misery Bay. The orange traffic barrels even look better in God’s country. Hunting season is a bigger deal than football season. Michael Moore now makes his home in Traverse City. Up north, liberal politics wears like a dollar store sweater in July. Leave the politics in the closet for some other time. Crickets and fireflies dominate the nighttime, not cable show commentators. Foxes, coyotes, and some wolves roam without concern of violating a mayor’s curfew. Black bears chase away the bears of Wall Street. Economists are illegal immigrants north of Midland.

I left Traverse City one morning in mid-December trying to beat the blizzard home. The snowstorm beat me to my car, dropping more than a foot of snow and turning a typical three hour drive into more than six hours. I listened to Christmas carols, not the worry wart weather reports, as I drove through the winter wonderland. I noticed that the school buses were out on the roads. Schools were all closed in the southern part of the state, even though the northern area received much more snow. It’s reason number 15000 or so why so many warriors in the military come from the rural areas. Crossing the Mackinac Bridge in the winter requires respect. If the snow and wind don’t halt you, crossing into the U.P. takes you into Steve Hamilton’s literary territory for northern noir.

Crossing into the U.P. in wintertime

Steve Hamilton is asked by the Detroit Free Press to define northern noir:

Q: You’re considered a pioneer of a subgenre called northern noir. How would you define it?

A: “Noir” is French for “black.” Northern noir is dark fiction with a decidedly northern — i.e., cold — slant to it. Classic noir is Raymond Chandler in Los Angeles. … Evil under the sun — that’s classic noir. Northern noir is evil with a lot of snow.

Going back to 1997 when “A Cold Day in Paradise” came out, there wasn’t a lot of crime fiction set in the far north. (“Paradise”) and “Iron Lake” by William Kent Krueger came out the same year. Both those books did very well. … There’s been a lot more books set up north since then. If we had some part in influencing that, that would be nice to think.

John J. Miller interviews Hamilton for The National Review’s “Between the Covers” and has this about Misery Bay:

I saw this sign for Misery Bay — and it’s got a great name, first of all. Talk about being a lonely place: this place, I think, makes Paradise [Michigan] look like a metropolis. It is the single loneliest, most forgotten place I’ve probably ever been to in the state of Michigan,” says Steve Hamilton, author of Misery Bay: An Alex McKnight Novel.

A five mile drive at night across the largest suspension bridge in the Western Hemisphere.

Ernest Hemingway’s short story the Big Two-Hearted River is set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Northern Michigan was the only place that really provided Hemingway true peace. In Big Two-Hearted River, Nick Adams has returned from World War One. He goes to the U.P. to fish and recuperate. His wounds are deep. The war has traumatized him physically and emotionally, as it did Hemingway in real life. The man on man hunt of war traumatizes the bravest and strongest. The fish make their homes in the swampy area of the river, as protection from intruders. Northern Michigan served as Hemingway’s swamp, his protection from man’s evil side.

The road climbed steadily. It was hard work walking up-hill. His muscles ached and the day was hot, but Nick felt happy. He felt he had left everything behind, the need for thinking, the need to write, other needs. It was all back of him.

It was all back of him. Explains everything about the appeal of northern Michigan.

Misery Bay in Michigan’s U.P.


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