Noir Fiction & the Ordinary Menace: a Review of Lee Martin's Yours, Jean

Ellen Birkett Morris

I began reading Lee Martin’s latest novel Yours, Jean in the early spring of 2020, when the pandemic was so young we still hadn’t agreed on what to call it. Martin’s novel tells the story of a small-town librarian, murdered by her ex-fiancé in the early 1950s, and though the material is over 60 years removed from our current concerns, it struck me how the book’s noir style mirrored the violent menace of modern American life. In both the noir world of Martin’s novel and our world of 2020, old norms seem obsolete, and the stuff of nightmares has come to life.

Noir is often a go-to form in troubled times, as Megan Abbott explains in “A Conversation with Megan Abbott” in the Summer 2018 issue of Sewanee Review

In noir, everyone is fallen, and right and wrong are not clearly defined and maybe not even attainable. In that sense, noir speaks to us powerfully right now, when certain structures of authority don’t make sense any longer, and we wonder: Why should we abide by them? [...] In eras tinged with chaos in the popular imagination, noir thrives.

Perhaps this dark fictional world makes our own disordered experience seem manageable. At the very least it confirms what we know to be true, though we wish it were otherwise. 

Yours, Jean initially presents the reader with a seemingly placid world populated by average people who find their values tested by unexpected circumstances and look for ways to solve their problems that are outside the bounds of expected behavior. This is an all too familiar notion in a country where innocent people are killed by those who are supposed to protect them, and where justice is rarely done.

Look beneath the surface and you will see that things are not as they are supposed to be. Danger is everywhere. In Martin’s novel even ordinary settings hold a touch of menace:

A buzzard circled high above the river. On the far bank, the paper-white trunks of the sycamores were bright in the sunlight. He heard the puttputt-putt of the motor on a jon boat somewhere in the distance. All of this ordinarily would have pleased him, but how could it now, in light of what he was facing?

Yet, the book begins in a place of promise. The titular character Jean De Belle has recently broken off her engagement to her fiancé, Charlie Camplain, and wishes to start a new life. The book opens on the first day of her new job as the high school librarian in Lawrenceville, Illinois.

Lawrenceville seems like the epitome of Rockwellian America: a quiet place filled with honest, gentle, hard-working people. It is the sort of place many Americans now associate with “Make America Great Again.” Lawrenceville glides along on an outdated ideal of what society should be without considering how harmful that ideal can be for those at odds with its strict and unforgiving norms.

Jean’s post-engagement happiness is short-lived. Her ex-fiancé, Camplain, brutally murders her in an empty classroom on the first day of school. This act of violence sets off a series of ripples that will reverberate through the small town and illuminate the character of the community.

“The people in noir fiction are dark and doomed—they are losers, they are pessimistic, they are hopeless,” writes Otto Penzler in “Noir Fiction: Money, Sex, and Revenge.” In this way Charlie Camplain is a classic noir character whose actions stand in contrast to his seemingly placid demeanor. He is broken physically, having suffered nerve damage, and he is nearly deaf from his time in the military. On top of that, being a frequent victim of bullying has made him emotionally damaged and volatile. Although Charlie is determined to marry Jean, he kills her after she breaks up with him.

Martin introduces the reader to a cast of characters whose lives entangle poignantly with Jean’s fate—Mary Ellen, the widowed teacher Jean rooms with, and Mary's restless daughter Robbie; Robbie's wandering boyfriend Tom Heath; and Grinny, a poor cab driver whose daughter Millie becomes pregnant by Tom.

Unlike a mystery, where the plot advances through discovery of the murderer, a noir plot relies on the unmasking of characters under pressure as their dreams and desires clash with societal norms. It is no mystery that Jean dies, and it is no great truth. The energy of Martin’s plot is driven by the lasting effects of her death and the mounting suspicion that all is not what it seems.

I’ve come to expect certain things from Martin’s work: exquisite attention to detail, characters with lush inner lives, and an underlying tenderness that embraces even the most flawed individuals in their full humanity. He lingers in the tender places left by pain and loss as in The Bright Forever, a novel about the disappearance of a nine-year-old and the lasting impact on her close-knit community, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer. I didn’t expect Yours, Jean to meld the plot, pacing, and setting of a 1950s noir film with the depth of a quiet literary novel.

In the aftermath of Jean’s shooting, each character’s mask comes off and the true violence of their nature is revealed. Mary Ellen is painted as a lesbian by her disgruntled daughter Robbie. Tom impregnates Millie and won’t take responsibility and Grinny urges his unwed daughter to abort her baby.

Yours, Jean meticulously reveals the inner lives of the small-town people at its heart. They are bystanders, watching in open-mouthed horror, just as readers have been bystanders in the face of  an unchecked pandemic, widespread racial injustice, and domestic terrorism. But no matter our reaction, we must collect ourselves and look for ways to work harder to build the kind of society we want to live in, challenged to find a deeper connection to neighbors in hopes that we will transcend our differences and embrace action in the common good.  

Martin’s particular gifts as a writer help us see below the veneer of ordinary life and into the hearts of characters whose concerns still resonate today, but by offering these concerns in trappings of noir, Martin highlights the clash between who we aspire to be as a people and who we are.

Near the end of Yours, Jean there is a glimmer of hope for the future in which Martin suggests that all this horror may awaken our humanity. Here, Mary Ellen reveals her thoughts after she finds Jean dead:

It was like the world shook open and there we were, all of us, everyone across time, and we all felt a chill go up the backs of our necks. Some of us were afraid, some of us felt like crying. Some of us ran home and hugged the people we loved. Some of us knew the most excellent ecstasy. For just an instant we were all alive to one another. 

The reader is left with the possibility that this aliveness can awaken us from the nightmare of a world out of control, out of our bystander status and into actions that spark change.