Writer and film historian Eddie Muller is the host of Noir Alley on Turner Classic Movies and the president and founder of the Film Noir Foundation, roles that have earned him the moniker the “Czar of Noir.” In his picture book debut, Kid Noir: Kitty Feral and the Case of the Marshmallow Monkey, co-written with Jessica Schmidt, Muller pays homage to hardboiled classics such as The Maltese Falcon. Illustrator Forrest Burdett’s art—from a mostly monochromatic color palette and chiaroscuro lighting to the dramatic Dutch angles—brings the noir aesthetic to the page. We spoke with Muller via Zoom from his home in San Francisco—where the California sunshine belied the shadowy subject at hand—about the origins of Kitty Feral, the power of suggestion and indirection in storytelling, and his quest to get young people curious about film history.

What mysterious forces lured you from the world of motion pictures to picture books?

I’m going to give you a scoop: I had created a children’s book years ago, with a little girl as the protagonist, and it was a story about rescuing a stray cat, which my wife and I had done. I turned the actual saga into a picture book that I wrote and illustrated, but I could not get anybody interested in it, because I did not have the requisite approach or understanding of the children’s book business. It just didn’t feel like something for kids. Then, when Running Press approached me with the idea of doing a children’s book—they pitched it as Kid Noir—my immediate response was, “Oh, can we do this in black and white?” That’s how it began—and the ulterior motive should be pretty obvious: I’m trying to get kids used to black-and-white imagery, so that they will graduate from the picture book to the movies. I don’t want to make it sound like part of a master scheme or something, but I did realize that it fit in with my mission of preserving classic films for future generations. It’s like, why not start between ages four and eight?

You’re setting them up for that visual appreciation.

Precisely. I love the idea that if parents buy this book for their child and then they enjoy it, one day, they’ll be flipping around on the television and they’ll see Turner Classic Movies or something. And they’ll say, “Oh, this is like Kitty Feral,” and they’ll be engaged by it. I imagine it sort of working in a time-release fashion, that they may get immediate gratification from the book now and it’s fun, and then in 10 years or so, it could resonate again.

Running Press has been fantastic because they’re extremely collaborative; I was involved in everything. [Creative director] Frances Soo Ping Chow, had people she wanted to work with for the illustrations, and I chose Forrest [Burdett]. I really enjoyed his work. I did provide him with a lot of reference material to get the requisite noir look to his art. Because, although I saw elements of it in the samples of his artwork, that’s not his natural tendency. He had to kind of be drawn deeper into the darkness.

The narration and dialogue in Kitty Feral feel like they could be lifted straight from a noir voiceover, in terms of the cadence and lingo. How would you describe your collaboration with your co-writer, Jessica Schmidt?

Oh, Jessica is fabulous. She was the impetus behind the whole thing. Jessica doesn’t work at Running Press anymore [Schmidt was formerly v-p, associate publisher] but I believe that the idea of a Kid Noir series was hers. I’ve heard stories that when she went into the editorial meeting to pitch it, she was wearing a fedora and a trench coat and her best bright red lipstick, and really got into it. Her involvement was essential, for the very reason I just explained: once upon a time I did a children’s book and totally misconstrued what was doable and how to handle this market. But Jessica made sure that I didn’t run too far afield. I knew immediately that we weren’t going to write a book in which little Sally hires Billy to kill her friend Biff and bury his body in the sandbox. That wasn’t gonna fly! That’s a young adult novel, maybe….

After conferring with Jessica about it, I said I wanted to do an animal story; I didn’t want my protagonist to be gender-specific. So, I said, “I’m just going to make it a cat.”

A Noir Alley cat?

Exactly. And so that was great, because then you don’t have to apply a gender. I was very clear about not using pronouns. If we’re going to refer to Kitty, we say “Kitty.” Some people have their gender bias, and they assume that Kitty is female. That’s fine by me, because I kind of imagined that she was, but I don’t specify that in the book.

Going back to the voice, if you could cast any actor for the audiobook narration—whether they’re living, or sleeping The Big Sleep—who comes to mind?

I had models for everything in the book. I actually sent Forrest photo references for these people: Casper Nighthawk is Sydney Greenstreet, and my model for Kitty was a somewhat lesser-known actress from the ’40s named Ella Raines. Because in all the noir movies, Ella Raines played the very smart, resourceful, and self-possessed woman; she was not a femme fatale at all. I always wanted to see a movie in which Ella Raines played a detective. So, hers is the voice I heard as Kitty Feral; which is funny, because people assume that hardboiled language is male, but not necessarily. When you have Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford and Bette Davis and Ida Lupino—they could spew that language like any guy.

I want people to read as much as I want them to watch movies.

Can you recall your first exposure to film noir? And is it safe to say it made a big impact?

Yes, I’d cut school and watch Dialing for Dollars in the afternoon. I was probably 12 or 13 years old, and I didn’t know anything about film noir at this point, but anything with City, Street, Night, or Big in the title—these were the movies that resonated with me. There was a movie called Thieves Highway that I remember seeing, from 1949. It was set in San Francisco [where Muller is from]. And that film was fascinating to me, not just for a particular type of storytelling and mood, but because it was shot on location in San Francisco, yet nothing that you saw in the film existed in my lifetime. There was an incredible produce market with trains and all this stuff down by the waterfront. That was all gone; it had been built up as condominiums. That film sort of became a touchstone for me, because I’m so interested in connecting the past with the present, and “how did we get from there to here?” is a big part of most every book I’ve written. So that was really the one that triggered it.

Kitty Feral is full of cinema Easter eggs of the hardboiled variety. What are some other essential noir films you’d recommend that newcomers start with?

If you want to understand what noir is right out of the gate, I always say watch Double Indemnity. And I have had the pleasure of showing that film to high school students—I don’t think I would show it to anybody younger than that. Even though it’s from the era of the Production Code, so you don’t have to worry about seeing anything [explicit], it’s people behaving at their absolute worst. But by the time you get to high school age, it’s a great way to show how movies used to be made. You can’t just come right out and say it; you have to suggest it, which is a lesson that I try to impart to young people as much as possible. Like, it’s actually more powerful if you don’t just show it, because then people have a sense of discovery of their own. And it opens up a wonderful conversation, because then they understand that this thing existed called the Production Code, and there were things you could and could not show on movie screens, which blows kids’ minds. I think there’s tremendous value in the qualities that these stories had: like restraint and suggestion over just being blatant. Those are all things that I think everybody can benefit from.

There’s a trust in the audience’s ability to read between the lines.

Precisely. And I always think that whatever you’re doing, whether you’re reading a book or watching a movie, it’s a collaboration between the artist and the person absorbing the work. It’s not just “show me something to amuse me,” it’s like, “well, I’m going to make you do a little work on your own.” Even doing a 32-page children’s book, you realize that you’re helping this young person figure out how stories are told, and what you show and what you leave out, just turning the page to go from this to that. Their brains are actually required to fill in the information that’s missing, which is a hugely important part of that maturation process. I don’t want to over intellectualize it, but I am very intrigued by all of that. And I appreciate your talking about the language because, you know, I have written adult hardboiled noir fiction, so distilling it down for this age was really interesting. Like, how do you do that? It’s not the harshness of the words. It’s the cadence. It’s the pace. Why use five words in a sentence if you can get it down to three? For my TCM show, I always point out the contributions of the writers—to make sure people connect the writing to the films—because I want people to read as much as I want them to watch movies.

Jessica was a wonderful collaborator; we had a really good time working together. I’ve designed and written [materials for] museums, and there’s a tremendous corollary between that and writing for kids, because it’s like you’re writing for a very short attention span. And so [you need to] figure out what you’re doing, get to the point, and be as evocative as possible, because they want to turn the page and get to the next thing. Otherwise, you’re missing the flow of the story. You’re bringing everything to a standstill. And to me, that’s like a shot in a movie that goes on for five minutes. It’s like, I’m bored with this now. Move along.

In the picture book format, you’re almost writing a script with dialogue for an adult who is reading it aloud—which connects back to film again. Did you lean into that performative element?

That is very true. When it comes to writing dialogue, I always read everything out loud. I’ll even read it in different voices because I want the characters to be distinctive. I don’t just want the dialogue to be expository stuff; it has to have character. That was something I was very conscious of. I didn’t get to give too much voice to some of the other animals, but it was fun. I hope I get to do another one. We’ll see how well this book sells, but I’m already thinking about other ideas.

You mentioned your mission of film preservation, which is central to your work at TCM and the Film Noir Foundation, and now as a children’s author. Why do you feel it’s important to get young people interested in film history and culture?

I enjoy sharing my passion and seeing how it inspires other people. I get paid to do what I do, but believe me, it doesn’t matter as much as getting a handwritten letter from a young person who says, “I watch your show every weekend. And I’ve watched all of these movies and I’m into this now because of you.” Not to sound like a TV commercial, but that’s the priceless part. And when I do my film festivals, the most gratifying thing is to see people come and fill a theater for movies they’ve never heard of—that I’ve managed to develop that level of trust where people are like, “This is going to be really interesting. Let’s go see what Eddie is showing tonight.” And it’s some obscure movie from 1948 that nobody’s ever heard of; and yet, they love it.

I think that helping younger people develop a different perspective and a different pace to the art they absorb is really critical. We’re kind of working against the impact and the influence of the internet, which just speeds everything up. And it creates such a ferociously short attention span that you’re not going to appreciate things as much. I find that traditional storytelling has a different pace to it, and I am afraid that is going to be lost if people don’t watch a full range of things, which includes older movies. I always loved this line [from Peter Bogdanovich]: “There are no ‘old’ movies, really—only movies you have already seen and ones you haven’t.” I think that is so right on. Because, to me, it’s just like going out to eat at a restaurant. If you go in and you just order the same thing every time, or if you’re just eating fast food, you’re not reaping the full benefit of what this world has to offer.

Kid Noir: Kitty Feral and the Case of the Marshmallow Monkey by Eddie Muller and Jessica Schmidt, illus. by Forrest Burdett. Running Press, $18.99 Sept. 19 ISBN 978-0-7624-8168-2