Archive for Noir – Page 2

Arnaldur Indridason: Jar City

I think one of the definitions of noir is that the reader feels no sympathy even for the victim of the crime. The whole noir universe is so dark and corrupt that not even the victim can escape corruption. Iceland’s Indridason brings a humanity to the noir genre in the form of his detective, Erlandur, a man who literally has pains in his heart from dealing with the bleak world he sees every day as a policeman. When the detectives are called to the death scene of an old man, apparently randomly murdered with a strange and apparently meaningless message left on the body, one of them says, “Isn’t this your typical Icelandic murder?…Squalid, pointless and committed without any attempt to hide it…” They all agree, except for lead detective Erlandur, who is troubled by the apparently meaningless note, and later by a mysterious photograph of a grave.

The search for the grave in the photograph leads them to the terrible story of a young girl who died at age 4, her mother who committed suicide shortly after, and the realization that the child was the result of a rape committed by the recently murdered man. As the detectives delve into the dead man’s unsavory past, the seemingly simple story becomes more complex, and the claustrophobia of tiny Iceland becomes almost a part of the story. So also do the skills of Indridason as a novelist, seemingly simple, appear complex on reflection. The discovery of the “jar city” of the title – a loose arrangement where organs harvested from autopsies were kept in jars for research purposes – leads to a further reflection on the author’s part on the nature of collections, collectors, and databases. None of this is incorporated into the plot as a polemic but instead is seamlessly woven into the story itself, which is extremely compelling.

Like all good novelists, Indridason has a feel for plot, but also for well drawn and memorable characters who stay with you after you’ve closed the book because they are so vivid. Erlandur and his drug addicted, pregnant daughter, Eva Lind, are as central and meaningful to the book as the rest of the plot about the crime. There’s even a sidebar story about a missing bride that’s resolved along the way. In his skill and economy of storytelling, as well as it’s haunting aftertaste, Indridason more than resembles the great Ruth Rendell, another novelist of prodigious skill whose books are not just great mysteries but great novels. The story itself and the end of the book are heartbreaking, but what isn’t heartbreaking is to discover a writer of Indridason’s talent and depth.

Charlie Huston: The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death

This isn’t a typical read for me, but it’s an enjoyable one for those who enjoy this type of book. If you enjoy British village cozies, you aren’t going to like it, but if you like tough guy modern noir you’ll probably love it. It’s certainly original – Huston goes so far as not to use quotation marks, and he writes dialogue as it’s actually spoken which sometimes is a bit distracting. While he’s taken the artistic step of dispensing with quotes, he’s then stuck to hyper realism in the way the words are spoken. It’s an odd dichotomy.

What’s good about this book is the central character, Web, who is recovering from a traumatic experience (one that’s unknown until about half way through the book). As is often the case with people under stress, Web is believably distracted and selfish. Since as readers we are encountering him cold, without knowing his backstory, we pick up on the selfish ass part of him before his actual character begins to manifest itself. This is also an interesting tactic, as you come to know Web much as you might come to know him if he was a real person you were meeting in real life.

The real message of this book may be that everyone deserves a second chance, and that’s a message I can embrace wholeheartedly. The noir path the story takes to get to this message finds Web out of work, hanging out in his pal Chev’s tattoo parlor, and agreeing to work for their mutual friend, Po Sin, who runs a crisis cleanup business. He cleans up, basically, after dead people, often suicides. The details of this clean up business are not left to the imagination, so it’s not for you at all if you have a weak stomach.

There are a number of very memorable characters, including Web himself; Soledad, whose father has just killed himself; her jerky brother Jaime; Web’s father L.L.; and Po Sin and his family, who I think I liked best. Of all the people in the book, they were the ones I wanted to find out more about. This book garnered several award nominations last year and it’s the very kind of dark, noirish read that seems to appeal to Edgar voters these days. It’s certainly original, sometimes funny, and sometimes even profound, but it’s hardly a mystery, though it is centered around a crime. The problem is that the central crime isn’t very interesting, it’s the characters that hold the book together. That said, I enjoyed this read outside of my “comfort zone.”

James Ellroy and Otto Penzler (editors): Best American Noir of the Century

What is noir? It’s such an overused and amorphous term that I’m tempted to answer, as Louie Armstrong did when asked a similar question about jazz, if you don’t know by now, don’t mess with it. But when I think about noir in the same way as other modernist movements like, say, Impressionism or Bebop, there appears the glimmer of an answer. Since the French critics coined the term after the fact, in the beginning for movies and then the hard-boiled literary work which inspired many of them, the people who originated noir had no idea they were doing so, followed no rules, wrote no manifestoes and joined no professional organizations. Still, it can be associated with a specific time frame shaped by historical influences, starting with the materialism and nervous, jittery doomed gaiety of the twenties, continuing with the grim thirties and finding full flower in the disillusionment of post World War Two America. Add to this psychological background the massive rise in literacy, and the profusion of cheap “pulp” magazines consumed by guys with a taste for short, brutal fiction and the time to indulge that taste because they were out of work or in the downtime of war. Anybody who could crank out such fiction fast enough could make a precarious living out of it, and in fact their fiction gained immediacy and power by emerging so immediately from the subconscious. The historical movement died with the pulps, it’s vitality withering, as is the case with many other things, at the moment it was named and codified. To me you can’t really speak of contemporary writers as being noir, but only of having noir tendencies in their work.

Which brings me to an anthology that has the temerity to call itself The Best American Noir of the Century, edited by James Ellroy and Otto Penzler, two individuals who have more than enough chutzpah to make such pronouncements. The first obvious thing about the book is how weighted it is to the present day. Even though in his introduction Penzler locates the “golden age” of noir in the forties and fifties, there are only three stories from the former and six from the latter while the nineties and two thousands produce ten each. Perhaps he intends other books he’s edited—like the just published The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories—to pick up the slack on the old guys, but any book claiming to be the best noir and not include Lester Dent’s “Sail,” doesn’t really live up to the title, and I’m sure there are many more vintage gems that deserve to be included more than some of the contemporary, presumably more commercial, offerings. Noir may literally mean black, but just because a story is dark, or has a downbeat ending, it ain’t necessarily noir. In my opinion the only two contemporary writers who approach true noir status are Ellroy and Megan Abbott, and Abbott isn’t even represented here. Instead for some unaccountable reason the reader is subjected to Harlan Ellison’s tedious not even close to noir “Mefisto In Onyx,” and, as in so many mystery anthologies, the inappropriate Joyce Carol Oates is trotted out like a desiccated but aristocratic maiden aunt presumed to class up the proceedings.

Noir has become the talismanic force it has because it is visionary—in the world of the noir holy trinity of Jim Thompson, David Goodis and Cornell Woolrich, it isn’t just the good guys versus the bad guys, but an almost Gnostic view of nature, humanity and society itself as inherently malevolent. In the best stories in this collection—”Spurs” by Tom Robbins, “For the Rest of Her Life” by Woolrich and “When the Women Come Out to Dance” by Elmore Leonard—the conclusion of the story brings the epiphany that the protagonist is in hell right here right now, and the torment threatens to be pretty close to eternal. Not enough of these stories live up to them, at least not enough to be called the best, particularly the more high toned literary gents at the end.

Which doesn’t mean, of course, that I didn’t read or reread all of the stories in this volume and enjoy most of them. In truth, it’s a pretty darn good collection of creepy, perverse dark fiction. If only it weren’t called The Best American Noir of the Century. (Jamie)

Jan Brogan: Yesterday’s Fatal

After three books and three publishers, I hope the talented Jan Brogan has found a home with St. Martin’s. Her most recent novel, A Confidential Source, was technically the first Hallie Ahern novel, though the first one was really written for another publisher and the character had a different name. That publisher has since gone out of business, leaving Jan’s first books locked in a warehouse. So A Confidential Source was the first look many readers got at Hallie Ahern, a gambler in recovery who works at a newspaper in Providence, R.I., after leaving a Boston paper under something of a cloud. It’s not really necessary to read this series in order as Brogan works the relevant bits of Hallie’s past into the story so nothing is lost in translation.

Hallie is a new style mystery heroine – she’s far from perfect. Other recent writers like Denise Mina and Denise Hamilton (maybe Jan should change her name to Denise?) have ventured into the same territory. When I asked Denise Mina about it she said she was tired of reading about type A personalities, and wanted a heroine more people could relate to. I think of it another way: women mystery writers are venturing into male territory. After writers like Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, and Marcia Muller established series where the women were almost superhuman – V.I. Warshawski can take a beating and keep on ticking – I think women writers now feel secure enough of their place in the mystery constellation to allow their characters to have some real flaws, doubts, and insecurities, just like male characters do. (Think of Matt Scudder and Harry Bosch, just to name two). Hallie Ahern is a good example of this, as she often makes the wrong choices based on what her gambler’s instincts tell her, not on what her common sense intelligence might be telling her.

This is a well structured novel with an interesting story. “Yesterday’s Fatal” is a newspaper term – Hallie is writing up the story of a car accident she witnessed where the driver was found dead in her car. Later when she goes to the funeral of the dead woman she hears that an old woman who witnessed the accident along with her has recalled seeing another car, something Hallie is certain isn’t true. As she digs deeper, she finds evidence of an insurance fraud ring – car accidents that are carefully staged to get money out of the insurance companies. As Hallie doggedly follows up every lead she is both frustrated – no-one will go on record – and desperate, as the paper is being taken over by new ownership and layoffs are threatened. She feels getting the big story will save her job. And the more she digs, the more the tentacles of the story involve her personally and emotionally.

The way Brogan writes about Hallie she makes it seem like good investigative reporters are sensation junkies, and I think that must be true. What other kind of person would want to cover the news in Bagdad? I can’t imagine it myself, but that’s a reason to read a mystery (or any book) – to get an insight into why the characters behave the way they do, often in ways you wouldn’t behave yourself. Brogan makes it seems absolutely believable. One other bit of genius on her part is using the newspaper story Hallie writes to tie up the loose ends – it’s a change from the detective or cop in a room at the end of the book explaining the solution, and it ties up the threads in a refreshingly different way. Hallie is a complicated and interesting character; I like the fact that the books are dark (I’d put them squarely in the “noir” category) and I hope that Brogan doesn’t allow for too much happiness on Hallie’s part. It sets Hallie apart, and makes Brogan’s writing sparkle. This is a new series to take notice of.

Megan Abbott: Die a Little & The Song is You

It’s such a treat to discover a new author it always makes you a bit greedy for more. Megan Abbott has only written two books but a third, Queenpin, is due later this year. Abbott will be joining our book club this month – hence the feverish reading of her books – but what a gratifying surprise to find the books to be original, well written, and full of haunting and memorable characters. Her first novel, Die a Little, was on the short list for the Edgar, the Anthony and the Shamus (and I personally thought she had at least one of these in the bag), so I guess it shouldn’t be such a giant surprise to find that these books are good. But they’re not just good, they’re distinctive and unique. They’re not sequential – you can read them in any order – but in tone they’re certainly similar.

I’m always afraid when an author sets a book back in a certain time period and then writes in that style – these feel like a feminine version of James M. Cain has written them – that they’ll be gimicky and non-authentic, and devoid of genuine emotion. But while these are very self consciously aware of the products and feel of the 50’s, they feel authentic, and once you get sucked into the lives of the characters, the setting becomes just so much delicious background. Both novels are set in Los Angeles; Die a Little is only on the fringes of Hollywood. It’s the story of a brother and sister – Lora and Bill King – so close that they share an apartment. When Bill meets Alice Steele in a slight traffic dust up, their lives are completely disrupted. Lora is a teacher, and Bill, thanks to a lucky fluke, is a freakishly young assistant in the DA’s office. Alice is from the nether world of Hollywood – she’s worked in wardrobe, and knows the secrets of the stars. At first Lora watches in amazement as her sister in law transforms her brother’s life – the ranch house, the rowdy parties, the perfect, almost manic cooking. She’s always exquisitely turned out, and she’s always urging Lora toward one of her friends, the shadowy PR man, Mike, and closer to the life, she, Alice, used to live.

Out of the corner of her eye Lora notices Bill looking at his new wife like he’s the luckiest man alive – she’s just too good to be true. Lora thinks Alice may be too good to be true, but in another, darker way. As she gets to know Mike better and enjoy the time they spend together – he brings a real glamor to her school marm lifestyle – she starts to get to know more about Alice, and to trust her less and less. Bill remains the unsullied innocent at the center of the story; it’s up to Lora to discover Alice’s secrets. Lora ends up helping to find Alice a job as a home ec teacher at her school – the girls all find her so glamorous – but then her life begins to fall apart, first with the intrusion of a friend from Alice’s past who turns up in Alice’s kitchen; then with a few more accidental discoveries made by Lora as the gap between her life as a teacher and the girlfriend of Mike and sister in law of Alice becomes an ever widening one.

Abbott sets up her story like a pro and then twists it for all the emotional impact and suspense she can. The story is concisely told, but so rich with prose and detail, as well as rich in character development, that absolutely nothing seems missing. There’s not a wrong note in this wonderful first novel. When I turned to the second, still being an untrusting soul (maybe I’ve read too many books), I was not expecting as excellent a ride as the first book but was prepared to be pleasantly entertained. If anything, The Song is You is even better, though it’s not told from such a uniquely female noir point of view.

Females are absolutely central to The Song is You, though, as a web of three of them entangle glib PR man Gil “Hop” Hopkins on the ride of his life. Coiled like a tense spring around him are his ex-wife, Midge, beautiful and worldly-wise; bit player, exotic Iolene; and Iolene’s friend, Jean Spangler, beautiful only when she smiles. On a sultry night in 1949 – this is based on a true incident – Jean kisses her small daughter goodbye and goes off to a night shoot with Iolene. She’s never seen again; the only thing found is her handbag. It’s Iolene who gets the ball rolling; she comes to Hop worried about her friend and certain that two Hollywood stars are responsible for her disappearnce. She’s obviously scared, and for some reason, Hop can’t get her out of his head. As Hop follows her trail, he goes deeper and deeper into the underbelly of Hollywood, in the process exposing not only Hollywood’s dark side, but his own failures in his marriage and relationship. His contacts with his ex. Midge, are an unhappy counterpoint in his search for Jean.

Dogging his steps is smart and peppy reporter Frannie Adair, who almost rises above the scum that Hop is stirring up. In this novel, Hollywood is seen from every point of view – the ambitious starlets; the fading star, whose marriage and career Hop tries to salvage through some clever PR; the reporter covering the whole thing; and maybe worst of all, the two male stars who seem to be at the center of all the trouble. If you’ve ever read Hollywood Babylon and hungered for more, Abbott delivers the goods. While the ending might technically be called a “happy” one this is a haunting novel. Abbott is a very talented writer who has embraced noir and brought a fresh breath of air to it – here’s hoping to many more looks at the dark side of Hollywood.

Megan Abbott: Bury Me Deep

There’s a lot of chatter about noir these days, but it’s easier to drop the term than to define it, and even harder to recreate a noir novel without seeming quaint or mannered. There’s even a trendy publishing house devoted to reprinting old noir and introducing contemporary neo-noir, and ninety-nine times out of a hundred the older brew has a kick that puts the newer vintage to shame. As far as I’m concerned there are only two authors out there now who can credibly keep up with Chandler, Hammett, Cain and the rest of them on their own turf—James Ellroy and Megan Abbott.

Although Ellroy’s brilliant prose stylings are unmatched by any living writer, in many ways Abbott is more approachable, just as dark and trenchant, but less willfully perverse, able to inhabit the shadows of the past in a way that always seems immediate and only too real.

Following on the heels of her Edgar winning Queenpin, Abbott’s latest book is Bury Me Deep, a brilliant fever dream inspired by the real life “Trunk Murderess,” Winnie Ruth Judd, the central figure in one of the most sensational crimes of the depression era. Abbott’s Judd stand-in is named Marion Seeley, and the reader quickly gets into the skin of a naive young woman conditioned by grinding poverty and a strict fundamentalist upbringing, unmoored by the nightmarish men of her dreams, and possessed by a romantic joie de vivre which will doom her in a grey and unforgiving society. Every detail—the slang, the setting, the clothes—rings perfectly true as this innocent creeps closer and closer to an unthinkable act.

It’s a measure of Abbott’s skill that by the end the crime that has so baffled history seems not only inevitable but even understandable. There’s also a brilliant coda that supplies a much more satisfying conclusion that real life could manage.

It’s not necessary to know anything about Winnie Ruth Judd or even noir to enjoy this book. Anyone with an appreciation for good crime fiction will find more than enough to satisfy in Bury Me Deep. (Jamie)