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)