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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.