Friday, January 21, 2005

Polar express

OK, I promised Jeff I would post something about noir fiction, so here it is, a rambling discussion of some of my current favourites.

what do we mean when we talk about noir

I could spend a fair amount of time here giving definitions of what I mean when I say noir. But then I could spend an equal amount of time making an argument that those same definitions are completely wrong. Those of you reading this with a speculative fiction background, will know the ever-running arguments about it's fantasy, no it's slipstream, no it's interstitial, no it's a floor wax. Well, crime fiction is not different. The argument about where the lines between straight crime, procedurals, noir, hardboiled and the rest are drawn is just the same.

Is it just a marketing label that's slapped on everything now to give an edgy note of cool, labelling anything as noir if it has a shade more darkness than a 1930's cosy where a vicar investigates genteel crimes in a Cambridge college? Is it a style, a tone, a feeling, an unhealthy dose of isolation, alienation and loss of control, anything where the good guys get the shitty end of the stick, anything where there are no good guys? Answers on a postcard please.Some of what I'm talking about here might not meet every definition of noir, might not even meet my own definition (which is basically noir is whatever I point to and say that's noir), but it's all good stuff anyway, so in the end, who cares.

what we don't mean when we talk about noir

It's fairly safe though to say that none of the books mentioned here are big on talking cat detectives who solve crime out on the golf course (whose layout, naturally, reflects a hidden clue as to the age old secret of the Knights Templars who are of course behind EVERYTHING, from earwax to Kim Jong-Il). Or cookie cutter serial killers who have pointlessly baroque murder-rituals in the same way that chefs have signature dishes. Feh.

what I'm pointing to and saying noir about

There's a few things that I enjoy in a good novel.
... Characters that interest me
... .... Writing with passion
... .... ... A plot that makes me want to keep on reading
... .... ... .... A distinctive style.

And you'll find all of these in Ken Bruen's books. Bruen is the name to drop, at the moment, and at times it can seem like he has more evangelists than the Mormons. But it's with good reason: his books are fast and fierce and funny and bleak and powerful and there's nobody really quite like him. Something else I like about Bruen - he tells the story he has to tell and then he stops. No bloated epics here.

Where to start? Anywhere, really, I haven't read a duff one yet. The Jack Taylor books, starting with The Guards, is what really seemed to break through, but the White Trilogy (which I think is now up to six books...), and standalones like London Boulevard and Hackman Blues are equally worth reading.

James Ellroy's latest books like American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand haven't quite done it for me in the same way as some of his earlier stuff, although I do admire what he's trying to do with them. The LA Quartet of Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential, and White Jazz are fantastic, though. Harsh, bleak, pared down and lean prose but a dazzling multilayered plot. Ellroy claims that his books "run antithetical to your standard crime fiction sensibility, which is usually a noble loner working against authority. I think my books are about bad men doing bad things in the name of authority." Of course, being dismissive of everything and everyone else is pretty much part of the Ellroy schtick (on James Lee Burke: 'Oh fuck. "The wind blew in from the bayou, it ruffled the trees..." Oh, fuck you.').

He also said " I like to lie in the dark and brood about things.".

You'd never guess.

There aren't a lot of crime writers whose books can move me the way that some of George Pelecanos's books do. The Big Blowdown is one of my favourite crime novels full stop, and some of his others aren't far behind. I'd recommend The Sweet Forever as nearly as good, and King Suckerman's well worth a read.

The musical name checking gets a little wearing at times, because when we hear what a character's listening to, it sounds like the author talking us through his CD collection. And I don't find the Strange and Quinn books do it for me as much as some of the earlier ones. But that's being harsh; at his best Pelecanos is a really powerful writer with a real strength for dialogue and a strong sense of place. And have I mentioned how good The Big Blowdown is?

Jason Starr is probably less known than some of the others mentioned here, but he's written some fantastic novels that, while in no way derivative, remind me of the great Jim Thompson (and if you like the sort of stuff I'm writing about here, and haven't read Pop. 1280 or The Killer Inside Me then stop reading this now, because you've got a treat in store). Starr writes about ordinary people faced with an accummulation of events that make things start to go horribly wrong in a believable way. At which point everything then takes a turn for the worse. Cold Caller is a biting satire in which killing to get ahead in a telemarketing firm seems like a reasonable approach to career development. Nothing Personal is as black as hell, but funny too. That's one of Starr's great strengths: his novels are often bleak and unforgiving, but they're shot through with humour.

I've only recently read a couple of Daniel Woodrell's books but I'm going to read more. The Death of Sweet Mister is *fantastic*. Intense, compassionate, honest, heartbreaking. Can't recommend it highly enough. Under The Bright Lights wasn't quite as good, but still head and shoulders above much else out there. And Woodrell's not just a good crime writer, he's a good writer, whose control over voice is fantastic. Coined term country noir to describe his work.

The Ice Harvest was Scott Phillips's first novel, and it's one of the best-received debuts I can think of. It's dark, and bleak and shot through with humour and a great depiction of a frozen Midwest town and the assorted losers and lowlifes whose lives interact over just twenty-four hours. He writes with a spare mimimalism that doesn't waste a word. And oh, the ending. He followed this up with The Walkaway, a book that manages to be both prequel and sequel to the Ice Harvest, and like his first book, I couldn't put it down until I'd finished it. Must stop doing the whole reading/gluing multitasking thing. His third book, Cottonwood, jumps back to the 1870s. I haven't read it yet, but it's been well reviewed and it sounds as if Phillips's bleak view of the milk of human kindness (in short:it's curdled) hasn't changed.

If I had to pick just a few books from here to recommend, I'd say: The Death of Sweet Mister, The Big Blowdown and The Guards. And Pop. 1280.

There's some newer writers who are really starting to build a reputation too. It's really good to see some of them coming from the UK, too. Don't get me wrong, there's always been decent crime fiction coming out of the UK, but we've got so much work to do to redress the whole Miss Marple cozy thing. Some non-American writing tries too hard to ape American noir, and ends up sounding hollow because it's forced. That's one of the reasons Bruen is so good - because although he wears his influences on his sleeve - and namechecks them in the books - he's found his own voice.

Al Guthrie's first novel Two Way Split has been very well reviewed. Al also runs the Noir Originals website, showcasing some new writing and interviews, articles and reviews.

Ray Banks's debut novel the Big Blind is getting some great press, and I'm looking forward to reading it. Ray's written some cracking short stories, honest and real, and I think that Love Will Tear Us Apart is a great example - and a great reminder that fiction can be about the little things of people's lives, and be much more effective as crime fiction than the nth novel in the series about the serial-killer who tattoos cryptic messages on his victims eyelids giving clues as to how he knows the age-old secret of the Knights Fucking Templars.

noir fiction, short and sweet

There aren't half as many markets for short crime fiction as there are for horror, fantasy or sf. It's also complicated by the fact that the biggest selling markets are a tough sell for any story that has more than a little violence, sex or swearing in it. Some great publications that have given many writers of short crime fiction their first break (including this one) are now no more: Blue Murder, Handheld Crime, and the recently deceased Plots With Guns. But there are others out there. In print, Crimewave (from Andy Cox's TTA Press stable alongside TTA and now Interzone) publishes some wonderful writing and plays fast and loose with its definition of what crime fiction *is*, with great results. Online, markets like Shred of Evidence and Hardluck Stories are flying the noir flag.




At 2:58 PM, Anonymous Emei said...

you are so so jay and your story socked i hope you quit or you will never get comments but me


Post a Comment

<< Home