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Monday, October 4, 2010

Review: 'Best American Noir of the Century'

THE BEST AMERICAN NOIR OF THE CENTURY Edited by James Ellroy and Otto Penzler
Crime fiction anthology
October 2010
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN: 978-0547330778

It's dark, it's going to end badly and there is probably a dangerous woman involved. Must be noir.

Otto Penzler, working with James Ellroy, has brought together stories to define this narrow niche of bleak crime literature with a new anthology. The Best American Noir of the Century has some of the usual suspects and some surprises (especially in its reliance on recent fiction, a successful reliance). Some of the endings are more O. Henry than James M. Cain, but nearly every story has something to recommend it being discovered by a new audience or rediscovered by a reader more steeped in noir. This is more than a collection of stories to dip into; this is a reference work for anyone interested in crime fiction to delve into often.

The collection begins with a classic that leaves no hope for sunshine. Tod Robbins's story Spur was the inspiration for the film Freaks, directed by Tod Browning of Dracula fame. The story of a little man with a big heart who loves the wrong woman is as creepy and eerie as any old European fairy tale, and is very different from the film. A truly inspired choice from 1923 for the opener.

Other entries from early to mid-20th century include a James M. Cain story (Pastorale, 1928), a novel's worth of characterization and plot in Mackinlay Kantor's 1940 Gun Crazy, a tale of a gun-loving boy, and the scene-setting genius of Dorothy B. Hughes in The Homecoming from 1946. David Goodis, author of Dark Passage, has a noir-defining, nihilistic story in 1953's Professional Man.

One of the highlights in the collection is Charles Beaumont's The Hunger. This 1955 classic begins with a scene-setter that is sheer bleakness:

"Now, with the sun almost gone, the sky looked wounded -- as if a gigantic razor had been drawn across it, slicing deep. It bled richly. And the wind, which came down from High Mountain, cool as rain, sounded a little like children crying: a soft, unhappy kind of sound, rising and falling."

You know it's not going to go well in that landscape. And it does not. The point of view of the protagonist, Julia, is just as strong. She's a young woman who is penetrating in the awareness of her own life with two widowed sisters who worry about a mad stranger killing women. Their excited anticipation is as great as Dracula's brides gloating over his next victim. And then there are portions of the story in the POV of a stranger who is seeking, but trying not to, satisfy his hunger: "the moon is the shepherd,/The clouds are his sheep ... " sets the stage for the inevitable.

Beaumont's strong descriptive ability comes through in this story as clearly as in his Twilight Zone episodes and screenpays for the 7 Faces of Dr. Lao and the Masque of the Red Death.

Gil Brewer's The Gesture, 1956, is a perfect example of how to plot to deliver a big bang at the end. The great Ed McBain, aka Evan Hunter, is represented with the well-known The Last Spin, a 1956 story of two young gang boys forced into a Russian roulette game. Another master, Jim Thompson, is included with Forever After from 1960, which has the Twilight Zone quality so often seen in noir.

And then came Cornell Woolrich. For the Rest of Her Life (1968) is thoughtful, complex, literary. Here is a passage right up there in high lit territory:

"An attachment grew up. What is an attachment? It is the most difficult of all the human interrelationships to explain, because it is the vaguest, the most impalpable. It has all the good points of love, and none of its drawbacks. No jealousy, no quarrels, no greed to possess, no fear of losing possession, no hatred (which is very much a part of love), no surge of passion, and no hangover afterward. It never reaches the heights, and it never reaches the depths."
Patricia Highsmith takes a phrase from Nixon's judgment of what to do with L. Patrick Gray for the title of 1979's Slowly, Slowly in the Wind. The twist isn't slow in coming here. You can't believe she goes there but since it's Highsmith, of course she does.

One of the few misfires in the collection is from co-editor James Ellroy, his 1988 Since I Don't Have You. It's certainly pure Ellroy -- the same old, same old offensive ranting if you're not male and white and emotionally wounded. He throws a bunch of violent and kinky tropes up agianst the wall to see if any stick, then adds Howard Hughes, Mickey Cohen and Johnny Stomp into the mix. Don't judge the book on the basis of this one.

Fortunately, the very next story is one of the greatest: Texas City by James Lee Burke. This 1991 tale, from Burke's Jesus Out to Sea, is a heartwrenching tale of how a family can't help but fall apart when its core is rotted. The opening sentence can shock a post-BP oil spill reader into sitting up straight and paying even more attention:

"Right after World War II everybody in southern Louisiana thought he was going to get rich in the oil business."
And dear lord, can that man write a metaphor. From Ellroy to Burke, it's the journey from the profane to the divine. And both are noir.

Harlan Ellison also is represented with a verbose, bloated but kinda clever tale about mindreaders and guilt in Onyx from 1993. Then the personally gracious, always honest writer Ed Gorman contributes Out There in the Darkness. This 1995 story of a beautifully crafted one of accidental involvement in a horrific event when four surburban buddies are disturbed at their card game by burglars. Since this is noir it leads, of course, to doom, with the last man standing meeting his fate. This was filmed as Poker Night.

Joyce Carol Oates demonstrates she can delve into this genre as deftly as gothic with Faithless from 1997, a strong family tale of grown daughters wondering what really happened to their mother. Terrific family dynamics are one of Oates's fortes, and it's found here. For a short story, Tom Franklin has an epic entry in 1998's Poachers. This is a completely engrossing story of three lawless brothers, their neighbors, a store keeper, and, possibly, a legendary game warden. One of the highlights of the anthology. Like a Bone in the Throat is Lawrence Block's 1998 story that is constructed of twist after twist. It will be of particular interest to readers of The Crying Tree by Naseem Rakha or I'd Know You Anywhere by Laura Lippman. It's followed by the European version of noir with James W. Hall's Crack, in which a man named Thorn watches the vice consul's daughter through a crack in the wall.

One of the highlights of this massive collection is from modern master Dennis Lehane. His 1999 Running Out of Dog is another epic tale within the short story format. Three vietnam-era friends are trying to do more than get by decades later:

"And when hope comes late to a man, it's quite a dangerous thing. Hope is for the young, the children. Hope in a full-grown man -- particularly one with as little acquaintanceship with it or prospect for it as [one of the main characters] -- well, that kind of hope burns as it dies, boils blood white, and leaves something mean behind when it's done."

And when their sordid, sad, profoundly haunting tale is done, he ends it thus: "In the world, case you haven't noticed, you usually pay for your wins. And in the South, always." Not bad for a Boston boy.

The Paperhanger from William Gay is very dark, very twisted and very sad. This 2000 story is akin to the original Grimm tales that are horrific. It's definitely more gothic than noir, but fascinating nonetheless. Million Dollar Baby author F.X. Toole became a matador after reading Hemingway before he became a boxing trainer. His admiration for Papa is still evident in his 2001 Midnight Emissions. At least as much as the plot itself, the story is valuable for knowing what it takes to put a kid in the boxing ring. There is a long soliloquy on being a trainer and what it costs him. The rambling story eventually comes to its inevitable conclusion. Elmore Leonard has to be here and he is, with When the Women Come Out to Dance. This 2002 tale from a master of dialogue is definitely worth reading all the way through.

Scott Wolven's Controlled Burn (2002) can be described by this sentence: "The hard work crushed one empty beer can day after another, adding to my lifetime pile of empties." Christopher Coake's 2003 All Through the House is a heartbreaker, told in Momento-style with the last event related first. And it works. This, too, is a keeper of a story about childhood friends and how it comes to a bad end. What She Offered, by Thomas H. Cook, appears at first to be meta-fiction about a glib young widow who didn't love her comfortable husband before he died. She watched him die slowly of cancer before she meets the narrator, a successful dark novelist. This 2005 story turns out to have a broken heart before it ends.

Andrew Klavan's Her Lord and Master is misogynistic kin to Ellroy's works. This story supposedly is controversial because of it's "did she ask for the abuse" storyline. Klavan does turn a good phrase but the story seems far more dated than 2005. The next story is about the most difficult to read in the anthology. Chris Adrian's Stab is about a surviving cojoined twin and a little girl with a sharp bodkin. It's very perverse and very sad. Bradford Morrow's The Hoarder is next. There is a big buildup but your mileage could well vary on whether it pays off.

Lorenza Carcaterra gets the last word with Missing the Morning Bus. Although the story was published in 2007, it has an old-fashioned feel to it with the methodical introduction of the fellows around the poker table.

Although noir often is pictured as black and white films, and stories from the 30s and 40s, Best American Noir shows how deeply the genre has been mined in the past two decades. The last handful of stories are not the strongest, but many of the very best were written later rather than earlier. The depth and breadth of what is being written bodes well for the future of bleak examinations that don't blink at just how dark the desires of the human heart can be. They stare down the reader and dare him to not blink.
© 2010 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission


  1. I didn't realise feaks was based on a story ,sounds like a great collection ,all the best stu

  2. It is a great collection -- very comprehensive. It also would be very difficult to read through without breaks.

    Good to see you, Stu.

  3. I read very little crime fiction, and will admit to not even being sure what noir is, but your review is excellent! I think I'd like to take a closer look at this... off to check the library website.

  4. Thank you! It's so good to see you. "Noir" is the darkest, bleakest end of the spectrum, so it is definitely the extreme version of crime fiction.

    Then again, a lot of creative literary fiction is dire. "Room" comes immediately to mind. (And I wouldn't be surprised if it won the Booker.)