Contemporary hardboiled noir.

HARDBOILED FICTION is a catchall term for gritty, bleak portrayals of an America whose calm surface barely conceals a violent energy--criminal, sexual, psychological--threatening to erupt at any moment.

Noir is generally considered a subgenre of the hardboiled story. The primary difference is a shift in the story's focus, from the often heroic, tough-guy detective who sets out to solve crimes to the antiheroes involved in those crimes--suspects, victims, criminals.

Dashiell Hammett (Sam Spade) was the godfather of the hardboiled novel, followed by Raymond Chandler (Philip Marlowe) and a generation of writers who made their bones publishing in pulp magazines, most famously Black Mask. Writers working over the past few decades were their heirs: John D. MacDonald, Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, and Robert B. Parker. Some of the earliest practitioners of the noir novel include Cornell Woolrich, Dorothy B. Hughes, Jim Thompson, Lenore Coffee, and David Goodis.

Cross-pollination and variations on the tried-and-true hardboiled and noir themes are the order of the day, from setting to literary style. Today, the heroes (or antiheroes) are more alienated, more down on their luck, and better able to exploit each other with new technologies. Authors intent on exposing our cultural decay will never want for material.

In short, anything can happen in the worst of all possible worlds. Fans of hardboiled and noir fiction can be thankful for that.

PAUL AUSTER

Auster's reputation as a literary writer has been impeccable since the publication of his NEW YORK TRILOGY beginning in the mid-1980s. Auster, who has always tiptoed the line between traditional novels and the postmodern, self-reflexive efforts for which he is best known, wowed the literary world with three novellas--CITY OF GLASS (1985), THE LOCKED ROOM (1986), and GHOSTS (1986)--that twisted readers' notions of what crime fiction could be. MOON PALACE (1989) and THE MUSIC OF CHANCE (1990) also show Auster's debt to noir fiction.

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JAMES LEE BURKE

Burke's Dave Robicheaux has survived a drinking problem and unsavory characters too numerous to count. In nearly two dozen novels, Robicheaux--and the Louisiana bayou he and his family inhabit--has taken on a mythical quality for readers who have followed him since the desperate days of THE LOST GET-BACK BOOGIE (1986) and THE NEON RAIN (1987). Other notables in the Robicheaux series: BLACK CHERRY BLUES (1989), IN THE ELECTRIC MIST WITH...

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