ONE OF THE MOST COMMON QUESTIONS Bookmarks readers ask us is, "When are you going to do the next volume of 'Great Mysteries?'" So, for the third time, we oblige. In Volume II (July/Aug2007), we looked at international, contemporary hard-boiled and noir, and psychological mysteries and thrillers. In our Nov/Dec 2004 issue, we offered recommendations on historical mysteries and police procedurals. Now, we examine neo-noir crime novels, more recent historical crime novels, and offerings by young crime writers. Stay tuned for Volume IV.
Noir crime fiction--James M. Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Mildred Pierce), Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely), Patricia Highsmith, and, later, Jim Thompson, David Goodis, and James Crumley, for a start--used to mean flawed heroes, seductive dames, and shocking glimpses into society's violent underbelly.
Noir hasn't gone away, but it's had a makeover.
These days, mash-ups and genre jumping are all the rage. In the last decade or so, writers, inspired by the instant accessibility of information, have changed the way we think about noir. Throw in a thoroughgoing cynicism that even the old-schoolers couldn't match, and you've got neo-noir crime fiction.
Neo-noir fiction is as varied as the genres and the styles that authors adapt to their stories, but the books still give a nod to crime cinema and graphic novels. When well done, as in the books recommended below, those influences are woven seamlessly into the plot, evoking a strong sense of place and a keen attention to pop culture.
"I began as a lover of '30s gangster movies and that eventually led me, via Bogart and Cagney, to noir," Megan Abbott, the Edgar Award--winning author, says about her own immersion in the genre. "I think I fell first for Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity--the more glamorous noir. Then, the more I dug in, I came to love the sleazier, infinitely lush depth of B-noir. ... It's primal and seductive, the big emotions of life laid bare."
"Writing about regular working women (nurses, teachers, bookkeepers) in a world we're used to seeing populated by detectives, cops, strippers and prostitutes makes it easier to seem 'now'" (3:AM Magazine, 8/24/09).
Weirdos, outcasts, femme fatales, detectives, and random losers whose character flaws make some of the more traditional noir antiheroes look tame by comparison--they're all here, and they're all waiting.
After a failed attempt at acting and a career of sorts as a bartender, Charlie Huston crashed the noir party with his debut, Caught Stealing (2004), the first in the Hank Thompson trilogy. Since then, he's published nearly a dozen well-received novels (Six Bad Things , also part of the trilogy, was nominated for an Edgar)--all of which resonate with the author's aberrant and entertaining take on society's dregs.
In Caught Stealing, washed-up baseball star Hank Thompson has become a cliche. An alcoholic bartender in a Manhattan dive, Hank has resigned himself to a life of unfulfilled dreams. Things change when a neighbor asks him to cat-sit. Beaten nearly to death by Russian gangsters, Hank assumes that his neighbor is hiding something important. He's right. Fortunate to have survived the ordeal, Hank returns in Six Bad Things and A Dangerous Man (2006).
Even for readers who shy away from stories that have anything to do with the tragically hip undead, Huston's "supernatural noir" Vampyre novels--the Joe Pitt Case-books series--work. They're clever, darkly humorous, and thoroughly hard-boiled (and, the squeamish be warned, ultraviolent).
In Already Dead (**** Mar/Apr 2006), the first of the five in the series to date, Huston lays the foundation for a New York inhabited by Vampyres who have split themselves into factions, each with its own aims and unique identity.
Since Joe Pitt first contracted the virus that transformed him into a Vampyre, he's gone Rogue and does odd jobs for the Coalition, including tracking a high-society runaway to the city's most unsavory haunts. Failure is not an option--the penalty for disappointing the Coalition's chief is most unpleasant--and when Pitt discovers the truth behind the girl's disappearance, it's every Undead for himself.
Two stand-alones, The Shotgun Rule (2007), a coming-of-age story involving a stolen bicycle and a meth lab, and The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death (**** Mar/Apr 2009), a reference to the "Clean Team" that sanitizes death scenes, solidify Huston's reputation.
"Huston has developed a reputation for his own brand of noir fiction, by turns side-splittingly funny and gruesomely violent and repugnant," Peter Mergendahl writes about The Shotgun Rule. "[Readers] might just find a glimmer of hope by its end" (Rocky Mountain News, 8/24/07).
The settings for Victor Gischler's novels--a rural Oklahoma university and Florida, for instance--couldn't be more out of central casting from the noir handbook. Or maybe it's just that any bizarre situation rattling around long enough in Gischler's warped, capable mind is bound to come out fully formed as neo-noir-inspired mayhem.
In the author's debut, the Edgar-nominated Gun Monkeys (2001), Charlie "The Hook" Swift heads south while considering a unique problem: "I turned the Chrysler onto the Florida Turnpike with Rollo Kramer's headless body in the trunk, and all the time I'm thinking I should've put some...