This week's selection is courtesy of The G, founder and co-editor of nerds of a feather..., one of our favourite genre blogs. The G claims to moonlight as an academic - Professor The G? - and, more importantly, is a fan of the greatest and grimiest of all genres: noir. Without further ado, let's slip into the office, pour a glass of bourbon and talk about the case...
There are two ways to look at noir: as crime fiction set in gritty worlds where darkness reigns and corruption slips its fingers into all things; or more specifically as stories about the amoral or immoral inhabitants of such worlds. Crime fiction luminary Otto Penzler prefers the latter, arguing that noir functions as commentary on the earlier, moralistic hardboiled detective. But that’s always seemed a rather minor distinction to draw, given the vastly more expansive commonalities of setting and tone, and so I favor the broader definition. It works for film, so why not literature?
That said, most noir comes in one of three flavors:
- The Hardboiled Thriller, in which a stubborn and ethical hero pushes back against dark and corrupt world, ultimately settling for small, symbolic victories against a backdrop of general hopelessness (e.g. Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler).
- The Sadsack Tragedy, in which a well-intentioned but weak-willed antihero attempts but is unable to escape the clutches of said dark and corrupt world (e.g. James M. Cain, Jim Thompson).
- The Revenge Fantasy, in which a sociopathic product of the dark and corrupt world seeks revenge against its agents, yet is unconcerned with changing or improving that world (e.g. Patricia Highsmith, Richard Stark).
Each represents a different shade of who we think we are, and how we might behave under difficult circumstances. We hope we’re the hardboiled detective hero, fear that we’re the sadsack antihero and, sometimes at least, secretly wish we could just loosen the fetters and be that sociopath hell-bent on getting even. This is the genius of noir: it plays to our senses of self-worth and self-doubt at the same time.
The first selection naturally comes from Chandler, the most literary and dare I say best crime fiction author of all-time (despite all the gaping plot holes). Though The Big Sleep might be more famous, The Long Goodbye is the ultimate Chandler - trope and type filled, to be sure, but at its heart a book about alcoholism, friendship and loss. Incidentally, The Long Goodbye was written as Chandler’s wife lay dying and he was descending into alcoholism - infusing the book with visceral pain and rage arguably missing from his earlier work. Quite simply, a masterpiece.
Ripley’s Game by Patricia Highsmith
In Tom Ripley, Highsmith presents the ultimate sociopath: self-interested, jealous and lacking even the most remote evidence of conscience. Yet, one might add, oddly sympathetic too. For me, this paradox is best exemplified in Ripley’s Game - where Ripley is most fussy about his daily ethics and “civilized” practices - yet engages in a social experiment to see if he can lead a “basically decent” man to commit murder. Ultra-creepy.
The Sour Lemon Score by Richard Stark
Parker novels are all basically the same: someone approaches Parker and convinces him to get in on a heist; there’s a double-cross, either during the heist or just after; Parker spends the remainder of the novel killing everyone until he either gets his money back or is convinced that it’s gone for good. And it never gets old, because Parker novels are Revenge Fantasies par excellence. Parker isn’t evil or sadistic or tortured - he just wants his money, and will use exactly the amount of violence necessary to get it most efficiently. But in The Sour Lemon Score, he comes up against a more cruel and callous nemesis, and suddenly finds himself in Marlowe’s shoes. This gives the book an emotional heft missing from most of the others. A warning, though: this one is as dark as they come.
From True Detective to Justified, country noir is everywhere. And Woodrell’s tight little novel is a great example of the type. As I wrote in a review: “Muscle on the Wing…[is]a short, compact novel centered on a crime gone wrong and an investigation that almost never gets off its feet. It's full of hard men and harder women, all of whom occupy the gray area between good and bad, and between lucky and unlucky. It's a bit reminiscent of James M. Cain, to a degree, as well as Richard Stark’s (i.e. Donald Westlake's) Parker novels - though not as relentlessly grim as the first nor as nihilistic as the second. There are, perhaps more obviously, shades of Leonard and a hint of Chandler, though more in the effect than in style.” In other words, it’s very, very good.
The Twenty-Year Death by Ariel Winter
The most current selection on this list is brilliantly metafictional—three novels in one, all telling a connected story: one in the style of Simenon, another in the style of Chandler and a third in the style of Thompson. As I noted in a review of the book, Winter does a bang up job capturing the voices of the masters, and the book can be read as an alternative form of literary history, tracing as it does three decades of noir history. This is thus a book that can be read for pure enjoyment, but which holds bonus prizes for genre nerds like me (and presumably you, dear reader).
What are your favourite works of noir (or semi-noir or noir-inflected) literature? Got some recommended reading for us? Share in the comments!