Wednesday, August 31, 2011
Hardboiled/Noir Writers Part 10
Not since the 1950's have we had such a flood of talent in the world of dark crime fiction. But for all that, noir has, for the most part, remained a relatively underground phenomena, nurturing itself down there in the dark and damp. These writers have chosen this for themselves, and one can only assume they do it for love of the genre. Here are some more of the modern Masters of Noir.
Anthony Neil Smith keeps writing wonderful, sleazy noirs with beautifully constructed and labyrinthine plots, and I for one can't get enough of what he's doing.
Choke on Your Lies
Victor Gischler, like Joe Lansdale, writes wonderfully in multiple genres, but for our concerns here I'm focusing on his pitch-perfect, tight-as-a-drum crime novels. Gischler writes like a madman, and you stand warned that addiction could soon follow:
Tom Piccirilli is fearless and intense and will shake the shit right out of you. There's an honesty to his work that is rare, even in the circles of crime fiction writers we've been discussing. If you want characters and situations that will stay with you long after you've read them, try Piccirilli.
Every Shallow Cut
The Coldest Mile
Short Ride to Nowhere
A Choir of Ill Children
The Last Deep Breath
Lynn Kostoff has a uniquely literary voice. I realize that's a vague statement, but read him and you'll see what I mean. He's a master of understatement and sly nasty humor, and you could be half-way through one of his books, enjoying the hell out of it, before you even realize you're reading a genre work. Kostoff is a modern master and I wish he'd write more.
A Choice of Nightmares
The Long Fall
Charlie Stella could well be our next Elmore Leonard, except that we still have Elmore Leonard. Whatever: Stella is a superstar, an amazing writer with a dead-on ear for dialogue, screwed-up criminal protagonists, and break-neck pacing. There's never a single wasted word, let alone wasted scene, in a Charlie Stella novel. He sets a new benchmark, this guy.
Charlie Williams pens the black-as-pitch but funny-as-hell adventures of Royston Blake, the maniacal bouncer/half-baked tough guy/ne'er-do-well of the town of Mangel. These books are amazing fun, and unique in that Royston narrates in his hypnotic lower-class Brit dialect. I always find myself reading them out-loud.
Booze & Burn
King of the Road
One Dead Hen
Scott Phillips writes brilliantly crafted noir with a wicked sense of humor. His books all have that uneasy feeling that it could all fall apart any moment, but Phillips is totally in control, and just gets better and better with every book.
The Ice Harvest
Roger Smith comes from South Africa, and before turning to noir fiction he wrote screenplays. That background is evident is his work: fast-paced, steeped in the blackest shadows, staying true to the noir vision. He's a major new talent.
Wake Up Dead
Vicki Hendricks writes full-on, uneasily sexy fiction that draws comparison to James M. Cain and other creators of steamy, tragic noir. Her work is raw and fierce, and highly recommended.
You might be surprised at my inclusion of Dennis Lehane here, since he could easily be catagorized with all the "doorstop thriller" authors discussed earlier. His books are invariably looong, and he also has a startling tendency to make best-seller charts on a regular basis. But here's the thing that lets him out: Lehane's books seldom seem to drag, despite the length. Chalk it up to his skill with pacing, his insight into real human doubts and concerns, and characters that you are really, truly interested in.
Gone, Baby, Gone
A Drink Before the War
The resurgence of interest in noir has affected the varied world of comic books as well. Here are four writers noteworthy in the field:
Ed Brubaker is the man most responsible for proving that comics can transcend super-heroics and depict hardboiled/noir every bit as well as straight novels. He infused Batman and Catwoman with superior noir creds before turning to more traditional crime stories in graphic novel format.
Brian Azzarello is another brilliant comic book writer, heavily influenced by Jim Thompson and David Goodis, but his sizzling dialogue is purely his own. The new Vertigo Crime line of graphic novels kicked off with an Azzarello title.
Frank Miller is inconsistent as a writer, but deserves recognition for the stunning and brutal series of Sin City graphic novels he wrote and drew.
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
Sin City: That Yellow Bastard
Jason Aaron currently writes two of the finest ongoing comic series out there. He's tough-minded, unsentimental, and deeply committed to brutally honest character development.
... and you know what? That little survey of modern noir writers really only scratches the surface, and doesn't take into account so many other writers who've only recently made the scene with a single novel, and who could very well wind up having a tremendous impact. It's hard, if not impossible, to gauge an author's skill and vision based on a single work, although it's not unheard of for someone to write a single book that knocks everyone senseless and never follow up with a second.
I can tell you this much, anyway: there are several of them out there that I intend to keep an eye on. I expect great things.
So there you have it: a history of the genre we love in ten easy installments. Noir is a very loose term, of course; it’s always in flux, always changing. Even as it looks backward and gains inspiration from all that’s come before, it’s the most forward-thinking of all literary genres. It changes. Just when you think you’ve got it defined, it grows out of its old threads and embraces new concerns.
One thing all great hardboiled/noir has in common, though, is its concern with the human condition and the darkest impulses in our souls. Because if we can’t acknowledge those things about ourselves, we can never tame them. As long as there are humans who wonder about their place in the world, and ponder the void, we’ll always have noir.
I owe a debt in writing this to various essays and commentary by Ed Gorman, Cullen Gallagher, Geoffrey O'Brien, Dave Zeltserman, and Bill Pronzini, as well as numerous other sources all over the web and in print. Thanks also to Lawrence Block, Brian Lindenmuth, and everyone else who offered corrections and clarifications on the fly.
If you have comments or suggestions (I’ve probably neglected about a hundred great writers!) feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.