Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Noir/Hardboiled Writers Part 1

I wrote the original version of this a couple years ago, mostly in an attempt to sort it all out for myself. At the time, I had no idea there was such a thriving "noir underground" on line, or that I'd wind up becoming friends with some of the writers mentioned. I also had no clue how little I actually knew... since writing this series of essays, I've learned a great deal from more legitimate noir historians, and I've also been introduced to tons of newer writers in the genre by various other readers.

And so here's the new, revised, edited and expanded series of essays called Noir/Hardboiled Writers. If you're interested, check in every Wednesday evening for the next part.

Part One

Tough guys. Dangerous dames. Hapless losers. Psychopathic villains. Racetracks, seedy bars, swank nightclubs. Crooked cops and crumbling tenement houses.

Welcome to the underbelly: the dark, cynical heart of the American dream. This is the City of Hardboiled, the neighborhood of Noir. It’s a great place to visit, but… well, you know the drill.

This is a particularly American place, even though in recent years it’s managed to export itself around the world, taking root in England and France, Mexico and Algiers, even Norway if you can believe it. Seems that there’s plenty of existential angst to go around in this world. But the source of the virus is the States, no question. That’s where the infections first occurred, that’s where the buildings first went up and the private dick had his first shot of whisky and the grifter made his first score.

It’s hard to say where it all started, this school of hardboiled lyricism and noir dread. If you wanted to get really deep about it, you could say it started with Mark Twain, the first American writer to use a distinctly American voice. Ernest Hemingway noted that all American literature comes from one book, Huckleberry Finn, and yeah, he’s pretty much right. But maybe we’re putting too fine a point on it.

As early as the 1890’s, Twain not withstanding, we had action-packed stories of two-fisted heroes, knocking the crap out of Victorian-style villains and rescuing damsels—Nick Carter was probably the first (or at least the most successful) of these cardboard cut-out heroes. He appeared in tons of cheap chapbooks, circulated all over the country and mostly reserved for the newly-literate masses, who were, let’s face it, not particularly sophisticated in their reading habits.

But really, there’s nothing hardboiled or noir about those stories. They’re totally prelude.

Those chapbooks led to the great magazine boom of the early 20th century, and that’s really where things get rolling. In the early days, fiction magazines were general interest—they’d have, say, a western story, a detective thriller, a story of high seas adventure, etcetera. But by the early ‘20’s most of them had become more specialized. By far, the best-selling magazines were of the ‘detective’ variety.

Dime Detective. Thrilling Detective. Spicy Detective Stories. There were tons of them.

The king of detective magazines, though, was Black Mask, and that’s where the hardboiled style first emerged.

But we still haven’t defined our terms. Hardboiled and noir are not really the same thing, even though they often go hand-in-hand. A story can be hardboiled without having a trace of noir, and vice-versa.

Hardboiled came first, in those unsettled and uncertain times between the two world wars. It’s a genre defined by it’s rejection of sentiment. It portrays crime and violence in a stark, unromantic light. You could say “realism”, but that’s not really true—in most hardboiled stories, there isn’t much realism to speak of. It’s more of a “hyper-realism”, a distorted representation of the world that feels real while you’re immersed in it, that feels like the world you’re most afraid of.

Hardboiled stories usually feature a detective hero—not always, but often enough that you notice it when they don’t. This detective hero is usually every bit as tough as the villains he comes across, and he’s almost always the wittiest guy in the room. He’s cool. Cocky, even. You wish you were as cool as this guy.

Noir eventually popped out of the skull of hardboiled, fully formed. It’s basically a sort of role-reversal of protagonists—the central character in a noir isn’t usually the “knight in tarnished armor”-type; he’s the lowlife the knight is trying to nail.

Noir implies a certain dark tone, cynical, fatalistic, with a particular sort of cast of characters—generally people on the fringe of normal society, doing things you could only politely describe as anti-social. There is invariably a sense of impending doom, as a protagonist fights—or doesn’t fight—against an end that is, really, inevitable. Life sucks and then you die, that sort of thing. Granted, that’s a broad definition, and it doesn’t take into account about a ton of other things that come to mind when you think of “noir”, but that’s the general idea.

But you know, there are even finer distinctions these days. In recent years, the term “psycho-noir” gets thrown around quite a bit. Obviously, it’s a further refinement of noir, but its definition is a little trickier. Noted noir author Dave Zeltserman, wrote that “psycho-noir” is the type of story…

"...where the protagonists perceptions and rationalizations are just off center enough to send them to hell."

I think the main difference between “noir” and “psycho-noir” lies in the central protagonist. In “noir”, it’s usually a normal kind of joe, maybe a bit too ambitious or a bit too flip about right and wrong, who’s drawn into a messed-up situation by circumstance or by his own hubris. He may wind up doing monstrous things, but he’s basically a decent guy who manages to fuck up royally.

The main character in a “psycho-noir”, on the other hand, is usually a monstrous person to begin with. Perhaps he’s an amoral sociopath, like Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley. In some cases, like Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280, he’s a full-on delusional lunatic. The main thing is, he’s a bad guy, and not a bad guy who’s really a good guy deep inside, or is simply “misunderstood”. No, he’s the full-on villain, and the story belongs to him, and if it’s done right you still kinda want him to win.

These can be really small distinctions, of course. Sometimes, it’s difficult to find that point where “hardboiled” becomes “noir”, or where “noir” becomes “psycho-noir”, and honestly a good crime story is just a good crime story regardless, because of the elements that they have in common. And what are those? The writer Jack Bludis sums it up as neatly as anything I’ve heard:


The hardboiled/noir phenomenon didn’t happened in a vacuum, of course. It’s not as if every other writer in America between the two world wars was writing beautiful, shining monuments to happiness and optimism. Hardboiled/noir grew out of a general feeling of dissatisfaction and alienation that was reflected in the work of more mainstream or critically respected authors as well. Ernest Hemingway developed his lean, spare style of writing as a response against the excesses of his literary contemporaries, an excess he felt obscured more than illuminated. He wrote about tough men, usually, doing tough things, just like the writers of hardboiled/noir, and also like them his cynicism and despair over the human condition shined through his work.

Hemingway and Hammett are often compared. The styles they employed were similar, and some critics have accused Hammett of stealing Hemingway’s lean style outright. This is patently untrue: Hammett actually came first, in the pages of Black Mask, in 1923. Hemingway’s first book wasn’t released in the States until two years later. Not that Hemingway stole from Hammett—he certainly did not. It must have been something in the water, or maybe they drank the same brand of whisky.

Regardless, Hemingway is significant in the development of the hardboiled school. His short stories are especially relevant, and the novels A Farwell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls all show the same attitude about the world and humanity that are displayed in the genre writers.

A few years later, John Steinbeck, too, would be easily linked to the hardboiled movement with his grim novels of Depression-era America: Of Mice and Men, East of Eden, and The Grapes of Wrath.

William Faulkner was a huge fan of hardboiled and noir, and it shows in many of his books, most notably Pylon, Sanctuary, A Light in August, and the darkly comic As I Lay Dying.

If you want to know more, check out Geoffrey O'Brien's fantastic book, Hardboiled America, and "A History of Pulp", the brilliant essay by Cullen Gallagher in Beat to a Pulp: Round One, edited by David Cranmer and Elaine Ash.

Continue to Part 2, here.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Adventures of Cash Laramie & Gideon Miles, by Edward A. Grainger

We seem to be in the beginning stages of a real resurgence of interest regarding Westerns. I couldn’t begin to tell you why, but I’m thankful for it. My own interest in the genre is fairly recent as well, coinciding nicely with the new spike. Something in the water, I reckon. Or in the rotgut whiskey.
Riding the first wave of the Western resurgence is a fella we’ll call Edward A. Grainger, coming full-throttle out of the stable with the insanely fun short story collection The Adventures of Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles.
Cash and Gideon are Marshalls in the town of Cheyenne in the late 1800’s, a time when lawlessness ran rampant and only a few dedicated men stood tall and ready to defend law and justice—or, in the case of our heroes, at least justice. They’re great characters, these two. Throwbacks, in a way, to the sort of steady and silent heroes you might remember from your youth: Shane, The Virginian, L’Amour’s Sackett family… you get the idea. The kind of gun-totting hombres you’d want on your side with the chips are down.
So yeah, there’s something charmingly old-fashioned about these stories, but Grainger is a smart enough writer to know that the modern reader needs something more than just a nostalgia trip, or a mythologizing of an era that’s already been mythologized to hell and back. These stories do more than that; they also give us a real picture of the ugly violence and rampant racism of the time. With Gideon Miles, a black man wielding authority in a time when that was almost unheard of, we have a hero who is confident, realistic in his world view, and—often—the moral center of his world.
But the bulk of the stories in Adventures of Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles focus on Cash—a decent and resourceful man with an incredibly strong sense of right and wrong. In the introduction, Grainger says the stories were inspired by Leone’s terrific “spaghetti westerns”, but the truth is he gives us characters much more fully developed than that, and in Cash we have a hero who is more obviously on the side of the angels than anyone in those morally murky films.
And I guess there’s no point in being coy about it, as it’s an open secret anyway—Grainger is the pen name of David Cranmer, editor of Beat to a Pulp. I say this just in case you had any doubts about picking this collection up. Cranmer is a guy with impeccable taste in stories, and he doesn’t go any easier on his own work.
My personal favorites in Adventures of Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles: “Kid Eddie”, in which Cash must escort a charming but psychotic criminal back to Cheyenne to face justice (Cranmer predicted I’d like this one a lot, and he was right), “Melanie”, which finds Cash at odds with a loutish wife-and-child abuser who can’t be touched by the law, but—maybe—can still face justice at the hands of Cash Laramie, and “The Outlaw Marshall”, where we see at last the lengths Cash is willing to go to in order to mete out justice—as the last story in the book, it’s probably the most brutal, and shows us a side of Cash that Grainger had only hinted at before.
All in all, some great stuff. The episodic nature of the stories would lend themselves well to being a television show, a la The Rifleman, Stagecoach, Gunsmoke, etc…
Man, wouldn’t that be great?
Anyway, buy this book. It’s only .99 cents, for a good 100 bucks worth of Western high adventure.

Sunday, June 19, 2011


Three new reviews of The Bastard Hand have popped up on line this past week, each one managing to get a little burst of happy out of me.
First, Poker Ben at Noir Journal has some nice words (he also reviews Aaron Clark's fantastic The Science of Paul, as well).
Then Seth Lynch at Reading and Writing weighs in with his nicely-written peice...
And finally, this morning at Sea Minor, Nigel Bird, author of the terrific collection Dirty Old Town & Other Stories, got my day off to a good start with this.
It's nice to see people still picking up The Bastard Hand and giving it a chance, several months after its debut. For us small-timers, every reader is valuable, and every reader is deeply appreciated. And in the case of The Bastard Hand, the strong and positive word-of-mouth has made ALL the difference in the world.
I love my readers, yes I do...

Monday, June 13, 2011

Flying without a Net

Been flying without a net with the new book I'm working on, which is unfortunate, because I keep falling off the highwire and cracking my head open on the ground below.
That is, writing without an outline. Just... seeing where it takes me.
Eh. Not such a good idea. So many wrong turns, so many characters without a clear motivation, so many threads that keep getting tangled up. A few minutes ago, I decided I didn't have a fucking clue what I was doing and really need to re-think this whole project...
At it's core, it's a good solid concept involving a washed-up ex-wrestler, his much smarter girlfriend, a Memphis mobster with two crazy-ass strong-arms, and fifty G worth of money that they all want. Let the hilarity ensue. But less than 80 pages in (working without a net, as I say) the various plot threads have become hopelessly tangled and nonsensical. This whole "seeing where it takes me" thing has led to too many POV shifts, too many peripheral characters with not much to do other than say a few words or pound a few heads or take a few drugs. I'm totally losing sight of the story.
So I'm thinking of starting fresh, this time with a halfway decent outline, concentrating on two or three central characters, and seeing if I can salvage anything out of this mess.
I know some of you work very well without an outline, but for me... man, it's a disaster.
So tell me, if you're a writer... outline or no outline for your work? And if you're a reader... do you prefer stories with tight, insulated casts, or big, sprawling byzantine plots?

P.S. That image above, which has nothing to do with anything I was just talking about, is by the magnificent Christopher Moonlight, if you're interested. You can find his work at Moonlight Art Magazine. I'm a big fan of his.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Bastard Hand at Ed Gorman's blog

I've been a fan of Ed Gorman's for something like twenty years now, so I'm very happy to report that today I'm on his blog, talkin' up my wee book.

I realize that a couple of you might be here, reading this, because of the post over there, only to find me referring you back again. That is the endless closed loop of the universe for you. May as well reconcile yourself.

And thanks again, Ed!

Monday, June 6, 2011

A late entry

A couple weeks ago I did a list of my all-time favorite book titles. I didn't know this one existed.

I haven't read it yet, but that title... Number one with a bullet, man.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

10 Best Noirs of the Last 10 Years (or so)

The ‘00’s really saw the flood gates open for the New Noir. We had lots of good crime fiction through the seventies, eighties and nineties, but that little spark of existential angst and black humor had grown rare after the early ‘60’s—I blame the hippies. But now… well, there’s a new guard. Fresh voices that aren’t afraid to speak—loudly—about our darkest impulses, and who stomp fearlessly down that path that leads to utter annihilation.
Here’s my list of best noir novels of the last ten years or so. It goes without saying (and yet I’m saying it anyway) that this is totally subjective. These are just the ones that really hit me in the gut on a personal level, and obviously I haven’t read every single noir that’s appeared in the last ten years. If one of your favorites isn’t here, tell me about it.

Killer- Dave Zeltserman

Aged hit man Leonard March is back in Boston after fourteen years in the slammer. Now, working as a janitor and living in a filthy dive, March is playing out his final days, knowing that, sooner or later, his old boss’s thugs will come after him and make him pay for his betrayal. Either that, or one of his victim’s relatives.
There’s more to this sad old man than what meets the eye, however. While Leonard March may be repentant, just how much of the cold-blooded killer is left inside him? Before Killer is over, the reader will learn the chilling answer to that question.
On the surface, Killer is about regret, loneliness, and that old inevitable mortality thing. But scratch a little deeper and even darker themes emerge… it all leads to a truly shocking climax.

Bury Me Deep- Megan Abbott

1931, Phoenix, Arizona-- fragile, sheltered Marion is alone, left by her drug-addled doctor husband to fend for herself. She falls into the company--and under the influence-- of two “party girls”, vivacious Louise and acerbic, consumptive Ginny. She also begins to fall, hard, for the roguish Joe Lanigan, a man with connections all over town. Her ever-increasing obsession with Joe begins to lead Marion down dark, dark paths, where she discovers things about herself she wished she never knew, things ugly and passionate, culminating in a night of betrayal, blood, and violence.
The language is rich and layered, the story moves at a breakneck pace, and the characters are so vivid you’d almost swear you can smell the bathtub gin and laudanum. Marion’s story is heartbreaking, tense, scary. And Megan Abbott is, without question, among the best four or five writers alive in the genre today.

The Getaway Man- Andrew Vachss

Young Eddie is a getaway driver, honest and loyal to his friends, and so naive he borders on simpleminded. But his innocence is put to the test when he signs on with some big time operators for a major heist, only to learn--the hard way-- that not everyone is as decent as he is.
I’ve read three or four of Vachss’s novels about Burke, thought they were pretty good, but didn’t knock my socks off. But The Getaway Man is just stellar. Fast-paced (I read it in two sittings), with a hugely sympathetic protagonist who is almost heartbreaking in his desire to please those around him.

Psychosomatic- Anthony Neil Smith

This one is still fresh in my mind as I only finished it yesterday—but I knew halfway through it would wind up on a list like this. Smith’s first novel is a demented, occasionally grotesque piece of art about a fat, cowardly fringe criminal named Alan Crabtree, his own personal femme fatale, quadruple amputee Lydia, two sleazy small time criminals named Terry and Lancaster propelled suddenly into the big time of murder and rape, and a handful of other equally compelling characters. It’s a remarkably labyrinthine plot that all comes together seamlessly at the end.

Slammer- Allan Guthrie

Glass is a deeply disturbed young prison guard, harassed by inmates and fellow guards alike. When he agrees under duress to do a favor for a con, he quickly falls under the con’s control and his life begins an ugly downward spiral; his deep-seated psychosis rages to life and it isn’t long before the boundaries between reality and fantasy become hopelessly lost.
Slammer is an intense novel, not so much the story of Glass’ slow descent into madness as his sudden, breathtaking plummet into insanity. The stakes get continually higher and higher, and all the while the reader is sickeningly aware that Glass is doomed—not just by external forces but by the twisted thing inside him. Superior psycho-noir.

Savage Night- Allan Guthrie

Savage Night. Violent, funny, demented, twisted… but it’s Guthrie, so that’s a given, right?
Savage Night is the story of two families at murderous odds with one another: the Parks, led by ex-con Andy Park who (despite his pathological aversion to nnggghh blood) wants revenge for a (real or imagined) slight perpetrated by the Savages. He concocts a blackmail scheme that goes horribly wrong when the Savages decide to take action themselves. The violence escalates and finally comes to a head in one long, bloody night of mayhem.
In Slammer, Guthrie stuck with a single POV, but in Savage Night he uses multiple POV to great effect There are times, especially about mid-way through, where things get a little confusing and you’d better be paying very close attention if you don’t want to get lost. Fortunately, Guthrie makes NOT paying attention impossible.

Godchild- Vincent Zandri

Jack Marconi is a man who’s lost everything—he has seen his wife die in a horrible car “accident”, and, after several years, he’s somehow managed to put the pain behind him (but only just) and start building a new life for himself. In fact, he’s about to get married again, and the future is looking better than he could ever have imagined.
And then he sees the man—the driver responsible for the death of his first wife. It’s only a split-second glimpse, but it’s enough for Jack’s world to begin veering off again into the danger and moral ambiguity he thought he’d left behind.
Godchild is a real kick-ass thriller, and Zandri’s style is sharp, lean and non-sentimental.

Fake I.D.- Jason Starr

Jason Starr is a modern noir master.
The story: Tommy Russo, a bouncer/struggling actor/gambling addict gets a shot at the big time when he’s offered a stake in a promising race horse. All he needs is ten grand to get it rolling—ten grand he doesn’t have. Fortunately for Tommy, he has no problem lying, cheating and stealing to get it.
In the best noir tradition, Tommy sets himself up for disaster with every lie he tells, and before long even commits murder… and everything starts falling apart as his lies begin to close in on him.
As a character, Tommy Russo is a self-centered, delusional monster, but you can’t help but be interested in his plight as you see the rope tightening around his neck. It’s as if Bret Easton Ellis had written a crime novel.

No Country for Old Men- Cormac McCarthy

One of our best noirs, it definitely wasn’t marketed as such. No doubt it wouldn’t have sold near as well as it did. Whatever; No Country for Old Men is one of the greatest noirs of all time, a surprisingly traditional sort of crime story with an unforgettable cast of characters. The antagonist, Chigurh, is the most compelling villain I've read about in a long time, and he forms only a third of the trinity of central characters in "No Country". Moss, the "good old boy" who stumbles across a huge cache of drug money and Sheriff Bell, the philosophically-inclined lawman who is out of his element and knows it, make up the counter-points to the psychotic and cool-headed Chigurh. A cold, brutal book, written with eloquent precision and dead-on dialogue.

Priest- Ken Bruen

There's a reason I love Ken Bruen's work. He's absolutely brutal, emotionally draining, and never lacking for real insight into human misery. In "Priest", he unflinchingly explores the psyche of a man on the very precipice.
Still reeling from the shattering events of “The Dramatist”, Jack Taylor is back in Galway, trying to stay sober, trying to get a handle on his rage and despair. He’s asked to investigate the horrifying decapitation of a priest, and the investigation takes his already fragile psyche through an emotional wasteland of abuse, guilt, and vengeance.
Bruen is never afraid to ask the difficult questions in his books; what makes each Jack Taylor story so emotionally grueling is that he’s also not afraid to admit there are no easy answers to human suffering. While Jack may be the author of his own misery, even when he works to get his world back in order fate has a way of pulling the rug out from under him. Jack is aging, and it seems all his roosters are coming home to roost. Rarely have I felt such sympathy for a protagonist.