Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Hardboiled/Noir Writers Complete

That's a wrap on the Hardboiled/Noir Writers series. Thanks again, everyone who came back week after week to read it, I appreciate it. Here's the whole thing, compiled at one site, just for convenience sake. Hardboiled/Noir: Writers Complete.

Stick around, because in the next couple of days I'll be talking about the next multi-part series I have planned for Psycho-Noir-- and if you thought this last one was a big project, you ain't seen nothin' yet.

Hardboiled/Noir Writers Part 10

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine

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.
Yellow Medicine
Choke on Your Lies
The Drummer

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:
Gun Monkeys
The Deputy
Shotgun Opera
Suicide Squeeze
Pistol Poets

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
Late Rain
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 Opera
Johnny Porno
Jimmy Bench-Press

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
The Walkaway
The Adjustment

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.
Dust Devils
Mixed Blood
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.
Iguana Love
Cruel Poetry
Miami Purity
Sky Blues

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.
Shutter Island
Mystic River
Gone, Baby, Gone
A Drink Before the War
Moonlight Mile

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.
Filthy Rich
Johnny Double
100 Bullets

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
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

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Kindlegraph Me

A few readers (okay, five of them) have, over the last month or so, requested that I sign their Kindle edition of THE BASTARD HAND. At first I dismissed these requests as jokes, or the mad ravings of lunatic minds. Turns out you can actually DO that.
Allan Leverone, my good friend and the author of FINAL VECTOR, THE LONELY MILE, and the upcoming DARKNESS FALLS, pointed me toward Kindlegraph. I'm all set up over there now, comrades. If you're interested in me signing your Kindle with my magic virtual pen, here's the link: Kindlegraph Me, Sidney.

Book Shop Obsessions

This is how you can determine if someone is a compulsive reader: When planning a trip anywhere, I mean anywhere at all, the compulsive reader’s first question is, “Are there any good used/rare book shops?”
When my wife and I went to Cape Fear in North Carolina a couple years ago, I made a point of seeking out the two or three places that sold books and wound up going back home with a stack of twenty old John D. MacDonald’s. At one point not long ago we had planned on going to Arizona (never made that trip) and on my itinerary were the Grand Canyon and the Poisoned Pen Book Shop (not necessarily in that order).
So when we went to Kalamazoo these last three days, I knew what I’d be spending my time doing. Kim was there on business/school-related stuff, and so my time was my own. It turned out a bit more challenging than you would think, because apparently no one in the service industry reads at all. I asked the girl at the desk at our hotel where the best local book store was—got more or less a blank stare, until she called the manager, who directed me to a store just up the street.
Went to the store he mentioned, only to find they sold nothing but textbooks. The girl who worked there also had nothing useful to tell me; she knew of a Barnes & Noble a few miles away, that’s about it. But amazingly enough we have a Barnes & Noble in MY part of Michigan as well, right?
Finally consulted the interwebs, found listings for two places at opposite ends of town in Kalamazoo. The first place (which I shall not name) was at the ass-end of town, a dingy, musty-smelling joint with stacks of books teetering everywhere in no order to speak of. Bar-bells (for some odd reason) on the floor, two or three broken vacuum cleaners blocking the aisles. I know some people enjoy stores like that, but I just find them a bit infuriating. Managed by sheer luck to find three or four worthy books, though, and the guy running the place was friendly in an odd sort of way. He never moved from his sway-backed chair the whole time I was there, but when I brought my books up he became suddenly very gregarious, in a disconcertingly laconic way. He said strange things in his monotone—“You’re from the Detroit area, eh? I’ve heard Detroit started as a French fort. Is that true?” or, upon seeing a history of the American West that I purchased, “I understand the early settlers used trails west that were often originally Indian hunting trails. Would you say that’s a true statement?” And then he’d look at me very intently, as if a great deal rested on my answers.
So while the first shop I stopped at looked as if a bomb had gone off inside it, the second place was just THE BOMB. Kazoo Books, it’s called. I can heartily recommend it. A two-story affair with about 90% of the inventory being used/rare, it’s clean and well-organized, and the two men working there were amazingly helpful and friendly. I spent WAY more money there than I intended.
If you’re interested, here’s what I picked up at both places, combined—if you don’t give a damn, feel free to skip ahead, pardner:


DEAD FREIGHT FOR PIUTE, THE MAN ON THE BLUE, SUMMER OF THE SMOKE (first printing, paperback), and GUNMAN’S CHANCE by Luke Short. I freakin’ LOVE Luke Short.

THE CRAZY KILL by Chester Himes (Allison & Busby edition, trade paperback)

SHANE, by Jack Schaeffer (I know, I should’ve read this years ago, cut me some slack, will you?)

THE NAME IS ARCHER by Ross MacDonald

EXISTENTIALSIM FROM DOSTOEVSKY TO SARTRE by Walter Kaufmann (because I’m the laziest philosophy reader ever)

DOUBLE THE BOUNTY by Robert J. Randisi

FULL DARK, NO STARS by Stephen King (I only ever pick up his collections these days)

LOST ECHOES, SUNSET & SAWDUST, and A FINE DARK LINE, by Joe Lansdale (six bucks each in hardcover, yo)

THE AMERICAN WEST, an enormous coffee table history big enough to give you back strain, for four bucks.

…but here was the real find of the day:

THE END OF THE TRAIL: WESTERN STORIES by Robert E. Howard, in hardcover, from University of Nebraska Press. I read this one a few years ago while going through a crazy Howard phase, and it stayed with me as some of the best stuff the crazy Texas bastard ever wrote. I’ve seen it selling on E-Bay for close to a hundred bucks. Guess how much I paid? Go on, take a wild guess. Okay, I’ll tell you… seven bucks. I was practically giddy.
So now Kim and I are back home, greeted by a fat cat who was furious about being left home alone and a vaguely disturbing smell coming from the garbage. I had a nap, some coffee, and now I’m looking admiringly at my stash o’books, as if I wasn’t behind enough on my reading. But buying books isn’t something I generally beat myself up over, even though the wallet is pretty light these days and times is, as the man said, hard.
I’m thinking about our next trip, either to Philly next year or maybe Wyoming. Anyone know the best book shops out there?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Hardboiled/Noir Writers Part 9

Part One Part Two Part Three Part Four Part Five Part Six Part Seven Part Eight

--The New Noir--

The renewed interest in noir can, to a large extent, be credited to the awesome Black Lizard reprints of the 1980’s. Under the guidance of Barry Gifford, they brought out tons of great novels from the whole spectrum of the crime fiction underground and made them accessible to everyone. They also published, on occasion, more contemporary writers in the tradition. Gifford should be awarded a sainthood or something for that effort.

Black Lizard was eventually purchased by Random House and merged with their “Vintage Crime” line; but for some reason Random House decided to let almost the entire Black Lizard line go out of print, with the exception of the Jim Thompson titles. After that, they began focusing on more mainstream mystery and detective fiction.

Fortunately, in the ensuing years, many smaller publishers have taken up the mantle. Hard Case Crime is the most visible and successful of them, and they’ve taken it one step further: along with all the great reprints from the likes of Wade Miller, Day Keene, early Lawrence Block, etcetera, they also make a point of publishing new writers in the tradition, like Jason Starr, Ken Bruen, and Christa Faust.

Stark House is also doing great work putting out lost noir classics, as is Disruptive Press and several others. New Pulp Press focuses on new writers, but they've also put out some old Gil Brewer. We readers of the genre owe all these small publishers, big-time.

All the new interest in old noir has led, in the last ten or fifteen years, to a real resurgence of new talent, all inspired to some degree or another by the old masters. I wouldn’t want to speculate on the social or political climate that gave birth to this neo-noir, but something is definitely happening—the disaffected, disenfranchised protagonist has made a serious comeback. While most of these new writers have only a fleeting acquaintance with the bestseller charts, they’ve all at least developed formidable cult followings.

If I didn’t know better, I’d say we were in the midst of a third Golden Age of Noir… but I’ll let you decide for yourself. Check out these writers.

Jason Starr. A seriously formidable noir talent, and one of the purest noir writers around these days. He's been compared favorably to Thompson and Cain, but he's every bit in the tradition of Bret Easton Ellis as well.

Panic Attack
Hard Feelings
Nothing Personal
Cold Caller
Fake I.D.
The Follower
The Pack

Ken Bruen. Irish-born, Bruen’s novels usually chronicles the instability and unrest of his native country. His series character, Jack Taylor, is a disgraced former cop, alcoholic and drug addict. Serious noir, but with a good dose of black humor, they are some of the most emotionally devastating books you’ll ever read.

The Guards
The Killing of the Tinkers
Once Were Cops
The Dramatist
The Magdalen Martyrs
The Devil

James Sallis is most noted for his series of novels about Lew Griffin, atmospheric noirs usually set in and around New Orleans. Sallis is also a musician, which is apparent in the spare, almost musical, melancholy phrasing in his work. He's a unique talent.

Long-legged Fly
Black Hornet
Death Will Have Your Eyes
Cypress Grove
Cripple Creek

Reed Farrel Coleman. His books are usually set in his native Brooklyn, and are bursting at the seams with street-level ugliness and black humor.

Tower (w/ Ken Bruen)
The James Deans
Empty Ever After
Walking the Perfect Square

Allan Guthrie. A Scottish writer, Guthrie does blackly intense psycho-noirs where the boundaries between sanity and madness grow increasingly thin. Brilliant, brutal stuff.

Two-Way Split
Kiss Her Goodbye
Hard Man
Kill Clock
Savage Night

Dave Zeltserman led the pack of new noir writers right into the new century with his very particular dark and twisted vision. You need to read him.

Small Crimes
Bad Thoughts
Fast Lane

Albany-based Vincent Zandri made a big noise with his first two novels, sort of dropped out of sight for awhile, but then recently came roaring back with a steady stream of tight noirs that consistently top the Kindle charts. His work is highly concerned with questions of morality and identity.

The Innocent
Moonlight Falls
The Concrete Pearl
The Remains

Megan Abbott has an honest, incisive voice with shades of Goodis, fairly dripping with sensual detail, taking noir conventions and turning them on their ear by giving them a new perspective. A major talent.

Bury Me Deep
The Song is You
Die a Little
The End of Everything

Will Christopher Baer's novels about disgraced drug addict cop Phinneas Poe are wildly anarchic and existential tragedies, exploring bizarre themes of urban myth and redemption, just out of reach.

Kiss Me, Judas
Penny Dreadful
Hell's Half-Acre

Christa Faust is a singularly original writer, and her books have all the action, dark humor and sleazy characters of an old Gold Medal.

Money Shot
Choke Hold

Duane Swierczynski has a great sense of the absurd that flirts along the edges of nihilism, and a really original vision.

The Blonde
The Wheelman
Severance Package
Secret Dead Men
Fun & Games

Charlie Huston is another noir writer with a terrific imagination and a distinctive voice. He's been equally successful writing comics. His books are huge fun.
Caught Stealing

Six Bad Things
The Shotgun Rule
The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death

Philip Kerr is known primarily for his stunning “Berlin Noir” trilogy, featuring Bernhard Gunther, a private detective trying to operate during the Nazi regime. Firmly in the Philip Marlowe tradition.

March Violets
The Pale Criminal
A German Requiem

Ray Banks's novels about Cal Innes are required reading if you want a sense of what can be done with the modern P.I., and for those who find Rankin a bit long-winded, Bank's concise voice and relentlessly tight plotting are a welcome antidote.

No More Heroes
The Big Blind
Saturday’s Child
Sucker Punch (aka Donkey Punch)
Beast of Burden

Dennis Tafoya is a brand new talent in the world of noir, but his first novel is as self-assured as any pro.

Dope Thief
The Wolves of Fairmont Park

Next Wednesday, I'll wrap up our summary of the new Masters of Hardboiled/Noir, and look to the future of the genre, in Part Ten.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

"Writers are Sleazy and Annoying."

Some people hate writers.
They think we are self-absorbed assholes with no clue about how to interact with the real world. We can’t fix your car, we can’t balance a checkbook, we don’t know how to talk to girlies.
And yeah, that’s all true, for the most part (and before you comment, saying, ‘hey, jag-ass, I’m a writer and my checkbook is perfectly balanced and I’m composed and charming with the lady-folk’, please remember I’m talking about everyone except YOU, okay?).
But that’s not really the point, and it’s not the main reason the writah-hatah-playahs hate. They hate because on the social media sites, we spend a lot of time posting about writing—our own writing and the writing of others we admire.
And that just ain’t right.
None of this hate has actually been directed at me, understand. I haven’t had any first-hand encounters with people who gave me hell for posting about my work. But I actually saw this on Twitter once, a couple months ago: “I don’t follow writers, because all they do is try to shove their book down your throat. They’re just sleazy and annoying”. It made me a little sad, because the solution, the thing that would satisfy the writer’s need to get his work out there and at the same time not alienate anyone, doesn’t present itself very easily.
In my case, it comes down to this—a good chunk of my FB friends and Twitter followers are also writers. And as an avid reader and Fan-Boy, I actually WANT to know about their work. I really do. So it’s hard to get my head around someone who is put off by that… but I guess I get it, to some extent. The writers who post absolutely NOTHING but stuff about their latest novel or story or review can be obnoxious, yeah, okay. I’ve learned from watching other writers who’ve been doing this longer than I have that your best bet is to keep the self-promotion stuff down to two or three times a week, if you can. Just so you don’t annoy the people you’re trying to get to buy your stuff.
But here’s what it really comes down to. I don’t have two separate personas. There’s not the “Writer Heath” and the “Average Fella Heath”. It’s the same guy. My posts about writing (whether it’s MY work or someone else’s) don’t come from a different head than the posts about how we went to the museum or how my daughter cracks me up or what I had for breakfast.
So I have to assume that, if you know me, or if you like me at all, you might be interested in knowing that I have a new story out. Or that I’d really like you to buy my book or write a review or something. Just like, if I know and like you, I’m actually INTERESTED in the fact that you got a promotion or saw a kick-ass movie or that your kid is sick this week. I’m not being facetious. If we’re connected on any of the social networking sites, I actually consider you a FRIEND of sorts.
I suspect the problem comes from writers who actually think of themselves as two different personas. They're in it solely to promote their work, and nothing else. But if you're a writer, or artist or dancer or what-have-ya, the people following you are doing so because they want to know something about you other than that. This is not solely a professional venture. Let them know you're a human, and not just a writing-marketing machine. Share something about yourself. Be a real human being.
I bet that would make all the difference.
By the way, come back next time, so I can try to get you to buy something, okay?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Hardboiled/Noir Writers Part 8

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven

--More Who Carried the Torch--

Throughout the seventies, eighties and nineties, hardboiled fiction held on, despite the industry's best attempts to make it soft and easy. It's because of the few writers who held tight to the hardboiled vision that we're now enjoying a new resurgence of interest in noir.

Here are some more essential talents who carried the torch:

Walter Mosley started his writing career with a terrific run of books about Easy Rawlins, a black P.I. in the L.A. of the 1950’s. Very noir, with writing as rich and evocative as Chandler or Ross MacDonald.

A Red Death
White Butterfly
Black Betty
Little Yellow Dog
Devil in a Blue Dress

James Ellroy is the mad dog of modern crime fiction. He doesn't write thrillers so much as crime-ridden historical epics, examining the darkest corners of the 20th century. His books are benchmarks in the genre—humorless, bleak, violent and cynical. Also, amazingly well written.

L.A. Confidential
The Big Nowhere
Killer on the Road
Brown’s Requiem
The Black Dahlia
Blood's a Rover

Andrew Vachss wrote what was perhaps the most brutal ongoing series in the genre these last few years, the novels about the obsessed Burke. Stark and focused. Vachss is an outspoken advocate for abused children. His non-Burke novel “The Getaway Man” is one of the purest modern noirs you’ll ever read.

Blue Belle
Hard Candy
The Getaway Man

I don’t need to tell you about Elmore Leonard, do I? Amazingly prolific and one of the finest writers working today. Much has already been said about his dead-on dialogue and seedy characters. To list all his great books would take pages, but here's just a few that I can heartily recommend.

The Hot Kid
Riding The Rap
Out of Sight
Pagan Babies
Toshimingo Blues
Maximum Bob

Joe R. Lansdale is, quite simply, the man. His style is distinctly Texas Noir, wry and funny and dark. He writes wonderfully in multiple genres, but when he ventures into noir territory, he’s especially awesome. Lansdale is a good reason not to kill yourself. Here are a few gems:

Savage Season
Cold in July
Mucho Mojo
The Two-Bear Mambo
The Bottoms
Sunset And Sawdust
Vanilla Ride
Devil Red

Surprisingly, one of the best writers of tough-minded noir these days is seldom if ever marketed as such. Cormac McCarthy isn’t the first name you think of when you think of the genre, but his books are tight, spare, and punctuated with sharp and unexpected doses of violence. Amazing stuff.

No Country for Old Men
Blood Meridian
The Road
The Crossing

--Door-Stop Thrillers--

The end of the 20th Century saw the beginning of the Age of the Door-stop Thriller-- that is, crime or mystery novels that are very long and very dense. Until then, the thriller by it's very nature was short and tight-- a quick read for a sleepless night-- but the market had opened up finally to longer works, written by authors with clearly literary concerns... sometimes.

Other times, they were just looong books.

Regardless, these writers appear consistently on best-seller charts, have massive readerships, and are practically cottage industries-- crime fiction straight enough to appeal to the masses but just noir-tinged enough to have appeal to readers with darker tastes.

One of the most popular and influential of these door-stop thriller writers was, and still is, James Lee Burke. His novels about Dave Robiecheux are densely plotted and the language is lush and Faulknerian. They may suffer from 'sprawl', but Robiecheux is a great example of a deeply flawed hero, trying to deal with his inner demons while tracking down the bad guys.

Black Cherry Blues
A Morning for Flamingoes
In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead
A Stained White Radiance
Crusader’s Cross

John Connolly made a big splash with his first novels about Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker, an ex-cop haunted by the brutal slayings of his wife and daughter. Like James Lee Burke, Connolly's books are often well-padded with extemporaneous filler, but his voice as an author is layered and colorful, and the crime thriller backdrop is sometimes shot through with a strange dose of the supernatural.

Every Dead Thing
Dark Hollow
The Killing Kind
The White Road

Lee Child is most notable for his series featuring tough hero and force of nature, Jack Reacher. Like many other modern suspense writers, Child has a tendency to go longer than the story can maintain, but his books are more violent and intense than most series characters these days. Very hardboiled.

The Killing Floor
The Enemy
One Shot
The Hard Way

Ian Rankin has been called the master of ‘Tartan Noir’—which goes to show you that the media loves a silly label. Like some of the other modern writers I just mentioned, Rankin's work is sometimes puffed up with filler. Regardless, his novels about Inspector Rebus are very well-written and relentlessly bleak.

Knots & Crosses
Hide & Seek
Tooth & Nail
Strip Jack
The Black Book
Mortal Causes

Next Wednesday: Part Nine: The New Noir.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Grey Hawthorne in "The Nine Pale Men"

Ron Warren over at The Nautilus Engine has just re-posted "The Nine Pale Men", the first Grey Hawthorne adventure. This is where the intrepid Mississippian's bizarre journey around the world begins!

Hard-Boiled- Bill Pronzini & Jack Adrian, Ed.

There's no shortage of great crime fiction anthologies, no matter what your tastes may be. But HARD-BOILED, edited by Bill Pronzini and Jack Adrian, is still my all-time favorite. I will admit some bias here, because there are many stories from the '50's in this collection, and I find that the best writers of the genre tend to come from that decade.

Anthologies are by their very nature a mixed bag. Usually, for every one great story you’ll have to slog through two or more that leave you cold. Not so with this one. HARD-BOILED comes very close to being the perfect anthology. The editors have terrific taste, and they’ve chosen an amazing selection of hardboiled and noir stories, chronological from the ‘20’s up to the early ‘90’s (when this book was published). The majority of the stories are from the ‘30’s and the ‘50’s, since (as the editors point out) those were the twin Golden Eras of this particular genre.

Honestly, just about every story in this one is at least very good, and more than a handful are down-right brilliant. Here are some highlights:

1929. “Round Trip” by W.R. Burnett, in which a Chicago gangster gets a less-than-friendly reception when he takes a sabbatical to Toledo. Hardboiled, and quietly funny.

1931. “Mistral”, by Raoul Whitfield—a private detective is ordered by his agency to find an American gangster in Genoa, but suffers a crisis of conscience when he realizes the agency’s clients want to murder the man. Fast and tough, and still humane.

1934. “Trouble-Chaser”, by Paul Cain, is the story of a ‘problem solver’ on the fringes of the law who tries to sort things out for a friend accused of murder—by stacking all the cards against the real culprit. Cain was about as hardboiled a writer as you can find.

1953. “Black Pudding”, David Goodis—pursued by gangsters, Ken finds himself aided by a scarred, opium-addicted girl every bit as victimized as himself, and sets out to turn the tables on his enemies. Beautifully tense noir.

1955. “Mama’s Boy”, David Alexander—one of the more disturbing stories, a brutal body-builder who makes his cash by using older women decides he wants to take it one step further and beat his next victim to death. But his anger proves to be his undoing.

1956. “Home”, by Gil Brewer, is the story of a young black man, home from college, and the awful moment in which he forgets where he is and is victimized by the hateful residents of the city. Stark and chilling.

1957. “A Piece of Ground”, Helen Neilson—all the Farmer wants is to save up enough cash so he can go home and purchase a farm with his wife and children. But then he gets involved with a seemingly kind-hearted whore and a hustler who says he can double the Farmer’s money. The Farmer may ‘buy the farm’ a lot sooner than he thought.

1987 “To Florida”, by Robert Sampson—Teller kills the landlord, takes his cash, and with his less-than-attractive girl in tow heads south. It doesn’t take things long to fall apart, though, when the girlfriend starts to fear Teller’s growing violence. A bleak, nihilistic little story.

1989. “Bonding”, by Faye Kellerman. A bored teenage girl turns to prostitution just because she can, seduces her step-father, and manipulates him into murdering her mother. This is probably the boldest, most disturbing story in the book, and had me on the edge of my seat. Brilliant stuff.

Aside from these noted, there are of course many of the usual names—Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, James M. Cain, John D. MacDonald, Jim Thompson, Lawrence Block, Elmore Leonard, James Ellroy… and the list goes on. It’s a veritable who’s who. But the real strength of this book is in the number of stories by writers you might not be familiar with. I guarantee, however, that you’ll want to look up more of their work when you’re done.

If you're relatively new to reading hard-boiled/noir crime fiction, or if you're an old hand looking for some sharp story-telling, this is one you don't want to pass up.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Kindles and Robot Overlords

It’s pretty much a given by now that e-readers aren’t going anywhere. They represent the future, and it won’t be long before we all have computer chips put right into our skulls and we’ll be able to download info from anywhere in the world by blinking our right eye and making a funny gesture in the air with our fingers. Our Robot Overlords will allow us one half-hour every week for recreational purposes before getting back to work on the Brain Feed, supplying virtual candy corn to the Automated Council of Top Dogs.
Yeah, I’m okay with that. We have a while yet before the current crop of presidential hopefuls reveal themselves to be automatons from outer space. So we should use the time we have left to take full advantage of the e-reader revolution.
I mostly don’t mind reading e-books. I mean, they’re okay. Would I rather have an actual paper copy of a book to read? Yes, I would—it’s just what I’m used to is all. The feel of an actual book in your hand, one that requires you to turn pages and stuff, is comfortable to me and I suspect I’ll always prefer that. But reading a book on a Kindle or Nook or laptop is fine—whatever it takes to transmit the story from the author’s head to mine.
My own personal criterion comes down, totally, to price. I rarely buy books—actual paper books, that is—brand new anymore. Honestly, I just can’t afford them. I wish I was in a position to support my favorite writers in that way, but man… times is hard, yeah? I have a car payment coming up, for christ’s sake, and I haven’t been to the dentist in three years.
So when I buy paper books, it’s almost always at the used book store. Being able to buy a stack of old books for five or ten bucks is one of the greatest feelings in the world, and brings home how precious the actual book can be—an e-reader can’t replicate that feeling.
But: if you’re milling around Amazon, window-shopping at the Kindle store, you come across so many great books for SO cheap… a book for anywhere from .99 cents to 3.99 is, honestly, just a killer deal, especially considering that you get to read it within SECONDS of finding it.
When an e-book is priced at more than 3.99, though… I’d rather have it as an actual paper book. It slays me when I see a book put out by one of the major publishing houses, and it’s priced at 10 or 12 or even 16 bucks on Kindle… for real, man?? Honestly, are you fucking serious? My gut reaction to that is: Screw you and your fucking book, okay?
My novel, THE BASTARD HAND, has been available as an e-book for a couple-three months now, and it’s priced at 3.99—which is, honestly, the most I could see paying for an e-book (oh, and it’s totally worth it, I promise). It’s actually selling TONS better than it did in paper. And my short story collection DIG TEN GRAVES (which I put out myself) is .99 cents. It’s been moving steadily, and I suspect the reason for that is how cheap it is. Folks are willing to give something a chance if it’s that cheap.
My point: the so-called “e-book revolution” could be a great thing, if it keeps prices reasonable and brings reading material that would otherwise be unavailable to the masses of us who are hungry for it. But if the publishing industry doesn’t get its collective head out of its collective ass and realize that it’s a different ballgame entirely, then… screw e-books. Give me paper.

image by Ron Warren Photography

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Writers Needed: Complete Lack of Morals Required

Writing really can change the world. It’s true. But that’s not necessarily a good thing.
Public discourse these days comes down to who’s got the best writers.
Who can put drama and emotion in a delivery most effectively?
Who’s the best at glossing over inconvenient facts in favor of raw sentiment, designed to appeal to the biggest possible audience?
Basically, we’re talking about ad men here. Highly skilled professional public relations writers. That’s a rarified breed, right there. It requires a total lack of scruples and a complete devotion to cash.
We’ve been seeing an awful lot of it these last three or four years here in America. The actual concept of “truth” is becoming more and more irrelevant, in favor of what Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness”—that is, the thing that appeals most to the common American who doesn’t want to be called upon to think about the issues too deeply. Sound-bites are required. Homilies needed. “Feel-good” bits of half-baked ideology.
Hey, someone’s gotta write this stuff, yeah? Someone has to perfect the science of distilled bullshitting and sleight-of-hand. Only someone who understands what makes a story work is capable of this. A writer. A lousy, sleazy writer.
Need to defend that corporation polluting the Gulf of Mexico? Hell, with a good writer, you can concentrate on job-growth and turn them into heroes in the public eye. Want to make sure your rich-as-hell buddies don’t pay taxes? Easy—get a writer to espouse about how America was built on free enterprise. Voila… you can make those whiny poor people look like ungrateful Pinko Commies.
And of course, the writer has access to an entire catalogue of hot-button words and phrases that people will respond to instinctively. Socialist. Hey, sometimes that’s all you have to say about your opponent to turn the tables on him. Doesn’t make a whit of difference if it’s true or not. Maverick. If doesn’t matter if you’ve been ass-deep in the political game for forty years, if you refer to yourself as a maverick, you instantly become the “Washington outsider”.
See how easy that is?
Another thing you can do that is highly effective: Tell bold-faced lies. Go ahead, don’t worry. No one in the media will call you out on it, I promise. Example: You can say, “Welfare makes up HALF of our budget,” when, in fact, it makes up only 5% to 12%, depending on how “welfare” is defined. If someone DOES actually try to call you out on it, just say the same thing, only LOUDER. Works like a charm.
Bear in mind, these crazy mad writing skills are not solely in the hands of the Right Wing. The Left is equally guilty of bending the truth and even telling outright lies. The Right is winning this particular race to the bottom of the moral barrel at the moment, though, because they have more money to hire the best talent. I feel absolutely certain that, if the Left was as well-funded as the Right, we’d be dealing with an entirely different set of lies.
Either way, hey, writers are needed. If you’ve got the skills and a complete lack of regard for morality, there’s always a gig waiting for you in the political arena.

For a Few Westerns More

About a month ago, I posted here about my new obsession with reading Westerns. It’s a genre that I’d been fairly unschooled in, which is odd considering that I’ve always loved Western movies.
But then I started hammering out the beginnings of a new novel, and realized it would only work as a Western. So I decided I’d best get more familiar with the genre.
I’m awful glad I did. Even if I wasn’t in the early stages of my own Western, I’d still be enjoying the hell out of most of these books. Here’s my first round-up of titles, posted a few weeks ago: A Fistful of Westerns… and here’s seven more.

Quincannon- Bill Pronzini
A tight, fast novel about U.S. Secret Service agent John Quincannon, a man haunted by a horrible mistake in his past and ravaged by booze. He comes to Silver City on the trail of a gang of counterfeiters, and gets caught up in a town-wide conspiracy that can only end in fast action and bloodshed. Pronzini is amazing at spare, clean prose, and has a knack for terrifically believable characters.

Vengeance Valley- Luke Short
Owen Daybright just wants to do right by Jen, a woman wronged by another man and left to raise her baby alone. But when Jen’s brothers show up, looking for revenge against the man they feel wronged their sister, Owen becomes the target. His misplaced sense of loyalty and obligation lead to ever-escalating danger, until the explosive climax. This is one of my absolute favorite Westerns so far—Luke Short wrote most of his books in the fifties, but this one still feels modern, with great characters and a story that just keeps getting more and more tense. I immediately went out and bought more Short after reading this one.

The Badge: The Black Coffin- Bill Reno
Dave Bradford shoots and kills three outlaws when they try to steal his horse, and the folks in town mistake him for his twin brother, Dan Starr. Dave goes along with it, thinking he’ll stick around just long enough to collect the reward money, but when more outlaws come gunning, Dave finds he’s bitten off more than he can chew. To make matters worse, the real Dan Starr shows up… This one’s pretty solid, although the characters occasionally behave in ways that don’t really work, and the pacing is a bit off in places.

True Grit- Charles Portis
A simply amazing book. Headstrong14-year-old Mattie Ross contracts drunken U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn to help her track down the man who killed her father. Along with a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf, the quarrelsome group pursues the killer and the crew he belongs to, and Mattie learns that “true grit” comes in a number of different forms. The voice of Mattie, the narrator, is entirely engaging and original, shot through with real depth and some surprising bits of humor. I highly recommend this book.

Appaloosa- Robert B. Parker
I’m not a big fan of Parker’s Spenser novels, so I came to this one a bit dubiously. It was actually great. Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch take on the job of bringing law and order to the town of Appaloosa, which has been suffering at the hands of a sleazy cattle rancher Bragg. But the job gets more complicated when Cole—a normally stoic, emotionless sort—falls hard for the beautiful and complicated Allie, a woman with a relentless desire to be with the “top stallion”. The violence that follows puts both Cole and Hitch’s ethics to the test.

Shadow of a Star- Elmer Kelton
Young Jim-Bob McClain is trying very hard to make a good deputy, but after making a fool of himself in town trying to do his job, nobody takes him seriously anymore and Jim-Bob starts to doubt himself. Until a vicious bank robber comes to town and kills Jim-Bob’s best friend—and Jim-Bob is forced to face his fears alone and prove he can do the job. This is a terrifically-written novel, with a great deal of emotional depth and a solid moral center; the choices Jim-Bob has to make are of far more consequence than simply shooting someone. In fact, part of his test of manhood involves making sure a killer isn’t lynched. A richly rewarding book, this one. There’s more Elmer Kelton on my list now.

And finally…

Death of a Gunfighter- Lewis B. Patten
This one came highly recommended by Cullen Gallagher and Mike Dennis. It took a while to track down a copy, but it was worth it. Sheriff Frank Patch has been protecting the town of Cottonwood Springs for twenty years, so when the town decides they want him gone, Patch steadfastly refuses to step down. Turns out, Patch has the goods on many of them, and they live in fear that he’ll expose them. What follows is an ever-escalating series of violent encounters as the once-respectable townsfolk take matters into their own hands, with disastrous results. The sense of doom grows stronger and stronger with every page, as things spiral out of control, and the possibility of things ever being right again recedes farther and farther. There’s a lot of dead bodies by the time it’s over, but more importantly, there’s a lot of shattered lives. Death of a Gunfighter is a seriously hardboiled Western.

So that’s seven for now. I’ll have one more round-up in another month or so.