Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Last Post of the Year

…and what a year it’s been for me.
Last year, as December was closing out and 2010 loomed before us, I wasn’t optimistic about the future. A few years ago I’d made a sort of bargain with myself that, if I hadn’t made any real progress in my writing career by the time I was 44, I would really begin to entertain the idea of hanging it all up and learning to be content with an existence as an office drone or whatever.
I got in, just under the wire.
‘10 saw the publication of my first truly professional short story sale (that is, one that actually paid a substantial amount of money). It also saw the sale of my first novel, The Bastard Hand, to a publisher I respected. Both of these things happened right on top of each other. Years of work, of honing my craft and baring my soul, finally paid off.
That alone would have made 2010 a year to remember for me, but that wasn’t all. Over the course of the year I found myself with many new friends (albeit of the electronic, interwebbies sort) who shared similar passions and formed an interesting and amazingly supportive network-- a sort of Noir Underground. Writers, critics, bloggers, readers. You all know who you are. The interest these people took in my work, the enthusiasm and kindness they displayed, really floored me and boosted my confidence during a strange and transitional time.
I deeply appreciate all of you and feel amazingly fortunate to know you. Thanks.
Starting next year, this blog will begin to focus more specifically on self-promotion. Don’t worry, I’m not gonna get obnoxious about it-- maybe one post a week relating to my book and why you should sell everything you own and buy thousands of copies. Between those weekly posts I’ll continue to talk about books I’ve read or movies I’ve seen or stories I’ve written people who’ve pissed me off or made me happy.
And if 2011 turns out HALF as good as 2010, well… bring it on.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Jedidiah Ayres Essential Noir

Now let's see, where were we? Oh yeah, the "essential noir" lists!

This time out I'm happy to have a terrific list from the very funny and very outspoken Jedidiah Ayres. Jed runs one of my favorite blogs, Hardboiled Wonderland, where he weighs in on crime fiction, film, popular culture, and whatever strikes him. You can find his stories in Thuglit, Plots With Guns, Crime Factory, Out of the Gutter, and well, just a bunch of places.

The above photo is NOT Jedidiah Ayres.

Jed says:
"In composing this list it became embarrassingly obvious how unqualified and under read I am to speak with any kind of authority on the matter of ‘best noirs of all time.’ All that I am qualified to do is offer an opinion based upon my subjective tastes and limited exposure to the literature we’re bestowing the ‘N’ word on. I tried not to use any too recent selections, though I can think of several that could make this list with a few more years under their belts, just because… well, damn, y’know? Handful from the last ten years in there, though. Sue me. Notable too that I didn’t include any short story collections here because then it could get really hairy for me. One more guideline: I’m tried to stick to titles I haven’t seen on the previous lists. Are some unavoidable? Probably, but here the fuck goes."

American Skin by Ken Bruen The dark lord’s darkest hour.

And the Ass Saw the Angel by Nick Cave The lesson that our post-Columbine, post Semptember Eleventh world just fucking refuses to learn is that our objects of scorn and abuse are likely to channel all that we heap on them into some serious fucking retribution. Euchrid Eucrow may be unlovely to begin with, but the horrors he’s witnessed and been subjected to by the people of Ukulore Valley will fuel a rage in him and a reckoning from him few will live to recount.

Berlin Noir by Philip Kerr. A three novel omnibus of Bernie Gunther stories. Gunther is an ex-SS officer turned private eye of the classic style in pre-war Berlin. The progression of the tarnished knight detective against the backdrop of the world literally going to hell is harrowing. The first two, March Violets and The Pale Criminal are pre-war and A German Requiem is post war in Vienna. By the time Bernie has seen the war and Berlin has been utterly destroyed, he is a hollowed out shell of the man he thought he was. Bernie’s small victories matter not at all in contrast to the great mad tide he has allowed to happen and the compromises he and everyone else who’s still around made just to survive. What do you know, a detective story can be noir.

Cutter and Bone by Newton Thornberg I’ve never read another book that I enjoyed so thoroughly, but had to take in such small portions. It was that heavy. I simply couldn’t bear to read it for long stretches. Shook me up. That’s all I’ll say.

The Death of Sweet Mister by Daniel Woodrell If the books of any author can be considered to be in conversation with the others, each a part of the greater whole complementing and contrasting and bringing into sharper focus the rest of the work, The Death of Sweet Mister raises the stakes for all of his Ozark tales. Ree Dolly’s quest to save her brothers from a life of blunt meanness - the driving force of Winter’s Bone. That book benefits from chronological progression.The stakes raised considerably if you’ve read Sweet Mister. Shug Akins is the sacrifice that lends additional weight to the rest of the work.

Dog Eat Dog by Eddie Bunker All the made up badassery in any of my stories becomes awfully transparent whenever I place it next to Bunker.

Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury I remember finishing this book that ends with the live broadcast manhunt for the hero and then turning on the television and watching O.J. Simpson’s white SUV speeding down the highway on every channel. Kinda freaked me out. Sorta stuck with me.

59 Degrees and Raining, the story of Perdita Durango a novella included in the book Sailor’s Holiday by Barry Gifford is as wild and hallucinatory a death trip as you’re ever likely to read. Its starts with prostitution, assassination and graft, quickly escalates to theft, kidnapping, human sacrifice and devil worship. When hard-bitten femme fatale Perdita Durango meets Romeo Dolorosa it’s instant, consuming lust, gravitation of badass to peer. Each feed off the other’s energy wreaking havoc throughout Louisiana, Texas California and Mexico. Thrill killers, thieves and blood lust lovers, this is give a fuck fiction at my favorite.

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk Ever feel like you’re wasting your life? Like you’ve got more to offer the world than your shitty retail job? Think perhaps joining an anarchist army might provide some fulfillment? Chuck’s hilarious examination of all the dead ends available is just about perfect.

Gun With Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem. Another detective story and this one even kitschy, are you kidding? No. As playful as any of the elements of this distopia hardboiled detective genre mash up may be, and there are plenty of laughs, the sharp ness of Lethem’s wit lets him slip that satire stiletto deep before you’ve even caught on. You’ll be distracted by the talking animals and the babyheads and gimmicky schtick all the way to the end, but you probably won’t sleep very well. It’s unsettling stuff.

The Hustler by Walter Tevis “You’re a loser, Eddie.” Nuff said.

The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson Been covered, yeah?

The Mustache/The Adversary by Emmanuel Carrere Two books that I couldn’t decide between. The Mustache is a novella about a man being disconnected from reality. His increasingly frantic grasping for something solid to anchor himself to, and his absolute failure to do so, is truly frightening, (incidentally the author wrote and directed a film version of this one, but I thought it was a travesty – avoid it at least until you’ve read the book). The Adversary is a true crime account of a French med-school dropout who never told anyone that he had failed to become a doctor. He spun an elaborate deception that his wife, family, friends and neighbors were fooled by for years. When his rickety house of cards is ready to crumble, rather than come clean or own up to it all, he kills everyone he loves. Carrere interviewed the subject, Jean-Claude Romand, extensively and gets into his psyche so effectively, he robbed me of many a peaceful moment. Thank you.

No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy Boiled down to its essence.

Power and the Glory by Graham Greene – is there such a thing as a redemptive noir? There is now, motherfucker. The asshole priest knows he’s doomed to die, but he’s got to decide how he’s going out and the lieutenant , a man of integrity, is doomed to hunt and slaughter (relatively) innocent men to maintain order in the land. They’re both doomed and both corrupted and compromised, but both are still in possession of some kind of sacred spark in their poorly worn souls.

Scalped by Jason Aaron & R.M. Guerra A graphic novel, and it’s not even over yet! How will the story wrap for Dashiell Badhorse and company? I don’t know, but I’ll venture… badly? Start at the start. End at the end. This is gonna be one for the ages.

Shella by Andrew Vachss Wow. Just, holy crap. Wow.

Twilight by William Gay If you’ve read any of his previous novels, you’ll recognize the elements at play in this one, but Twilight has a stripped down – straight forward plot that serves to propel you through the nightmare dreamscape and mission of young Tyler to protect his sister from a monster. The preservation of a woman’s virtue may seem like small stakes to you seasoned, hardboiled readers, but considering that the woman in question is already dead and her corpse is in danger of gruesome violation makes the whole thing so twisted it’s gotta be called noir.

The Walkaway by Scott Phillips The book that gave us Wayne Ogden, an AWOL American supply sergeant and pimp, black marketer and psychopath who returns clandestinely to Kansas from occupied Japan and turns Wichita inside out. The tangential timelines follow Wayne in the fifties and Gunther Fahnstiel in the eighties, a retired policeman and the titular walkaway from a nursing home suffering from alzheimers but determined to do… something. The two story lines converge and Gunther turns out to be a worthy foil for Ogden, but damn. Wayne, Wayne, Wayne. Wayne deserves another book or two. Oh wait, they’re coming.

White Jazz by James Ellroy Hardboiled. Pitiless. Racist. Abusive. Sexually obsessed with his own sister. Corrupt. Hero. Dave Klein is a piece of work my friend. How Ellroy puts you in Klein’s corner and his own pocket so easily is astounding. And the brute force of the prose – tender as a brick.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Best of Whatever at Day Labor

Normally, this would be the time of year I'd talk a little about some of my favorite books that I read this past year. But this time, Keith Rawson at Day Labor, the blog for Crime Factory, beat me to the punch. You'll find my list, and a ton of other great ones, here:

Crime Factory

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Coen Brothers and Noir Conventions

The much-anticipated film True Grit is coming out in a couple-few days, so this seemed like a good time to talk about the Coen Brothers. I love these guys, I really do. In their long career (careers?)of movie-making they've seldom taken a wrong step (let's pretend The Lady-Killers never happened, okay?)
The thing I really enjoy about them is how they play with genre conventions while staying true to them, in their own way. These are two men who clearly LOVE story, and understand it. And a surprising number of their films have very distinct noir flavors.
Here's a few.

Blood Simple
Jealous husband hires a P.I. to murder his cheating wife; everything turns to shit almost immediately in the Coen Bros first outing. Classic noir elements with the usual Coen flair.

Miller’s Crossing
Great Depression-era gangster saga, with Gabriel Byrne as a conflicted Irish hitman, Albert Finney as his boss, and Marcia Gay Harden as the woman they both love. Gang war erupts amidst the personal drama. Also starring the terrific John Turturro.

Barton Fink
The follow-up to Miller’s Crossing is an uncomfortable black comedy with Turturro as a playwright trying to survive the Hollywood system and a bad case of writer’s block. Things get weirder when his hotel room neighbor, John Goodman, turns out to be a sadistic serial killer who likes to chop off his victim’s heads. Under-rated movie.

The Big Lebowski
Jeff Bridges is unforgettable in what has rightfully become a cult classic movie as Lebowski, otherwise known as The Dude. When he’s mistaken for a different (much richer) Lebowski, The Dude finds himself wrapped up in a complex case that would make Philip Marlowe proud. The movie is like a Raymond Chandler story, except with an aging stoner in the lead. Also starring a fantastic John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore, and John Turturro in a small but memorable role. Comedy Noir.

A classically-structured noir about a car salesman (William Macy) who pays some hoods to kill his wife, only to have the scheme backfire on him in the most horrible way. This would've been a fairly typical story, except for the setting (ice-bound Midwest), the hero (pregnant female cop) and the stunningly black humor.

The Man Who Wasn’t There
Billy Bob Thornton is Ed Crane, a barber in Santa Rosa, 1949, who stumbles across a chance to make a change in his life. But to do it, he’ll have to blackmail his wife’s boss. Blackmail leads to murder, and murder leads to lies, and it isn’t long before the noose begins to tighten around Crane’s neck.
Beautifully shot in black and white, this is a stark, thoughtful existential noir in the classic mode.

Burn After Reading
Another comedy noir, although the comedy is distinctly black. It comes very close to being slapstick as circumstances veer wildly out of control for everyone involved. Great performances by George Clooney, John Malkovitch, and believe it or not Brad Pitt (the guy steals the movie).

Monday, December 13, 2010

Philosophy and Fiction

"You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life."- Albert Camus

I’ve been enjoying the most remarkable sense of well-being lately, due in large part, I think to reading philosophy.
That’s been my go-to place for several years now whenever I begin to feel overwhelmed by existence and the world. It really works for me. I started becoming interested in philosophy by a fairly pedestrian avenue—like many other people, I found myself plagued by the big questions: what does this even mean? Why am I here? What the fuck is the fucking point?
It began with a rejection of religion and faith in general. Some people, I suppose, are pre-disposed to be believers in the supernatural, and some people are not. I couldn’t accept the easy answer that wasn’t an answer. I don’t mean that as a judgment against the faithful, but it just felt like a cop-out to me.
But you know, figuring out what WASN’T the answer also was not the answer.
My reading of popular books on atheism (Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, etc) was all very intellectually stimulating but wasn’t bringing me any closer to what I felt I needed to know. I read Bertrand Russell’s book Why I Am Not a Christian, and started getting the sense that I was closing in on it. That led to his The Problems of Philosophy (which is a great introduction to 20th century thought, if you want to know). After that, I found myself drawn to the great existential thinkers, which sort of coincided with my re-reading of Crime & Punishment, The Trial, and The Stranger (sometimes fiction is far more effective in conveying philosophical ideas than essays are).
By this time, my mind was buzzing and I found that reading this sort of stuff was really exciting; the stimulation was invigorating and I couldn’t get enough. The existentialist idea—that existence is completely without meaning and that life was an exercise in absurdity—felt liberating and life-affirming. The end result was that I finally and at long last realized that the ANSWER didn’t exist and it didn’t NEED to. The questions themselves, and the ideas generated by them, were what really sent endorphins racing through my skull and made me wild-eyed with the panorama of new possibilities opening up. Possibilities that had nothing to do with conventional wisdom or societal norms.
Answers weren’t required, I realized. Only questions. Since there is no inherent meaning to it all, I create my OWN. My own is, of course, story-telling.
I just read The Myth of Sisyphus, by Albert Camus, and in the book there’s a remarkable section on how existential philosophy applies to the art/craft of fiction writing. He refers mostly to our man Dostoevsky in this section, which is only right. Camus’ main point, without getting too bogged down in the details, is that even the act of creation is in itself absurd, and so can’t be a rebellion against the absurd. It can only be a confirmation of it, acquiescence. This doesn’t mean that we just roll over and surrender ourselves to a meaningless universe—it means that we KNOW. And it is good to know. Knowing is a sort of victory. Like Sisyphus, rolling the stone up the hill over and over and over again, we realize that the labor is our own, and our unwillingness to break in the face of it is our triumph.
This is why writing and art matter. We work in the face of the absurd, and… “All is well”.
My work, while paltry and (let’s face it) insignificant compared to Camus or Dostoevsky or Kafka, is my own little acquiescence. It’s my own little acknowledgement of meaninglessness. And because of that, it’s the only thing that matters.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Three Best Villains

A hero is only as interesting as his villain, they say. But sometimes the villain is so interesting that we forget the hero entirely. Have you ever read a book or seen a movie where you really can’t wait for them to get back to the villain, because he’s just THAT much more interesting?
Here are my three favorite villains, some of the absolute, scene-stealing, best villains ever:

Tommy Udo, played by Richard Widmark in the movie “Kiss of Death”. Widmark brought a creepy, unstable dimension to the role of Udo, creating a character so widely unpredictable and vicious that you had no idea what the hell kind of crazy shit he was going to do next. The creepy laugh, the dead-eye stare, the sneer of a smile that didn’t touch any other part of his face… it’s easy to forget Victor Mature was even IN that movie. “Ya dirty squit…”

Anton Chigurh, from the book and the movie “No Country for Old Men”. Chigurh moved through the story like a bad dream, implacable and as inevitable as Satan himself. You just KNEW that the erstwhile hero didn’t stand a chance once their paths crossed. Chigurh seemed to have attained some bizarre villainous zen-state, where even attempting to fit in with the rest of the world was unnecessary-- all that was required was killing these pesky creatures that stood in his way. Humans seemed downright irrelevant to him. Carson: “You’re not outside of death.” Chigurh: “It doesn’t mean to me what it does to you.”

The Joker, portrayed by Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight“. The Joker in all his incarnations has always been a great villain, but Ledger brought something truly uneasy and disconcerting to the role-- the gleeful embrace of chaos and the complete disregard for consequences. He was something a rational human being could never understand-- a creature without reason or obvious motivation, existing for no other reason than to kill and destroy. A sort of murderous anarchist. All of Batman’s reasoning and logic meant nothing in the face of this chuckling, slouching monument to discord. “Look at me. Do I look like I have a plan??”

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Off the Rails

Been at loose ends with my writing lately. You know what I mean? Lots of different ideas floating around, and not sure which direction to go. The new novel sort of went off the rails somewhere, and I’ve been busy trying to figure out how to get the engine back on the tracks. Ideas for shorter works keep cluttering up my thought processes as well, tempting me to leave the novel alone for awhile and placate the short story muse.
This is what happens when you actually have TIME to write, for a change-- you get scattered.
There’s also that persistent question of what you really wanna SAY this time out. I mean, the story itself is one thing, but what’s it really ABOUT, on a deeper level? In The Bastard Hand, I exorcised a lot of demons regarding how I feel about faith and religion, etc… in my second novel, City of Heretics, I addressed how I felt about getting old, feeling that weird disconnect from humanity, feeling the world had somehow moved on when I wasn’t paying attention. So what’s the new one about? I have no idea, yet.
I suspect it’ll come to me, while I’m writing it.
For someone who is half in love with chaos, I find I really need a plan, a regiment, to actually get anything done. And the circumstances of my day job afford me a good opportunity-- every year, I’m laid off for a period of about three or four months. So here’s my new plan:
During those months off the day job, I concentrate on a novel. Focus. Get it done, at least the first draft, anyway. And the months in which I’m working the day job, write short stories (if the idea is fully formed, I can pop off a short story in one-to-three sittings).
So that’s the plan. Stop being so damn scattered and stick to it.
Okay, I feel better now.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

About Charles Willeford

A really terrific site about Willeford, perhaps the most subversive of all writers of paperback originals. Willeford is, in my opinion, one of the most significant three or four writers in the genre.

Charles Willeford

Pete Risley's Essential Noir

Just recently had the honor of making the acquaintance of Pete Risley, the author of RABID CHILD, one of the most talked about debut novels of 2010, published by New Pulp Press. You wonder what books inspired his twisted mind? Here ya go...

Pete says:
"I always enjoy reading lists like this, but I think they tend to get most interesting once the list-makers get past the great ‘canonical’ works that almost everyone in the category has been influenced by, and point out their own less-predictable favorites. Therefore, I'll cheat a little bit and skip Hammett, Chandler, etc, so I can maybe provide an entire list of interesting picks – though I guess some I’ve settled on are pretty standard choices after all. Others, though, are not."

1. Paul Cain (George Sims), FAST ONE, 1934. Gambling, gangsters and a ‘dipso’ moll in Los Angeles. Episodic and written in a clipped, fast-paced style Chandler called “ultra-hardboiled.”
2. James M. Cain, SERENADE, 1937. Down-and-out American tough-guy opera singer in Mexico gets his groove back when he meets hard but sweet Indian-Latina trollop, but a star-crossed fate awaits them. Driven by a dubious concept of homosexual attraction and its effect on the male singing voice.
3. John B. Sanford, THE OLD MAN’S PLACE, 1935. Yankee farmer’s son returns home from the Great War with two criminal companions, all of them set to get stupid-drunk, trash the place and raise hell just for the hell of it. The entrance of a naïve girl onto the scene brings more trouble still. A harsh, nihilistic work by a writer just then about to turn radical left. Underrated. Reprinted as a ‘50’s paperback with new title THE HARD GUYS.
4. Horace McCoy, KISS TOMORROW GOODBYE, 1948. From prison break to gangster crime spree, a vicious, sexually-twisted sociopath leaves scorched earth behind. Standard-setter for much noir fiction that followed.
5. Mickey Spillane, ONE LONELY NIGHT, 1951. With Cold War paranoia still reaching for its height, Mike Hammer takes on the international Communist conspiracy. Culminates in a scene of spiced-up bloody carnage that's as absurd as it is effective. Then comes the brutal surprise ending that literally out-McCarthys Joe McCarthy.
6. Chandler Brossard, WHO WALK IN DARKNESS, 1952. Dark intrigue among literary hipsters in Beat era Greenwich Village. Roman a clef, that is, based on real people, including Anatole Broyard and William Gaddis.
7. John Clellon Holmes, GO, 1952. Young Allen Ginsberg as pathetic noirish mental case among NYC hipsters. Also has characters based on Kerouac, Neal Cassady, others from the circle.
8. William S. Burroughs, QUEER, written c. 1953, published 1985. Written immediately after his first novel JUNKIE. Starkly depicts self-revulsion and despair that led 'William Lee' to junk in the first place. A scene in which Lee creeps out acquaintances in a bar by doing a twisted Burroughsian 'routine,' which he continues composing in his head after they split and leave him in solitude, is key to the author's sensibility.
9. Jim Thompson SAVAGE NIGHT, 1953. A bizarre hit man hits it off with a still-stranger girl. Along with the slighter work A HELL OF A WOMAN, this novel displays Thompson's urge to represent the increasing derangement of his protagonists by exploding the narrative itself.
10. Elliot Chaze, BLACK WINGS HAS MY ANGEL, 1953. Irresistible attraction between tough, frustrated WWII vet and dangerous doll leads to wild road-tripping crime spree.
11. Harriet Daimler, DARLING, 1956. Arguably noir porn novel from Olympia Press, Paris. Young female artist in NYC seeks sexual fulfillment and/or revenge after being viciously raped. Very dirty.
12. Peter Rabe, KILL THE BOSS GOODBYE, 1956. Crime boss in fragile mental state cuts short his rest cure to thwart a takeover attempt. A cold and sharp study of personal disintegration under pressure.
13. Fletcher Flora, PARK AVENUE TRAMP, 1958. Beautiful, booze-addled trophy wife on the prowl for love/sex seduces a lonely, doomed lounge pianist. A very dark and moving love-but-not-love story.
14. John McPartland, THE KINGDOM OF JOHNNY COOL. 1959. Aspiring, very tough young Italian mobster in US on hit mission gets tripped up when smitten with unlikely girl. Compare with far sleazier THE PEDDLER by Richard Prather, as well as sleazier and crazier SAVAGE NIGHT by Thompson.
15. Vin Packer, THE DAMNATION OF ADAM BLESSING,1961. Variant on Ripleyesque user/trickster, whose weaknesses bring about a bizarre, unexpected meltdown.
16. Charles Perry, PORTRAIT OF A YOUNG MAN DROWNING, 1962. Grim story of Oedipal-complexed juvenile delinquent in Brooklyn drawn into gangster life, even as his psyche is crumbling. Compare with KILL THE BOSS GOODBYE.
17. Malcolm Braly, SHAKE HIM TILL HE RATTLES, 1963. Jazz musicians, shabby hipsters, cons and a sadistic cop in the North Beach district of San Francisco.
18. Schneck, Stephen. THE NIGHTCLERK. 1965. Effete, grossly fat clerk in hot-sheet hotel obsesses over the fantasy-fulfilling antics of his nymphomaniac hooker wife. Floridly-written black humor novel.
19. Curt Clark (Donald E. Westlake), ANARCHAOS, 1967. Science Fiction novel with noir atmosphere, set on lawless planet of gangsters.
20. Rudolph Wurlitzer, NOG, 1969. Oddly convincing tale of the deeply stoned journeyings of a young man who might once have had a truck and a rubber octopus, and who meets a girl, and then some other people. Maintains a noirish sense of detached dread, threatening to go full-tilt hallucinatory at any time, if indeed it hasn’t already.
21 (one more for the road). Jim Nisbet, DEATH PUPPET, 1989. Bored waitress in a small town has tryst with strangely enticing traveling salesman. Turns out she shouldn’t have…

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Richard Widmark Noir

You can't get much more noir as an actor than Richard Widmark. Here's some of his best:

Kiss of Death
1947-Henry Hathaway
One of the top five or ten greatest noirs ever made.
Victor Mature is an ex-con who turned state’s evidence so he can have a life with new wife Ann Gray. Brian Donlevy is the cop who helps him. And Richard Widmark… well, Widmark (in his first major role) is the psychotic Tommy Udo, who learns of Mature’s betrayal and sets his sites on him.
Widmark’s portrayal of Udo set a new standard for movie baddies. He’s scary as hell. Kiss of Death is a masterpiece.

Street with No Name
Widmark again, in his follow-up to Kiss of Death, again playing the scary-as-hell psycho. Nobody could do it quite as well.
An FBI agent goes undercover to nab a murderer and joins the gang of neurotic criminal Widmark, who is “building an organization along scientific lines”.

Night & the City
1950-Jules Dassin
Essential noir, with a first-rate cast, shot on location in London. The brilliant Widmark is an ambitious but none-too-bright hustler who finds himself running for his life when his plans to swindle a nightclub owner go awry. Also starring the gorgeous Gene Tierney, and Herbert Lom.

Pickup on South Street
1953-Sam Fuller
Doesn’t get much better than this one. Widmark is a master pickpocket who finds himself in possession of some microfilm that some Commie secret agents will stop at nothing to get back.

Panic in the Streets
1950-Elia Kazan
Terrific movie. Widmark takes a turn as a good guy for a change, playing a doctor desperately trying to track down a murderous criminal who’s been unknowingly infected with a deadly disease. The criminal must be stopped before he spreads the plague throughout the entire city of New Orleans.
Also starring Jack Palance and Barbara Bel Geddes.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Patti Abbott's "Friday's Forgotten Books"

My piece on The Name of the Game is Death is up at Patti's great blog, right here:
Thanks again, Patti, for letting me ramble on about one of my favorite books.

Donna Moore's Essential Noir

Donna Moore is the author of Old Dogs, a rollicking fun heist novel, as well as 2007 Lefty Award winner Go to Helena Handbasket. She has short stories in various anthologies, including Damn Near Dead and A Hell of a Woman (both Busted Flush Press). Donna runs the always amusing and entertaining blog Big Beat From Badsville, which focuses on Scottish crime fiction. I'm honored to have her here.

Donna says:

"A scan of my bookshelves revealed these as the first
twenty-ahem-three to present themselves to me. A couple of them are
not crime fiction, but they're definitely noir. A couple of them might
not be someone else's definition of noir, but they're mine. I get all
excited when I read a book which tortures its protagonist in the way
that noir fiction does. I hug myself gleefully as the poor guy (or
gal) desperately tries to scrabble his way out of a dirty great hole
and when finally, it looks as though hope arrives in the form of a
shovel...well, the only use for that shovel is to beat the protagonist
about the head before chucking more dirt on top of him. Ah, I do love
a nice bit of happy noir, me."

And Donna's list:

KNOCKEMSTIFF - Donald Ray Pollock
HELL OF A WOMAN - Jim Thompson
I WAS DORA SUAREZ - Derek Raymond
SLAMMER - Allan Guthrie
IN A LONELY PLACE - Dorothy B Hughes
NIGHTMARE ALLEY - William Lindsay Gresham (and if you've only ever
seen the film, the book is so much darker)
BURY ME DEEP - Megan Abbott
TOBACCO ROAD - Erskine Caldwell
SQUEEZE PLAY - James McKimmey
THE DISTANCE - Eddie Muller
TWISTED CITY - Jason Starr
LOSS - Tony Black
THE BOTTOMS - Joe Lansdale
WILEY'S LAMENT - Lono Waiwaiole
FAST ONE - Paul Cain

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Al Leverone's Essential Noir

The more of these lists I see, the more I suspect my own list of essential noir novels is fairly pedestrian-- yeah, there are some writers who seem to have made everyone's list (Cain, Hammett, etc) but so far every writer and critic who has contributed has pleasantly surprised me. Al Leverone, author of the forthcoming thriller Final Vector, is no exception.

Al says:

"I'm a 51 year old writer living in New Hampshire with my wife Sue, three children, one adorable granddaughter and a cat who has used up eight lives. A three-time Derringer Award Finalist for excellence in short mystery fiction, my work has been featured in Needle: A Magazine of Noir, Shroud Magazine, Twisted Dreams, Mysterical-E, FlashShot, Crime and Suspense and Black Hound, among others, as well as the print anthologies TEN FOR TEN and NORTHERN HAUNTS. My debut thriller, FINAL VECTOR, is due for release by Medallion Press in February, 2011."

And his list:
1) The Maltese Falcon - Dashiell Hammett
2) Double Indemnity - James M. Cain
3) The Postman Always Rings Twice - James M. Cain
4) The Big Sleep - Raymond Chandler
5) The Black Dahlia - James Ellroy
6) L.A. Confidential - James Ellroy
7) Cape Fear - John D. MacDonald
8) The Score - Richard Stark
9) Money For Nothing - Donald Westlake
10) Eight Million Ways to Die - Lawrence Block
11) The Drowning Pool - Ross MacDonald
12) Dead Aim - Thomas Perry
13) Strega - Andrew Vachss
14) Persuader - Lee Child
15) Trunk Music - Michael Connelly
16) The Wheelman - Duane Swierczynski
17) The Cold Spot - Tom Piccirilli
18) The Coldest Mile - Tom Piccirilli
19) Small Crimes - Dave Zeltserman
20) A Bad Day for Sorry - Sophie Littlefield

Monday, November 22, 2010

Vincent Zandri's Essential Noir

Vin "Action Man" Zandri, when he's not writing novels, is a globe-trotting photo-journalist, living a life shmucks like you and me can only dream about. His characters, however, don't have things quite so good. Among his books are Godchild and Moonlight Falls, and his newest is The Innocent, a nicely-packaged new edition of his first novel, As Catch Can.

1. The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler

2. The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett

3. To Have and Have Not, Ernest Hemingway

4. The Postman Always Rings Twice, James, M. Cain

5. The Getaway, Jim Thompson

6. The Killer Inside Me, Jim Thompson

7. Falconer, John Cheever

8. Homo Faber, Max Frisch

9. The Godwulf Manuscript, Robert B. Parker

10. A Catskill Eagle, Robert B. Parker

11. Wilderness, Robert B. Parker

12. The Last Good Kiss, Jim Crumley

13. The Wrong Case, Jim Crumley

14. Dancing Bear, Jim Crumley

15. The Man Who Liked Slow Tomatoes, KC Constantine

16. Tough Guys Don’t Dance, Norman Mailer

17. The Executioners Song, Norman Mailer

18. No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy

19. Caught Stealing, Charlie Huston

20. Killer, David Zeltserman

Saturday, November 20, 2010

NPP interviews NPP, and Heath interviews Heath...

...over at Sea Minor, Nigel Bird's terrific blog.

Three French Films Noir

The French get it. Here's three movies that exemplify that.

Clean Slate (Coup de Torchon)
French film based on Pop. 1280, by Jim Thompson, except the action is moved to French W. Africa in the late ‘30’s. It still works well. Police chief Cordier (Phillipe Noiret) comes on like a dim-witted buffoon, but when the town pimps push him too far, the murderous psychopath inside him emerges and he decides to wipe the whole town clean.

Shoot the Piano Player
1962-Francois Truffaut
Based on the novel Down There, by David Goodis, another example of a French director nailing the noir feel beautifully. After a personal disaster, an ex-concert pianist now plays in a seedy Paris café. His girlfriend wants him to make a comeback, but when he gets involved with some inept gangsters everything starts falling apart.
Solid acting, solid story, and even some surprising moments of humor. Superior movie.

A boarding school master (and complete asshole) is targeted for murder by his wife and his lover, who’ve had enough of his bullying and cruelty. But after they pull it off, the wife becomes more and more convinced that her husband is actually still alive. Crazy plot twists, mounting paranoia and jangled nerves follow.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Nigel Bird's Essential Noirs

Nigel Bird is a Support For Learning teacher in a primary school near Edinburgh.  Co-Producer of the Rue Bella magazine between 1998 and 2003, he has recently had work published by ‘The Reader’, ‘Crimespree’ and 'Needle'.  He was interviewed by Spinetingler for their ‘Conversations With The Bookless’ series earlier this year, won the ‘Watery Grave Invitational 2010’ contest over at ‘The Drowning Machine’ and has recently made debuts at ‘A Twist Of Noir’, 'Pulp Metal Magazine and ‘Dark Valentine Magazine’. His story ‘An Arm And A Leg’ will appear in the ‘Best Of British Crime’ anthology (edited by Maxim Jakubowski) in 2011 and ‘No Pain No Gain’ has just been accepted by Crimefactory. His blog ‘Sea Minor’ is currently running the ‘Dancing With Myself’ series of interviews. He hopes to complete a draft of his novel by the end of 2010.

Nigel writes:
"My memory for names has never been good. I have to beat around the bush to get to where I need to get. 'That book, you know, the one where god comes down to earth as a human and they nail him to one of those wooden things...'. It’s something I’ve had to get used to. My top 20 noir novels, then, includes those titles that are unforgettable even to me. I’m not the most widely read of individuals, but I’m going to give it my best shot. I do this in the knowledge that my pile of To Be Read novels looks so good it there are definitely going to be a few that would have made the list had I got to them earlier. I’ve also tried not to pick a list of the obvious in a bid to keep the series interesting and in doing so I’m stretching both the definition of ‘noir’ and of ‘novel’ in some cases."

Here goes:
Georges Simenon – The Man Who Watched Trains Go By
Allan Guthrie – Slammer
James M Cain – Double Indemnity
Tristran Egolf – Lord Of The Barnyard
Paul Auster – Man In The Dark
Donald Ray Pollock – Knockemstiff
Benjamin Whitmer – Pike
Albert Camus – The Outsider
Franz Kafka – The Trial
Jim Thompson – The Getaway
Charlie Williams – Deadfolk
Lawrence Block – Eight Million Ways To Die
Patrick McCabe – The Butcher Boy
Raymond Chandler – The Big Sleep
Ray Banks – Donkey Punch
The Longshot – Katie Kitamura
Dashiell Hammett – The Maltese Falcon
Don Winslow – Savages
Paul Cain – Fast One
Kate Atkinson – When Will There Be Good News
Joe Lansdale – Bad Chili

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Good Advices

A friend who knows a thing or two about it advised that I don’t post my short stories here on the blog, especially considering the novel coming out soon and yada. Suggested I start submitting again to the markets. Probably good advice. It’s something I actually gave a lot of thought to, awhile ago, back when I was writing more short stories than I am now and not really making much headway selling any. I’d sort of had enough-- I love writing stories, love it on a deep, primal level, but trying to find homes for them was disheartening and occasionally infuriating. I mean, I placed a few, here and there, but the hassle, geez. Every mag on line or in print has its own very particular set of standards for submission, some of them quite exacting, and the thing is, the thing is, see… when you go to all that trouble to re-format, change the double-spacing to 1 and a half spacing, pull in all the paragraph indentations, etc, etc… and then get the story bounced after waiting nine months… that’s the kinda stuff that just drives me nuts, dig? Or on the rare occasions you’d sell one, the monetary reward is, honestly, not even worth mentioning.
I’m not saying those magazines aren’t justified in having submission guidelines, don’t get me wrong. I’m just saying, it’s time I could have been writing something, you know?
So the decision I made about it at the time was, fuck it. I like writing stories. I don’t like trying to sell them. And if I miss out on a chance to earn a sawbuck or two, big freakin’ deal.
But this friend, this guy who knows what he’s talking about, says, “Exposure. Book coming out soon, you could use the exposure.”
And yeah, he’s right.
So after careful consideration, I’ve decided to NOT post short stories here anymore. There are some great markets these days for the kinda stuff I write, so why not? The exposure, even if it’s minimal, could very well be worth whatever small hassle is involved.
Now, if I wind up having no luck in the markets, I may very well change my mind again. I tend to do that sort of thing. Regardless, you can expect more stories from me, wherever they may appear…

Keith Rawson's Essential Noir

Keith Rawson is the author of well over 100 short stories, published all over the damn webbies. He's also a noted commentator and critic and general ne'er-do-well who clearly has the goods on lots of different people in the seedy world of crime fiction. He's also a contributing editor for Crimefactory Magazine. He runs one of the best blogs around at Bloody Knuckles, Callused Fingers: you really need to check it out on a regular basis.
I'm assuming Keith doesn't require sleep.

Keith writes:
"When Heath asked me to contribute one of these lists to Psycho-Noir, I was thrilled, because the one thing I have an opinion about (at least an opinion that I’m willing to express publicly.) is books. Particularly books of the noir/hard-boiled persuasion. Of course, I just couldn’t send through a simple list of books that have influenced me, I had to go ahead and muddy things up by including an explanations of why I put the book on my list. Quick word of warning, folks, I’m not going to include Crime and Punishment or MacBeth or any pretentious shit like that. Dos and old Shaky are great, but they belong in LIT/101, not on a list of great pulp novels."

1) The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain: No, I'm just not putting it on this list because I'm expected to put old timey classics on something like this. I actually like it. Plus, Cain was the shit and could write circles around guys like Hammet and Chandler.

2) Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye by Horace McCoy: Before the purists chime in, yes, I know it's hard-boiled crime, but it's the hard-boiled novel. By the way, there's going to be a lot more "hard-boiled" as opposed to "noir" on this list, so deal with it

3) The High Priest of California by Charles Willeford: Nobody dies, there's no gratuitous violence, the protagonist simply manipulates a situation until he gets what he wants and then discards what he worked so hard for—yeah, a piece of ass—without a second thought. WWWD?

4) The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson: Degenerate drunks always make the best crime writers

5) Black Friday by David Goodis: Degenerate, crazy drunks make even better ones)

6) I was Dora Suarez by Derek Raymond: ooooooogggggiiiiiiieeee! Yes, it's disturbing enough to make a 37 year-old man write/squeal "ogie". Also, further proof that degenerate drunks make the best crime writers. No, I'm not a degenerate drunk, I'm a respectable, functional drunk, which explains why I'm not writing at the same level.

7) Big Bad Love by Larry Brown: Don't even start, I know it's a short story collection, but damn, what a collection. Brown was a master of the short form and could say more with 2000 words than 99% of his contemporaries could say with 300,000. And while not exactly noir, Brown's fiction is darker and harder than most 'crime' writers

8) Child of God by Cormac McCarthy: You thought I was going to say Blood Meridian, didn't you? Nope, Child of God still makes my skin crawl more then any of McCarthy's novels.

9) The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins: The greatest crime novel of the 20th century. There, I said it

10) L. A. Confidential by James Ellroy: The novel which would redefine crime fiction for 20 years after its appearance. Big, over the top, violent, brilliant

11) Controlled Burn by Scott Wolven: Yeah, more short stories, but each story is a novel in miniature. The collection has defined a generation of writers

12) Give Us A Kiss by Daniel Woodrell: I know, I know, most people consider Death of Sweet Mister and Tomato Red to be superior novels, but Give Us A Kiss set the stage for his future novels and introduced the Dolly's to the world

13) The Walkaway by Scott Phillips: Has Phillips ever written a bad book? The sequel to Phillips debut, the Ice Harvest, is superior in every way to the original

14) The Song is You by Megan Abbott: Like Phillips, Abbott has yet to write a bad novel, but in my opinion, The Song is You was the novel Abbott was meant to write. Dark, atmospheric, meticulously researched.

15) American Skin by Ken Bruen: I could put any Bruen title on here really. Bruen has been a true innovator in the genre, redefining both sub-genres of the P.I. novel and the police procedural, but for me it’s the Irish author’s stand alone novels which truly define him as a novelist. American Skin is taunt, explosive and has defined Bruen’s output since its release.

16) Drive by James Sallis: The very definition of noir minimalism. Sallis never wastes a sentence, hell he doesn’t waste a word. Fast paced, sparsely poetic, should be required reading for anyone who wishes to indulge in the expensive hobby of writing fiction.

17) Kiss Her Goodbye by Allan Guthrie: Modern crime fiction’s darkest writer. Just when you think Guthrie can’t bow his characters any lower, he makes sure to grind their faces into the mud and shit of their souls.

18) The James Deans by Reed Farrel Coleman: Coleman’s opus, a bleak masterpiece that most future P.I. fiction will be judged against. I’m not shitting you, it’s that good.

19) Jimmy Bench Press by Charlie Stella: Stella has been redefining mob novels since he started applying his considerable imagination to writing novels. Admittedly, not his most accomplished novel, however it is his most realistic. The dialogue is whip sharp and you honestly feel as if you’re standing and eavesdropping on the characters

20) Small Crimes by Dave Zeltserman: Zeltserman’s loose Man out of Prison trilogy has, in its short existence, become a hallmark of noir/hardboiled literature. Small Crimes, Pariah, and Killer are all equally intense (and vastly different) reads, but for me Small Crimes sets the bar exceptionally high, not only for Zeltserman’s future output, but for all hardboiled novels that will come after it.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Jonathan Woods' Essential Noir Novels

Jonathan Woods is the author of the deeply, brilliantly depraved Bad Juju & Other Tales of Madness and Mayhem, from the venerable New Pulp Press. I asked him to contribute not because we're both associated with NPN, but because Bad Juju absolutely blew me away with its sheer wickedness and warped vision. As you might expect, his list is wildly eclectic. You can visit Jonathan's website at www.southernnoir.com.

Jonathan writes:

"As you can see my list is very personal and idiosyncratic and wanders fairly far afield to include some “literary” types such as Conrad, Camus, Nabokov and Burroughs. Besides the fact that the listed books by these writers are great examples of noir, I think it shows how the influence of the noir sensibility extends far beyond the traditional boundaries of crime fiction.
Many great crime writers, such as Hammett, Chandler, Ross Macdonald, Ross Thomas, Michael Connelly and James Lee Burke, are not on my list because I don’t think of them as writers of noir per se. Others, like David Goodis, are not there because I’ve actually never read a David Goodis novel. Hopefully this deficiency will be remedied soon.
So, for better or worse here, in no particular order of preference, here are my favorite 30 noir crime novels plus one collection of noir short stories."

1. Young Adam by Alexander Trocchi
2. Children of Light by Robert Stone
3. The Stranger by Albert Camus
4. Double Indemnity by James M. Cain
5. The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain
6. Miami Blues by Charles Williford
7. The Complete Tales by Edgar Allan Poe
8. Naked Lunch by William Burroughs
9. I Was Dora Suarez by Derek Raymond
10. Muscle for the Wing by Daniel Woodrell
11. Wild at Heart by Barry Gifford
12. The Real Cool Killers by Chester Himes
13. Child of God by Cormac McCarthy
14. Port Tropique by Barry Gifford
15. The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad
16. Clandestine by James Ellroy
17. As God Commands by Niccolo Ammaniti
18. I’m Not Scared by Niccolo Ammaniti
19. Shear by Tim Parks
20. The Two Faces of January by Patricia Highsmith
21. Jack’s Return Home (Get Carter) by Ted Lewis
22. The Book of Revelation by Rupert Thomson
23. The Oldest Confession by Richard Condon
24. Angels by Denis Johnson
25. Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov
26. The Ice Harvest by Scott Phillips
27. The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins
28. Sanctuary by William Faulkner
29. Rilke on Black by Ken Bruen
30. An American Dream by Norman Mailer
31. Duffy by Dan Kavanagh

Here's the trailer for Jonathan Woods' Bad Juju & Other Tales of Madness and Mayhem:
Bad Juju Trailer.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Patricia Abbott's Essential Noir Novels

Patti Abbott is a terrific writer of short stories-- her work has appeared at Thuglit, Hardluck Stories, Spinetingler, Thrilling Detective, and a bunch of others besides. She also lives in Detroit, so you know she's bad-ass. She runs one of the most fun blogs around at www.pattinase@blogspot.com.
Here's her choices for essential noir fiction; some nice surprises here:

They Shoot Horses, Don't They, Horace McCoy
Solomon's Vineyard, Jonathan Lattimer
Red Harvest, Dashiell Hammett
No Orchids for Miss Blandish, James Hadley Chase
The Day of the Locusts, Nathaniel West
The Bride Wore Black, Cornell Woolrich
The Postman Always Rings Twice, James Cain
A Kiss Before Dying, Ira Levin
1984, George Orwell
Pickup, Charles Willeford
Miami Purity, Vicki Hendricks
The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith
In the Cut, Suzanne Moore
Waiting for Mr. Goodbar, Judith Rossner
Play It as It Lays, Joan Didion
The Golden Egg, Tim Krabbe
The Song is You, Megan Abbott
Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates
Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ighiguro
Autobiography of a Face, Ann Patchett and Lucy Grealy

Friday, November 12, 2010

No More Prayers, No More Platitudes

Here’s the thing: I don’t believe in platitudes or prayer or “sending out good vibes”. I don’t think that “supporting the troops” or “caring about children” makes you special. I don’t believe that the world is going to change if you only think good thoughts and don’t worry about it. I also don’t believe that love conquers all, or that good guys always win in the end or that there’s a reward or a punishment after we’re dead. I don’t believe in spirit guides or guardian angels.
And I don’t believe that my fiction should reflect any of that horseshit.
I compromise every day. Every single day. I smile politely when someone says they’re gonna pray for all the poor folks in Haiti instead of actually, I don’t know, DOING something. I say “Good for you” when I see a bumper sticker urging us to support the troops when, come on, man, what else am I gonna do? NOT support them? I nod sympathetically when someone espouses on how we should think of the children, why isn’t anyone thinking of the children, when it seems obvious to me that only sociopaths don’t care about children, so why mention it?
I do all this every day because I have to in order to maintain the semblance of normal relations and peace. But really, I find it all rather idiotic.
So when you tell me that my fiction is too dark, too pessimistic, all I can tell you is: surely there’s a Dr. Seuss book around somewhere for you, yes?
I should make it clear that I’m not generally a cranky, unhappy guy-- in fact, I’m pretty cheerful most of the time. I’m a cynic, sure, but honestly, that’s not so bad, is it? We could benefit from MORE cynics in the world, I think. But my writing tends to reflect my belief that none of this really means anything at all… and that it’s okay that it doesn’t. On our trip through this world we have to be sure to pack our own meaning along with the toothbrush, but we can’t be surprised when our personal meaning turns out to have no relevance whatsoever to anyone else.
I’ll play the game in my day-to-day life, though, because NOT playing it takes a lot more energy, and comes with nothing but misunderstandings.
In my fiction, though, I’m the one who makes the rules. In my fiction, I get to call out the emptiness behind your platitudes, the pointlessness of your prayers. This is as close as I can come to a sort of manifesto.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Dave Zeltserman's Top 20 Noir Novels

So I put out the call to some of my favorite writers and critics lurking in the dark underbelly of Noir City, and the response was gratifying. I'll have several to post in the following couple of weeks, but let's get started with this:

Dave Zeltserman is one of the strongest voices in crime fiction these days, innovative as a stylist and totally committed to a dark, uncompromising vision. His novels include the acclaimed "Man out of Prison" trilogy-- Small Crimes, Pariah, and Killer. Most recently, he's explored the horror genre with the bizarre Caretaker of Lorne Field, and put out a collection of short stories called, appropriately enough, 21 Tales. Coming in February of 2011 is another novel, Outsourced.

Here's Dave's list of essential noir fiction:
1) Double Indemnity by James M. Cain
2) Grimhaven by Charles Willeford
3) Savage Night by Jim Thompson
4) Hell of a Woman by Jim Thompson
5) The Name of the Game is Death by Dan Marlowe
6) Anyone's My Name by Seymour Shubin
7) The Woman Chaser by Charles Willeford
8) How Like a God by Rex Stout
9) Dirty Snow by George Simenon
10) A Swell-Looking Babe by Jim Thompson
11) The Getaway by Jim Thompson
12) The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain
13) How the Dead Live by Derek Raymond
14) Robbie's Wife by Russell Hill
15) Miami Purity by Vicki Hendricks
16) Dead City by Shane Stevens
17) I, the Jury by Mickey Spillane
18) Wake Up Dead by Roger Smith
19) The Little Sleep by Paul Tremblay
20) Mr. Arkadin by Orson Welles

"Essential" Noir Novels

A couple days ago, the always fun and enlightening Paul David Brazil brought my attention to a terrific list of “essential noir” novels-- you can see it here:http://www.onlinedegree.net/20-essential-works-of-noir-fiction/
Great list. But looking over it I found that it differed dramatically from my own; after all, even though there are books we’d all agree are must-reads, the ones we find “essential” mostly comes down to subjective evaluations, yeah? That is, the books that really impacted us on a personal level as readers or writers.
And because I’m obsessive this way, I just had to come up with my own list of essential noirs, 21 of them in all (I tried to settle at 20, but one more occurred to me and I didn’t have the heart to cut any of them out)…
Here they are, in no particular order:

Double Indemnity-James M. Cain
The Postman Always Rings Twice- James M. Cain
Pop. 1280-Jim Thompson
The Killer Inside Me- Jim Thompson
The Parker series- Richard Stark
(yes, I’m cheating. It’s a series. Sue me.)
Black Friday- David Goodis
Shoot the Piano Player-David Goodis
Red Harvest-Dashiell Hammett
The Maltese Falcon- Dashiell Hammett
Fast One- Paul Cain
Talented Mr. Ripley- Patricia Highsmith
No Country for Old Men- Cormac McCarthy
Slammer- Alan Guthrie
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?- Horace McCoy
The Black Angel- Cornell Woolrich
Bury Me Deep- Megan Abbott
The Name of the Game is Death- Dan J. Marlowe
The Black Mass of Brother Springer- Charles Willeford
The Burnt-Orange Heresy- Charles Willeford
The Black Dahlia- James Ellroy
A Kiss Before Dying- Ira Levin
The Jack Taylor series- Ken Bruen
(Cheating again, damn my hide.)

Tell you what: Send me your list of essentials and I’ll make a future post out of them. Cool?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Tragedy is funny

The line between existential and black comedy is a seriously thin line. I mean thin, like Lindsay Lohan right before her latest stint in rehab, or thin like your patience with hearing about Lindsay Lohan. Seriously thin.
Basically, noir fiction is about bad things happening to someone. Repeatedly. Bad things that just get worse and worse, spiraling downward-- not out of control, necessarily, but in a never-ending descent; I’ve always fashioned my stories like water running down a drain, going faster and faster as the protagonist searches in vain for a stopper. And the closer it gets to running out entirely, the faster the spin of water down the drain.
See why I never use metaphors or similes in my work? I suck at them. But you get the point.
Now look at a good black comedy. The Coen Brothers ‘Barton Fink’ comes to mind. If you described the plot of that movie to someone, without mentioning that it’s a comedy, you’d be describing a noir: neurotic NY playwright comes to LA to write for the movies, suffers surreal case of writer’s block, feels like he’s losing his mind in a dingy little hotel room, meets a strange and mysterious salesman who may be a psychotic serial killer. And what makes the movie a comedy? There aren’t any jokes in it, right? There’s not even any physical humor to speak of. The comedy is solely in the situation, in subtle reactions and sly dialogue.
This link between comedy and noir occurred to me recently when someone asked me to explain a bit about the book I just started working on. I began describing some of the action (without giving away too much, I hope), about a protagonist who makes a huge mistake, takes an even huger risk to fix it, screws THAT up, and winds up with a dead body he has to get rid of. Then, of course, it turns out the guy he’s killed is very important, and the protagonist has to scramble to cover his tracks and of course, the water starts spiraling down the drain from there.
I was describing this to someone, and this someone started laughing at the absurdity of the story. And the more I went on, the more the person laughed. And it dawned on me: Oh, yeah. This IS kinda funny, isn’t it? Because noir and black comedy have the exact same story pattern.
It makes me wonder how hard it would be to turn some classic noir, say Double Indemnity or maybe Night of the Hunter into a comedy. Maybe if Walter Neff does a spit take when Phillis suggests killing her husband? Or if Reverend Powell is continuously getting smacked in the nuts in his pursuit of those little brats?
Mel Brooks famously said “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall down an open manhole and die”-- and noir is about a protagonist falling down an open manhole, falling, falling. The punch line is when he hits the bottom.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Some More Film Noir Notes

The Naked City
1948-Jules Dassin
Fantastic police procedural only slightly marred by the unnecessary voice-over narration. Two sturdy detectives track a murderer, following up leads and meeting all sorts of interesting types, before the exciting finale on the Brooklyn Bridge.
Notable especially for all the great on-location shots of NYC.

Black Angel
Based on the novel by Cornell Woolrich; a superior noir. June Vincent’s estranged husband has been accused of murder. With the help of the awesome Dan Duryea as the victim’s hopelessly alcoholic songwriter husband, she sets out to find the real killer.
Also with Peter Lorre as the inevitable sleazy nightclub owner. Surprising ending. Solid movie.

The Lady from Shanghai
1948-Orson Welles
Welles is a tough-guy sailor, hired by the seductive Rita Hayworth to work on her husband’s yacht. Intrigue, suspicion, and murder follow. The scene in the hall of mirrors, toward the end, is masterful.

The Big Clock
A great cast in a top-notch noir. Ray Milland is a magazine publisher who misses a vacation with his wife and winds up spending time with another woman—a woman who winds up murdered, and all the clues point to Milland as the killer.
Also starring Charles Laughton and the beautiful Maureen O’Sullivan.

1952-Henry Hathaway
A young couple on a delayed honeymoon to Niagara Falls meets another couple whose marriage is falling apart: Marilyn Monroe is the evil vixen, Joseph Cotton is her shell-shocked war vet husband. With her lover, Monroe plots to murder her husband; the husband’s making plots of his own, and the young couple gets involved against their wills. Joseph Cotton is great in this one, and Monroe shows that she could actually act when given half the chance.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

More random Notes on Film Noir

Odds Against Tomorrow
1959-Robert Wise
Ed Begley is an ex-cop who has a plan for the perfect score. Harry Belafonte is a musician who owes a huge gambling debt. Robert Ryan is the career criminal whose unreasoning hatred of black people will ultimately destroy him and everyone around him. Odds Against Tomorrow is a beautifully filmed, high tension morality play that manages to be gritty and entertaining while maintaining a deeper relevance. Highly recommended.

Woman in the Window
1944-Fritz Lang
Edward G. Robinson is a stolid professor who finds himself involved with a beautiful artist’s model, played by Joan Bennett. When her jealous lover shows up, Robinson is forced to kill him in self-defense. Covering up the crime is made all the harder when Robinson’s D.A. friend is assigned to find the killers, and the victim’s sleazy bodyguard shows up to blackmail the inept pair.
Robinson is great as always. Bennett is gorgeous. And Dan Durya, as usual, steals every scene he’s in as the sleazy bodyguard. But the last three minutes are annoying—they go for a total cop-out ending.
Aside from that: Solid.
The Stranger
1946-Orson Welles
Edward G. Robinson is a Nazi hunter on the trail of escaped Nazi war criminal Orson Welles, who’s taken up refuge as a respected citizen in a small New England town.
Welles acting and directing are top-notch with this one. Robinson turns in a surprising performance, and even Loretta Young (who I never much cared for) is very convincing as Welles new wife, teetering on the brink of a nervous breakdown.

On Dangerous Ground
1951-Nicholas Ray
Robert Ryan is a hardened city cop, but the ugliness of the job is getting to him, until he’s sent to the country to help investigate a murder. On the killer’s trail, he meets the bitter father of the murder victim and the killer’s blind sister, played by Ida Lupino, and re-discovers his lost humanity in the process.
Ryan is great as the brutal and disillusioned detective, unable to understand or communicate his seething emotions.

They Live By Night
1949-Nicholas Ray
After escaping from prison and meeting a girl (played by Cathy O’Donnell), Farley Granger wants nothing except to go straight and lead a decent life. But this is noir: that ain’t gonna happen. His escapee cohorts turn up and force him into another heist; disaster ensues.
Killer’s Kiss
1955-Stanley Kubrick
Kubrick’s second movie, very low budget but still showing some signs of his genius. A second-rate boxer and the woman he saved from being raped want to start a new life together away from the cesspool of the city, but her former boss has other ideas. A great chase scene over the rooftops of the city toward the end.

I Wake Up Screaming
1941-H. Bruce Humberstone
Entertainment promoter Victor Mature is accused of murdering his young protégé, played by Carole Landis, and with Betty Grable’s help he struggles to stay ahead of the cops and find the real killer.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The cover

The cover of The Bastard Hand, you know, sans title and all that stuff. It was put together by graphic artist extraordinare Ron Warren.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Bastard Hand update

Just talked to the illustrious Jon Bassoff of New Pulp Press... Advance reading copies are coming in November, official release date is now March 20... mark your calenders for a book that is "violent, offensive, over-the-top, and occasionally brilliant".

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Random Notes about Random Films Noir

The Dark Corner
1946-Henry Hathaway
Complex and beautifully-shot noir starring Mark Stevens as a P.I. accused of murder—he goes on the lam to find the real killer, and crosses paths with William Bendix as a mysterious white-suited lug who keeps following him, and a shady art dealer played with usual skill by Clifton Webb. Lucille Ball is Stevens plucky secretary.

Criss Cross
1948-Robert Siodmark
Because he can’t keep away from Yvonne DeCarlo, Burt Lancaster (as an armored car driver) is forced into helping pull off a heist by DeCarlo’s gangster beau, played by the one of a kind Dan Duryea. Superior noir with a surprisingly bleak ending.

Dead Reckoning
1947-John Cromwell
Humphrey Bogart is a hard-nosed war vet who storms into a small Southern town to find out what happened to his buddy, who’s disappeared. Terrific tension and suspense. One of Bogie’s better performances, and Lizabeth Scott is also in good form.
Edmond O’Brien is victimized with a slow-working poison, and frantically races to find out who killed him and why before time runs out. A clever premise with lots of great twists and almost unbearable suspense. Superior.

The Hitch-hiker
1953-Ida Lupino
Edmond O’Brien and his buddy head off for a vacation, but things go bad when they pick up a psychotic hitch-hiker with a creepy right eye. Taut suspense; Ida Lupino was the only female director of noir and suspense in her day, and she proves that she’s just as good behind the camera as in front of it, maybe even better.

Dark Passage
1947-Delmer Daves
Based on the novel by David Goodis. Bogie is an escapee from the pen set on finding the real killer of his wife. After plastic surgery, he’s aided by a sultry Lauren Bacall. Not a great movie, but every scene between Bogart and Bacall smolders.

1946-Edgar G. Ulmer
Low-budget and bleak noir classic. Tom Neal accidently kills the guy who gave him a lift, and then sets off on a whirlwind disaster of bad choices and bad luck—especially when he picks up vicious dame Ann Savage, who knows what he did and isn’t afraid to use it against him.
More to come, sooner or later…