Best American Noir of the Century
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
US: Oct 2010
It begins as a love story. A few months after Linda and Mark meet on the Via Piemonte in Rome, they’re married and living in a big house in Massachusetts. Life seems idyllic, but there’s something wrong about Mark, something somehow off. Until the story takes a dark turn in its last third, that sinister element is only implied, creating an intriguing contrast between explicit illusions (“They call this love, she said to herself.”) and unstated reality (“Everyone for some reason acted furtively ashamed, as if something unclean had happened.”).
Cornell Woolrich captures the essence of noir in this bleak and ominous short story from 1968, “For the Rest of Her Life”, which is featured in the new anthology, The Best American Noir of the Century, edited by Otto Penzler and James Ellroy.
“Every life is a mystery,” Woolrich writes. “And every story of every life is a mystery. But it is not what happens that is the mystery. It is whether it has to happen no matter what, whether it is ordered and ordained, fixed and fated, or whether is can be missed, avoided, circumvented, passed by; that is the mystery.”
Described in this anthology as “arguably the greatest suspense writer” of the century, Woolrich weaves throughout his story a pervasive feeling that Linda’s fate was sealed from the moment she saw Mark on that street in Rome. All of the stories in this collection share that sense of impending doom.
The stories are “dark and often oppressive, failing to allow redemption for most of the people who inhabit their sad, violent, amoral world,” as Penzler describes them in his foreward. “Carefully wrought plans crumble, lovers deceive, normality morphs into decadence, and decency is scarce and unrewarded.”
In Thomas H. Cook’s 2005 story, “What She Offered”, the narrator is a writer of noir novels, and the way he describes his work fits Penzler’s template with remarkable accuracy.
“In my books, there were no happy endings,” Cook writes. “People were lost and helpless, even the smart ones… especially the smart ones. Everything was vain and everything was fleeting. The strongest emotions quickly waned. A few things mattered, but only because we made them matter by insisting that they should. If we needed evidence of this, we made it up.”
Self-definition runs strong in this anthology, not in the sense of personal identity, but in terms of trying to identify exactly what noir means. That’s a challenge facing everyone who attempts to write about noir, and it can be illuminating to compare how others have done it.
For example, it’s a “once disreputable and never more than loosely defined genre,” as editors Ed Gorman, Lee Server and Martin H. Greenberg describe it in their foreward to 1998’s The Big Book of Noir:
“Noir is the French-derived term for a dark, pessimistic, and fearful world view as expressed in film, fiction, and other popular arts of this century. In its English-language adaptation the word was first attached almost exclusively to a loosely generic style of moviemaking. But the French film critics who coined the term in the 1940s had always been aware of the intersecting roots of the still-evolving format. “Film noir” was a direct play on Série Noir, a Parisian publisher’s new line of grim thrillers and violent detective stories, most of them American in origin—the fresh form of tough literature by the likes of Hammet, Chandler, and Woolrich that grew out of the pulps of the 1920s and ‘30s (the line itself reflective of an older literary category dubbed roman noir).”
In his 1998 survey, A Girl and a Gun, David N. Meyer skirts the issue by calling noir “nothing so recognizable or limited as a genre, motif or style.”
“Noir’s mysterious nature identifies is as a subculture, a constantly mutating form (containing genre, motif, and style) that by mutating seeks to avoid co-option by the omnivorous mainstream,” he writes.
Penzler notes in his introduction to this massive and potentially lethal anthology that, “Curiously, noir is not unlike pornography, in the sense that it is virtually impossible to define, but everybody thinks they know it when they see it.”
Noir is “a prodigiously overused term to describe a certain type of film or literary work,” he explains. Even though noir is often discussed in conjunction with hard-boiled detective stories, such as the famous works of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, Penzler argues against that comparison.
“In fact, the two subcategories of the mystery genre, private detective stories and noir fiction, are diametrically opposed, with mutually exclusive philosophical premises,” he writes. “[T]he American private detective retains his sense of honor in the face of all the adversity and duplicity with which he must do battle.”
For the private detective, “Although not every one of their cases may have a happy conclusion, the hero nonetheless will emerge with a clean ethical slate.” By comparison, “[T]he central figures in noir stories are doomed to hopelessness….”[The noir story] will end badly, because the characters are inherently corrupt and that is the fate that inevitably awaits them.”
This resonates with the conclusion Paul Duncan reaches in his 2000 book, Noir Fiction: Dark Highways. “Noir is not a kind of macho Hard-Boiled fiction where Tough Guys pass moral judgement on an immoral society,” he writes.
“Noir is about the weak-minded, the losers, the bottom-feeders, the obsessives, the compulsives and the psychopaths. Noir is not about the people standing on the edge of the abyss looking in, but about the people in it, forever writhing, aware of the pain, aware of the future pain to come. The character(s) must suffer/confront the darkness inside them. Whether they live or die is immaterial—the quest into this heart of darkness is the thing.”
Darkness is very much the thing in this anthology. There are 39 stories (which by curious coincidence brings to mind John Buchan’s 1915 thriller classic, The Thirty-Nine Steps) with publication dates ranging from 1923 to 2007. Of course, trying to pick less than 40 stories from over 80 years is bound to result in some choices that seem unusual. There are classic writers, such as James M. Cain, Mickey Spillane, David Goodis and Jim Thomson, and there are modern giants like James Lee Burke, Lawrence Block, Dennis Lehane and Elmore Leonard.
There are also surprises: David Morrell (creator of the character John Rambo), Harlan Ellison and F.X. Toole. Unfortunately, there are only three women: Dorothy B. Hughes, Patricia Highsmith and Joyce Carol Oates.
Another unusual aspect is the anthology’s emphasis on the last two decades. Roughly half the stories are from the ‘90s and beyond, and in terms of page count, by the midway point of the collection we’re already at a story from 1995 (Ed Gorman’s “Out There in the Darkness”).
It’s also a big book, weighing more than two pounds, which makes it thick enough to stop a small-calibre bullet and heavy enough to knock somebody out.
Possibly the best story in the collection, James Lee Burke’s “Texas City, 1947” (from 1991) feels less like noir and more like straight-up highfalutin literature. The story of a troubled summer in the lives of three young siblings, the year following their mother’s death, it’s a haunting tale of violence and retribution, with one of the most powerful and poetic endings I’ve read in a long time.
Another highlight is F.X. Toole’s “Midnight Emissions”, from 2001, which takes place in the boxing world (not a huge surprise, from the writer of the book that Clint Eastwood transformed into Million Dollar Baby). As always, Toole’s characters, dialogue and details feel absolutely real and unique. He creates an unforgettable story, an engrossing world and charming (if dangerous) voice: “See, when the police find a corpse in Texas, their first question ain’t who done it, it’s what did the dead do to deserve it?”
By contrast, Chris Adrian’s 2006 story, “Stab”, feels almost as if it belongs in an anthology of fantastic or horror stories. His narrator recalls a childhood relationship with a strange and malevolent young girl, and begins the story by informing us, “Someone was murdering the small animals in our neighborhood.”
“[A] fellow in a pediatric hematology/oncology program in San Francisco,” Adrian is an acclaimed young writer who “regards himself primarily as a doctor,” according to the note about him. Prefacing each story, those biographical notes are often just as interesting and filled with personality as the stories.
For example, the note to James Crumley’s 1996 story, “Hot Springs”, mentions his debut novel, The Last Good Kiss, which is said to begin “with one of the most famous and perfect first lines in crime fiction” (that line involves drinking alcohol in the company of a bulldog, and it is fine, indeed).
There are fascinating inclusions, such as Tod Robbins’ 1923 story, “Spurs”, which kicks off the collection. Filmed in 1932 as the macabre classic Freaks by Tod Browning, Robbins is one of many writers included here who also made famous forays into film.
Steve Fisher wrote the 1938 story, “You’ll Always Remember Me”, and also had a story (not included here) that was adapted as I Wake Up Screaming, which is “generally regarded as the first film noir,” according to the note introducing his story.
Along with writing the 1946 story, “The Homecoming”, Dorothy B. Hughes wrote eleven novels, including In a Lonely Place, later adapted into the classic film starring Humphrey Bogart. Howard Browne wrote the 1952 story, “Man in the Dark”, and later went on to pen the screenplay for the 1967 film, The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
“Noir works, whether films, novels, or short stories, are existential, pessimistic tales about people, including (or especially) protagonists, who are seriously flawed and morally questionable,” writes Penzler in his introduction. “The tone is generally bleak and nihilistic, with characters whose greed, lust, jealousy, and alienation lead them into a downward spiral as their plans and schemes inevitably go awry.”
This jibes with a point Meyers makes in A Girl and a Gun that “the rise of existentialism profoundly influenced noir.” “In the absence of a defined moral order and in the certainty of our own demise, humans must devise their own morality, must determine what each regards as good and evil,” he writes.
Nihilistic, existential, pessimistic—it sounds dour, or at least depressing. Here’s a line from William Gay’s 2000 story, “The Paperhanger”: “Just as there is a deepening progression to misfortune, so too there is a point beyond which things can only get worse. They did.”
In his 1998 story, “Poachers”, Tom Franklin describes a character this way: “He was just a man who’d had a hard life and grown bitter and angry. Probably an alcoholic. A man who chose to uphold the law because breaking it was no challenge.” Bleak stuff.
After reading the entire 731-page collection, two other qualities come to mind: variety and most importantly, fun. Not funny ha-ha—as Penzler writes, “If you find light and hilarity in these pages, I strongly recommend a visit to a mental health professional.” Rather, the kind of fun here is dark and “demented.” The anthology’s other editor nails this side of the genre.
“The thrill of noir is the rush of moral forfeit and the abandonment to titillation,” writes James Ellroy in his introduction. “Noir will never die—it’s too dementedly funny not to flourish in the heads of hip writers who wish they could time-trip to 1948 and live postwar malaise and psychoses.”
An iconic figure in modern fiction, Ellroy describes “the social importance of noir” as being “its grounding in the big themes of race, class, gender, and systemic corruption. The overarching joy and lasting appeal of noir is that it makes doom fun…The subgenre officially died in 1960. New writer generations have resurrected it and redefined it as a sub-subgenre, tailored to meet their dramatic needs. Doom is fun.”
While it would have been interesting for more insights from Penzler and Ellroy regarding the development of noir fiction over the century, that doesn’t seem to be the point of this anthology. The point is the “skeevy” fun that accompanies these doom-filled tales.
“The short stories in this volume are a groove,” Ellroy writes. “Exercise your skeevy curiosity and read every one. You’ll be repulsed and titillated. You’ll endure moral forfeit…You’re a perv for reading this introduction.”
Guilty as charged.