The crime fiction community has a love/hate relationship with the word “noir”. It’s resistance to firm definition is more alluring then we may care to admit and grappling with the question “what is noir?” has become its own annual rite. A few essays on noir have appeared on this very site.
I’ve written my own tracts on noir and won’t be writing one today. Actually this post is Heath Lowrance’s fault. He had a blog post where he named his favorite noirs of the last decade. I am of the opinion that we too often talk of ye olden days of noir and forget those that are more contemporary so this was a topic I warmed to. I like making lists and using them as a filter to make book recommendations. So I dropped ten titles in his comments section without explanation.
This post won’t be my definition of noir. It won’t tell you what noir is and isn’t. If you get something of what my definitions of noir are based on the selections then great but all I really want to do is put some good books into reader’s hands. The only parameter that I made an effort to use was to not repeat any of Heath’s choices.
Boot Tracks by Matthew F Jones
I think that Jones is a writer that more people need to get hip to. Someone at The Big Adios years ago referred to Boot Tracks as possibly a perfect noir. While I may not fully agree with this sentiment it really is hard to argue with.
Boot Tracks has a cast of supremely damaged characters. Rankin is fresh out of jail and has a favor that he owes The Buddha, a man he knew in jail. The Buddha wants Rankin to kill someone for him. Rankin meets Florence a porn star, and a connection is made.
Will this go wrong? You bet your sweet bippy it does. As much as we as readers expect set-ups in certain type of novels to go wrong they rarely go as horrifically wrong as they do here.
The centerpiece of Boot Tracks is the sustained, tour-de-force climax, the act of murder, lasting for a full quarter of the book, which unfolds in agonizingly brutal slow motion. The slow pace is necessary for Jones to layer in all the suspense, dread and fuckedupness that one can bear. Rankin has the address of who he is supposed to kill but because it’s dark he enters the wrong house. While in the house his memories of his abusive childhood superimpose themselves on the present. Then he kills the wrong couple believing them to be his abusive prostitute mother and her violent lover. Up until now the reader has had an idea that Rankin is damaged but not the sheer depths of it. The best part is that this isn’t even the end of the book.
The Death of Sweet Mister by Daniel Woodrell
Daniel Woodrell’s books are all worth reading if there are readers out there who haven’t (and I fear that there are). With the success of Winter’s Bone I think that Woodrell’s star is ascendant and more and more readers will come to realize what some of have know all along about the power of his work
The Death of Sweet Mister is a charming book. It lulls you into the life of Shuggie, an overweight 13 year old boy. You feel for him in ways that you don’t for most other protagonists. He elicits an almost parental instinct. The reader wants to protect him, to get him away, to let him become the man we think he can be. That isn’t the case and instead he becomes the man he perhaps was all along, the man that hovered on the periphery in the readers willful blind spot. When that man finally emerges in the final pages we understand the full bittersweet weight of the word “death” in the title. We realize that the charming voice lulled us into a false sense of security that Woodrell uses to great effect.
Dermaphoria by Craig Clevenger
There is a whole noir community that has popped up around the fiction of Clevenger, Will Christopher Baer and Stephen Graham Jones that exists as a separate entity then the crime fiction community. A number of them self-identify as “neo-noir” writers. While Baer’s best work goes full uncomfortable dark and Jones’s prolific nature and full body of work at times takes him out of crime fiction Clevenger’s work may be the most recognizable as crime fiction of the three.
Dermaphoria has a very classic kind of set-up where the protag is in jail, accused of a crime(s), has no memory of these crimes, and can’t defend himself. The reason he can’t remember anything is because of his exposure to a huge amount of drugs. Released from jail he will have to spend the book navigating his memories, his reality and his current situation. Navigation though doesn’t require sobriety but the ingestion of a new designer drug that has hit the streets. What starts out a very disorienting novel slowly concretizes as the pieces of his past slide into place before a final confrontation of what he has done.
The God File by Frank Turner Hollon
The God File is one of my favorite books bar genre. This is a deceptively noir book as there really isn’t much to indicate the darkness and quiet power in the pages. The God File is about a man’s search for God while in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. The opening is one of my favorites and is worth quoting in full:
“So you say you believe in God? So you say that you see evidence God exists, and not only does God exist, He cares about you? Spend almost twenty-two years in a maximum security Alabama penitentiary for a murder you didn’t commit, and then tell me God exists. I have, and I’m still looking.
They walked my skinny ass through the front door twenty-two years ago. I was in here three months before my mind would let me read, then I started reading everything. Anything with words. Anything. I read a book about a man with cancer. His cancer was cured. He was a doctor with a supportive wife and blue-eyed kids. He wrote about his evidence and proof, both historical and personal, of the existence of God. He wrote about dreams of Jesus and signs of that the Lord had cured his cancer. I thought it must be pretty fuckin’ easy to see signs of God’s existence when you’re a rich doctor, with a wonderful wife and children, cured of cancer, sitting around in your country house with your fat dog on the floor by your feet and writing stories about pretty visions. I thought it would really be a test, it would really be worthwhile, to be able to find this evidence in a nasty-ass place like this, with no real freedoms, surrounded everyday with fear, hopelessness, and people who live like rats.
So does God exist? I set out to collect the evidence, to put together a file, to look for God in the tiny details, the corners of my days in this place, to find out for myself. All I have is time, and this file. I have added to the ideas through the years, like building my own house on a solid foundation, brick by brick.”
Kiss Me Judas by Will Christopher Baer
This is one of the “or so” entries on the list but its importance to modern noir demands that it be here. Plus I reckon that most people came to Baer’s Phineas Poe books through the omnibus that was released in 2005.
Upon reading the opening paragraph of Kiss Me, Judas a few things become clear. The quality of the writing, the hallucinatory tone and the break from genre conventions are all apparent. It not only sets the tone but grabs your attention also.
“I must be dead for there is nothing but blue snow and the furious silence of a gunshot. Two birds crash blindly against the glass surface of a lake. I’m cold, religiously cold. The birds burst from the water, their wings like silver. One has a fish twisting in its grip. The other dives again and now I hold my breath. Now the snow has stopped and the sky is endless and white and I’m so cold I must have left my body”
During the opening two chapters of the book, which only encompasses 13 pages, a dizzying amount of set up action and necessary background information is given about Phineas Poe. After being released from a mental hospital looking like a cancer patient he goes to a hotel bar and meets a gorgeous woman in a red dress named Jude. They go back to his room and after having unprotected sex he wakes in a tub full of ice missing his kidney. When questioned by the cops we find out that not only did he used to be a cop, but that he was also Internal Affairs Division. So, it goes without saying that the police don’t like him. After his wife was shot and killed in an accident(?) he had a nervous breakdown on the practice range and started shooting imaginary people. After taking an ounce of crystal meth he locked himself in a holding cell with a female prisoner and had her urinate on him. Upon waking up in a hospital he decides he wants to leave and yanks out his catheter. Before leaving the hospital he goes into the room of a burn victim on life support to take her drugs and antibiotics. The woman suddenly stirs thinking he is someone else. Since she can’t see, he plays along telling her that he has been feeding her cat. She tells him that she is afraid and asks him to pray for her. He takes her hand and recites the only prayer that he knows, the children’s bedtime prayer. He holds her hand until she falls asleep then steals $50 from her purse. Afterwards he realizes he has fallen in love with Jude and he decides to track her down and get his kidney back.
Phineas Poe, possibly the most unreliable narrator the mystery genre has ever produced, leads us through a nightmarish landscape in which nothing that happens can be taken for granted. He is mentally unstable and oddly comfortable in his own skin, so when something happens that would set the alarm bells ringing in others; he takes it all in stride. He is a drug addict that floats along in a hallucinatory cloud that lends a bizarre bent to an already hellish existence.
Because of his inability at times to distinguish between what’s real and not real he has a strange proclivity towards violence. He is quick to act out against somebody that he feels threatened by, stranger or not. He is also equally quick to engage in sadomasochistic sex, binding, gagging and cutting Jude when they have sex; fantasies about rape or forceful sex when looking at other women. While knowing that he is physically vulnerable, especially after his surgery, he is confident that he will never face any consequences for his actions. If he gets beat up there is always more drugs to turn to, if he gets arrested then he will just go into a mental hospital again. So, in Poe’s world even a normal semblance of justice has been corrupted by the narrators own lack of a coherent grasp on reality.
The Long Fall by Lynn Kostoff
Kostoff excels at richly developed characters and the characters in The Long Fall are the deepest on the list. The key to the success of The Long Fall is simple, there are more relationships then there are people involved. Kostoff takes a small cast of characters, there are four of them, and put them in a closed environment so that they keep interacting with one another increasing the pressure and tension. Kostoff excels at tension through character development and for such a small group these relationships become increasingly complex. Within these four people: Two of them are married; two are siblings; two are lovers; one of them caused the other to lose his job; one wants revenge on another and still a different one wants revenge for different reasons; one stole from the other.
Darkness that is isolated runs the risk of becoming boring. Actually, it is boring. A great noir is counter-balanced with an opposing lightness at its core or as part of its DNA. Still lots of grey but that light and dark (however small) are important. Kostoff understands this better than most others do.
The Open Curtain by Brian Evenson
In reference to The Open Curtain and, in a fit of hyperbole, I once said that “If Jim Thompson were alive today he’d want to write a novel like this”. For noir folks this may have seemed sacrilegious but at the time I was frustrated with some modern noir practitioners not being a part of conversations and since I felt certain that Evenson wasn’t being read by the crime fiction community (despite an Edgar nomination for The Open Curtain) as much as he deserved to be I wanted to make what seemed like an outrageous statement to grab some attention for him. The statement isn’t false despite being over the top.
The Open Curtain is broken up into three sections and this structure is important to the success and effect of the novel. In the first section Rudd meets up with his newly discovered half brother and discovers a newspaper article about the William Hooper Young murder and begins to identify with him. It’s in this first section the Rudd starts losing time. What the origins of this are we don’t know. But the language used to express and show these moments as well as the insertion of these two people into Rudd’s life is used to its highest possible effect. In the middle of one of Rudd’s biggest black outs the section ends. We are introduced to a new character in section two. A girl whose entire family has just been killed. As she tries to cope she becomes friends with Rudd and for all the wrong reasons (primarily that she doesn’t want to be alone) she lets him move in and they get married. The final section of The Open Curtain is a virtuosic tour-de-force. It may be the finest sustained piece of writing to come along in years. Never before has there been a descent into madness portrayed in writing like the one on display here. There is such a palpable tension that derives from the inter-twinning of the real and the unreal, and our own unsuredess of which is which, that it becomes a slippery propulsive force. Evenson never gives the reader an easy way out or a simple solution.
“He spent the better part of the afternoon looking at his hands, nails flecked with white streaks, knuckles large probably from his having cracked them ever since he was a child. His mother caught him staring, asked if everything was O.K.
“Fine,” he said.
“At church tomorrow–”she started.
“–I’m not going to church tomorrow,” he said.
He could not look at her while he said it. He heard her wheeze. “Excuse me?” she said, her voice severe. His heart was beating terrifically, though he told himself that there was no reason to worry, that he was long past caring about what he thought, though he knew he did care, fuck all.
“Excuse me?” she said.
“You heard me,” he said.
“I swear, your father would roll over in his grave.”
“Let him roll.”
For the rest of the day that phrase was stuck in his head, Let him roll, sliding around with a kind of mute doom that hard to evade. His mother had stomped out. When, near evening, she came back, he made no attempt to reconcile with her. Let him roll, he thought from the doorway, watching her core and slice a head of lettuce at the sink, the dull knife bruising the edges of each leaf. She turned and looked him and he fled.
She did not call him to dinner, and he told himself he wouldn’t come if she did call. Before she went to bed, he heard her walking around the house turning off the lights. He thought she might stop outside his door, but she didn’t. I don’t need anyone, he thought, and snuck into the kitchen to find his plate cellophaned in the fridge. He ate it, he tried to believe, not for himself but for her benefit, to keep her from worrying. It was an act of kindness to her, though he had enough spite left to eat the food cold.
He spent the night wandering the darkened house, dragging his hand along the walls, imagining that he was establishing a tactile knowledge of the house that would come in handy if he went blind. Then she would be sorry. He awoke on the floor of the half-attic, dust drifting in the sunlight coming through the window. He couldn’t remember falling asleep there. He went into the bathroom and splashed his face with water, then called for his mother. She didn’t answer.
The car was gone, his mother was already at church. She had left his black leatherbound scriptures on the kitchen table. Next to them was a crudely drawn map to the church., with just two squares indicated, one marked “House,” the other marked “Church.” An arrow pointed from the first to the second. “In case you forgot the way,” was written on the bottom. On the table she had also spelled out the word HELL in white grains that he took for salt but which, tasting, he found to be sugar.
He took a paring knife from the counter, scraped the sugar into a pile, and began, carefully, to shape it into a series of concentric circles. As he worked, he imagined himself putting on his tie and button-down oxford and going to church, walking through the crowded pews and straight to the pulpit and from there publicly washing his hands of religion for good. His mother would be in the audience, shocked, her mouth open. He would renounce Mormonism and then, baring his chest, would invite the devil to take his soul. Not the he believed in the devil, or God either, he told himself.
When he was done shaping the sugar, he had a target. He thrust the knife’s tip down hard in the center, so it stuck.”
Pike by Benjamin Whitmer
Part of the power of Pike is that it is a black novel to the core without resorting to cheap trickery such as unearned nihilism or excessive violence. This isn’t to say that Pike isn’t a violent book because it is but the cheapest noirs tie themselves up in a Gordian plot then use death-to-all as the blade to cut it.
At one point in the movie The Way of the Gun Joe Sarno says “The only thing you can guess about a broken down old man is that he is a survivor”. Old Jimmy Caan gives voice to a certain type of aged man that we see from time to time in fiction (most recently Mike from Breaking Bad) that may owe itself to a kind of idolization of our grandfathers. Sarno’s quote applies to the titular character in Pike. When we meet him he is grizzled but we come to realize that, despite his age, you don’t want to mess with him.
The ending even has the air of being a somewhat happy one, if illusory. It doesn’t take long after the end for the reader to realize that there is a good chance that these characters won’t make it. That they have survived and nothing else.
Senseless by Stona Fitch
Senseless has become something of a cult classic in the years since its release. While I have no access to industry sales figures it certainly seems like more and more folks have been talking about it as the years have gone on. From initial hushed whispers to throaty exaltations they all say the same thing; you have to read this book.
Rarely have I read a novel that has so much to offer in such a short page count. Great writing, great characters, ideas, it’s all here.
Then there is the brutal violence. You will no longer look at a cheese grater the same way again. That’s all that needs to be said.
Sky Full of Sand by Rick DeMarinis
DeMarinis is perhaps a writer best known for his short fiction. And like Stona Fitch he writes in other genres so you may not get a noir depending on what you grab. He can write though so if you aren’t familiar with his work then fix that
The main character, Uri, in Sky Full of Sand is arguably American societies lowest of the low, an American Indian. A group of people that are forgotten by large swaths of people and invisible to others, reduced to ideas of vague mysticism and dream catchers. A group of people that Jason Aaron uses to great effect in Scalped. Uri is also nicely self-deluded, he truly believes that his station in life is a temporary one and that carrot on a stick is what drives him.
Uri finds himself caught up in larger societal forces then he can’t handle, a very classic noir plot type. Sky Full of Sand is noir down to a sentence level with a piece of noir wisdom on every page.
Waste by Eugene Marten
Waste is one of the unheralded great modern psycho noirs. It has a strong sense of foreboding dread that murmurs right below the surface. You sit there waiting for the other foot to drop and you’re not disappointed when it does.
Early on in the book, when we’ve been lulled into its rhythms, we get a little jar from the book, almost like a reminder to pay attention. A female office worker, one who the protag, an office building cleaner, has had some fantasies about, leaves her desk:
“When she was gone he jerked off in her shoes and cleaned them out with germicidal foam. You could use it on anything but woodwork”
It’s a chilling moment that reveals just psychotic this character is. For a book that is decidedly lacking in plot the central reveal has to be withheld from reviews because its best felt by the first time reader, without any indicators except the feeling of unease that permeates the book. You might be reading this review thinking that you know what that reveal is but you probably don’t. It’s much more brutal then that, catering to a baser instinct that makes the eyes go wide.
So there you have it. My Top Ten Noirs of the Last Ten Years (or so). If you’ve read any of these books or if any of them sound interesting then sound off in the comments. If you’ve read any of these books and you don’t think they are noir, save it.
What I really want though is for you to name your favorite noirs of the last ten years (or so).
Brian Lindenmuth loves both kinds of books, fiction and non-fiction and he is the non-fiction editor of Spinetingler Magazine. Generally an all around book john and reviewing roustabout he is a regular contributor to Spinetingler, Crimespree Magazine and BSC Review. He believes that reviewers should have an opinion.