EPIII: Wherein the intrepid, trench coat clad and fedora sporting writer takes a trip down the dank, dark, back alleys of Noirville and finds a snoot full of trouble with crooked cops, private dicks with bad intentions and Dangerous Dames with killer gams.
Main Entry: noir *
Etymology: short for film noir
1: crime fiction featuring hard-boiled cynical characters and bleak sleazy settings
2: film noir
It’s such a simple sounding definition, isn’t it? It’s so straight forward and plain spoken, right? It also misses the truth of the matter by about a million miles. “Noir” is one of those words that have different meanings to different people. Don’t believe me? Try this little experiment. Go ask 12 random people what noir means and you will get a dozen different answers. Noir, to me, is defined in the same way pornography was by Regan era Attorney General Edwin Meese (and I paraphrase here): “I can’t define it but I know it when I see it.” That’s how I feel about noir.
In my opinion, what makes a story noir is the language used in the writing. The writing is what separates regular procedural crime books (which will be dealt with in a future column) from the noir crime books.
I could easily have used a 5 iron and laid up for this episode and gone with the classic writers of the Noir genre. I’m speaking about the Dashell Hammetts, Raymond Chandlers, Ross MacDonalds, Mickey Spillanes and James M. Cains of the world. You can’t go wrong with any of these writers and they are the ones that define and created the genre of noir. No, instead I’m going to cover some of the newer masters of crime noir. Also, instead of picking out a single book to ramble about I’m going to review authors instead.
I’m going to kick off the review with the obvious choice for this column, James Elroy, the “Demon Dog of American crime fiction.”
I once read a review that that compared Elroy’s writing style to that of experimental Jazz. His writing is staccato, with abrupt tonal shifts and high and low notes scaled thought the music and the writing. I think that is a fair assessment of Elroy. He is the Thelonius Monk of hard boiled noir writing.
Elroy’s books spill across the second half of the 20th century like blood from a knife wound and they follow a time line. The “LA Quartet” starts at the tail end of the 1940’s and runs through the end of the 1950’s. The books that make up the Quartet are The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential and White Jazz (might be my favorite book.)
Next, Elroy tackles an “alternate underground” history of the 60’s and the 70’s. This series is often referred to as the “Underworld USA Trilogy” and it’s a doozie of a series. The books in this trilogy are American Tabloid (this could also be my favorite), The Cold $6000 and Blood’s a Rover. (I have not read this yet, it came out in September.)
Lastly there is the Sgt. Lloyd Hopkins series that ends in the 1980’s. Theoretically they are their own series, not tied into the other books, but I think they fit right into the time/story lines of the previous books.
Elroy has other mystery books and a slew of nonfiction writings about crime, Elroy himself and the murder of his mother. James Elroy is one interesting cat, deeply bizarre and messed up, but the question always remains about him, how much is real and how much is marketing? Here’s a link to his Wiki page if you are interested. tinyurl.com/bkv5m3.
If you get a chance at some point, listen to an Elroy book on CD. The writing really pops when you hear it being read.
If James Elroy’s writing is the Jazz of Thelonius Monk, then the next author could be thought of as the cool, composed, stylized and measured tones of Art Pepper. I am of course talking about Andrew Vachss and his brutal, hard core, off the books private eye, Burke. It’s just Burke by the way that’s all it says on his birth certificate, Baby Boy Burke. No father named and his mother, a teen prostie using a fake name, abandoned him at the hospital. Burke is a scammer, a killer and vengeance personified. He has one religion and that’s revenge for all that was done to him as a child. If you think noir is about anti-heroes then Burke fits the bill if that bill includes a non-hero like Burke and his “family of choice.” They are a near midget, master hustler and preacher, a mute Mongolian warrior and a genius that lives in a junk yard. Their sister is a transsexual hooker and their mother is a Chinese gangster that operates out of a restaurant in China town.
Burke is about three things, revenge, money and killing anybody that hurts children. Please pardon me while I delve into some dark issues for a moment. Andrew Vachss has devoted his life to saving children and dogs and his writings reflect those issues, often times in sickening gut wrenching detail.
In the real world Vachss is an attorney with over thirty years of dealing with kids in different ways. As an aid worker in the war torn country of Biafra (south-eastern Nigeria), as a warden in a kiddy prison, social worker and lawyer. In 2002 Vachss founded an organization called PROTECT: The National Association to Protect Children. I have included a link to the organization so you can see the good work they have accomplished. I have been involved with PROTECT on a limited basis (day job gets in the way) and have contributed to the cause financially. Here’s the link: www.protect.org/. Also, here’s a link to Vachss’ Wiki page tinyurl.com/n4df6. If you scroll down to the reference section you will find a link to Vachss official website called The Zero and its interesting reading. Ok soap box retired.
The next stop on the noir train is at Richard Stark, nee Donald Westlake, and his master thief and total bad ass character Parker. This is the character that Mad Mel based the movie Payback on. Parker is also the same character in the vastly superior Lee Marvin movie Point Blank, he just had a different name.
I have not read all the Parker books but the ones that I have read all shared the same basic story. Parker pulls a job, gets screwed somehow and goes ballistic getting back whatever he lost. I love the Parker books, great fun to read and are pure hard boiled noir bad assery.
Next up is Walter Mosely and his Easy Rowlens character. These books take place in LA from the late 40’s through the 60’s and the main character is a black PI so we get to explore what it was like to be black in the City of Angles. Here’s a hint, it wasn’t great. The series, as far as I’ve read, is a bit uneven but when Mosely is on, the books are classic noir.
Sticking with the LA noir theme, the next author is Robert Campbell and his Whistler character. Most of these books have a Hollywood bent to them because Robert Campbell was a screen writer for years. Whistler is a rather philosophical character prone to hanging out in the seedy diners of Hollywood. I found the first book, In La La Land We Trust, in a used book store and ended up tearing through it in about 5 hours and spent the next day scouring used book stores in San Diego County looking for the rest of the books. If you ever had a suspicion that Hollywood is a sleazy place full of lowlifes, these books won’t change your mind. Here’s link to the obituary that the LA Times wrote about Robert Campbell. I found it interesting so I included it here. tinyurl.com/yck6at4
Lastly there is Elmore Leonard. I’m not sure if technically he’s a noir writer but I think he is and it’s my list and I love me some Elmore Leonard so on it he goes. He’s just damn good no matter what genre he chooses to write in. The consistent output that Leonard creates is staggering. He writes across all genres and they all kick ass.
I’ve made some solid suggestions here and look forward to reading yours in the Chang Back.
Mele Kalikimaka and Mahalo,
*definition by Merriam-Webster online