Monday, January 03, 2011

Noir’s arc - notes on an excellent anthology

I don’t spend much time in bookstores these days (it’s the old conundrum: most of my reading is for review purposes), but one of my favourite recent buys was the anthology The Best American Noir of the Century, edited by James Ellroy and Otto Penzler. Thirty-five stories in all, beginning with Tod Robbins’ 1923 “Spurs” (this quaint tale about a dwarf’s obsession with a beautiful bareback rider formed the basis for Tod Browning’s creepy film Freaks) and including such writers as Evan Hunter (also known as Ed McBain), Jim Thompson, Patricia Highsmith, Elmore Leonard and James Lee Burke.

“The thrill of noir,” writes Ellroy in his Introduction, “is the rush of moral forfeit and the abandonment to titillation. The social importance of noir is its grounding in the big themes of race, class, gender, and systemic corruption.”

And then: “The overarching joy and lasting appeal of noir is that it makes doom fun.”

Making doom fun – that’s a good way of putting it. Noir, French for “black”, was thoroughly incorporated into American popular culture in the 1940s – through a series of pulp novels and “film noirs” – until it came to stand for the dark and unknowable places in the human heart, and the character types are familiar even to readers who don’t know the genre well: the femme fatale who spins a fatal web around her victim; the morally weak patsy who helps her get rid of her husband for the insurance money; the hard-boiled detective with demons of his own. Needless to say, there are few happy endings in this world.

It isn’t easy to do a comprehensive review of an anthology that contains 35 stories, most of which are very good, so here are some short notes:

– I used to think of noir as relevant mainly to literature and films produced between the 1930s and 1950s, and indeed this book includes some solid, representative work from that period: I particularly liked Steve Fisher’s “You’ll Always Remember Me”
(1938), David Goodis’s “Professional Man” (1953) and James M Cain’s bucolic, darkly funny “Pastorale” (1928) about a murder followed by problematic attempts to dispose of a bodiless head. But to my own surprise, some of the most impressive stories are from the past few decades. Twenty-one of the 35 pieces included here were written from the 1970s onward, and some of them intriguingly challenge the reader’s expectations of the genre and its tropes.

For example, Thomas H Cook’s intense “What She Offered” begins with a very familiar scenario – a weary, self-consciously cynical male narrator being approached by a mysterious woman in a bar (“What she offered at that first glimpse was just the old B-movie stereotype of the dangerous woman”). But from here, the story heads in a completely unexpected direction – it turns out that what this woman really has to offer the narrator is the emasculating knowledge that “her darkness is real; mine is just a pose”. I thought there was also a sly little observation about self-important writers and their knowing readers, and the story's beginning reminded me a little of Woody Allen's "The Whore of Mensa".

– Some of the recent stories are more sexually explicit and daring than stories written in the 1930s could be. Take Andrew Klavan’s “Her Lord and Master”, a disturbing take on the power equation in gender relationships, with a female protagonist who preys on men by stoking their appetite for violent sex games. The classic theme of the femme fatale using her wiles on a gullible sucker is given a very different spin here, and I doubt that the old masters like Mickey Spillane, Mackinlay Kantor and Cornell Woolrich (all of whom also feature in this collection) could have published something like this, even though much of their work was often controversial and politically incorrect in its own time.

– A special word for the longest story in this collection: Harlan Ellison’s powerful and literate “Mefisto in Onyx” is about a black man with a very special – and, to him, a very troubling – ability to “jaunt” into the minds of other people and scan their mental “landscapes”. To Rudy’s dismay, an old friend – a woman with whom he had a sexual liaison once – asks him to scan the mind of a convicted serial killer, whom she believes to be innocent. (The premise is slightly similar to that in Tarsem Singh’s excellent film The Cell.) I won’t give much away, except to say that the story climaxes with a fascinating game of one-upmanship and one twist following on the heels of another. It’s also one of the very few pieces in this collection that has anything resembling a “happy ending”, though given what has led up to it one can never be too sure. Incidentally, Lawrence Block’s gripping “Like a Bone in the Throat” is also about a series of mental games between two men: a rapist/killer and the brother of one of his victims.

– And some personal favourites that I haven’t mentioned above: David Morrell’s “The Dripping”, Brendan Dubois’s melancholy “A Ticket Out”, Chris Adrian’s “Stab”, and especially William Gay’s very dark and poetic “The Paperhanger”, about the strange disappearance of a little girl while her mother was just a few feet away. Also,
Ellroy's own "Since I don't Have You", set in the 1940s and prominently featuring real-life figures Howard Hughes and Mickey Cohen.

The Best American Noir of the Century is a reminder that though the themes and narrative arcs of noir might appear to be limited in scope, their treatment isn’t. Reading these stories you never get a sense of repetition: in nearly every case, the characters’ actions and choices lead to the inevitable cul de sac, but it turns out that there are different ways to get there - as well as many forking, unexplored paths that might just have led them to a sunnier place.

P.S. The Windmill Books edition I have is missing four of the stories that were in the original publication, including one by Joyce Carol Oates. Pity.


  1. I must get this soon. Noir is without doubt my favourite genre in films.

    check this out. u shud be on the jury.

  3. The problem, of course, with reading such anthologies is that you have very few avenues, if at all, of finding these films to watch. I brought home an excellently written (and more importantly delightfully written) anthology of Satyajit Ray's cinema (by what's his name - Aparna Sen's father) and halfway through the book I felt the handicap of not having watched more than 3 of his movies! When Ray's movies are hard to find, where will I find these American movies?

  4. Oh I am sorry for the comment! I read only the first paragraph and misundertood this book to be about a collection of essays on American film noir! Therefore the rant...
    But of course, the problem does remain the same.

  5. Nimit: I'm confused; which movies are you talking about? This post is about an anthology of noir short fiction (including specific mentions of recent stories that have never been made into films). I hope the post didn't give the wrong impression!

    It isn't all that hard to get hold of American noir films these days if you're in Delhi - Palika Bazaar is an option, though you have to get lucky. In legit stores, there are also DVDs by the likes of Enlighten (grossly over-priced though, with no Extras).

  6. Nimit: I see our comments crossed! No problem.

  7. The thrill of noir is the rush of moral forfeit and the abandonment to titillation

    I'm not too sure about that. I think the thrill of American noir derives from moral sensibilities getting in the way of lust and ambition. The Noirs are not exactly shallow amoral narratives but basically old-fashioned moral parables that invariably illustrate the hopelessness of battling against one's conscience.

    "Rush of moral forfeit/Abandonment to titillation" probably applies more to European films like Breathless or Blow-up.

    American noirs (atleast judging by the films) are lot more conservative in tone and are ridden with moral dilemmas and an overriding sense of guilt.

    With regard to "making doom fun": I've never found any of the great film noirs to be "fun" in the same sense of the word used in the context of a James Bond film. A good film noir ought to be difficult to watch what with all the moral dilemmas that we experience vicariously.