Monday, 16 June 2014

A Century of Noir

Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins team up to bring us 32 Noir stories from the last century. Collins makes it clear in his intro that the term 'Noir' wasn't the term he or Spillane were aiming for when they set out to put this book together. Tough guy fiction, hard-boiled crime and detective stories was the preferred line, though in the end the collection defers more to reputation than any strict adherence to genre. Most of the stories were born out of the shadowy literature churned out for a voracious post-war public hungry for dangerous thrills, tough guys and femme fatales but from the opening vignette by Chester Himes it soon becomes clear that many of the stories step out of the target genre's darkness in order to let the author's shine. The result is a collection of stories by folk who carved some sort of pulp noir niche for themselves without having to strictly draw from that niche.
Chandler and Hammett should headline a book like this with a story featuring Marlowe, Sam Spade or the Continental Op but neither could be included due to clearance problems. Some other notables get more of a crack at the whip than others with whole novellas being included like the ground breaking Race Williams detective from the 1920s. Many of the stories include the author's trump card detective to showcase their skills but there are also quite a few that take the literary side-step for something unexpected; Gil Brewer's The Gesture being a fine example of a short with a late perspective change that turns things completely on their head; or Fredric Brown's trick ending for Don't Look Behind You; or the balsy genealogist from Donald E. Westlake's Never Shake the Family Tree. Norbert Davis pitches in with an unlikely detective with Chill Blanes, backwoods superstition with Dorothy B. Hughes, chuckles at Lawrence block's animal cruelty psycho dealing it back. There is certainly a deal more fun being had here in a supposed Noir collection than really should be happening.
The editors both contribute, with a decent Nathan Heller effort from Collins, and an entirely forgettable piece of crud from Spillane. Great to see Bill Pronzini serving up another Nameless Detective story - fine work as always. Marcia Muller's Sharon McCone story make me open to reevaluating her skills after I dismissed the female detective's debut novella.  These sorts of collections are great jumping off spots into the darkness, with famous names aplenty but frustration lurks behind many of the names in the form of out of print or hard to locate series.

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