Mystery Challenge: Noir

~ by David W.

If you’ve been taking our Mystery Challenge, you’ve tried many different types of whodunits across a spectrum from cute to bleak, but all these stories have had one thing in common: justice has prevailed in the end. But what happens when there is no justice, or when even justice seems unjust? Noir happens. Continue reading “Mystery Challenge: Noir”

Crime: The I’s Have It.

As I set out to read my way through my alphabet of crime, I was a little worried about the letter ‘I,’ but it turned out to be quite a little Anglo-French treasure trove. Here are three great authors in our mystery “I’s,” each with their own distinct voice.

Find Graham Ison's Light Fantastic in the Seattle Public Library catalog.Graham Ison is one of the many British authors represented in our collection through those nice little Severn House hardcover editions, and we have several titles in each of his two mystery series. His contemporary police procedurals feature stolid – okay, stodgy – veteran Detective Chief Inspector Harry Brock and his mouthy working class partner Detective Sergeant Dave Poole, who banter and grouse their way through the sordid array of casework, somewhat in the vein of Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe or Bill James’ Harpur and Iles series. A good early title, Light Fantastic finds the duo drawn into the posh lives of the rich and fabulous, but it isn’t long before they’re back on the seamy side again.

Find Graham Ison's Hardcastle's Armistice in the Seattle Public Library catalog.Ison’s other series are historical mysteries set on the British home front during the Great War, where crime rages on despite the epic struggles overseas, and featuring the investigations of Detective Inspector Ernest Hardcastle, a man as respected for his dogged determination as he is avoided for his (very entertaining) mean temper. Hardcastle is a man who doesn’t suffer fools, and of which there is an inexhaustible supply. (Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse comes to mind, as does John Mortimer’s Rumpole). Hardcastle’s Armistice, in which the murder of a prostitute turns out to have unexpected political ties, is a fine early entry in this non-chronological series.

Find Claude Izner's Murder on the Eiffel Tower in the Seattle Public Library's catalogJust down the shelf is Claude Izner (a pseudonym for a pair of sister bookstore owners from Paris – sounds heavenly, no?) whose series featuring Victor Legris – also a Parisian bookseller – is drenched with the sights, sounds and personalities of the City of Light, circa 1890. Legris’ first case involves a Murder on the Eiffel Tower, seemingly achieved via a most unorthodox weapon – a bee sting. Historical mystery fans get all the intriguing period detail they came for, and what a great time and place to visit. I can just imagine all the historical personages waiting in the wings as we approach the fin de siècle. A good choice for fans of Boris Akunin’s Erast Fandorin series.

The France burned into the pages of Jean-Claude Izzo’s books could not be further from Izner’s belle époque. Izzo is one of the best noir writers, and (like the more celebrated Stieg Larsson) died far too young, leaving a small but indelibly affecting body of work – ruthless kick-in-the-teeth dFind Jean-Claude Izzo's Total Chaos in the Seattle Public Library catalog.epictions of a world gone mad. (Readers of this column will know I have a soft spot for this kind of hard writing). Izzo’s Marseilles trilogy begins with the aptly named Total Chaos, in which loose cannon Fabio Montale, who in his youth used to run with a bad crowd and now runs with a worse (he’s a cop), hunts for justice in the seething, squalid, racially charged ghettos of Marseilles. No justice to be found, he’ll settle for revenge. Fabio eventually gives up the police force as too corrupt, but cannot stop wrestling with the evil that surrounds him and ravages those he loves; his further descent into the underbelly of Europe continues in Chourmo and Solea. It doesn’t end well, but then you knew it wouldn’t, didn’t you?

Are You Tough Enough? Derek Raymond’s Dare.

Find works by Derek Raymond in the Seattle Public Library catalog.Among crime readers, there are certain qualities that serve as points on our criminal compass. For example, authors who put a scalpel to the subtle psychological underpinnings of crime contrast with those for whom swift action on every page is essential. Another scale lies between whodunnits with a humorous or “cozy” feel, and those on the darker, grittier end of the spectrum. And just as with diners who always order the full 5 spicy stars at a Thai restaurant, there are readers who devour the bleakest and blackest of hardboiled authors with perverse relish. For these readers, I suggest Derek Raymond, the deeply influential but little-known godfather of British noir.

Raymond’s life story is fascinating – rich kid turned criminal, exiled to France – but his reputation rests on a series of five novels featuring a detective sergeant working out of Police Headquarters, aka “the factory,” on the unsolved deaths of largely forgotten people – drunks, derelicts, junkies and the insane. The detective (we never learn his name) is haunted by the death of his daughter at the hands of his wife, an event which committed him utterly and unrelentingly to seeking justice for the nameless, faceless “trash” written off by an increasingly alienated, materialistic society. The detective’s path grows darker and more tortuous from He Died with His Eyes Open to the assembly of a dismembered corpse and its story in The Devil’s Home on Leave, to How the Dead Live, featuring a bizarre crime that plunges us past sanity into murky madness.

Then we come to Raymond’s masterwork: I Was Dora Suarez, a book so shockingly graphic that Raymond’s erstwhile publisher was purported to have vomited on his desk just a few pages in. We witness in disturbingly objectified detail the ghastly murder of a young prostitute, and the offhand killing of an elderly friend. Then we join our detective as he surveys the carnage and is transfixed, and transfigured, by what he sees. It is a harrowing reading experience, and one that dares us to witness the true face of crime, not merely as a riddle to be solved or a wrong to be righted, but as the most tragic failure of individuals and of society. It is very hard to come out the other end of I Was Dora Suarez and not be somehow altered by the experience. Reading the book reminds me of the first and only jury I ever sat on, sifting through the facts and the evidence in a case that led to us finding a man guilty of the murder by strangulation of three drug addicted prostitutes. Like jury duty, reading Raymond demands a certain responsibility of the reader.

As with his other “factory novels” – Raymond termed them his “black novels” – I Was Dora Suarez begs us see how the most unspeakable crimes differ only in degree from the little deaths and depredations endured by many of the living, day after day. The real crime is not the manner of death, but the manner of life. Long unavailable, all five of Raymond’s factory novels have been reprinted by Melville House. If you’re up to the challenge, they’re incomparable.

G is for Goodis, Dark Prince of Noir.

I know – you were thinking G was for Grafton, but as the Kinsey Milhone series already made an appearance in a recent post on the most prolific female detectives, I get to resume my Alphabet of Crime with one of my all time favorites: David Goodis.

Close your eyes and think of “Noir.” What do you see, hear, feel?

A hot, lonely city street, after midnight, after the rain. A pair of doomed lovers, trapped in each other’s arms. Plaintive minor notes echoing from a solo trumpet somewhere in the night, chords achingly unresolved, a call as seductive as the sleep of death. A fall; a plunge from the some fleeting promise of a better place, a better life, down, down to the inky depths of despair.

This is the kind of noir that David Goodis wrote. Not the gritty proletarian tragedies of James M. Cain or the sadistic depravities of Jim Thompson, but achingly lyrical jazz noir swelling and ebbing with dark and sensuous poetry. His words were like wounds on the page – wounds that will never heal. He wrote them fast and he wrote them cheap, and he died before the age of fifty. He’d had his brush with fame: Bogart and Bacall starred in a classic adaptation of his Dark Passage. French cinéastes lapped him up, adapting his books again, and again. Then he became a nobody, and then he was gone, the ghost of a forgotten melody lost down some dark alleyway, the silent memory of a song.

Now he’s back in a handsome new volume from the Library of America (whose fine Crime Novels collections included his 1950 novel Down There) featuring five of his most lurid, longing noirs. I think every crime fan should read at least one David Goodis; I suggest Dark Passage or Down There. To learn more about this quintessential voice of American noir, check out Shooting Pool with David Goodis, an excellent website devoted to his life and works.

Finding a Hit Man at your Public Library

Image of Man Reading courtesy of Pianetatschai via FlickrThe seasoned professionals at your library pride ourselves on helping our patrons with their every need. We are highly skilled at cleaning up messes and tying up loose ends, at rubbing out your troublesome irritations, and making problems go away. So we have a certain grudging admiration for the skilled operators seen plying their deadly trade in the following list of our favorite Hit Men in literature. Here, then, is our own lethal little version of Angie’s List:

  • Raven, from Graham Greene’s 1936 novel A Gun for Sale (aka This Gun for Hire). Stamped with a harelip that makes him rather too conspicuous for his line of work, this paid assassin is also a pitiable misfit. Caught in a losing game by chance and circumstance, betrayed by his shady employers and relentlessly pursued by the law, it is hard not to sympathize with this stone cold killer. Check out Alan Ladd’s classic portrayal of the cat-loving killer, in the 1942 film. Continue reading “Finding a Hit Man at your Public Library”