"If you find light and hilarity in these pages,
I strongly recommend a visit to a mental health professional."
--Otto Penzler, in the Foreword
"The short stories in this volume are a groove. Exercise
your skeevy curiosity and read every one."
--James Ellroy, in the Introduction
39 stories spanning 84 years over 731 pages: as far as literary anthologies go, The Best American Noir of the Century (2010) is as definitive as they come. Moreover, as indicated above by the book's co-editors, the collection is as pleasingly self-contradictory as the subject of noir itself. Recurring themes run through these tales -- murder, kidnapping, torture, revenge, theft, greed, adultery -- but no two authors approach any of these the same way. Different attitudes, tones, perspectives are brought to the table in each of these stories, and whatever readers take from them will have partly to do with what they bring as well.
The Best American Noir succeeds in demonstrating this variety despite Penzler's rather irksome efforts to distinguish "noir fiction" from "detective fiction." In the Foreword, he states that the private detective in American fiction "retains his sense of honor in the face of all the adversity and duplicity with which he must do battle," while noir is populated by characters "whose greed, lust, jealousy, and alienation lead the into a downward spiral as their plans and schemes inevitably go awry." That's quite a bit of pigeonholing there -- in literature or cinema -- which the ensuing collection blessedly contradicts. But I see what Penzler is trying to do: eliminating the likes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett opens the door to a wider range of voices. And even if this anthology ends up being a bit top-heavy with stories following the "Golden Age" of noir (26 of the 39 were published after 1960), this is still an impressively eclectic ensemble.
It's hard to tell whether Penzler (founder of the Mysterious Bookshop and the Mysterious Press) really believes his own thesis or is deliberately setting himself up as overly cautious curmudgeon to Ellroy's trigger-happy button man. By now the public persona of the self-proclaimed "Demon Dog"/"White Knight of the Far Right" should need no introduction, except to add that Ellroy's actual work (including his last novel and reportedly new memoir) reveals his reactionary stance as a front for some highly attuned empathy toward idealists. Not that the guy is bereft of wit or irony or amusement. "Noir sparked before the Big War and burned like a four-coil hot plate up to 1960," reads his Introduction. "Cheap novels and cheap films about cheap people ran concurrent with American boosterism and yahooism and made a subversive point just by being. They described a fully existing fringe America and fed viewers and readers the demography of a Secret Pervert Republic. It was just garish enough to be laughed off as unreal and just pathetic enough to be recognizably human."
In Best American Noir, we enter the Secret Pervert Republic by way of Tod Robbins' "Spurs" (1923) The sordid tale of a conniving circus performer scheming to swindle her husband, a dwarf, "Spurs" is an intriguing choice as it is better known in its onscreen incarnation Freaks, the iconic 1932 cult film. Much of Best American Noir shows the cross-pollination between books and movies. "Gun Crazy" (1940), by MacKinlay Kantor, became Joseph H. Lewis's archetypal film noir of the same name (1949); though, like "Spurs," the original story takes a vastly different approach to the material than the movie. The Killer Inside Me's Jim Thompson lends a characteristic feel-good tale ("Forever After"), as does The Talented Mr. Ripley's Patricia Highsmith ("Slowly, Slowly in the Wind"). Jeffrey Deaver ("The Weekender") and Lawrence Block (Like a Bone in the Throat") offer rivetingly competing takes on how people behave in hostage situations. Stories by well-known authors, namely those from the 40s and 50s (e.g., Dorothy B. Hughes; David Goodis; Cornell Woolrich; Evan Hunter), not only are compelling as stand-alones; they reflect the significant contributions that their progenitors would additionally bring to the screen (e.g., In a Lonely Place; Shoot the Piano Player; Rear Window; The Birds).
Other big names make less of an impression. Out of the way thankfully early is Mickey Spillane's "The Lady Says Die!" (1953), a ludicrous self-parody of his chest-thumping style. Not terrible, just drearily obligatory, is "Faithless" (1997), yet another slo-mo sucker-punch by Joyce Carol Oates that pummels us with the obvious. (Men are scum -- never saw that coming.) Harlan Ellison provides an initial jolt with the unexpected appearance of his sci-fi noir "Mefisto in Onyx" (1993); yet this novella-sized narrative, despite being a fast read, bottoms out with a preposterous turn followed quickly by another. "Mefisto" may have worked better as a full-scale novel, as would "When the Women Come Out to Dance" (2002), a swift Elmore Leonard yarn that renders his prose style shallow. "Since I Don't Have You" (1988), by Ellroy himself, brims with energy and verve but is really a dry run of characters and ideas developed to their fullest in his "L.A. Quartet" of crime novels (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, White Jazz). "Missing the Morning Bus" (2007) is a disappointing entry (and concluding story) to the collection, for both its own shrug-worthiness and the fact that its author, Lorenzo Carcattera, is a prototypal charlatan for our times (see Sleepers for details). Lastly, it was inevitable that I would dislike Dennis Lehane's "Running Out of Dog" (1999), though I must commend the author for resisting the urge to kidnap, torture, or kill a child character. Must have been hard.
Still, there is more than enough good stuff on these pages for either citizens or tourists of the Secret Pervert Republic to enjoy. Among my personal favorites are "Iris" (1984), Stephen Greenleaf's shattering detective story about a woman who asks a private eye to deliver a package with a surprise inside; the flabbergasting "Her Lord and Master" (2005), in which Andrew Klavan boldly depicts a kinky S&M relationship with increasingly hair-raising stakes; and the most brilliant of the bunch, "All Through the House" (2003), Christopher Coake's elegant, mournful account of a multiple homicide that starts in the present as tabloid fodder and wends back to the distant past to reveal a killer's humanity. Stories like these reflect the very best of The Best American Noir of the Century, rolling right over Penzler's demarcation line with Ellroyesque glee.