Sunday, May 27, 2012

Pitch black, pitch-perfect noir

There were a few pieces of jewelry and, still entwined around the skeleton's neck, a tarnished gold cross on a chain. Most of the woman's clothing had long ago rotted away and almost unrecognizable too was a book— a leatherbound Bible?—close beside her. About the partly detached , fragile wrist and ankle bones were loops of rusted baling wire that had fallen loose, coiled in the red moist clay like miniature sleeping snakes.
That's from "Faithless" by Joyce Carol Oates, one of three stories by women in The Best American Noir of the Century (the others are by the very creepy Patricia Highsmith and Dorothy B. Hughes, three of whose books were made into movies in the '40s). I'll readily admit noir is a man's genre, and boy can these gents deliver. The introductions steer you to other works by these award-winning authors (many of them written under various pseudonyms) and to tv and film spinoffs from their fiction (Tod Browning's Freaks and Joseph Lewis's Gun Crazy are just two examples of many). The quality is top-notch, and several of the tales (such as Tom Franklin's "Poachers") first appeared in literary magazines such as Texas Review, American Mercury, Southern Review, Saturday Evening Post, and Omni. There's a fair amount of crossover with the mystery genre, so that many of the authors are Grand Masters and Edgar winners from the Mystery Writers of America.
This is powerful stuff, compulsively readable, with more twists and turns than a pinball machine. Here's an excerpt from William Gay's much-anthologized "The Paperhanger":
The doctor's wife's hands were laced loosely about his waist as they came down through a thin stand of sassafras, edging over the ridge where the ghost of a road was, a road more sensed than seen that faced into a half acre of tilting stones and fading granite tablets. Other graves marked only by their declivities in the earth, folk so far beyond the pale even the legibility of their identities had been leached away by the weathers.
Leaves drifted, huge poplar leaves veined with amber so golden they might have been coin of the realm for a finer world than this one. He cut the ignition of the four-wheeler and got off. Past the lowering trees the sky was a blue of an improbable intensity, a fierce cobalt blue shot through with a dense golden light.
She slid off the rear and steadied herself a moment with a hand on his arm. Where are we? she asked. Why are we here? The paperhanger had disengaged his arm and was strolling among the gravestones reading such inscriptions as were legible, as if he might find forebear or antecedent in this moldering earth. The doctor's wife was retrieving her martinis from the luggage carrier of the ATV. She stood looking about uncertainly. A graven angel with broken wings crouched on a truncated marble column like a gargoyle. Its stone eyes regarded her with a blind benignity. Some of these graves have been rob, she said.


  1. Nice. I'll see you one disciple, and raise you one (from the Master):
    "The fist with the weighted tube inside it went through my spread hands like a stone through a cloud of dust. I had the stunned moment of shock when the lights danced and the visible world went out of focus but was still there. He hit me again. There was no sensation in my head. The bright glare got brighter. There was nothing but hard aching white light. Then there was darkness in which something red wriggled like a germ under a microscope. Then there was nothing bright or wriggling, just darkness and emptiness and a rushing wind and a falling as of great trees."
    Marlowe takes a little nap in "The Big Sleep".

  2. Fantastic~! Have you ever noticed how almost all PI's get beat up in the course of their investigations ... including the women? (Like Kinsey Milhone and Sara Paretsky's heroines). Not in cozys of course. Why I like Christie sometimes ... nothing gory or graphic.

  3. Violence seems a hallmark of noir. In an earlier time, detectives preferred to finesse a confession out of their suspects, instead of beating them up. I totally agree this is the better way! I'm dismayed to see the cinematic Sherlock Holmes become more drug-addicted and more prone to fisticuffs-- as if the producers feared boring a bloodthirsty audience. Poirot's success on TV proves those little gray cells have a talent to amuse.