Noir fiction

The Art of Writing Adventure – Made Spectacularly Evident

There’s a rule to writing any kind of exciting fiction that says, and I paraphrase: “Put your here in a dangerous situation.  Then pile another complication on.  Then another.  Once we’re sure he will never get out, send in the zombies.”

I always thought this was a bit of an exaggeration, but in reading the first of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series, Storm Front, I found that adage to fall well short of what Butcher does to his hero.

Jim Butcher - Dresden Files - Storm Front.jpg

Normally, I’d run, not walk away from a book that goes as far over the top as this one does with regards to ratcheting up the disaster but…

But Jim Butcher has rare talent.  His prose, and consequently, Harry Dresden’s voice in your head, is amazing.  The mix of desperation about what’s going to happen to him when the other shoe finishes dropping mixed with a kind of world-weary resignation makes the book impossible to put down.  Not only do you want to see how he gets out of it (there are a LOT of books in a series called the “Dresden Files”, so you kinda know he isn’t going to become monster food in the first book), but you are also infected with a morbid curiosity as to what else Butcher is going to do to him before the end.  (Pro-tip: Butcher is imaginative and sadistic.  Never make an enemy of that guy).

A second thing that made me love as opposed to loathe this one is that the noir sensibility erases any number of sins in my mind.  Give me a first-person private eye, even a magical one, and I’m pretty much going to enjoy it no matter what else you do.

So, simply put, despite seeing what Butcher was doing (obvious as it is, even a lot of non-writers are going to spot the technique), I loved every second and exaggerated crisis of this one, right until the fiery, demonic ending worthy of the troubles he’d gone through.

Job has nothing on this guy but, if I recall correctly, the book featuring Job sold pretty well. Dresden sells amazingly well, too.

My main regret is that I’m just getting to this now.  Hell, I’ve been a fan of Glen Cook’s Garrett series since before puberty, and this one should have been a no-brainer.  Yes, Cook is funnier than Butcher, but that’s no excuse for not having checked the Dresden Files out much sooner.

I have to thank a good friend and amazing beta-reader for gifting me this one (I always read my birthday gift books, because I like to see what people who know me think I’d enjoy).  Highly recommended, but, judging by the sales numbers, I guess everyone already knew that.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer.  His novel Outside was well-received despite not having any magical detectives in it.  You can buy it here.

Hard Case Crime and Lawrence Block – My First Time

The Girl With the Long Green Hear by Lawrence Block

It’s no real secret that I like noir, whether it be in film form or book form.  It’s just so evocative of another era and a kind of person, the hard-nosed, gritty guy who lives in the real world whether he likes it or not, who no longer exists.  As an escape from reality it’s just as fantastic as anything Tolkien ever put to paper.  Can you imagine a Millennial Sam Spade in today’s era of political correctness?  I’ll wait while you stop laughing.

So when I spotted a brand new copy of Lawrence Block’s The Girl with the Long Green Heart in the bargain bin of a bookstore at the beach town where I usually go on vacation the same bargain bin that, a year or two earlier had disgorged a King James Bible, I snapped it up.  A bonus, at least for me was that it was a Hard Case Crime edition of the book.

As a writer, Hard Case Crime is on my radar as the first publisher to send any noir novels I might happen to write (I don’t write a ton of crime fiction, but if I do…), but as a reader, I just love their selection.  More importantly, though I love their covers.  They hearken back to the golden era of lurid art featuring scantily clad women and/or dead bodies, all tied together by excellent design work with the right sensibilities.

Block, on the other hand, was new to me.  I’d read the classics Hammett, Spillane, McDonald etc., but not the bread-and-butter crime writers of the era, especially not from the sixties.

I think I’ve been missing out… a quick Wikipedia perusal tells me the man is worth reading, although this is probably not his best book.  Nevertheless, it is a great example of its kind.  A couple of con men get into a deal with no real idea of where they really stand…  it’s grim and doesn’t pull any punches, but also hopeful in a twisted sort of way.

I think what I like most about crime fiction is that it doesn’t try to judge or moralize.  It tells the story (often in the first person), as the protagonists would have told it, not as a well-educated writer might see it.

And that is what allows the escape to be fully realized.  And this one works perfectly in that sense.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose latest novel, Ice Station: Death, is a creature feature thriller set in Antarctica.  You can buy it here.

The Master of Noir Writing?

Noir detective girl in door

You saw the title and I bet you’re thinking Dashiell Hammett?  Raymond Chandler?  Perhaps these two men would dominate if we were awarding style points, but the hard-boiled genre isn’t about flash or pretty prose.  It’s about page-turning grit, two-fisted aggression and the dod-eat-dog underbelly of society.  It’s the kind of thing a grunt would carry in his pocket in Flanders or Normandy or Korea as opposed to the kind of thing whose author would be fêted on Fifth Avenue.

Noir film has understood this since the beginning, which is why the source material is often forgotten.   Honestly, most people have seen The Maltese Falcon, and recognize it as a classic, even today, but how many have read the book?

Even we at Classically Educated are guilty.  Looking back at our history of book reviews, we’ve done Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, which, as postmodernist literature would likely have been about as popular with the troops as gonorrhea, we’ve done Agatha Christie which has murder and popular appeal, but isn’t noir, and we’ve looked at the wonderful Garrett books by Glen Cook, which tick all the boxes, but are undermined as pure noir by the fact that they tick an extra box: they’re fantasy.

It’s time to address that failing.

To do so, we need to grab the bull by the horn and go for the noirest of the noir, Mickey Spillane himself.  In his day, especially in the 1950s, the man probably outsold every other noir writer combined…  and he did it the old-fashioned way: by making his stories more violent, sexier and more sensationalist than anyone else.

A good way to get a feel for what this implies is to pick up one of the omnibus editions out there.

Mickey Spillane Volume I - I, the Jury, My Gun is Quick, Vengeance is Mine!

So I did, and I have to say the man earned it.  I read the big block of a book containing Spillane’s three first novels (I, the Jury, My Gun is Quick, Vengeance is Mine!) in a breathless rush that was only resolved in the last sentence.   While not every writer would be well served writing this way (I wouldn’t try it–the critics would have a field day), it works perfectly for Spillane himself.

Mike Hammer might not be as well-remembered today as Marlowe or Spade… but he should be.  And some of the endings might be predictable if you’re familiar with the genre, but none of them will leave you unsatisfied (and remember that they are probably predictable because they’ve been copied).

Just the thing to forget about those shells falling all around your foxhole in some foreign land.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine author whose novel Outside will also keep you guessing until the last pages (not the last sentence, though.  He chickened out).  You can check it out here.

And One That Didn’t Quite Make the Grade

The other book I ordered from Folio along with Notes from a Small Island was yet another classic on the cusp from a contemporary writer.  Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy is another beautifully produced edition, but it didn’t, in my opinion, live up to its promise.

Paul Auster - The New York Trilogy - Folio Society edition

The problem here is the content of the book.  No matter how perfect the binding or evocative the illustrations, it’s hard to turn an exercise in experimental fiction into a good read.  Even worse, this book is saddled by the yoke of postmodernism…

So, of course, the critics loved it, lauded the way it plays with the tropes of detective fiction, and basked in its empty nihilism and lack of definition.  After all, we were in the throes of destroying all that had come before and exposing the falseness of underlying assumptions.

And I guess in that, they were correct.  As a piece of postmodern art, this one could be a hell of a lot worse.  By using the structure of a detective novel, at least it doesn’t descend into complete navel gazing, as there are actually things going on, even if they aren’t quite as entertaining as the things that go on in real detective novels, and if the ending isn’t as satisfying as they are in, say, a good noir book.

Perhaps that’s what hit me the hardest on this one.  I’m going through a phase where I’m enjoying noir enormously, and I feel that an author of Auster’s caliber (even here, it’s obvious that the man can write, if he had so chosen) could have done something truly special with the form.

But no… postmodern sensibilities won out.

I often wonder if anything postmodern will be part of the canon in a few years time, or if it will all be consigned to the rubbish bin of history like the dead end it is.  Perhaps a few pieces of postmodernism will survive, in the same way that a few bits of modernism have reached us as illustrations of their particular form.  Perhaps Folio is right and Auster’s trilogy is one of those pieces that will represent the movement going forward.

But I doubt that much else will last.  Cynicism and irony are great if savage and loaded, not when they replace a shrug and a sigh.  The postmodernists are not as jaded as they want to make us believe… and it shows int heir weak output.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His novel Outside explores posthumanism without attempting to be too optimistic or too pessimistic about it.  But realism can be quite shocking, too.