Fresh Pulp and Geezer Noir

Trying to pin down the definitive characteristics of “noir” is a tiresome game.

June 23, 2011

    Fresh Pulp and Geezer Noir

    Photograph: La Main Dans le Sac (CC) F. Moreno

    THOUGH ONLY A HANDFUL OF MYSTERY MAGAZINES REMAIN in print, short form crime fiction continues to thrive. The genre has found a new lease on life through an ever-growing number of websites and a steady stream of “themed” print anthologies. Dozens of these anthologies — some reprinting older stories and others consisting entirely of new material — crowd the shelves of major and minor bookstores across the country.

    Among the most unusual of the original anthologies is Damn Near Dead 2: Live Noir or Die Trying, a collection of twenty-eight tales in the self-defined niche of “geezer noir.” Edited by Bill Crider and published by the small-but-ambitious Houston-based Busted Flush Press, this follow-up to 2006’s original Damn Near Dead, manages to avoid the trappings of “gimmick” anthologies. The contributors clearly have fun with the “geezer” theme, but they focus on the story rather than the shtick. Stories range from the satiric — Joe R. Lansdale’s pithy “The Old Man in the Motorized Chair,” about a grumpy, retired detective who solves crimes between commercial breaks — to the tragic — Ed Gorman’s “Flying Solo,” about two terminally-ill cancer patients whose turn to violent vigilantism reflects their deeply rooted social and personal discontent. Anthology-opener “Sleep, Creep, Leap” by Patricia Abbott, a clever slow-burner about neighborly good intentions gone wrong, evokes the patient plotting and redolent characterization of Margaret Millar. Gary Phillips’ “The Investor” points to new directions in socially conscious crime fiction by fusing classic genre elements — mob corruption and hitmen — with timely economic and environmental concerns. And James Reasoner’s “Warning Shot” mixes pathos and action, as a Depression-era night security guard copes with the emotional and tangible consequences of an accidental shooting. Happily, Damn Near Dead 2 does without nursing home pastiche and cranky cane wielders.

    Ed Gorman and Martin H. Greenberg, the editors of By Hook or By Crook, and 30 More of the Best Crime and Mystery Stories of the Year (Tyrus Books), have collaborated for over two decades and are among the most respected anthologists in the field. Their latest collection offers a thorough and comprehensive look at the contemporary crime fiction scene, ranging from established novelists to up-and-coming writers. Laura Lippman—whose Tess Monaghan novels have won nearly all the major mystery awards (the Edgar, Agatha, Shamus, Nero Wolfe, and Anthony) — gives the archetype of the suffering mother a dark twist in “Cougar,” a story about a woman whose life comes to a crossroads when her son converts her house into a meth lab. Tom Piccirilli, two-time winner of the International Thriller Writers Award for Best Paperback Original, is known primarily for his novels, but has done some of his best work is in the short form. Less bleak than his recent novella “The Last Deep Breath,” “Blood Sacrifices and the Catatonic Kid” combines a loony-bin jailbreak with a revenge fantasy, and highlights the author’s capacity for dark humor. And Anthony- and Derringer-winner Bill Crider’s “Pure Pulp” is a delightful and loving tribute to a bygone era: a locked room mystery set amidst a group of pulpwood writers.

    Two of the best stories come from emerging voices and first appeared online, a forward-thinking decision on the editors’ part. Sandra Seamans’ “Survival Instincts” (Pulp Pusher) — about a young girl who hides in the walls of a hotel room while listening to a brutal murder — is a tense, existential snapshot of sudden violence, and Greg Bardsley’s “Crazy Larry Smells Bacon” (Plots with Guns) is a psychotic head-scratcher in the best possible way. Bardsley’s story is wild, unpredictable, and totally original: Crazy Larry is an eccentric neighbor who likes to play with knives on the front lawn while lathered in cocoa butter and wearing a Speedo, and revenge smells like bacon to him. Another distinguishing highlight is Jon L. Breen’s extensive year in review feature, which covers novels, stories, scholarly and reference books, as well as all the award winners; this survey will surely be a boon for future generations of readers and scholars.

    Two of the year’s most ambitious collections are the work of Otto Penzler, a renowned anthologist and proprietor of New York’s The Mysterious Bookshop: The Best American Noir of the Century (co-edited with James Ellroy for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) and The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories (Vintage Books/Random House). The stories selected for each anthology are excellent, comprising canonical authors as well as those whose reputations are still being formed (either because their work has been out of circulation for so long, or because they are still new). However, neither volume includes an adequately detailed introduction, which makes navigating the lengthy volumes a bewildering challenge.

    In The Best American Noir of the Century, for instance, Penzler’s three-page foreword outlines what he perceives to be the difference between noir and private detective fiction; his distinction has some merit but, at this stage, trying to pin down the definitive characteristics of “noir” is a tiresome game. Ellroy’s two-page intro adds one more unhelpful definition, positing a “Secret Pervert Republic” of America; in short, he suggests that every character in a noir story, or anyone who reads or writes noir, is a pervert.

    The fact that Penzler and Ellroy provide no justification for their selections and omissions becomes even more problematic when one realizes that, of the thirty-nine stories that comprise The Best American Noir of the Century, only three are by female writers: Dorothy B. Hughes’s “The Homecoming,” Patricia Highsmith’s “Slowly, Slowly in the Wind,” and Joyce Carol Oates’s “Faithless.” If the editors widen the definition of noir to encapsulate such divergent voices as Mickey Spillane and Oates, how can they not find more than three female writers? Where is Margaret Millar, the criminally forgotten Leigh Brackett (famed screenwriter of The Big Sleep), or the trailblazer Vin Packer? Modern voices such as Megan Abbott and Vicki Hendricks are turning noir paradigms on their head and are equally deserving of inclusion.

    These complaints aside, Penzler and Ellroy’s anthology features some remarkable pieces. Ed Gorman’s “Out There in the Darkness” is a chilling story about a weekly poker gathering that dissolves into unexpected violence; it is also one of Gorman’s most concise and compelling explorations of middle-class amorality. Tod Robbins’ “Spurs” is the forgotten source material for Tod Browning’s celebrated cult film Freaks; the two share little in common, but Robbins’ twisted revenge tale of the doomed carnie marriage between a midget and a full-grown woman was badly in need of resurrection, and its reverse-chivalrous ending won’t soon be forgotten. Hughes’s “The Homecoming” — a psychological story about ex-GIs’ unresolved violent tendencies — reads like a prequel to her masterpiece, In a Lonely Place. And Day Keene, one of the best and unfortunately most overlooked paperback writers of the post-WWII era, is represented by “Nothing to Worry About,” about a man’s foolproof plan to murder his wife. The premise sounds pedestrian, but Keene treads into darker territory with more conviction than many of his better-known peers. The ending is uncompromisingly and uncomfortably bleak. (Two small presses are gallantly trying to resurrect Keene’s legacy: Stark House Press is releasing a compilation of three of his paperback novels this spring, while Ramble House Press has begun a multi-volume series of his complete short stories.)

    The pulp industry itself has been gone for well over half a century, and while most of the magazines (which numbered in the hundreds) have been forgotten by all but a handful of diehard fans, one publication’s legacy lives on. Founded in 1920, Black Mask served as the infamous breeding ground of hardboiled fiction. Its most celebrated writers — Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler — are two of the three pulp writers who achieved enough mainstream success and critical recognition to have merited canonization in their own individual Library of America volumes (the other is H.P. Lovecraft). Those two titans, however, were hardly alone in their endeavors, and The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories should go a long way in reestablishing the reputations of lesser lights from magazine’s stellar lineup.

    The introduction by Keith Alan Deutsch — who currently owns copyright on all things Black Mask — stands as one of the finest pieces on the pulp fiction industry that I’ve read. The magazine’s complex history is as labyrinthine and involved as the plots of any of its stories, and Deutsch should be commended for placing that history in an economic context. Pulp is too often thought of as a singular genre or style, rather than as an intricate and multifaceted industry. What began in the late nineteenth century as a method to cut costs by publishing on cheap, low-quality pulpwood paper soon blossomed into an immense creative enterprise that accompanied the rise of literacy, mass transport, and urbanization in the United States and abroad. Economic opportunity gave rise to the pulps, and lent a platform to a new generation of writers. Among the cultural shifts (like the advent television and paperback novels) that precipitated the pulps’ decline, Deutsch smartly points to changes in advertising. The very same paper that gave birth to the medium limited its appeal to advertisers, who moved to the “slicks” and higher-quality magazines. Such is the dramatic irony of the economy.

    Although Deutsch’s contextual history is enlightening, he doesn’t discuss the selection process (nor does Penzler in his foreword), which must have been arduous. Penzler boasts that this is “the biggest and most comprehensive” Black Mask anthology to date. There can be little argument about his claim. Most of its major writers are represented, along with a sampling of “forgotten” names, and it is a long overdue pleasure to see them back in print again. But the monthly magazine ran from 1920-1951, and with over a hundred pages of stories per issue, that makes this current volume’s 1,116 pages seem miniscule. What was left out, and why? (The great Paul Cain’s absence is particularly baffling. After all, Raymond Chandler himself anointed Cain’s novel, Fast One — which first appeared as a series of stories in Black Mask — as a “high point in the ultra hard-boiled manner.”) The lack of editorial context, pertinent bibliographic information, and artistic analysis — each story is prefaced only by a brief summary of the author’s birthday, schooling, selected publications, and movie adaptations — is disappointing. One yearns for more intimate introductions, like the ones penned by David Laurence Wilson for the Stark House Press collections.

    But the selections — explained or not — are excellent. Fredric Brown’s “Cry Silence” is one of his nastiest ditties — a mix of homespun horror and philosophical inquiry: does a victim’s scream resonate if no one, save for a deaf man, is around? One of the industry’s most inimitable talents, Brown brought an intellectual curiosity and concise formal rigor to the pulps. Norbert Davis, that favorite of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s, is represented by “Don’t You Cry For Me,” a pointed satire on mystery conventions. The story’s absurdity reaches its pinnacle at the finale when, instead of revealing the truth, the PI decides to spin his own fantastic fiction. Bruno Fischer — who was simultaneously a pulpster, sports reporter, and Communist Party scribe — turns out a great anti-capitalist yarn called “Middleman for Murder” about $70,000 of black market money that many kill for but can never spend. Talmage Powell (misspelled as “Talmadge”) privileges bitterness over heroism in “Her Dagger Before Me.” And while Black Mask’s writers are famous for their crackerjack lines, none is as surprising and clever as this politically-charged simile from D.L. Champion’s “Death Stops Payment”: “As a general rule Wolley and Sackler go along like Martin Dies and a liberal thought.”

    These four recent anthologies, four of many, are indicative not only of the variety and amount of short form crime fiction being published, but of the high caliber of work — both new and old — that deserves to find an appreciative audience.


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