Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Until My Darkness Goes (Paint It Black)

I'm back from my blogging hiatus now that another semester has passed. How long this return will last before I'm pulled entirely back into my studies I can't be sure. Still, it is nice to have time for reading for fun again. The Best American Noir of the Century is a collection compiled by James Ellroy and Otto Penzler.  It's a massive book with nearly forty stories, and stretches as far back as 1923 (Tom Robbins' "Spurs") and as recently as 2007 (Lorenzo Carcaterra's "Missing The Morning Bus")  for it's material. When a collection claims to be the best of the year, I approach it with what can only be described as modest expectations. If the time period expands to larger proportions, such as decades or more my skepticism and hopes rise in rather unequal amounts. Usually in favor of the former, seeing as I am a bit cynical, even around the holidays. Luckily I was pleasantly surprised again and again while reading these stories.

Noir, in literary terms can seem at times to be simple and complex when it comes to classification. It started as a sub-genre within mystery fiction which has since broadened its scope and  as such has grown to include  a wider array of writing.  Perhaps the easiest way to explain noir to those unfamiliar with it, might be to say the stories are well, black. From the settings to the plot lines and characters there is an ever present sense of darkness. Murder happens more often than not in noir fiction. There are ill-fated love affairs, of standard and triangle  variety. There are heists gone right, or wrong, and sometimes there are just psychopaths - who kill, just to kill. What makes almost any character interesting in any genre, is the depth and complexity of their flaws. That, for me, is what makes noir so fun to read. The protagonists aren't who you'd always expect. They are as flawed as anyone and might be called bad guys depending on how one chooses to look at it. Personally I've always been drawn to anti-heroes and so with this collection I found a lot to appreciate.

I've read countless collections and anthologies throughout the years - but never, and I mean never, have I been introduced to so many interesting authors as I have with this. Many of those authors are well-known and so I knew of them going in, but still hadn't read any of their work. This short list includes James Ellroy, who helped compile the volume and is regarded as one of America's finest crime writers. ( L.A. Confidential, The Black Dalia )  Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley) is another prime example. I'd been intending to check her out ever since I read and reviewed Thieves of Manhattan - the story she wrote in this case was actually inspired by a Richard Nixon quote, scary right? "Slowly, Slowly in the Wind" is just so memorable and creepy that I had to reference it by name. ( it is also the title to a short story collection by Highsmith) Lastly among these well known but, new to me writers was Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, Shutter Island) You may have noticed by now that all the larger works I've mentioned were made into films, some with greater success than others. But that brings up another intriguing fact about this collection in that many of the stories included have been made into films themselves. Oftentimes re-branded with new names such as the aforementioned opener "Spurs" which was adapted way back in the black and white era into the film Freaks (1932). An example of one story that kept the original title when it was adapted would be MacKinly Kantor's Gun Crazy (1950). I plan on trying to track down a number of these movies sometime "Spurs" with it's midget, murderer, anti-hero was one of my favorites from the lot. As for what was my absolute favorite story, right now, I am leaning toward Tom Franklin's "Poachers". I'll leave the details to those curious enough to actually check out the book, as it is one of the longer works included. But what I will say is that setting, and the characters are just fantastic. I've always thought there was something extra unsettling about the south, this story and a few others selected only prove that point.

I'm tempted to give more plot specifics to certain stories, but I think that to any serious reader there is something terribly exciting about not being told everything.  There is something special in discovering these kinds of stories, and writers on your own so I will leave that reward for you. To readers looking for something new I strongly recommend giving this a try. Nearly every story is a gem. Maybe not emeralds or sapphires but surely obsidian - black, flawed and still beautiful. Stories of covetous, murderous dreamers who aim for stars because anything less would be inhuman ; or perhaps un-American. The genre, and American talent, could scarcely be better represented than they are in The Best American Noir of the Century.