Category Archives: Noir Crime Fiction

Noir Crime Fiction | Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye by Horace McCoy

Noir Crime Fiction Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye Horace McCoy

From Open Road Media

He still didn’t move. When I extended my arm he just looked at the gun. It was no more than eighteen inches from his face. I squeezed the trigger and the bullet hit him in the left eye and a drop of fluid squirted and the eyelid fell over the hole as a window shade falls over a pane of darkness. There was no blood at all.

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is a wonderful noir crime fiction tale from Horace McCoy. His prose is brutal to the taste, a vintage flavor that slides down your throat and slugs you in the gut. Within the first pages you are greeted by Ralph, a cruel protagonist who’s prone to violence and the short-con. He’s stuck in a California pen, picking melons with labor gangs of criminals and plotting an escape.

I was surprised by the gripping intensity of the novel, it reads “thriller” with a capital “T”. This effect is heightened by the fluidity of the prose; a semi-committed half-conscious half-present narrative style that thinks more frequently than it speaks and lies enough to make us uncomfortable. A fuzzy yet bitter morality is the only thing separating Ralph from sociopathy, and each page takes us deeper into his troubling psychosis.

Horace McCoy’s prose is entirely his own, the only comparable author that I’ve sampled personally is James Cain, a veritable master of the noir genre. McCoy’s metaphors aren’t the tired regurgitations we’ve come to accept contemporarily, and he spins a yarn that is as effortless as it is entertaining.

Here’s a quick noir definition rundown of Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye:

1) The Seedy Underworld

Old California, when arrest records were lost from state to state, and a quick switch of your license plates was all it took to lose Johnny Law.

The Marakeesh Apartments were on the corner where the bus had stopped, a two-story brick building that looked cheap and rundown, as if what went on inside was exactly what you suspected.

2) The Anti-Hero

Ralph is a frightening portrait of a hero. Egotistical, self-centered, and surprisingly violent, he skirts the unpleasant area between dislike and disgust. The real magic of his characterization is when you realize you’re rooting for him, silently agreeing with his angry assessments.

‘You’re sweet. I adore you,’ I said, feeling a fine fast exhilaration that today was the day that I was going to kill him, that I was finally going to kill him as soon as I got my hands on those pistols I was going to kill him.

3) The Femme Fatale

Holiday is a babe with all the right moves, a femme fatale who’s as manipulative as she is pretty. She understands the price of controlling the men in her life, and she’s more than willing to pay it.

4) Misogyny

This noir crime fiction joins the ranks of other misogynistic works of the era; a dame is only as good as what she can do in the bedroom.

5) Redemption

Unlike the intellectual redemption themes that we find in detective based noir, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye highlights the illegal activities of Ralph and his associates. It seems their redemption comes from success, from cash and freedom.

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye Horace McCoy

Horace McCoy (via independent.co.uk)

6) Eroticism

Actually, this novel is particularly tame in its approach to sexuality. But it’s only tame in details, not frequency.

She smiled at me, unbuckling her trousers but not unbuttoning the fly, slipping them off, arching her shoulders against the back seat to raise her buttocks out of the way. Her legs were slim and white. I could see the skin in minutest detail, the pigments and pores and numberless valley-cracks that crisscrossed above her knees, forming patterns that were as lovely and intricate as snow crystals. And there was something else I saw too out of the corner of my left eye, and I tried not to look, not because I didn’t want to, not because of modesty, but only because when you had waited as long as I had to see one of these you want it to reveal itself at full length, sostenuto.

7) Loss of Innocence

Ralph’s utter disregard for human life is the alarming thread that wraps itself around this book. If you’re between him and the score, you’ll be removed.

‘Jesus. Ralph,’ Jinx said, as we drove out. ‘You shouldn’t a done that. He’s lame.…’
‘So much more reason why he ought to be careful what he says to me,’ I said.

8 ) Smoke

The smoke in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is the ever present reminder that this is work of noir crime fiction, and a damn good one at that.

9) Emasculation

Ralph is dangerous because he’ll allow himself to be emasculated. Taunt him, hurt him, swindle him and you’ll feel like you’ve gotten away with it; that he’s a ‘nance’ pushover or something equally spineless. Later, when you’ve forgotten him entirely, he pays you back.

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye by Horace McCoy is a great piece of vintage crime fiction. Get a copy.

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Noir Crime Fiction | Lady, Go Die! by Max Allan Collins and Mickey Spillane

Noir Crime Fiction Lady Go Die

Lady, Go Die! by Max Allan Collins and Mickey Spillane

“Lady Godiva herself,” I said.
“More like lady go die,” Velda said, in hushed horror.

Lady, Go Die! is an epic noir collaboration between two amazing authors from different eras. I was delighted that Max Allan Collins’ style blended so seamlessly with Mickey Spillane’s, and gave us another chapter in the Mike Hammer mythos. Rescued from a wealth of unpublished material after Spillane’s death, the “brittle, yellow single-spaced pages” of Lady, Go Die! were quite the find, and beg the question “What else does the deceased master have in store for us?” Max relates,

A week before his death, Mickey Spillane told his wife Jane, “When I’m gone, there’s going to be a treasure hunt around here. Take everything you find and give it to Max–he’ll know what do do.” Lady, Go Die! constituted perhaps the most exciting find. As I read the manuscript, I realized this was something quite special…”

To those who take issue with Mickey “passing the torch” in this manner I say: If Mickey trusts Max, I trust Max. I’m glad I did. The teaser:

Mike Hammer needs a vacation. With buxom secretary in tow, a promise to lay off the sauce, and a hope for relaxation he leaves the bustle of Manhattan and arrives in the sedated, beach-side village of Sidon. Before long, he stumbles upon a scene of police brutality and uncovers a chain of corruption that stretches all the way back to the big city. When a sexy husband-killing widow is found murdered, astride a horse statue naked in the center of town, the Private Eye’s instincts kick in, leading him on the hunt of a two-fold mystery: A serial murderer who preys on beautiful women and an illegal gambling racket where every town official is on the take.

“You know me, Louie. I’m not much of a gambler.”
A grave expression took over the jovial face. “You are the great gambler, Mike. You gamble your life.”

Noir Crime Fiction Max Allan Collins

Max Allan Collins

A noir crime fiction by noir definition:

1) The Seedy Underworld

A beach front retreat before summer bloats is the back drop for this caper. Oceanside mansions, quaint hotels, and local diners- populated by the small-town salt of the earth.

2) The Anti- Hero

Mike Hammer is a bastion of masculinity. He’s as smart as he is violent, and understands that some folks just need killing. Prone to dabble in alcoholism and dames, he’s an anti-hero that skirts the line between Sam Spade and Parker.

I couldn’t stay a cop. All those rules and regulations drove me bugs. I had a more direct method for dealing with the bastards that preyed upon society–I just killed their damn asses.

3) The Femme Fatale

In Lady, Go Die! the dames are all femme fatales; my only question was which one would get Mike killed first.

Her mouth found mine and she trembled under me as our mouths surrendered to each other.
When I held her away from me, she was gasping, “That was the first time you ever did that, Mike.”
“I’ve wanted to for a long time,” I told her roughly.

4) Misogyny

Mike himself isn’t very misogynistic, but the overall tone of the novel is. The women in the story are completely male defined, and even the strongest of them (Velda) isn’t strong enough avoid becoming a victim…

5) Redemption

Redemption doesn’t appear to be a central theme beyond the intellectual redemption that comes from unraveling a mystery. From time to time Mike experiences fits of vengeance, but I wouldn’t call these redemptive in any way to his character. He seems more motivated by pride than anything.

6) Eroticism

Lady, Go Die! has a satisfyingly erotic tilt to it. Some of the best scenes in the book involve the attempted seduction of Mike Hammer, and the relentless tension between he and Velda. For the wary: this isn’t a romance novel, and the details are spared any graphics. In a word, titillation.

Before she could finish that thought, I reached up and gripped her dressing gown at the neck, then gave it a vicious yank. The light material of the wrapper ripped like paper. I tossed it away like a used tissue and had a look at my handiwork.

7) Loss of Innocence

The loss of innocence is a central theme in this noir crime fiction, and is expected because of the serial killing angle. Lovely, pure, and innocent women are found strung up and nude, posed in the most degrading of fashions by a sadistic fiend. How can innocence exist in such a clime? As you read, remember that everyone is a suspect, no one above suspicion.

Noir Crime Fiction Mickey Spillane

Mickey Spillane

8 ) Smoke

The smoke curls from the end of a gun just as frequently as it curls from the end of a cigarette in this novel.

9) Emasculation

Mike doesn’t fear emasculation because it isn’t an option. He knows that even if he were to lose, the winner wouldn’t escape his punishment. Mr. Hammer never doubts himself, doesn’t allow others to take advantage of him or those he cares about, and never crumbles under the pressure. In this way he arrives as an escapee from a time-capsule of early noir; a vision of man as he should be.

“Ain’t you the one that–“
Velda stopped him again. “Shot down those two hoods in Times Square? That’s him. Showed a couple hundred people in a nightclub what a crook had for dinner, using a steak knife? One and the same. Got in Dutch with the police for making a perfectly good suspect unrecognizable? That’s him.”

Lady, Go Die! is a great gritty read and if you haven’t experienced Mike Hammer yet, here’s the place to start.

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Noir Crime Fiction | “Wasp-Waisted” by David Barrie

Noir Crime Fiction Wasp-Waisted by David Barrie

My Copy (Thanks John Law Media!)

“I only believe in what I see. You pursue naked truth; I prefer artful beauty.”

Wasp-Waisted by David Barrie is a noir crime fiction thriller from the UK-based publisher John Law Media. A Franck Guerin novel, the Parisian detective must infiltrate the highest circles of society to find a killer both talented and deadly. The novel is staking out a new edge of the genre, and calling itself “noir chic”: to steal a quote, think “hard-boiled characters in haute couture.” The result is titillating.

Franck Guerin is a recently wounded and somewhat disgraced member of an elite espionage branch of the French Government known as the DST. When his commanding officer reassigns him to a less demanding detail to be forgotten, fortune finds him hunting a killer across the front page headlines. A local news publication, Exposé, receives a breathtaking photo of a young beauty clad in exquisite lingerie, but she’s dead. The photo is of such depth and quality that it stirs the public into a frenzy and begs the questions, “what kind of murderer could have produced such a masterpiece?” and “will he kill again?”

“We have never been so assailed by images, captain. We hold onto very few of them, otherwise we probably could not continue to function. This photo would have to be something rare indeed were it to grant Rachida a form of immortality.”

David Barrie’s prose is an alloy comprised of two-parts Stieg Larsson and one-part Dan Brown. As I read, I felt keen mental reflections that drew me back to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Divinci Code; the former for its languid and methodical delivery and the latter for its attention to detail. His vocabulary is engaging without challenging, and I was tickled to read an author who obviously understands the euphoria of fastening a perfect word to a description. The research required to pen a work like Wasp-Waisted is respectable, and the resulting settings gave the impression of intimate or first-hand knowledge. All said, the delicate weave created by loose strands of plot are each pleasingly tied by the final page.

Here’s the noir definition rundown:

1) The Seedy Underworld

Wasp-Waisted refuses to languish in anything considered ‘seedy.’ Five-star hotels, luscious private dwellings, high-profile offices, and decadent art galleries serve as the backdrop of the book. Although all is not clean and bright, the novel does occasionally dip it’s toe in the stagnant pools of pornographers and strip clubs.

There is a lot of almost transparent fabric, like mist blown across her skin, mist suffused by patches of colour. If the light was more kind and the contrast more pronounced, you would have the impression that her body had been painted.

2) The Anti-Hero

Franck Guerin is more of a ‘hero’ and less of an ‘anti’. He’s burdened by an undetailed incident at his former post and the remaining wounds, but he’s level-headed and thorough. Franck demonstrates uncanny interrogation skills and a relentless nose for conspiracy and evidence. Sadly, his only weakness appears to be his lack of hygiene. I felt his character would have been better served had he shown some sort of change instead of the static ‘same at the end’ ‘come full circle’ approach.

3) The Femme Fatale

Who is the femme fatale in Wasp-Waisted? The better question would be ‘Who isn’t?’ Barrie’s best characters are the cunning beauties that inhabit the posh pages of this book. The most refreshing aspect of their design is their empowered nature, few are male-defined regurgitations of standard noir fare.

4) Misogyny

You would think that a novel that has so much to do with lingerie would be more misogynistic, but there is a surprising lack. Instead, we’re greeted by women arming themselves with the remnants of a male-dominated culture and seizing power with seductive ease. Although the victims are found exposed, poised on a lover’s altar in barely-there negligee, they are immortalized as un-violated and un-tasted goddesses of youth. The only misogyny burns in the breast of a scumbag pornographer, an isolated character like a pimple on an otherwise clean complexion.

That’s where the overwhelming sense of power comes from. Here you have two women apparently slumbering, two Sleeping Beauties dressed to entice and snare. It is the helplessness, the seeming passivity, that renders them irresistible – you cannot help but look; you cannot help but desire. The onlooker – traditionally the one with all the power, with the divine right to look anywhere and everywhere – is transformed, deprived of his capacity to choose. When he looks at these, his reaction may be one of admiration, reverence or lust, but it cannot be indifference. So what we have here, paradoxically, are photos of tyrants at the height of their powers.” “That’s a strange way to describe a pair of murder victims,” objected Franck. “The murder is not in the photo,” insisted Anne. “The murder is the context you supply when you tell me who it is and how she was found.” 

5) Redemption

Redemption seems to be the last thing on Guerin’s mind, which is shocking, considering the shameful and controversial origins of his demotion. Perhaps this is an arc that Barrie explores in a subsequent Franck Guerin novel? It’s hard to imagine a noir crime fiction without a redemption theme, but apparently it’s possible.

Noir Crime Fiction David Barrie

David Barrie

6) Eroticism

The noir theme of eroticism is portrayed in Wasp-Waisted beautifully. It’s possibly the most central theme of the book, that, or the nature of desire and beauty. One scene in particular comes to mind, when Franck must be ‘educated’ by a lingerie expert. As he’s invited to a private dinner in her residence, his lesson is far more intimate than he could have anticipated.

“A young woman in full possession of her body, of her beauty, of her sensuality, prepared to offer herself up, lending her being to the spectator. It was too …too … not too painful to behold, but too intimate to behold.”

7) Loss of Innocence

Each victim represents a spectacular loss of innocence, not only in their own lives, but in the lives of those that witness the photos. The film is so arresting that it forces you out of Eden and places your foot unwillingly in the grave.

8 ) Racism

None.

9) Smoke

Surprisingly little. The best descriptions of cigarette smoke revolve around Franck’s old boss in the DST. She’s a chain-smoking bulldog. Franck, on the other hand, prefers coffee.

10) Emasculation

Franck seems to be very secure in his masculinity. This simultaneously helps and hinders his character because it frees him from the irrationality that accompanies the fear of emasculation and plagues him with the apathy that’s found in its place. Even though he seems to lack the fear of emasculation, he is a frequent victim of it throughout the book. With so many powerful females this seems an inevitable eventuality.

It’s fair to admit that I enjoyed this novel. I can definitely see myself reading more of Barrie’s work in the future.

As for the qualifying statement: “hard-boiled characters in haute couture,” while the fashion may have been present, I felt that Franck was decidedly ‘soft-boiled.’ In my view, ‘hard-boiled’ characters are defined by narrow escapes, insurmountable pressure, and self-destructive behaviors; Guerin doesn’t foot the bill (at least in Wasp-Waisted). Additionally, I’m not certain that this book necessitates the creation of the new genre moniker, ‘noir chic,’ but I like the idea. Perhaps if I delve into more of Barrie’s work I’ll find that the genre-vision becomes more of a reality and less of a sentiment.

“I saved them all. I captured their essence in photos that will be admired for as long as we continue to hold beauty a special form of truth. At the same time I ensured the immortality of those images by saving their subjects from their own errors of judgement and the ravages of time.”

The greatest shame of all is that David Barrie doesn’t have an American Publisher. You won’t be able to find his books on the shelves of your local store (unless your local store is in the UK or Europe), but his noir crime fiction is worth reading. Head over the Amazon.com and show him some support.

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Noir Crime Fiction | Blood on the Mink by Robert Silverberg

Noir Crime Fiction Blood on the Mink Robert Silverberg

Blood on the Mink by Robert Silverberg

Blood on the Mink is a time capsule of tasty noir crime fiction from beginning to end. The lost Robert Silverberg novel plummets several decades back, landing in Philadelphia gangland, and drowns in a hot pot of hardboiled intrigue. The young Silverberg is a cool-handed master of the craft, and makes the genre sing. The pacing of the work is near perfect, no stops or hiccups along the way, as the plot races towards its messy finish. Each page brings an additional dose of anxiety, and as you round the halfway mark you’re the helpless passenger careening off the cliff. Although the novel is relatively short, it’s long with satisfaction; All the devilishly seductive bits we’ve come to love in noir. And after the curtains have fallen, Hard Case Crime delivers two of Silverberg’s heavy-hitting short stories to cleanse the pallet.

Blood on the Mink is plot four parts Parker, one part Bond, and ninety-nine parts machismo. A counterfeit ring in Philly has been pumping out nearly untraceable ‘queer’ (counterfeit bills), and the government sends an undercover agent in place of a mob boss’ right hand man to deal with it. Posing as the mean Californian Vic Lowney, the agent must stare down villains, dames, and crisscrossing double-crossers if he’s going come out unscathed in the end.

Here’s the noir definition breakdown:

1) The Seedy Underworld

Silverberg’s descriptions of the seedy underworld of Philly have a snarky humor about them. As if he’s simultaneously praising and slighting the City of Brotherly Love. The climate of the scenes is old school, a time when men wore suits and overcoats when they went out to get the paper.

“Philadelphia at nine o’clock on a Sunday morning is just one big morgue. The corpses don’t start stirring until ten or eleven.”

2) The Anti-Hero

We don’t discover the name of our anti-hero until the last two pages of the book, and we certainly don’t get to know who he really is. Why? Because not even he knows. As Vic Lowney, he’s a mean sonnovabitch who likes pushing people’s buttons as much as he likes his steak rare and his women busty. He’s in the midst of a constant strategic powerplay, pissing off every hood he meets while earning their fear and respect. You’ll love him. He’s like Parker in a Westlake pulp, dynamite on the page.

“You get word in Omaha or Fond du lac or Jersey City that they need you, and the next thing you know you’re busy studying somebody and becoming him. Or maybe creating somebody out of whole cloth. It isn’t pretty work, posing as a criminal. You swim through an ocean of filth before your job is done, and a lot of that filth gets swallowed. But the job has to be done. Somebody has to do it. I guess I’m the lucky one.”

3) The Femme Fatale

Two women from different ends of the spectrum collide on Vic. The first, a virginal Hungarian named Elena, the daughter of the captive but talented engraver. She’s been the pressure point that the mob pushes in order to control her gifted father, to keep him scared enough to churn out plates for the private mint. She learns of Vic’s arrival and shows up at his hotel begging him to rescue her father. What’s in it for him? Anything he wants… The second, a former stripper and the Philly boss’ number one girl, Carol. She wants Klaus (the boss) dead and she wants Vic to do it. Breathy whispers of riding into the sunset with the plates all to themselves when the organization is out of the way make an interesting proposition. Especially when she pays Vic a late night visit; a taste of what’s to come.

“I let her into the room. She wriggled off the trenchcoat, threw it on a chair, and sucked in a deep breath with the obvious intention of enhancing her figure. Cooperatively, I gave her sweater an admiring glance. She flushed again, she was trying hard as hell to be a femme fatale, but the part just didn’t ride naturally on her.”

4) Misogyny

Blood on the Mink had a healthy dose of misogyny, it was reminiscent of the golden era of noir crime fiction. The women in the plot are at the mercy of their male overlords, they’re props for pervs to hang their ya-ya’s on. The helpless virgin was a nice touch, a woman who is able to sneak away to see Vic alone in his hotel room, but she’s not canny enough to help her captive father escape. And then Carol, a different kind of prisoner who’s looking to change wardens. When your blood boils you know you’re experiencing the symptoms of great noir misogyny.

5) Redemption

This didn’t have the classic redemption theme that most noir from this era has. First, he wasn’t playing detective, so there was no intellectual redemption taking place. And second, we never really know who Vic really is or what his personal motivations might be. We’re given a lot of smoke about it being his duty, his job, but we don’t know why he chose it in the first place. He simply seems to get off on the lies. In this end of the pool, it’s a bit shallow.

Noir Crime Fiction Robert Silverberg at WorldCon 1985

Robert Silverberg at WorldCon1985 (via midamericon.org)

6) Eroticism

I’ve already told you about the begging virgin, but nothing transpires between her and Vic. He promises to help her without cashing in any of her carnal assets. Not so with the stripper. But I love old noir crime fiction, because the sex is never raunchy or overtly detailed. I think Silverberg uses the words “stark naked” and “very happy” but that’s as tittilating as it gets.

“She said she was going to show me she could make a man happy. She showed me. She showed me for a couple of hours. By the time we were finished, I was very, very happy. So, I think, was she.”

7) Loss of Innocence

Poor Elena is the heart-wrenching tool of manipulation that has enslaved her father to Klaus. She’s desperate for freedom, but she lacks the masculinity to succeed in obtaining it. Her innocence is lost in more ways than one by the end of the plot. As far as Vic is concerned, he lost his innocence a long time ago. How, when, or why, we’ll never know.

“For a long time he refuses. But one day Klaus has no more patience. He takes me in front of my father, and they begin taking my clothes off, and when I am naked above the waist my father begins to cry, and–” She lowered her voice and looked at the floor. “Since that day he works for them.”

8 ) Racism

There wasn’t any.

9) Smoke

The cigarette smoke in Blood on the Mink got thicker and darker as the plot raced on. Almost like the smoke-stack of a locamotive hurtling toward an unfinished bridge. It represented the anxiety being felt by both Vic and the reader, a sign of inner fuel reserves being burnt.

“I must have used up four hundred cigarettes that day, waiting for the minutes to tick past. By mid-afternoon my fingers were stained with nicotine and my throat felt like it had been left out in the Arizona sun for a few days. But there was nothing that I could do except smoke. And pace, and wait.”

10) Emasculation

This book has a steel backbone of masculinity running through it. As Vic interacts with any character, male or female, it’s akin to the posturing of male peacocks or silverback gorillas. Jutting chins, rolled sleeves, and puffed-out chests pepper the entire caper. Vic will not be emasculated, and he’s great at emasculating others.

I loved this read. Blood on the Mink is a grit strewn thrill ride into the criminal underworld, a near perfect noir crime fiction. The afterword from the author was particularly charming:

“…when I read [Blood on the Mink] again last month, half century after the fact, I offered my younger self of that distant era a round of applause. He was still wet behind the ears, then, or so it seems to me from the vantage point of the senior citizen he has become, but even back then, I think, he told a pretty good story. I hope modern readers will agree.” -Robert Silverberg, March 2011

If you want to buy your own copy click here

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Noir Crime Fiction | The Widow by Georges Simenon

Noir Crime Fiction The Widow Georges Simenon

The Widow by Georges Simenon

The Widow by Georges Simenon was published in 1942 and is an exquisite piece of french noir crime fiction. The entire work is laced with the troubling desires of emotionally and spiritually deranged characters. The prose is beautiful (even in translation), and the lovely descriptions create a picturesque backdrop for despicability; the dregs of sin. Simenon masterfully paints the turmoil of a recently paroled murderer who is searching for his place in a world that refuses to accept him, and contrasts it with the plight of an anxious widow whose family is plotting against her.

Tati Couderc is a somewhat portly widow who has inherited a lovely house and plot of land from her husband. Her trouble-making son Rene is away at war, and her aged and confused father-in-law helps her tend the animals. The sisters of her deceased husband desire the farmhouse for themselves, and have begun charting legal channels to achieve this end. Tati is not foolish, however, and she sexually sedates their father frequently; using sex as a means of ensuring his favor (as one would ensure the love of a dog by giving it treats).

Jean Passerat-Monnoyeur is the disowned son of a wealthy brewer. He killed a man, and but for the wit of his lawyer he would have been decapitated as a result. Released on a spat of lies and legal technicalities, he has recently finished a five year sentence in prison. In the course of his aimless wandering, he encounters Tati on a crowded city bus, and follows her home. She, assuming that he was a foreigner, invites him to work as a farmhand for reasonable pay, room, and board. Intrigued with the bossy, anxious, and energetic woman; and lacking anywhere else to go, he accepts.

The crux of the conflict in the book occurs when Jean, against Tati’s wishes, finds himself helplessly in love with her niece Felicie.

Here is the noir definition:

1) The Seedy Underworld

The gorgeous countryside of a remote and undeveloped France is not a very seedy underworld, but the selfish, violent, and depraved individuals that live there create a perfect noir setting.

2) The Anti-Hero

Jean is a deeply sympathetic anti-hero. The Widow is essentially the tale of his struggle to come to grips with himself; the struggle to discover who he really is. The murder in his past haunts every sleeping moment, and Felicie every waking. Simenon takes us on a powerfully emotional journey with Jean, and his insight into the mind of a murderer is chilling.

3) The Femme Fatale

Felicie is a young and radiant red-head. She has a baby from a previous man to which we are never introduced, and Tati constantly refers to her as a slut and a laz-ab0ut. Initially, Felicie rejects Jean’s interest brutally, but as she sees the depth of her hold on him, she begins to cling to the periphery of his existence. As a femme fatale plot device, she creates the final encounter in the novel.

He thought of Felicie all day long and it was partly Tati’s fault, for he could feel that she too was thinking of her the whole time.

4) Misogyny

Oddly, there is very little misogyny in this noir crime fiction. Tati has such a strong and abrasive personality that she dominates Jean as if he were a servant.

5) Redemption

Jean believes the redemption for his past exists in acceptance. If he can find a home, a place where he is loved and needed, then he can find peace.

Noir Crime Fiction Georges Simenon

Georges Simenon (via elarcadearciniegas.blogspot.com)

6) Eroticism

The widow Couderc uses sex as a tool of control and domination. She uses it on her father-in-law, and shortly after hiring Jean she uses it on him. But it fails to have the same effect on Jean. Contrarily, Felicie’s mere presence is intoxicating to him, and his desire for her causes him to betray the trust given by Tati.

Jean’s first thought was that they could not remain there, standing among the potatoes, and he led her gently toward the shed, aimlessly still, and still without speaking. Then he kissed her once more and he saw that her eyes were closed, her neck of an unreal whiteness.

It was, truly, as though it had been foreseen from all eternity that they would meet on that evening, at that spot, and that they need say nothing to each other, that they would recognize each other and have only to fulfill their destiny.

7) Loss of Innocence

The recollection of Jean’s childhood is tragic, as he was a friendless and pitiful boy. His instructors were quite cruel and set him apart from the other students because of his wealthy background. This isolated him, and caused him to pretend to be ill for much of his life in order to avoid conflict. When he eventually murdered a man to whom he had lost a fortune at the gambling den, his loss of innocence was complete.

8 ) Racism

There are small racist remarks towards the Polish here and there.

9) Smoke

Cigarettes are a part of daily life. Jean often retreats into their hot embrace.

10) Emasculation

Tati is incredibly emasculating to Jean and the other men in her life. Although she is rather kind, ultimately she’s selfish, bossy, and defiant. Her continually condescending treatment of Jean leads him to the tragic climax at the novel’s conclusion. A climax that may have been avoided if she had not so challenged his manhood.

The Widow was a delightful noir crime fiction to read. I truly enjoyed it.

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Noir Crime Fiction | “The Comedy is Finished” by Donald E. Westlake

The Comedy is Finished by Donald E. Westlake is a delicious morsel of noir crime fiction. Like a voice from beyond the grave, this manuscript was unearthed from a long forgotten storage box and published as the final known work of the deceased master.

Noir Crime Fiction The Comedy is Finished Donald E Westlake

"The Comedy is Finished" by Donald E. Westlake

The plot follows the unfortunate plight of American comedian Koo Davis as he is kidnapped by a group of radical revolutionaries. In true thriller fashion, the story moves at a dangerous pace propelled by unsettling thematic undertones. The triumph of this novel is in the detail of the character development. Every individual in the story is treated with a freshness and respect that is rare in any story. Each of the five kidnappers is meticulously ornate: Peter, the leader, with his chewed-raw cheeks and fear of emasculation. Larry, the theorist, with his grasp of Truth and History, as well as his patient lecturing. Liz, the femme fatale, with her lack of physical boundaries and drug addled perceptions. Mark, the muscle, with his brutally violent and unpredictable temperament. And Joyce, the den-mother, with her affectionate naivete and hopeful outlook. The reader is given a uniquely intimate view into the anxiety-charged climate of the hostage.

How does it fair against the noir definition? Observe:

1) The Seedy Underworld

Hollywood and the surrounding areas of pomp in the 1970s; Gated communities, back-rooms at police HQ, vacant mansions, and an underground grotto with a peeping-tom window to the swimming pool. Mr. Westlake is fabulous at creating vibrant environments that provide contrast for the dark deeds committed in them.

2) The Anti-Hero

Koo Davis is a wonderfully sympathetic anti-hero. He’s funny, bright, and extremely perceptive. As a reader, I was pained to see not only the predictament he was thrust into, but also the bleak landscape of his personal history. Because of the bridges burning in his rear view mirror, he seriously doubts that any of his family or so-called friends will care that he’s kidnapped. In these moments of doubt, his comical facade drops and one can see that indeed “the comedy is finished.”

3) The Femme Fatale

Each of the kidnappers possessed a very fleshed-out character, but only one qualifies as a femme fatale: Liz. She is the woman shown on the cover, wearing nothing but sunglasses. Although Liz does not have any interest in Koo, she does flaunt her sexuality with abandon. She doesn’t hide her disdain towards men, and she spends the novel in an acid-induced fog of violence.

4) Misogyny

Koo is an old man who recognizes his own misogyny far too late. He’s lived the life of a womanizer; drunk on his own fame, a stranger to his own wife and children. Koo’s memories of USO tours are fraught with the sexual objectification and misrepresentation of women, the pinnacle of his misogyny being the money he would shill to ensure secret abortions. The Comedy is Finished has a strong thread of noir crime fiction misogyny.

5) Redemption

For FBI agent Michael Wiskiel, the Koo Davis kidnapping case will be his ticket back to Washington D.C., his chance to salvage his career. For Koo, he realizes the need for redemption far too late, and he mourns the loss of a lifetime of apologies. For Peter (the lead kidnapper), this operation is the beginning of the redemption of America, the beginning of wresting it from the hands of the unworthy. Without spoiling anything, I’ll also note that there is a very strong father/child redemption theme present in the text.

Noir Crime Fiction Donald E Westlake

Donald E. Westlake

6) Eroticism

Several erotic scenes exist within the novel, and they follow the exact outline for the noir genre. They approach sexuality from the unacceptable outskirts, dabbling in the bizarre and outré practices of the sexual deviant. Liz’s blatant nudity, the free love shared among the kidnappers, and Peter’s sexual demands all lend to the erotic underpinnings of the novel.

7) Loss of Innocence

The only scene shared between Liz and Koo was shocking. I won’t spoil it, but it was one of the strangest scenes I’ve ever read. It absolutely represented a loss of innocence.

8 ) Racism

There are no characters of other races in the novel. And no racially-charged content.

9) Smoke

Smoke is the ever present companion of the characters. Always on the edge of the scene, dangling from a pursed lip.

10) Emasculation

The largest evidence of emasculation occurs in the scene between Liz and Koo, but I’ve already stated that I won’t spoil it. Peter fears that his operation will fail, or that his leadership will be questioned; This leads him to the extremes of personality that he exhibits. His fear of emasculation is one of the most driving elements of his character. Likewise, Agent Michael Wiskiel has been emasculated in the past (he was demoted and sent to California in shame) and this past failure drives him to the great lengths and risks that he is willing to undertake to recover Koo as well as his lost manhood.

Donald E. Westlake is a undeniable master of the noir crime fiction genre, and we are lucky that he left us with such an immense catalogue to read.

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Noir Crime Fiction | Queenpin by Megan Abbott

For a long time I’ve wanted to read some quality female-written noir crime fiction. Because of the misogynistic nature of the noir genre, I’ve been curious as to how that would translate through a woman’s eyes. Queenpin by Megan Abbott is a delightful dance with all of the themes of classic noir, the only difference is the rhythm.

Crime Fiction Queenpin Megan Abbott

Queenpin by Megan Abbott

The protagonist is a nameless young woman who becomes the protege of a ruthless femme fatale named Gloria Denton. She learns the inside track of a crime world that has been perpetuated for a generation; more importantly she learns the rules of this world. As she climbs the grimy ladder of the streets, she grapples with desire, ambition, and loyalty. The crux of the plot rests upon a fateful decision that brings her into direct opposition with the woman who made her what she is.

Here is the noir definition rubric:

1) The Seedy Underworld

The seedy underworld of Queenpin is comprised of back-alley betting parlors, gambling dens, casinos, and sunny days at the horse-track. The protagonist makes her mark as a drop girl; she makes evening rounds with money and contraband to the various players and crime-lords on the take. Thus the story see-saws from the glitz of affluence to the banal depravity of dog fighting rings and strip clubs.

2) The Anti-Hero

Creating a nameless protagonist has an interesting effect on the trajectory of a story. She comes across as being a potential outcome the reader themselves may experience. And even though we never learn her name, we still feel a sense of intimate empathy with her, for her. Coupled with the flawed nature of her character (she has glaring weaknesses), and she makes for an absolutely radiant anti-hero. Because we cringe at her choices while simultaneously understanding why she makes them.

“You have to decide who you are, little girl, she told me once. Once you know that, everyone else will too.”

3) The Femme Fatale

Vic Riordan, the homme fatale, fills this role in Queenpin. He’s a loser. A washed out gambler who can’t help himself from spending it all on a single throw. Our anti-hero describes him frequently as a wolf, and compares herself to little red riding hood. She knew the second she laid eyes on him that he had her, that she would do anything to him and for him that he wanted. He is the cause of the rift between Gloria and her pupil, because he flies against everything Gloria stands for.

4) Misogyny

Gloria Denton is one of the most wonderfully portrayed femme fatales that I’ve ever read. She is completely devoid of any self deprecation. Traditionally, a femme fatale is completely male-defined: the fatale becomes what they desire because it grants her power over them. Gloria does no such thing. She embodies power, respect, and the promise of violence. She does not mince her words or flaunt her body, and she ALWAYS does her own wet-work. The reason I mention this in the misogyny section of this review is because she entirely rises above it, and she teaches her pupil how to do so. The very best advice for any femme fatale I’ve ever heard:

“If you can control yourself, you can control everyone else.”

5) Redemption

There is a strong redemption theme throughout, just like any good noir crime fiction. The anti-hero desires to be loyal to Gloria, and when she fails to do so she desires to repair the damage. The tragedy occurs when she decides that she can’t do so, and she completes the betrayal fully.

Noir Crime Fiction Megan Abbott

Megan Abbott

6) Eroticism

I was surprised by the amount of sexuality present in Queenpin. It’s ultimately lust that causes the downfall of the main character, for she cannot stop herself from indulging her appetite for Vic. The details are written tastefully, nothing overtly sexual but the descriptions of the bruises she suffers afterwards.

7) Loss of Innocence

Queenpin contains an intensely violent murder scene involving a letter opener. I won’t say who is involved, but someone loses a great measure of innocence.

8 ) Racism

None.

9) Smoke

The only thing that can calm her rattled nerves (either rattled by Vic, or rattled by Gloria) is a good smoke and a seven and seven.

10) Emasculation

Gloria and her pupil represent powerful women rising up and controlling a man’s world. Their code of conduct and loyalty is cut from years of oppressive experience under the gender-role boot. Although men are intrigued by them sexually, their advances are denied wholesale. The only exception is Vic Riordan, but not even he can escape emasculation. The primary difference between this crime fiction and others is that typically being emasculated is an underlying fear of the main character, in Queenpin this was not so.

I loved reading a noir crime fiction from a female author. The fact that the protagonist’s fall was spurred by a homme fatale was so intriguing. It’s the same successful formula of hundreds of books, just reversed roles.

My only issue with Queenpin was the prose/writing style. It seemed like Megan Abbott was attempting to be Raymond Chandler, but she was trying too hard. The pulpy prose felt forced, and when it feels forced it comes across as hokey and unoriginal.  Just an opinion.

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Noir Crime Fiction | The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

Noir Crime Fiction The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

my copy from Amazon

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson has been on the receiving end of some serious press lately. For the most part this coincides with the release of the much-anticipated film noir adaptation starring Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara, but this post will deal exclusively with the noir crime fiction. I’m one of those geeks that everyone despises because I refuse to see a film before I’ve read the book (as if doing so would burgle my imagination of something delicious). Thus I’m going to give the novel the full review treatment while avoiding all possible spoilers (especially the big ones).

Simple stated, the story revolves around the unsolved disappearance of Harriet Vanger, the niece of a powerful industrialist. Mikael Blomkvist is given unlimited access to all records surrounding the case as well as incentive to discover the truth.

As is my custom, I’ll be looking at this noir crime fiction in light of the ten aspects of my pre-constructed noir definition:

1) The Seedy Underworld

The majority of this thriller takes place in scenic Hedestad, a small island outside of Stockholm. Very few of the locations described within the text have the “seedy” quality which one would expect; as a result nearly every wicked scenario is even more dubious because the villainy is hidden beneath a veneer of normalcy.

2) The Anti-Hero

Our anti-hero is Mikael Blomkvist, a mid-aged financial journalist with a penchant for moral causes and the courage to voice them. He is an attractive, level-headed man who has many loyal friends and old enemies. He makes a gambit at the head of the biggest corporation in Sweden, Wennerstrom, and fails to prove suspected corruption. This leaves him dejected, hollow, and furious and simultaneously opens a door to the biggest/strangest opportunity of his life. He is an ideal anti-hero because he has nothing to lose and everything to prove, and his self-worth has been shaken to the core by his failings.

3) The Femme Fatale

Lisbeth Salander, a tattooed chopstick of a woman who is always a hairsbreadth from violence is the femme fatale. She is young, odd, socially defunct, and an absolute genius. Throughout the course of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, she dishes as well as receives a great deal of violence, both sexual and non-sexual and none of it is easy to digest. She represents every woman who has ever been the victim of extortion and sexual abuse, and she shatters the shackles and norms associated with this blight through cruel vengeance. She is one of the most powerful femme fatale characters that I’ve ever read. Instead of being male defined, she is completely outside of their framework; essentially a male’s worst nightmare. She is an angel of vengeance.

4) Misogyny

While a frightening amount of misogyny exists in the novel, Mikael Blomkvist is wonderfully free of this ill. If even half of the statistics that Stieg Larsson quotes are true, then every woman in Sweden needs to get the hell out of dodge ASAP.  They are seen as sexual objects that need plundering, and that a male’s power is only a means of funneling  women to his libido.

“Thirteen percent of the women in Sweden have been subjected to aggravated sexual assault outside of a sexual relationship”

5) Redemption

Blomkvist is driven by the insatiable urge to redeem himself from his failed attack on Wennerstrom. This urge is what ultimately chains him in the service of Henrik Vanger on Hedestad, working to solve a mystery 40 years in the making. Although Blomkvist is not the only individual who craves redemption, nearly every main character desires the same.

Noir Crime Fiction Stieg Larsson

Stieg Larsson (via planetadelibros.com)

6) Eroticism

A hefty amount of eroticism exists in this noir crime fiction. Sexual torture based on bondage and S&M practices is a permeating theme in the book, and is balanced by an obvious presence of seduction and casual (though respectful) sex. Additionally there are bisexual encounters, rape, incest, and molestation present as well. The reason for such strong sexual themes in this novel is clearly the critique of the current climate of sexual violence and abuse in Sweden. The book is a harrowing look at hidden behaviors beneath the surface of clean streets and modern homes. This approach as an author of a crime fiction reeks of James Cain; the more bizarre and unacceptable the behavior, the more intriguing the book.

“Ninety-two percent of women in Sweden who have been subjected to sexual assault have not reported the most recent violent incident to the police.”

7) The Loss of Innocence

Possibly the most permeating consequence in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is the loss of innocence that accompanies sexual abuse. One scene in particular is the molten core of the entire novel, and it ignites an uncomfortable sizzle from cover to cover. Scarring invariably occurs as a result of this scene, both in the lives of the characters and in the mind of the reader. It won’t be comfortable, but you’ll be changed by it.

8 ) Racism

A surprising amount of Nazism is present in the novel as well as ‘Aryan’ themes. Antisemitism is peppered throughout.

9) Smoke

Blomkvist is hopelessly trying to quit smoking from the first chapter to the end. It represents a chink in his armor of self control, and dismisses his the illusions of his ability to cope.

10) Emasculation

Henrik Vanger seems to represent the greatest sufferer of emasculation within The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. His failure to solve the mystery of his niece’s murder for 40 years is the ultimate stroke of impotence in his otherwise successful life. This failure pervades all aspects of his existence, first derailing his business and eventually his health. He’s consumed by his inadequacy, and he takes on responsibility for her demise as if he himself dealt the final blow. He cannot surrender to the unknown and fears that he will die without knowing what happened. He believes that the knowledge will set him free and restore what manhood has been stolen from him.

A methodical thriller, an intellectual masterpiece, and a frightening social commentary, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a superb example of a modern noir crime fiction.

Here are some images promoting the film noir adaptation:

Film Noir The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo Film Poster

Film Poster

Film Noir The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo Daniel Craig Mikael Blomkvist

Daniel Craig as Mikael Blomkvist on a financial magazine cover from the novel (Blomkvist works for Millenium) (via mouth-taped-shut.com)

Film Noir The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo Rooney Mara Lisbeth Salander

Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander. A hardcore femme fatale (via starcasm.net)

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Noir Crime Fiction | No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

After seeing the movie adaptation of No Country for Old Men I’ve been eagerly anticipating reading the novel. I wasn’t disappointed in the least. The novel is fast paced, brutal, and surprisingly filled with sentiment. Initially I didn’t consider it to be in the noir crime fiction genre, but as I wound further into the piece, it became clear that this truly is a masterpiece of noir. As is custom, I’ll take you through each beat of the noir definition as a means of defending my stance.

Noir Crime Fiction No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

via mrisakson.com

Noir Definition Run Down:

1) The Seedy Underworld

The arid Texas/Mexico borderlands. The setting’s bleak wasteland simultaneously highlights the despair that anchors the novel in place and the stark contrast between life and death. This boundary is shady at best.

2) The Anti-Hero

Llewelyn Moss, a vietnam veteran and a ‘good-ole-boy’ who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. A drug deal gone bad, a pile of bodies and a satchel full of dead presidents singing the tune of millions floating on top of the carnage. He intends to buy a new life for himself and his young wife Carla Jean, but he quickly learns he’s in over his head. Pursued by a ruthless hitman (Antoine Chigur) and a gang of deadly ombrès, this noir crime fiction is one hair-raising scene after another.

3) The Femme Fatale

Not so much a femme fatale in the traditional sense, Carla Jean Moss fills this role. Llewelyn’s love for her and desire to protect her from the onslaught he has unleashed puts him in the crosshairs of individuals he cannot possibly escape.

4) Misogyny

Misogyny isn’t a blatant theme as in other noir crime fiction pieces, but the helplessness of Carla Jean, and her childlike misunderstanding of the situation which she shares with her husband is rather condescending. Her moment of actualization; the pinnacle of her empowered feminine potential comes the second before a trigger is pulled in her face.

“I’m not a fan of authors who do not deal with issues of life and death. I don’t understand them. To me, that’s not literature. A lot of writers who are considered good I consider strange.” -Cormac McCarthy

Noir Crime Fiction Cormac McCarthy

via themurkyfringe.com

5) Redemption

Sheriff Ed Tom Bell is the most sympathetic character in No Country For Old Men. His longing for kinder and simpler days is symptomatic of the horrors he faces on a daily basis. He views the folks in his county as his responsibility, and his pride is crushed when he fails to protect Llewelyn and Carla Jean. The entire book follows his quest for redemption, not only redemption for his current failures, but redemption from his past humiliations. He perfectly personifies the human condition: forever fallen.

6) Loss of Innocence

As the killer Antoine Chigur corners his enemies, he frequently engages in philosophical discourse with them before depriving them of life. His calculated brutality and seeming lack of conscience is frightening. He kills without remorse and balks at mercy. His word is his God, and he always obeys.

7) Eroticism

None. I will say that there is something intimate shared between Chigur and his victims before he kills them, but this is in no way erotic.

8 ) Blaxploitation

Some light racism towards those of Hispanic descent.

9) Smoke

Often the only relief found by any of the characters is in the smoky embrace of tobacco. Cuts the stress, cuts the tension, blesses the unworthy.

If you haven’t read this novel yet, please do. McCarthy has put together a veritable masterwork of noir crime fiction in No Country For Old Men.

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Noir Crime Fiction | “Three To Kill” by Jean-Patrick Manchette

Noir Crime Fiction Three To Kill Jean-Patrick Manchette

Last week I finished my second taste of Jean-Patrick Manchette’s work, it was the noir crime fiction thriller Three To Kill. The story follows the business man Georges Gerfaut, an upper-middle class family man who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Late one night as he is driving his Mercedes Benz (slightly buzzed) through Paris, he’s passed by two cars going at a rather rapid and dangerous pace. Several bends down the road he sees one of the cars half-wrapped around the trunk of a tree. He reluctantly pulls his conveyance to the roadside, and finds an old man in the first stages of shock wounded and stumbling from the vehicle. Georges begs the man not to bleed on his leather seats and quickly piles him the back and races to the hospital. By the time they arrive at the emergency room, the old man has passed out, and Mr. Gerfaut begs the triage workers to bring a gurney outside. As they urgently tend the victim of the accident, they hand a clipboard of forms to Georges, and explain that he will need to fill in all of the paperwork for the incapacitated man. Using the bustle of the scene as a distraction, Georges ditches the emergency room and heads home instead. Seconds after he pulled from the curb, two policemen begin asking around the triage station for the man who brought in the gunshot victim. In true noir crime fiction form, what appeared to be a simple car accident was actually a “hired hit” and the fatal wounds to which the old man succumbed were in reality firearm inflicted.

Three To Kill is shamelessly inspired by the most famous lines of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. It’s what fallingbeam.org calls the “Flitcraft Parable.” Essentially a man named Flitcraft has a close brush with death (A falling beam nearly crushes him), and it shakes him so badly that he abandons his entire life. He leaves those he loves, his job, and every aspect of his old routine. The irony is that a year or two later, he has settled back into the exact same lifestyle. Only now he has a new wife, new job, and new kids. Thus:

He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling. -The Maltese Falcon

So it is with Georges Gerfaut. Shortly after his unintentional meddling in the contract killing, he is nearly killed by two hit men sent to tie off the loose end. He is so rattled that he forsakes his job, his wife, and his children and flees to another part of Europe. For nearly a year he is cut off from anyone who knew him in his former life. Eventually he comes back to Paris seeking the men who sought his death, and slowly he settles back into his old life. His shocked wife welcomes him back tearfully, and he even returns to his old employers. The final scene of the book is EXACTLY the same as the beginning of the first. He is out, late at night, driving his Mercedes Benz with a buzz on.

I found Three To Kill to be a very pleasing dedication to Dashiell Hammett’s work. Its worth was compounded ten-fold when the “Flitcraft Parable” became apparent in its plot. I happily add this noir crime fiction novel to my Jean-Patrick Manchette collection.  (My copy is from Amazon.com)

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