Posted on Sun, Oct. 10, 2010
Freaks, geeks and the darkness
BY CHRIS TALBOTT
The Best American Noir of the Century. Edited by James Ellroy and Otto Penzler. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 731 pages. $30.
Otto Penzler opens his latest gargantuan compendium with a public service by defining the word ``noir,'' an oft misidentified subset of the hard-boiled fiction genre.
In an introduction to The Best American Noir of the Century, edited with James Ellroy, Penzler writes that works of noir ``are existential, pessimistic tales about people, including (or especially) protagonists who are seriously flawed and morally questionable. The tone is generally bleak and nihilistic, with characters whose greed, lust, jealousy, and alienation lead them into a downward spiral as their plans and schemes inevitably go awry.''
And, boy, do those ill-advised schemes and losers' dreams go awry in these delightfully devilish stories, which cover the time period 1910-2010.
The editors kick things off with Tod Robbins' gloriously odd tale of sideshow freaks, Spurs, setting the stage for a strange trek through the years that includes stories from household names in the hard-boiled genre -- James M. Cain, Mickey Spillane, James Lee Burke, Lawrence Block, Elmore Leonard -- to lesser-known authors who nonetheless can hold their own with the legends.
A few favorites:
-- Tom Franklin's Poachers (1998) eventually leads to the unraveling of his life.
-- James Lee Burke's Texas City, 1947 (1991) is the story of a family ripped apart by a father's callousness. The story has the foreboding feel and lyrical beauty of Burke's longer works of detective fiction, and leaves you with a sad, hollow feeling.
Chris Talbott reviewed this book for The Associated Press.