Hello out there and welcome back to the Friday Fiction Feature. Tabatha is back, and ready to take you on a tour through one of my favorite genres: noir. By now you should know that we at the FFF think half the fun is in mucking around with the genres & themes we highlight, and accordingly this week’s noir selections all feature the generic PI’s, dangerous cities, and dark underbellies as the structure for stories about magic, kangaroos with automatic weapons, and ballroom dancing. Hopefully you all find these novels as intriguing as I do, and will join me on our jaunt through the worlds of crime, danger, and chevaux fatales.
L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy
We’ll begin with a true-to-type noir with L.A. Confidential. This book, third in the LA Quartet series, has also inspired one of my favorite movies. The book shows the seedy underside of Hollywood as it explores the city’s crime, its dirty cops, and the would-be-starlets whose dreams did not quite pan out. This modern look back at noir stays true to the genre, delving deeper into the mystery without the classic noir’s limitations.
Christmas 1951, Los Angeles: a city where the police are as corrupt as the criminals. Six prisoners are beaten senseless in their cells by cops crazed on alcohol. For the three LAPD detectives involved, it will expose the guilty secrets on which they have built their corrupt and violent careers. The novel takes these cops on a sprawling epic of brutal violence and the murderous seedy side of Hollywood. One of the best (and longest) crime novels ever written, it is the heart of Ellroy’s four-novel masterpiece, the LA Quartet, and an example of crime writing at its most powerful.
Gun, with Occasional Music by Johnathan Lethem
Our next entry has just made it onto my must-read list out of sheer curiosity. While maintaining the dark, brooding, crime-riddled noir sense, Gun, with Occasional Music plunges into Science Fiction and drug fantasy along the way to noir without pausing to look around. Lethem has integrated sentient animals as citizens in his city, apparently establishing their person-hood by showing the alacrity which which they have adopted violence and weapons into their new civilization. If only to see how an angry kangaroo is able to wield a gun (I should think it’s legs were weapon enough), I encourage you to join me in this unusual vision of the future. (Also I hear there’s a mystery involved).
Gumshoe Conrad Metcalf has problems-there’s a rabbit in his waiting room and a trigger-happy kangaroo on his tail. Near-future Oakland is a brave new world where evolved animals are members of society, the police monitor citizens by their karma levels, and mind-numbing drugs such as Forgettol and Acceptol are all the rage.
Metcalf has been shadowing Celeste, the wife of an affluent doctor. Perhaps he’s falling a little in love with her at the same time. When the doctor turns up dead, our amiable investigator finds himself caught in a crossfire between the boys from the Inquisitor’s Office and gangsters who operate out of the back room of a bar called the Fickle Muse.
Mixing elements of sci-fi, noir, and mystery, this clever first novel from the author of Motherless Brooklyn is a wry, funny, and satiric look at all that the future may hold.
Storm Front by Jim Butcher
In another stunning example of noir’s versatility (who says it has to be just 1940’s private eye’s?) Storm Front is indeed the tale of a private investigator trying to unravel a complicated mystery in a dark city (but that’s mostly because the investigator keeps sleeping all afternoon and only gets to work at night). But Harry Dresden is more than the average investigator, he is (with a nod to Pat Novak) a wizard for hire. Shockingly this is not a very popular job, and Dresden works on the most confusing (and physics-defying) mysteries the big city has to offer, going up against powerful mythic beings (who can get a bit cranky after a few millenia locked in a lead box), other wizards, and (worst of all) the normal people who don’t believe him and keep poking their noses (and vital bits) into dangerous magic. With witty lines and excellent writing Butcher’s series takes the noir into a new realm (literally) and shows us a world where magic is not exactly going to save the day, and that there are much worse things for a brooding private-eye to face down than a gun.
Lost items found. Paranormal Investigations.
Consulting. Advice. Reasonable Rates.
No Love Potions, Endless Purses, or
Harry Dresden is the best at what he does. Well, technically, he’s the only at what he does. So when the Chicago P.D. has a case that transcends mortal creativity or capability, they come to him for answers. For the “everyday” world is actually full of strange and magical things — and most of them don’t play well with humans. That’s where Harry comes in. Takes a wizard to catch a — well, whatever.
There’s just one problem. Business, to put it mildly, stinks. So when the police bring him in to consult on a grisly double murder committed with black magic, Harry’s seeing dollar signs. But where there’s black magic, there’s a black mage behind it. And now that mage knows Harry’s name. And that’s when things start to get… interesting.
Magic. It can get a guy killed.
Queenpin by Megan Abbott
Our fourth selection continues the trend of groundbreaking changes. So far we have seen noir altered by talking animals and magic, but now Queenpin gives the genre something even stranger: women. In charge. More than the femmes fatales or victims, Megan Abbott’s novel shows us women who can take charge and outdo any boring old Kingpin. Let’s see what kind of money and mayhem you get when the ladies take over the criminal empire. (And don’t anyone dare say it’ll be a “fashionable” empire. I can hear you thinking it.)
A young woman hired to keep the books at a down-at-the-heels nightclub is taken under the wing of the infamous Gloria Denton, a mob luminary who reigned during the Golden Era of Bugsy Siegel and Lucky Luciano. Notoriously cunning and ruthless, Gloria shows her eager young protege the ropes, ushering her into a glittering demimonde of late-night casinos, racetracks, betting parlors, inside heists, and big, big money. Suddenly, the world is at her feet;as long as she doesn’t take any chances, like falling for the wrong guy. As the roulette wheel turns, both mentor and protege scramble to stay one step ahead of their bosses and each other.
They Shoot Horses Don’t They? by Horace McCoy
Our final selection for the day is a true mystery. I present to you an enigma wrapped in a “What the heck?!” I say this for the very simple reason that while I am very intrigued by They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? I also have no idea what to make of it. The title alone would grant it inclusion here (our more regular readers know a title that makes me laugh often merits inclusion as the final entry) but it is the description of dancing with a dark underside (apparently somehow linked with equestrian violence) that launches this noir into the realm of the truly mysterious. I do hope you enjoy this last entry (and tell me what it’s all about!).
The marathon dance craze flourished during the 1930s, but the underside was a competition and violence unknown to most ballrooms–a dark side that Horace McCoy’s classic American novel powerfully captures. “Were it not in its physical details so carefully documented, it would be lurid beyond itself.”–Nation