Friday, December 7, 2012

Noir More Crime Fiction

He'd slap contemporary noir writers silly.
I used to read a fair amount of crime fiction. A lot, actually. In the last three or four years I've found myself reading less of it, and in the last year or so I find that the novels I give up on the soonest are crime novels. Just this week I had to throw in the towel on The White Road by John Connolly. Connolly sells a lot of books and collects some enthusiastic reviews, but he's not much of a writer. The White Road is a clumsy, sluggish mashup of the private eye genre allied with a whiff of Stephen King horror. Oddly, Connolly is an Irish writer who sets his crime novels in the US. I say oddly because based on the 200 or so pages I read, Connolly's knowledge of America has come entirely from occasional glances at CNN. I could forgive him for calling sneakers "trainers", but when he has three elderly rednecks sitting in a bar in the Deep South watching "a rerun of a classic hockey game" you have to wonder if he could actually find the US on a globe. But enough about Connolly; my real beef here is with crime fiction, particularly the writers, like Connolly, who are described as "noir".

In truth, publishers and critics use the term "noir" with the same promiscuity as the snack food industry uses "Cajun-style." It's a buzzword. Too often what it means are writers who follow a formula that's as trite and predictable as a cosy mystery featuring cats and vicars. One aspect of noir that really tires me out are detectives who are emotionally scarred by a) the tragic death of a wife and/or child, or b) a horrible crime from the past that they were unable to prevent and/or solve. And for some unlucky detectives options A and B are combined in one horrible event. Too often writers seem to think that going this route is a quick and easy way to give their protagonist depth and gravitas. Declan Hughes, Ken Bruen and Connolly all have detectives living with terrible memories, but none of these psychological scars seem convincing; it's all window dressing in the Noir Crime Shop.

The noir detective also needs to be a substance abuser to hold onto his street cred. In The Dying Breed by Declan Hughes his detective, Ed Loy, almost always has a glass in his hand. One reason I quit that book is that Ed's drinking became farcical: in the course of one day's investigation he sinks so much booze he should have ended up in a coma. It's at that point that one realizes the author isn't really paying attention to reality or logic, he's just playing the noir game. Fellow noirists like Bruen, Colin Bateman and Ray Banks also like to keep their detectives pickled and/or pilled up. As with personal tragedies, the drinking detective has come to feel like a paint-by-numbers way of creating a character.

Noir crime writers are also overly fond of letting us know what their detectives like to listen to. In the past few years I've read mysteries by Ken Bruen, Massimo Carlotto, and Gianfranco Carofiglio in which their detectives' musical preferences are regularly mentioned. It's a pedestrian way to build a character, and the worst part is that these Desert Island Discs moments always (for me) break down the fourth wall. I feel like I'm being buttonholed by the author for a bit of a natter about his favourite songs and artists. Not surprisingly, these detectives always have excellent taste in music. I blame Elmore Leonard. He introduced the idea of characters referencing their choices in music and movies, and after that the genie was out of the bottle. One of these days I'd like to see a mystery writer give us a brilliant detective with really horrible taste in music. How about a sleuth who only listens to ABBA and Slim Whitman?

The problem with some of today's noir writers is that they feel all aspects of their stories have to be dark and tragic, including their detectives. The detectives created by Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler, the original noir crime writers, weren't steeped in darkness. Those detectives were cynical, rough-edged and world-weary, yes, but it was their environment and job that was noir, not the detectives themselves. Part of what made them interesting as characters is that they were apart from the world they moved in. They had the psychic toughness to survive in that world, but they are observers of the noir world, not direct participants.

Now that I've vented, here are some writers who have a better idea of what constitutes noir crime writing. First up is Adrian McKinty, originally from Northern Ireland and now residing in Australia. His trilogy of crime novels featuring the roguish Michael Forsythe are fast, violent, nasty and written with a gleeful, feverish imagination. Most importantly, the Forsythe character steers clear of the usual noir tropes. He's funny, smart and has few regrets. McKinty's newest creation is Sean Duffy, a RUC cop in Belfast circa 1981. Duffy is the rarest kind of cop: he actually likes his work, and if drinks it's for the pleasure of drinking, not to drown sorrows.

Next up is Dominique Manotti, a French writer who specializes in gritty, sexy police procedurals that lay bare the corrupt inner workings of French high society. Manotti has a political axe to grind and she's not afraid to name names as she kicks the crap out of big business and the political elites. Her detective is Commissaire Daquin, who's tough, mean and enthusiastically gay. Manotti's got my vote as best current crime writer anywhere; I just wish she'd speed up her writing schedule.

And last we come to Mike Carey. Carey's detective is Felix Castor, and he's Philip Marlowe in everything but name. Here's the catch, though: Castor is an exorcist. The Castor novels are in the urban fantasy genre, but are, in fact, the best pure noir novels being written today. Castor investigates and battles demons and ghosts, but they might just as well be kidnappers or murderers; the language, the characters, the plotting, it's all pure, classic noir, and Casey's a vastly entertaining writer.

I'll keep plugging away at finding decent crime writers, but from now on if I see the word "noir" used in a blurb or review I'll be looking elsewhere.

Related posts:

Book Review: The Cold Cold Ground by Adrian McKinty
A Tale of Two Dominiques (an overview of Manotti's work)
Book Review: Thicker Than Water by Mike Carey

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