The Best American Noir of the Century Paperback – Oct 4 2011
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“Surprisingly, 20 of the 39 well-chosen stories published between 1923 and 2007 in this impressive crime anthology date to the last two decades, which may sound counterintuitive to casual readers who associate noir with the 1940s and 1950s. All the contributors excel at showing the omnipresence of the dark side of humanity in many different times and locales. In addition to names synonymous with noir such as Cornell Woolrich and Jim Thompson, Ellroy (Blood’s a Rover) and Penzler (The Best American Mystery Stories) offer depressing fare from writers better known for other work, like David Morrell, whose first published story, “The Dripping,” about the disappearance of a man’s wife and daughter, is one of the book’s best. Lesser-known authors also distinguish themselves, like Christopher Coake, whose reverse chronology in ‘All Through the House” serves to heighten the suspense rather than dissipate it. (Oct.)”
---Publishers Weekly, STARRED
"This generous, flavorful collection of noir-tinged tales comes cherry-picked by Ellroy and Penzler, who exclude Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler as authors of "private detective stories." Most of the 39 tales here appeared originally in magazines, not only in pulps like Manhunt and Black Mask but also in the more literary American Mercury, Southern Review, and Omni. Each story is introduced with a brief author biography. These pay respect to the careers of these professional scribblers, who managed (with the aid of multiple pseudonyms) to keep body and soul together writing and writing still more. The collection opens with Tod Robbins's "Spurs" (1923), a beauty-and-the-beast tale that questions which is which; it was the basis for Tod Browning's chilling movie Freaks. The collection closes with Lorenzo Carcaterra's "Missing the Morning Bus" (2007), in which, amid half-emptied bowls of peanuts and salsa, Death takes a seat at a weekly card game. In between come memorable but lesser-known tales by, among others, Dorothy B. Hughes, Jim Thompson, Cornell Woolrich, Patricia Highsmith, and Bradford Morrow. Verdict Rooting around in the rich soil amassed by almost a century of noir, Ellroy and Penzler unearth dark, pungent, and flavorful truffles that will satisfy fans and may well whet the appetites of new readers." —Library Journal
About the Author
OTTO PENZLER is a renowned mystery editor, publisher, columnist, and owner of New York's The Mysterious Bookshop, the oldest and largest bookstore solely dedicated to mystery fiction. He has edited more than fifty crime-fiction anthologies.
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Many of the expected names are here: Ellroy himself; James M. Cain; Mickey Spillane; Patricia Highsmith; James Lee Burke; Dennis Lehane; Joyce Carol Oates (who manages to appear in every collection of every genre, somehow); Lawrence Block; Elmore Leonard. We get a nice little horror story from David Morell, a sci-fi story from Harlan Ellison, and a straight-noir piece from horror author Ed Gorman. If this sounds like an eclectic collection (and it is), that's because Ellroy and Penzler are working from a certain definition of noir. They draw a distinct line between "noir" and "detective" fiction, insisting that noir's Hollywood counterpart (film noir) isn't representative of the literature itself (thus, no Dashiell Hammett). It still leaves enough room for pieces that push the boundary, though, and the result is a collection aimed to please. These are hard-hitting stories that star characters with few redeeming features; these stories are dark and twisted, violent and obsessive. They'll scare you, they'll thrill you, they'll make you want to take a shower. "The Best American Noir of the Century" may be a debatable title, but no one can argue that this isn't at least SOME of the best noir America has created.
39 stories in this anthology are unique and could be even expanded to novel format. They have inspired films and television programming. The authors are listed below with the year of the story's publication, the title, and my own personal comments without it sounding like a summary. I do believe that if you are an avid reader that you will find this anthology to both fascinating and frightening all at once.
Author Year Title Comments
Tod Robbins: 1923 Spurs An interesting tale that inspired the film, Freaks, about a midget and his lady love and unhappily ever after.
James M. Cain: 1928 Pastorale Interesting but I need to read it a few times to get the gist of it.
Steve Fisher: 1938 You'll Always Remember Me-It's dark, entertaining, and there's a twist that you didn't see coming. Classic Noir.
Mackinlay Kantor: 1940 Gun Crazy Okay but not great.
Day Keene: 1945 Nothing to Worry About: The not-so perfect murder and a twist that you didn't see until the end.
Dorothy B. Hughes: 1946: The Homecoming: It's okay.
Howard Browne: 1952: Man in the Dark: Interesting and has some twists that you couldn't imagine.
Mickey Spillane: 1953: The Lady Says Die!: It's okay but not that interesting.
David Goodis: 1953: Professional Man: Fascinating Tale about Freddy Lamb, the ordinary guy, and Pearl.
Charles Beaumont: 1955: The Hunger: It's okay but ends before it reaches a climax.
Gil Brewer: 1956: The Gesture: A trapped couple in an unhappy marriage.
Evan Hunter: 1956: The Last Spin: It's not that great but very short.
Jim Thompson: 1960: Forever After: A new spin on the afterlife.
Cornell Woolrich: 1968: For The Rest of Her Life: It's okay for the most part.
David Morrell: 1972: The Dripping: A Short horrifying tale! One of the best in this book.
Patricia Highsmith: 1979: Slowly, Slowly In the Wind: The Queen of American Noir's personal favorite short story. It's doesn't have a happy ending of course.
Stephen Greenleaf: 1984: Iris: Sad tale about black market babies but one of the best stories in this book.
Brendan DuBois: 1987: A Ticket Out: A cautionary tale about trying to get out of small town Americana with tragic results.
James Ellroy: 1988: Since I Don't Have You: A contributor and author who specializes about the dark nature of tinseltown in all of his works. He has a short story worthy of reading for all Ellroy fans out there.
James Lee Burke: 1991: Texas City 1947: Another tale about child abuse in a small town and an unforgettable nun named Sister Roberta.
Harlan Ellison: 1993: Mefisto in Onyx: A great noir short story classic The relationship between the killer and the psychic is not what it seems to the reader. A noir classic! Worth reading!
Ed Gorman: 1995: Out There in the Darkness: Inspired the book and film, "The Poker Club." A noir classic!
James Crumley 1996: Hot Springs: It's a hit or miss story for me. I didn't care for it.
Jeffrey Deaver: 1996: The Weekender: A twisted weekend resident in a country town causes more problems than he's worth. Classic noir!
Joyce Carol Oates: 1997: Faithless: a surprisingly dark tale about a minister and his estranged wife. Classic Noir!
Tom Franklin: 1998: Poachers: Okay story but not great!
Lawrence Block: 1998: Like a Bone in the Throat: a classic noir story about a victim's brother and his sister's brutal killer/rapist from the trial to a death.
James W. Hall: 1999: Crack: A voyeuristic story reaches almost classic noir status.
Dennis LeHane: 1999: Running Out of Dog: A story about post-traumatic stress syndrome from a Vietnam vet. Interesting but not a personal favorite of mine.
William Gay: 2000: The Paperhanger: I didn't get it overall.
F.X. Toole: 2001: Midnight Emissions: a boxing tale from the author of "Million Dollar Baby." Okay but not great.
Elmore Leonard: 2002: When The Women Come Out to Dance: A good short story about an unhappy marriage in Florida.
Scott Wolven: 2002: An interesting tale about a man who takes another identity.
Christopher Coake: 2003: All Through the House: One of the best noir stories that I have read in this anthology. Perhaps, one of the best stories written anywhere. Clear, concise, classic noir. It could make a brilliant novel.
Thomas H. Cook: 2005: What She Offered: An odd tale about Veronica and an author in NYC.
Andrew Klavan: 2005: Her Lord and Master: a kinky relationship between two NYC professionals ends tragically.
Chris Adrian: 2006: Stab: a strange story about children's deadly path of destruction.
Bradford Morrow: 2006: The Hoarder: I didn't care for it.
Lorenzo Carcaterra: 2007: Missing the Morning Bus: Another short story that's okay but not great.
Casual readers may be surprised to find that no stories by Dashiell Hammett are included. He is, after all, the father of hard-boiled fiction whose Continental Op stories are still widely read. Otto Penzler explains in his foreword that he considers private detective fiction and "noir" fiction to have "mutually exclusive philosophical premises". In short, private detectives are too heroic, insufficiently flawed, and their vision of the universe not pessimistic enough for "noir". I don't think that dichotomy holds much water, myself. A principled detective can function in a fundamentally disordered universe, and there are plenty of fictional PIs who succumb to their baser impulses, in any case.
But they're excluded from this "noir" collection. The stories that are included are probably best described as having dark themes. Given Penzler's criteria, it's surprising to note that relatively few stories take place in a fundamentally disordered universe, and there are plenty in which the protagonist is acting as a detective. I would even venture to say that some are morality plays. Several stories that were written in later years take place in the 1940s. There are femme fatales and plenty of cruel ironies. The quality is generally solid and occasionally exceptional. There is a lot of good material here for readers who like their humor mocking and their cultures irredeemable.
Some familiar names whose stories are included are: James M. Cain, Steve Fisher, Mickey Spillaine, David Goodis, Jim Thompson, Patricia Highsmith, James Ellroy, Harlan Ellison, Joyce Carol Oates, Dennis Lehane, and Elmore Leonard. MacKinlay Kantor's 1940 story "Gun Crazy" is here. It's focus is different than the superb 1949 film noir of the same name, but it's very good. "Noir", as in "Série noire", was applied to fiction before film, by the way. It was (and is) a line of hard-boiled crime fiction. There seems little point in academics muddying the definition. In his bold introduction, James Ellroy says that "noir will never die -it's too dementedly funny not to flourish..." I like his attitude.
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