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‘It’s not as if I’d expect you to tell me the truth, dear boy. My readers don’t give a damn about the truth. They just want a good story with someone they can cheer for. We could even make you look good.’ He glanced at Pyke and shrugged. ‘Or bad, if you wanted to be bad. Good or bad. Just not both at the same time. It confuses people. They can’t work out whether to shout for the man or rail against him.’
Anti-heroes and noir fiction detectives go hand in hand. That moral equator gets crossed so many times, the reader is left wondering if the book’s protagonist is possessing of any morality at all. The best kinds of anti-heroes, to my mind at least, are those who possess a sort of bruised romanticism. Once they believed in a better future, but the present has consistently disabused them of that notion. Death-dealing ‘antiheroes’, such as say John Rambo, launch themselves across that moral line without a second thought. For them killing is something that barely needs to be rationalized as a ‘necessary evil’.
It is obvious that the different forms of anti-hero makes for attractive protagonists in any genre, hence Elric, or Thomas Covenant in fantasy and the Stainless Steel Rat in science fiction. In The Last Days of Newgate, author Andrew Pepper suggests a very early progenitor of the trope – Machiavelli’s classic political satire The Prince. For the purposes of this novel, however, he meets the reader halfway, introducing us to a typical Private Eye type named Pyke, who happens to live in 1820’s London.
Of course Pyke is not known as a private detective in this era. Instead he plies his trade as a thief-taker working for the Bow Street Runners. He also enjoys a small sideline in selling on stolen goods that he was unable to secure a reward for recovering. In fact the very first page of this book has him being attacked by a criminal associate, an Irishman known as Michael Flynn in a double-cross. As this is sectarian London, with Daniel O’Connell’s calls for Catholic emancipation inspiring riots in the streets between Protestants and Irish immigrants. Merely knowing Michael Flynn is enough for Pyke to be suspected of unseemly behavior, but the captured criminal is not helping for confessing everything about his partner’s role in his fence operation.
It is a time of great change in London. In addition to the proposal to give rights to Catholics under British law, the politicians are also debating the creation of a Metropolitan police force. This would of course render the Bow Street Runners null and void. In what seems like his last job, an ordinary investigation lands Pyke in the middle of a gruesome murder. The victims are initially identified as a Protestant couple, which causes further riots within the city. Pyke realizes that a patsy suspect will be accused in order to sate the anger of a bloodthirsty public. In his pursuit of the truth, he has to journey from London to Belfast and back, not to mention the little matter of a jail break.
This book captures the pre-Victorian era with an impressive degree of period detail and mixes in a plot strongly reminiscent of Mike Hammer. Occasionally characters quote Machiavelli to let us know this is not low-brow material, but by the same token it is great fun to see Pepper ducking and weaving through the associations.
Most impressive is how the sectarian violence between Catholics and Protestants is mapped onto the familiar themes of race hatred from American detective fiction. By doing so Pepper cleverly establishes the extent of the conflict between the two religions, with the British Home Secretary at one point casually stating ‘I believe the Irish race to be an inferior one’.
This is also a book about the gulf between classes. Pyke’s ability to mingle with land owning aristocrats as well as pub brawlers marks him out as an anomaly. He enjoys partaking of laudanum and has little respect for women – but holds himself to an unusual moral code, despite being informed by his study of Machiavelli. In that he regards himself as superior to the men who rule Britain with an uncaring pragmatism, as well as the folk of his childhood whom he can barely relate to anymore.
This book is fascinating in its mixture of genres and informed by an incisive approach to the historical period.
She got in, and took the wheel again, and me and the Greek kept on singing, and we went on. It was all part of the play. I had to be drunk, because that other time had cured me of this idea that we could pull a perfect murder. This was going to be such a lousy murder it wouldn’t even be a murder.
The pleasure in reading noir fiction comes not so much from the plots, but from the manner in which the author plays with such familiar tropes, the use of language, the characters sketched in this genre of bitterness, frustrated desires and disappointment. Of James M. Cain’s fans, one obvious pair is the Coen Brothers, whose first film Blood Simple was a love letter to his stories of barren lives competing for survival.
The Postman Always Rings Twice is a classic noir tale that manages to sum up the themes and tropes of the genre within a single slim volume.
Frank Chambers is a drifter, a bum and an ex-con, who wanders into a hot-dog diner twenty miles outside of L.A. to try and scam a free lunch. The owner Nick Papadakis is in need of a willing employee to help run the shop and indulges this drifter in order to convince him to take the job. Frank is not falling for the false concern of the Greek and is moments away from saying no when he sees Mrs Papadakis, Cora. From that moment on Frank wants nothing more than to make her his own.
Wasting no time he manages to seduce the lonely former beauty queen from Iowa, discovering that she carries within her untapped frustrations that won’t simply settle for skipping out of town and living on the road. She sees Frank, despite her passionate love for him, as little more than a bum. Her solution to their problems is more elaborate. Kill the Greek and fake his death as an accident. Despite himself, Frank finds himself plotting Nick’s death.
This book races along to its grim finale, with its black, skewed morality never flagging for a moment. Cora is not quite Lady MacBeth, but her ambitions put the self-proclaimed smarts of Frank to shame. For a man who supposedly lives by his wits, he often manages to succumb to lust and fear often enough to be taken for a fool. Of course the most immoral character in this book of insensitive husbands, ex-cons and murderers is – a lawyer, named Katz, whose sole interest is in winning the cases he fights, regardless of the innocence, or guilt of the defendants.
The Postman Always Rings Twice has been favoured by Hollywood by adaptation to film more than once. It is easy to see why. This is a tightly plotted narrative, bound up in the self-pitying reflections of Frank, who makes for a willing confessor. It also dips into, controversial for its time, themes of sadism and rough sexuality, ensuring its place in the history books by having been banned.
Worth investigating for anyone interested in the genre.
So I’m a Vampyre. Spelled with a Y instead of an I. Capitalized like it’s a name. Don’t ask me, just tradition I guess. Anyway Vampyre with a Y, that’s the real deal. With an I, that’s for scaring babies.
I’m the kind that scares everyone.
So here we are. Emmet’s breaking his own rules again. One of the conditions I took on as a book reviewer was that I would not read the same author more than once. I definitely would not follow up on a series. Now I have cheated on this before – Michael Moorcock has featured more than once. But I am throwing caution to the wind with this one.
My Dead Body is the final book in Charlie Huston’s Joe Pitt Casebook’s series. I reviewed the penultimate book a few months ago. When I saw the last Joe Pitt adventure on the library shelf, I could not stop myself from snapping it up.
Our Vampyre hero got into a spot of bother in the last book. For one he has burned his bridges with every clan leader and gang in Manhattan island’s supernatural underworld. How he managed this impressive feat, apart from being overly fond of running his mouth off, was by discovering that the largest organised group of Vampyres, the Coalition, has a very ugly secret behind its inexhaustible stock of human blood. Rather than act on this information, he made sure everyone else found out and then walked into the sewers under the city to wait out the inevitable war.
Now an old friend has tracked him down, claiming to have been sent by the estranged love of his life Evie. He passes on a message from her, that he has to do something, take a stand in this conflict he set off between the clans. She also wants him to track down a young couple who have run away. His friend Chubby Freeze is the father of the girl, whose fascination with vampires led her to find one and wonder of wonders, they fell in love. In an added twist, she has become pregnant by her Vampyre lover.
Turns out rival Vampyre gangs the Coalition and the Society have decided this couple are too important to run free. A human/vampire hybrid represents a threat, as it could expose the secrecy they live beneath. It also offers an impossible future to the community, one that represents an incredible amount of power if a party were to control these two young people.
Then add the increasingly disturbing experiments of genius scientist Amanda Horde on the ‘Vyrus’ and you have a potential powderkeg of pent-up violence bubbling away. One entirely of Joe’s making.
Huston ably builds events to a gripping climax, referencing the events of the previous four books to show how much of this last book was seeded from the very beginning. One of the real pleasures of the series is Joe’s own no-bullshit attitude and the quick dialogue. For the sake of contrast, Huston has the pregnant vampire bride Delilah insist on roleplaying even in the midst of a massacre. Her dialogue is laugh out loud funny and possibly a dig at Stephenie Meyer/Anne Rice’s expense.
Joe Pitt suffers, a lot, in these books and in My Dead Body the amount of damage he goes through triples. This night riffs on noir fiction as a vampire protagonist can presumably suffer an even more ridiculous degree of suffering. His sardonic narration acts as a counterpoint to the pain the character feels, letting the reader know that as extreme as this material might seem, it is meant to be entertaining.
I had a great time reading these books. Check out the Joe Pitt Casebooks for yourself.