Concerning my previously announced list of favorite thrillers: Many readers will note (or "violently object to the fact") that there's a passel of writers normally on such lists who don't appear here: Dennis Lehane, James Ellroy, James Lee Burke, George Pelecanos, Robert Parker, Michael Connelly.

A chief reason I have trouble with some of the examples from these writers is their reliance on the exotic mastermind serial killer, a device to maintain suspense that is so overused the killer's knife hand must be tired by now from murdering every nubile young thing in sight. Even Thomas Harris should have retired Hannibal Lecter after Silence of the Lambs. His follow-up, Hannibal, was a complete botch, a dreadful book. The better noir writers find find a way to maintain tension (or at least the reader's interest) through other means.

The fact is that such serial killers are extremely rare; most are just pathetic screw-ups unable to relate to others without resorting to violence. What makes the serial killer novel even worse is its reliance on that other cliche: the profiler or the brilliant detective who must steep himself in violence and madness to understand the killer's thinking and thus risk his own sanity. Again, a writer has to do something with style and voice or upending these conventions to keep me interested.

It has been so long since I read anything by Robert Parker; I could imagine including an early Spenser -- before Spenser's narrative voice became smug and self-satisfied. James Ellroy's hammer-handed, hard-boiled hipster jive drives me up a wall -- that and the fact that his books always seem to be on the verge of sheer hysteria as a way of keeping up interest/suspense. For someone so jaded, the narrator seems to be constantly screaming at us. James Lee Burke? Again, one of the earlier ones, if I re-read them and reminded myself why I once liked his books.

I would have to go back and re-read some of John D. McDonald, too, to find which one of his stands out, although everyone generally cites The Dreadful Lemon Sky. There's something distinctly un-serious about his work. Unpretentious is what his fans would call it; McDonald makes no bones about simply entertaining readers with a fantasy. But I occasionally sense an air of anti-intellectualism and laziness. For such a talented writer, he rarely seemed to push himself. For such a tough guy, Travis McGee often seems on comfy cruise control.

I happily chose Ross Macdonald's The Underground Man, but I could have picked half a dozen -- the quality of his Lew Archer novels was very high, very consistent. Instead of the aggressively hard-boiled wisecracker, Archer was an innovation among private eyes -- a world-weary guy but a thoroughly decent (not necessarily 'noble') man, a shrewd and sensitive listener, something of an apprentice shrink. This, and the fact that many of Archer's mysteries revolved around old family history and wounded psychology, were Macdonald's great advances in the hard-bitten form.

I admit to a twinge of white liberal guilt for not including a title by Chester Himes. But although I found his Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones novels highly entertaining, notably The Real Cool Killers and Cotton Comes to Harlem, they are far too cartoony-satiric for me to enjoy reading them again. Or taking them entirely seriously.

Much the same, by the way, goes for some of Elmore Leonard's later books. I've read every one of his books, admire many of them, but Get Shorty may have been his last fine one before his recent return to form with The Hot Kid. In between, the books became mannered, the plots a little too obviously improvised and the characters, particularly the bad guys, too cute and dim.

I also admit to a twinge of white male guilt for not including a female writer/detective. Sara Paretsky's V. I. Warshawski has come the closest. Much of the hard-boiled form is akin to male sentimentality: "It's an evil world and a guy has to be tough to survive, but inside, beneath the wounds and bitterness, lies a noble heart," etc. For the male hard-boiled hero, the easy motivational/audience sympathy trigger is revenge -- which is why many second-rate writers race to 'make it personal.' The detective's helpless client or partner or love interest just happens to get murdered by this week's villain and so he takes on the case with righteous anger. Or the rampaging serial killer directs his taunts to the detective.

On the other hand, the form most readily available to female protagonists in an evil setting is the gothic -- the imperiled young woman. And the easy emotional trigger here is obvious: Put the detective herself in danger. This is why, I suspect, Patricia Cornwell -- whose work I dislike -- keeps getting her protagonist personally tangled up as a target. But if it's relatively unrealistic for a detective to be directly involved as an act of revenge, it's just as unrealistic (and tedious) to see the detective as always a potential victim. I'm still waiting for the great female hard-boiled noir heroine or author, and I'm willing to be convinced she's arrived . . . somewhere. Look at Patricia Highsmith, perhaps the closest thing the noir novel has to a female master -- and her greatest creation is Ripley, a morally ambiguous, cold-hearted male. A number of readers have already enthusiastically touted Denise Mina: I'll take a look.

As for the last inclusions: The other justification for such lists, after prompting debate, is getting readers intrigued by titles they may have never heard of, certainly never heard of in the same breath as such masters as Hammett and Macdonald. Clevenger's The Contortionist's Handbook and Garland's The Tesseract are both very intense, very spare, yet they do inventive things with point of view and time sequence, unfolding their narratives in ways that aren't just ingenious, they're often mind-bending. And Meek's The People's Act of Love is a dark, highly atmospheric marvel -- a historical novel set in Siberia at the end of the Russian Revolution, involving mystic cults, a trapped regiment of Czech soldiers and a possible madman. Enjoy.

October 25, 2006 9:00 AM | | Comments (5)




I confess I have never read In a Lonely Place, not being all the impressed by the film, but based on your suggestion, and what I've read at the amazon listing, I will check it out, even thought it seems to involve that overused creation, the serial killer.

The Tara McKenney plug is pretty shameless -- it's a website touting an author without a published book, as far as I can tell. There's no listing for that author and title at amazon or powells.

Since when has Pelecanos relied on a serial killer plot? The Night Gardener comes close, but its not even like your typical detective versus brilliant serial killer.

Other great female noirists:

Helen Nielsen
Ursula Curtiss (well, not so great to my mind, but goes in nevertheless)
Elisabeth Sanxay Holding
Margaret Millar (one of the true masters)
Charlotte Armstrong

There are also others that should merit discovery:

Dorothy Dunn
Pamela Fry

and others whose names I'm misremembering.

Check out as a female hard-boiled author.

To my mind, the great female noir author has already come and gone: Dorothy B. Hughes, the author of IN A LONELY PLACE (different, possibly better than the movie) and other novels. But more recent examples I can think of include Megan Abbott, Sara Gran, Vicki Hendricks, Cathi Unsworth, Fred Vargas (more police procedural, but of a distinctly weird bent) Mo Hayder, and Carol O'Connell (though her work is, I suppose, more grand opera than mere hardboiled detective fiction.)


Best of the Vault


Pat Barker, Frankenstein, Cass Sunstein on the internet, Samuel Johnson, Thrillers, Denis Johnson, Alan Furst, Caryl Phillips, Richard Flanagan, George Saunders, Michael Harvey, Larry McMurtry, Harry Potter and more ...


Big D between the sheets -- Dallas in fiction


Reviewing the state of reviewing


9/11 as a novel: Why?


How can critics say the things they do? And why does anyone pay attention? It's the issue of authority.

The disappearing book pages:  

Papers are cutting book coverage for little reason

Thrillers and Lists:  

Noir favorites, who makes the cut and why



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