Maybe the question is “Where is noir?”
It seems somehow appropriate that John Williams’ review of the UK edition
of THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES 2006 (I know, it perplexed me too,
but here’s why: Quercus is the UK outpost of nearly everything Otto
Penzler publishes or is involved in) hit the weekend before PWG’s final
exit, if only because of parallels in what the extinct noir online
magazine aimed for and what Williams sees as the anthology’s failings:
The stories by Scott Wolven and RT Smith are both well-worked
backwoods tales, but in all there is very little indication here of
anything approaching a new wave. Today, new crime writers are more
often to be found on the web or in themed collections like Akashic’s
noir series (Brooklyn Noir, Baltimore Noir, etc); names worth looking
out for include Megan Abbott, Duane Swierczynski, Dave Zeltserman and
Jason Starr. These are writers happy to work within the crime field,
extremely genre-literate in a post-Tarantino kind of way, but there’s a
sense that for the most part they’re knowingly catering to a minority
audience of crime buffs.
Perhaps the truth of the matter is that,
over the past couple of decades, the boundaries between crime and
literary fiction have blurred. You can see the effects of this
everywhere: the new Updike is a thriller, the Cormac McCarthy before
last likewise. More importantly, there is a whole list of fine American
writers who deal with the hard-knock world in which crime is a constant
backdrop, and who marry love of language with love of plot and story:
I’m thinking of Pete Dexter, Daniel Woodrell, William Gay and Richard
Price, just for starters. Simply put, they’re literary novelists who
write about crime.
Although I think Williams has several excellent points, I’m not sure using BAMS as the antagonist in his overall argument is necessarily fair. Not only because the web was represented in this year’s anthology (Scott Wolven cut his teeth in places like PWG and Mike Maclean’s story emerged from Thuglit) but the last few BAMS editions has seen many stories by “literary novelists who write about crime” included.
I do wonder how the immediate future will treat noir fiction. There’s no question of a mini-boom, and that the lines are blurring ever more. Take Christa Faust’s comments in a recent interview by Tribe about the relationship between horror & noir:
I do think horror and noir are kissing cousins. They both deal with
the darker side of human nature, though horror often uses the metaphor
of the supernatural while noir sticks to the horrors of the real world.
Of course, there is a quiet, more traditional subgenre of horror in
which brave humans always beat back the evil monster and restore
normality, (the horror equivalent of “cozies”) but edgier, morally
ambiguous horror leads the reader on that noirish downward spiral in
which nothing is what it seems and everyone is, to quote James Ellroy,
I’ve always seen a clear parallel between the
Splatterpunk horror writers of the 80s and early 90s and the hardboiled
Black Mask writers of the 20s and early 30s. Both groups pissed off
their predecessors by breaking all the rules. They both thumbed their
noses at proper English and used vulgar, “common” language. Both
depicted graphic, realistic violence and sex in a way that was quite
shocking to readers of their respective eras. And both changed the
course of history while many of their more traditional, rule-obeying
contemporaries have since fallen into obscurity.
Genre blurring always bodes well because it can bring new readers who might not have discovered either side to the table. But at the same time, I can’t get Williams’ assertion that perhaps there’s a “knowing catering to a minority of crime buffs” out of my head. In the space of a year, Akashic’s Noir series went from being highly anticipated to the object of backlash-based criticism – were there too many anthologies for too small a market? And Murdaland’s posturing – needless, considering the high quality of the first issue’s content – may add an extra dollop of polarization. So even though I think noir is – odd as it is to say – in a very good place right now, I already see burgeoning signs of fetishization in the works.
In other words, how to keep things real and true when there’s more attention shone upon the subgenre? That may be one of crime fiction’s major storylines of the next year or two.