Wednesday, April 24, 2002

A Century of Noir: Thirty-Two Classic Crime Stories

Posted By on Wed, Apr 24, 2002 at 12:00 AM

More leftover pulp again, Ma? If you're looking for the definitive collection of pulp/noir fiction, A Century of Noir, edited by Max Allan Collins and Mickey Spillane, isn't it. Collins states in the introduction that three of the masters of this hard-boiled genre — Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Cornell Woolrich — were "out of our reach." Permission to use the stories of others, such as Horace McCoy, couldn't be cleared in time. What that leaves is a fairly entertaining grab bag of yarns from some of the other old masters, such as Chester Himes and James M. Cain; some decent efforts from more recent practitioners such as Lawrence Block and Sara Paretsky; and a handful of boneheaded clunkers (the loudest "clunk" coming from co-editor Spillane's contribution, "Tomorrow I Die") that remind us of the "lowly" origins of this type of writing.

Noir fiction started out in mens' adventure magazines and cheap paperback originals — reading matter that travelling salespeople could stuff into a valise on their way out the door. (Although the term "noir" first came into use via French film critics writing about existentially tough post-World War II black-and-white American films. They got the term from the French publisher Gallimard's Serie Noire, a still-running series of translations of American crime novels.)

Carroll John Daly, who Collins credits with having written the first ever "hard-boiled" story in 1922 ("The False Burton Combs), is represented here by "Just Another Stiff," a prime example of how loose and fun the genre can be. Fredric Brown, who is always a pleasure, is represented by "Don't Look Behind You," a playful, almost postmodern mousetrap of a story. Paretsky is a strong contemporary contender with "Grace Notes," a clever family saga that pulls you into a unique, strongly detailed portion of the world. There is even a morbid, EC comics-style tale of Corporate Evil from a writer more associated with the book racks in grocery stores, John Jakes ("No Comment"). Plus, each story is preceded by two paragraphs of biographical and critical summary of the author. What is mostly missing, though, are the stories that used this freewheeling genre to break out into the higher reaches and achieve, dare I say it, poetry.

Rupert Wondolowski writes for the Baltimore City Paper, where this review first appeared. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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