Saturday, January 14, 2006

Noir is the great genre of reading and drinking

and I've just read two books (loved one, kind of hated the other) that painfully clarified for me what I do and don't like reading.

The one I loved: Black Hornet by James Sallis. This, for me, is pretty much the perfect novel (oh, if you were feeling irritable, you could say it becomes slightly overblown at some points, but that's quibbling): Lew Griffin is a black man (ex-military) in late-sixties New Orleans, a sniper's taking people out all over town & he gets caught up in the investigation.

But that doesn't tell you anything about what's so great about the book: it's an intense and gripping first-person narrative, lots of violence and drinking and general craziness & bleak worldview, that's heavily intellectual without being at all pretentious. Chester Himes, my favorite! Camus! Goethe! Sallis is not afraid to be serious here & it really works.

I've got a stack of his other books waiting for me to read, part of my good haul at the library earlier this week; it was Ken Bruen who first turned me on to Sallis, he told me I had to read Cypress Grove and he was totally right, here's me raving about Cypress Grove last year (hmm, don't know why I didn't go and get all his other books right away, I completely fell in love with that one--I expect I was having a busy spell, I see it was November 2004 & I know I was particularly swamped that month and following).

Ken's writing has that thing going too, where the books have an insane manic energy and are just SUPER-INTELLECTUALLY INTENSE as well & you get these great quotations--everything from Wittgenstein to Sylvia Plath, seriously eclectic in just the way I like--and you're reminded of why we even care about famous writers and thinkers, and it's not because of canon or reputation but just because they had some ass-kicking-type powerful insights that they put into extraordinarily memorable sequences of words that nobody else on the planet could have come up with. And literary quotations belong in noir fiction like in no other kind. Oh, reading Black Hornet has just given me the best kind of literary high, I am itching to go out and write a lot of crazed novels that might give a few other people the feeling that this one gave me. . . .

The book I didn't like--hate is too strong, I was just left unmoved by it--was Unfinished Business by Barbara Seranella. Maybe it's partly what happens when you come in at book 4 of a series; the routine felt worn & non-self-standing (or perhaps it's a weakish book in a strong series, I've heard very good things about these books and had high expectations). I won't write her off completely, I've got some of the others and will check them out to see what I think. But something just felt so formulaic and under-imagined about these--the conceit is that the main character (female) is a former biker chick/addict, now an auto mechanic going straight in LA & helping out her cop friend with his investigations.

It's not that novels have to have literary allusions for me to like them, of course they don't, but I couldn't see a single sentence here that had anything really characteristic about it; the prose is just workmanlike & I never got the intensity of what is meant to be the scariness-of-being-stalked-or-of-Stockholm-syndrome-type-stalker-identification center of the book. So it made me think about series I do and don't like; I've never been able to read Sue Grafton (this one was very Graftonesque), whereas I kind of love Sara Paretsky (more intellectual/political content & rage, those books work for me) and also Patricia Cornwell (because she's a nutcase in a way I like; yes, the Scarpetta books become increasingly whacked-out and bizarre, the earliest ones are still more satisfying reads, and yet there is something still quite compelling and distinctive about the voice even when other aspects of the books come to seem carelessly put-together). It seems clear that patent insanity (presumably passed off from the series-writer to a protagonist--sometimes a first-person narrator, sometimes not--who's basically a stand-in for herself) is part of what makes a series compelling and sustainable.


  1. Interesting post. I wonder if the Dorothy L mail list has something to do with it, as Seranella's books are highly regarded on that, and so are Pari Noiskin Taichert's. I have just finished "The Clovis Incident" and thought it was muddled, wooden, contained too many forgettable minor characters, and full of inconsistencies.
    The issue of series is also one I find interesting. You mention Cornwell who I agree retains some of her voice although her later books are so pale compared to the first couple of Scarpettas that I've stopped reading them. James Patterson (Alex Cross) is the worst case of series degeneration I've come across. Yet other writers (Paretsky and Grafton you mention, but others eg Karin Slaughter, Ian Rankin) maintain or improve on quality. Not forgetting the wonderful JK Rowling of course!

  2. I completely agree with you! Those Alex Cross books went from really quite good to almost unreadable; and Slaughter and Rankin are both good examples of books that started out already really very good but got markedly better (Slaughter in particular). And HP & the Prisoner of Azkaban is in my opinion the best of Rowling's books...

  3. Thanks, Jenny, for your nice comments here and on my blog. I tried to send you an email to thank you but, being newish to this blog game, had not appreciated that you can't do that kind of thing. Is there an approved way to find out your email address?
    In any event, I started Jar City on the way home from work tonight and so far you are dead right, I think it is great.
    Thank you again for your comments.