American Noir: The Pocket Essential Guide to US Crime Fiction, Film & TV
Jon L. Breen
This is not really a reference tool (no publication dates for the books discussed, variable biographical information on the authors, no attempt at comprehensiveness) but rather a browsing book for readers exploring the contemporary crime fiction scene and looking for fresh examples. It’s essentially a very good collection of well-written, critically astute, and almost always appreciative (even selling) book reviews. Author entries are alphabetical (Jeff Abbott to Anthony E. Zuiker), of varying length from a paragraph or two to multiple pages on certain major figures (e.g., James Ellroy, Thomas Harris, Patricia Cornwell). The emphasis is on 21st-century work, though still-active writers who made their most notable contributions before 2000 are included. The limitation to living writers, however, is absolute. Thus the late Ed Gorman has no entry, though much of his best work was done in this century. Forshaw, who has compiled similar guides on Nordic, Euro, and Brit Noir, admits that “several of the authors included here stretch the definition of ‘noir’ to the breaking point (and beyond).” Cozy writers, however, are unsurprisingly rare.
The 20 pages of film and TV annotations include years of original broadcast and are limited to 21st-century product. A section drawn from Forshaw’s interviews with Ellroy, Sara Paretsky, Scott Turow, Cornwell, and Kathy Reichs is followed by his choices of “The 30 Best Contemporary US Crime Novels” and “The Five Best US TV Crime Shows,” all from cable networks and all, save Breaking Bad (AMC), originally presented on HBO.
The Obama Inheritance: Fifteen Stories of Conspiracy Noir
The Obama Inheritance: Fifteen Stories of Conspiracy Noir, edited by Gary Phillips, features stories that are often humorous, always entertaining, and mostly non-political, and that make use of the more absurd conspiracies surrounding Barack Obama and his presidency. Kate Flora’s “Michelle in Hot Water” finds a superhero-like First Lady Michelle Obama in a tight spot when an off-the-books mission, encouraging a pharmaceutical CEO to reduce the price of a life-saving drug, goes sideways.
“Sunburnt Country” by Andrew Nette is a successful pulp-magazine-style science-fiction tale about a secret weapon, a boy, climate change, and conscience. All set in Australia’s blistering Outback. Eric Beetner’s “True Skin” is an outlandishly good alien invasion story with a hoax perpetrated by an AM talk radio host. My favorite story in the anthology is Danny Gardner’s dystopian tale “Brother’s Keeper,” as much for its encompassing view as for the story itself. Its final climax is both thought-provoking and possible.
The Big Book of Rogues and Villains
The Big Book of Rogues and Villains, edited by Otto Penzler, is an impressive compilation of stories—I counted 73!—that feature either a rogue or villain as a main character. In his introduction, Otto Penzler defines the difference between the two. A villain “is the creature of evil and malice, if not outright pathology” and a rogue “tends not to be vicious, prefers no serious physical injury to others and defines itself as rascality soaked in humor.” He goes on to explain the lines between the two are often blurred, and with that in mind he thoughtfully identifies each story as either rogue or villain.
The tales are categorized by era: The Victorians, Nineteenth-Century Americans, The Edwardians, The Pulp Era, Post-World War II, etc. Each period is fully explored with multiple stories from authors both famous and obscure. As an example, The Victorians section features tales from L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace, Grant Allen, Robert Louis Stevenson, Bram Stoker, Arthur Morrison, and E. W. Hornung.
Richard Connell’s classic hunting tale with a villainous twist, “The Most Dangerous Game,” is as powerful and entertaining today as it must have been when it first appeared in 1924. Leslie Charteris’ Simon Templar, The Saint, makes a dashing and very roguish appearance in the double-crossing “The Damsel in Distress.” Bruno Fischer’s villain-littered masterpiece of crime, greed, and revenge, “We Are All Dead,” is as dark and disturbing as anything in print. Martin Ehrengraf, Lawrence Block’s villainous lawyer who has never lost a case, is at his sinister best in “The Ehrengraf Experience” and David Morrell’s “The Partnership” cleverly asks and answers how many villains it takes to make a murder.
The Big Book of Rogues and Villains is a perfectly orchestrated reprint anthology. The stories are among the best in the genre, but also educate the reader about the development of the criminal as hero, or anti-hero, subgenre from its earliest examples to its most recent. It is a volume that will draw most readers back into its pages again and again.
The Usual Santas
The Usual Santas is something of a primer for Soho’s impressive lineup of international crime writers, and each story has a holiday-season twist. There are 18 tales by accomplished, and lauded scribes including Helene Tursten, Mick Herron, James R. Benn, Cara Black, Peter Lovesey, and (if you are counting) 13 more. Tod Goldberg’s fine “Blue Memories Start Calling” is a melancholy small-town murder tale with a crisis of conscience at its center. A sheriff who has mindfully followed the law his entire career is faced with a new dilemma: doing the wrong thing for the right reason.
“PX Christmas” by Martin Limon is a nicely complex procedural set on the US Army base in Seoul, South Korea, during the 1970s. A hard-line Christmas-time suicide prevention policy intermingles with a black market ring, which leads CID investigators George Sueno and Ernie Bascom to become the vehicle for another’s redemption. Stuart Neville’s macabre crime story “Queen of the Hill” is both bleak and brilliant. A Belfast tale without hope or joy is a genuine Christmas treat.
BIG LITTLE PUBLISERS
Oline H. Cogdill
Joan Hess Obituary
JOAN HESS (1949-2017)
From St. Martins Press:
Author Joan Hess has died. A pioneer in the mystery genre and a much loved fixture at mystery conventions for decades, she was theauthor of forty-three books, over more than thirty years. Her works include the Claire Malloy mystery series and the Arly Hanks mystery series (set in the fictional town of Maggody, Arkansas), the later of which was made into a TV movie starring Kate Jackson. Most recently, Hess co-authored The Painted Queen (William Morrow, July 2017), completing the manuscript her friend Barbara Mertz, aka Elizabeth Peters, was working on when she died. Upon publication, The Painted Queen became an instant bestseller, and featured in the Inside the List column in the New York Times Book Review. (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/04/books/review/amelia-peabody-barbara-mertz-joan-hess.html?_r=0).
Winner of the American Mystery Award, the Agatha Award, for which she has been nominated five times, and is a member of Sisters in Crime and a former president of the American Crime Writers League, Hess contributed to multiple anthologies and book series, including Crosswinds, Deadly Allies, Malice Domestic, and The Year’s 25 Finest Crime and Mystery Stories. A long-time resident of Fayetteville, Arkansas, she passed away in Austin, Texas, where her daughter and her grandchildren lived.
JOAN HESS (1949-2017)
From St. Martins Press:
Author Joan Hess has died. A pioneer in the mystery genre and a much loved fixture at mystery conventions for decades, she was theauthor of forty-three books, over more than thirty yea
Val McDermid on Christie's The Murder at the Vicarage
I was enthralled by [Agatha Christie's The Murder in the Vicarage], and excited to see the page inside the book that listed the dozens of other books she’d written.
My parents believed it was important for them to have time on their own so every Friday night I stayed with my grandparents. My grandfather was a miner and they rented their two-roomed flat from the coal board. It had no hot running water and my grandparents slept in the living room where the fire was always burning. Cheap coal, and no central heating.
I slept in the other room, lulled to sleep by the steam trains puffing down the line from the mine to the railhead with their loads of coal, only yards away from my narrow bed. I always turned up with a couple of library books to keep me company but one Friday the bus had been held up because of a road accident and I’d got through my books too quickly.
My grandparents were not readers. There were two books in the house, sitting primly on the blanket chest at the bottom of my bed. One was my grandmother’s Bible. The other, for some reason nobody has ever managed to explain, was Agatha Christie’s The Murder at the Vicarage, the first Miss Marple novel.
You only need a reading age of nine to understand Christie’s vocabulary and grammatical structures. I can’t be sure how old I was, but I was a precocious reader and I managed Miss Marple’s debut pretty well. Of course, I missed most of the subtleties of the adult behaviour and I certainly didn’t get Christie’s sly sense of humour. But what I got was the allure of a mystery nestled around with subplots galore, where everything worked out in the end. I was enthralled by it, and excited to see the page inside the book that listed the dozens of other books she’d written.
I was already a voracious reader, but The Murder at the Vicarage set me on the reading journey that led me to this life. Thirty years of continuous publication, thirty-one novels and another half-dozen assorted books, all from that moment when I picked up my first Agatha Christie. I wish I’d had the chance to thank her.
Val McDermid is one of the biggest names in crime writing. Her novels have been translated into 30 languages, sold over 10 million copies worldwide. Val has created many notable characters such as journalist, Lindsay Gordon; the private investigator, Kate Brannigan; and psychologist, Tony Hill.
This “WritersonReading” essay was originally published in “At the Scene” enews December 2017 as a first-look exclusive to our enewsletter subscribers. For more special content available first to our enewsletter subscribers, sign up here.
Signal Loss, the seventh in Australian author Garry Disher’s series of character-driven procedurals featuring the taciturn and solitary Inspector Hal Challis makes its way to American shelves this December. The series has been called “excellent” by the New York Times Book Review and “moody, inventive, and extremely hard to put down,” by Booklist. The gritty cop novels set on Australia’s Mornington Peninsula have been compared favorably to other procedural series by Ian Rankin, Michael Connelly, and Peter Robinson.
But if you haven’t heard of Disher, you’re not alone. While the prolific writer has written more than 50 books over the past four decades, including fiction, young adult, children’s, history, and short story anthologies, as well as created the characters for an Australian series of two-hour made-for-television movies with a “cheeky-grin cop” named Cody, he remains relatively underappreciated in the United States. However, the author has engendered a cult-like following from crime readers around the world who have discovered Disher’s Inspector Hal Challis series and the heists of the author’s most popular character, the antihero professional thief Wyatt, who thus far has appeared in eight books.
In his most recent novel, Signal Loss, part of the Hal Challis series, a methamphetamine epidemic is sweeping across Australia’s Mornington Peninsula, which Disher describes as “a comma of land hooking into the sea southeast of Melbourne.” It’s a mostly rural setting within the shadow of its big-city neighbor, and a place where poverty and wealth exist side-by-side. It’s also a tourist destination known for its beaches, wineries, and coastal towns; a landscape that is sparsely populated and beautiful.
Inspector Challis heads the Peninsula East’s Crime Investigation Unit headquartered in the small city of Waterloo. The drug epidemic has impacted the poorer housing projects especially hard, and the mixture of poverty and addiction have increased crime and stretched the police’s limited resources to its breaking point. The socioeconomic tension between rich and poor is a vein Disher adroitly mines throughout the Challis novels. In Kittyhawk Down and Snapshot themes of racism and immigration are personified with a for-profit detention centre that is more prison than temporary housing facility. Chain of Evidence examines, through a pedophile ring and an organized burglary gang, how the law is applied differently to those with means than it is for those without.
“The Mornington Peninsula of my novels is a real place,” said Disher, who lives on the peninsula himself. “[We have] extremes of rich and poor. The poverty can lead to crime, which can lead to problems for an under-resourced police force.” These are real world challenges that are fertile for fictional exploration. “I can’t escape writing about these things,” said Disher. Strong characters are a hallmark of Disher’s novels, and in addition to the lonely and solitary Challis, who lives in a secluded part of The Peninsula, where he refurbishes an old Dragon Rapide airplane in his off time, the series includes his professional and romantic partner Sergeant Ellen Destry, a divorcée wrestling with guilt over for her shortcomings as a mother. Pam Murphy, a young and competent constable, who has a turbulent and often unsettling personal life, Constable John Tankard, a big, insecure brute with sexist attitudes, and Scobie Sutton, a soft-hearted and vulnerable detective constable, round out Challis’ team. All of them have developed and grown from book to book in organic ways.
“It became apparent to me as the series progressed that this was not a static world, and I needed to keep the characters and situations fresh or I would tire of them,” said Disher. “Each of the characters have become more ‘real’ to me. I see greater depths to them, and hidden reasons for some of their character traits.”
While Challis is the series’ leading character, Destry has evolved to hold equal weight in the books. Indeed, Disher writes particularly vibrant female characters, with alluring strengths, and a willingness to tackle a male-dominated world, but balanced by very real human weaknesses, both personal and professional. Destry, for example, has an odd proclivity for sticky fingers when a stray dollar is at a crime scene, a quirk that is as surprising as it is embarrassing. Disher admits that he finds Ellen Destry and Pam Murphy more interesting than his male characters. He’s quick to add that he finds Hal the least interesting of all, since “there’s a little of me in Challis.”
When asked if he, like Challis, restores old airplanes, Disher responded, “I would rather restore an old car than an old plane,” and then added, “I would rather watch Justified or Breaking Bad than do either.”
Disher, who lived in the United States while attending Stanford University on a creative writing Stegner Fellowship in the 1978-1979 academic year, admits to an affinity for American crime television, both good and bad. Challis often teases the coroner in the books, Freya Berg, with the lines “What have we got?” and “Keep me posted,” which is Disher’s play on the American forensic-centered television crime shows where crime scene investigators carry guns, make arrests, and perform complicated scientific tests in seconds.
Disher’s most well-known creation, however, isn’t Challis or Destry, but the Melbourne criminal Wyatt, the protagonist of Disher’s first six published crime novels, beginning with Kickback in 1991. Wyatt is stark and brutal, without humor, and very much a villain. Challis, in contrast, is a flawed, unassuming police inspector who skillfully fills the role of literary hero. Disher said, “After six Wyatts in quick succession, each one following a set pattern—Wyatt identifies a target to rob, Wyatt is betrayed, Wyatt wins in the end—it was stimulating to think and write in a different way with the police procedurals, which—although easy to read—are more complex in structure, with several strands being followed.” He continued, “I could become stale with the Challis and Destry novels, too, but have avoided that by letting the characters grow and change over the series.”
Australia’s expansive landscape—exotic to most American readers, but deeply intimate to the author—is central to Disher’s books, as this elegant example from Disher’s latest Wyatt novel, The Heat (2016), illustrates so well:
Down to the Nepean Highway where, hanging gingerly above the toxins, there was the faint briny odour of the sea. The motel was one block back from the beach, faded-looking. Ground down by years of sunlight and salt.
“I can’t write a scene—a room, the open air, anywhere—until I can see it in my mind,” said Disher. “I need to be able to see, smell, taste, touch, hear.”
This relationship to landscape may come from Disher’s childhood spent on a small wheat and wool farm in the mid-north of South Australia, where the natural world would have been a constant and very visible companion. And though he has studied in the United States, as well as Melbourne, Australia, where he completed a Masters in Australian History at Monash University, and has been writer-in-residence at the University of Northumbria in the United Kingdom, the State Library of Queensland, and the Tasmanian Writers’ Union, Disher prefers to work and live in rural Australia, where he scratches out in longhand one new novel a year. “[I write with] blue pen on the backs of old manuscript drafts,” admitted Disher, because “the magic would leak away [with] black pen.” Disher writes in the mornings six days a week from about 8 am to 12:30 pm. “Some mornings I’ll write a paragraph, other mornings a few pages.” And though Disher is adept across multiple genres, he said he enjoys writing crime fiction for “the sense of teasing the reader through the use of delaying tactics, sudden reversals, a sense of buried secrets, doubtful or partial outcomes and carefully placed turning points.” He also tends to play against reader expectations and stereotypes.
It’s a skill that has garnered the author two Crime Writers Association of Australia Ned Kelly awards for best crime novel (Chain of Evidence in 2007, and Wyatt in 2010), as well as three German crime fiction awards, the Deutscher Krimi Preis, the oldest and most prestigious German prize for crime fiction (Kickback in 2000, The Dragon Man in 2002, and Bitter Wash Road in 2016).
“The Disher canon is a blend of masterful procedural, biting black comedy, keen insight into human nature, and crime that feels real and dangerous,” said Mark Doten, Disher’s editor at Soho Press, the US publisher responsible for bringing three of Disher’s Wyatt novels and all seven Challis books to American readers. “There’s a tremendous authority to his writing—you know from page one that you’re in the hands of a master.”
In the third Challis novel, Snapshot, Disher writes, “In Challis’s experience, very few criminals returned to the scene of the crime…. But police officers often did…”
And readers, just like police officers returning to the scene of the crime, will return to the Inspector Hal Challis police procedural novels again and again. It’s a rich series for which Disher said he has “ideas for another dozen.” But for now, he is writing a sequel to his well-received 2014 crime novel, Bitter Wash Road (originally published in the US as Hell to Pay). And then, assured Disher, he will write “another Wyatt, then another Challis,” making the promise of more Australian crime linger in this American’s mind.
Garry Disher is one of Australia’s best-known authors. His crime novels have been published in the USA, England, Germany, Holland, Denmark, Italy, Spain and Hungary. Chain of Evidence and Wyatt won crime novel of the year awards in Australia, and Disher has won the Deutsche Krimi Preis three times, appeared on bestseller lists, and been a guest of the Munich and Cologne writers’ festivals. Disher lives on the Mornington Peninsula, southeast of Melbourne.
Sleep No More
Sleep No More: Six Murderous Tales, features a half-dozen previously uncollected and very unordinary short stories by the late P. D. James. The tales are less whodunit and more whydunit; each story is about the killer’s motive and escape from justice, rather than the identification of the culprit.
The only traditional whodunit is the masterful, multi-viewpoint novelette “The Murder of Santa Claus.” Its commonplace traditional mystery setting, a genteel country house at Christmas, creates an expectation for the reader that James happily and expertly shatters. When an awkward teenager and future detective story scribe—“I do a workmanlike job on the old conventions, for those who like their murders cosy”—is invited to his wealthy uncle’s home for Christmas, he finds himself as the last person to see his uncle alive. The story’s wry sense of organic justice and a beautifully turned climactic twist remove it from the ordinary to the extraordinary.
“The Yo Yo” is a brilliant rendering of a father’s love, and the murder demanded by that love. A crime both reader and narrator can easily rationalize. “The Victim,” which is my favorite story in the collection, is a straightforward revenge tale that details a murder; both its planning and its execution. It is James’ take on the anti-hero, and its harsh sense of morality made this reader think the wrong person was murdered. “The Girl Who Loved Graveyards” is the most original and atmospheric story in the collection. A young girl, sent to live with an uncle and aunt in East London after her father and grandmother die from influenza, has a tenuous grasp on her past. Her determination to find and visit her father’s gravesite leads both girl and reader on a macabre and surprising journey.
Sleep No More is a brilliant collection of stories that reveal James’ true artistry as a writer of traditional mystery fiction. The tales wander from, and play with, traditional genre tropes in surprising and satisfying ways. And each features James’ usual smooth prose, wry humor, and her ability to please even the most demanding reader.