THE BEST AMERICAN NOIR OF THE CENTURY edited by Otto Penzler and James Ellroy

Book Quote:

“A six-week chronology from first kiss to gas chamber is common in noir.” (James Ellroy)

Book Review:

Review by Guy Savage  (JAN 16, 2011)

At almost 800 pages and around $20 the anthology The Best American Noir of the Century is guaranteed to please noir fans. The book is the no-brainer choice for anyone interested in crime fiction, but even more than that, anyone even remotely curious about the delineations under the umbrella term “crime fiction” must read Otto Penzler’s inspired introduction. As a reader of crime and noir fiction, there’s nothing more annoying than to see the word “noir” bandied about; its misuse threatens to render the term meaningless, so here’s Otto Penzler on this “prodigiously overused term” to set the record straight:

“Noir works, whether films, novels, or short stories, are existential, pessimistic tales about people, including (or especially) protagonists who are seriously flawed or morally questionable. The tone is generally bleak or nihilistic, with characters whose greed, lust, jealousy, and alienation lead them into a downward spiral as their plans and schemes inevitably go awry….The machinations of their relentless lust will cause them to lie, steal, cheat, and even kill as they become more and more entangled in a web from which they cannot extricate possibly themselves. And, while engaged in this hopeless quest, they will be double-crossed, betrayed and ultimately ruined.”

There’s more, much more from Penzler, including an analysis of the private detective story, in which the PI’s “own sense of morality [will be] used in the pursuit of justice,” and even a few words on how film noir “blurs the distinction between hard-boiled private eye narratives and true noir stories.”

But this is just the foreword. What of the book itself?

The stories in this rich collection represent a dazzling array of styles and subjects. The Tod Robins story “Spurs” (later adapted in the film Freaks), sets the stage for what’s to come, and in this story we meet a host of weirdos and societal rejects who gravitate around the circus. In this classic tale of love gone wrong, circus dwarf Jacques Corbé falls in love with Jeanne Marie, the beautiful bareback rider. She loves the dashing Simon Lefleur, but he isn’t ready to marry a penniless woman. So when the dwarf inherits a substantial amount of money and proposes to Jeanne Marie, she accepts him. This is the beginning of a classic noir tale–a destructive love triangle laced with lust, greed and jealousy.

Other names in the collection include James Cain’s “Pastorale,” MacKinlay Kantor’s “Gun Crazy” (made into a film), Dorothy Hughes “The Homecoming,” Mickey Spillane’s “The Lady Says Die,” Jim Thompson’s “Forever After,” Cornell Woolrich’s “For the Rest of Her Life,” David Morrell’s “The Dripping,” James Ellroy’s “Since I Don’t Have You,” James Crumley’s “Hot Springs” and Patricia Highsmith’s “Slowly, Slowly in the Wind.” I was a bit surprised to see Joyce Carol Oates make the list with “Faithless” as I incorrectly tend to associate her with entirely different subject matter, but then I remembered her marvelous short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been,” (made into the film Smooth Talk), and the Oates selection fell into place.

There are a total of 39 stories here, and the preponderance falls towards the end of the twentieth century–just 12 before 1960. This selection may bother some readers who perhaps hoped for more classic noir from the 40s and 50s, but since I view collections as a great way to pick up names I’d never have found otherwise, it’s all fine by me.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 21 readers
PUBLISHER: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1 edition (October 5, 2010)
REVIEWER: Guy Savage
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Otto Penzler and James Ellroy
EXTRAS: Library Journal interview with Otto Penzler

Kirkus’ comparison to A Century of Noir

MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories


January 16, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Noir, Short Stories

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