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My Five Favorite “Hard-Boiled With a Twist” Novels

Nov 08, 2011 in Guest Posts, Mulholland Authors

les mains baladeusesMy new novel, The Revisionists, is sort of a literary spy novel with a twist. Writing anything with “a twist” can be dangerous for an author, as straddling genres can be confusing to one’s readers, and to the booksellers who have to decide which shelf to put the darn thing on. But it’s also a ton of fun, both as a writer and as a reader.

Over the years I’ve noticed that many of my favorite novels could be described as “hardboiled with a twist.” They take the classic 1930s/40s hardboiled recipe (a noble detective with a quick wit investigates a crime) but do something strange to it, like give the detective a speech impediment, or put him on another planet, or make him insane. I’m a fan of the classic hardboiled novelists like Hammett and Chandler, and I love the film noir that they inspired, but sometimes when I read straight-up contemporary detective stories I’m a little bored. It’s the bizarre twists to the formula that get me most excited.

Here are my five favorite books (okay, actually six) that take the noir trope and do something really odd with it:

The Caveman’s Valentine by George Dawes Green. Here our hardboiled hero is a homeless man, a former Julliard pianist who has succumbed to the ravages of schizophrenia. He thinks a powerful being named Stuyvesant watches over the world and controls us via Y-rays that he shoots from a Manhattan skyscraper. One day, our hero sees someone dump a dead body in a park, and he decides to investigate. But did he really see it, or is this another symptom of his illness? His unreliability as a narrator makes for an unusual trip indeed.

The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead. Whitehead’s been getting props for his recently published zombie novel, and this earlier foray into genre is my favorite of his books. In an alternate reality mostly like our own, elevator inspectors are revered like hero cops, keeping us safely ascending through our lives. One day, someone is killed in an elevator accident while on the watch of the country’s first black female elevator inspector. Was she framed? It’s a racial allegory and a great yarn.

Motherless Brooklyn and Gun, With Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem. The former is a private detective noir set in Brooklyn, except our detective isn’t a detective but an average guy, except he has a bad case of Tourette’s. Which leads him to yell and swear at the people he’s trying to question (or follow). Lethem’s first novel, Gun, is even stranger, a detective noir set in an alternative reality in which people aren’t allowed to ask questions unless they have a government license, and kangaroos talk and carry firearms.

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon, who has done as much as anyone to tear down the walls between genre and literary fiction the last fifteen years. This book tells the tale of a murder investigation in Alaska, only an Alaska that has been used as a post-WW2 homeland for the Jews, which FDR had actually considered. Tons of weird Yiddish slang, short nights and very cold days make for an strange noir indeed.

Finch by Jeff Van der Meer. Part noir, part fantasy, part spy novel, this is set in a city called Ambergris, where all-seeing mushroom-like creatures have taken over. Our hero is a cop for the fallen government, still forced to do his job by the occupying bad guys. He tries to investigate a murder while dealing with his evil bosses, rebel factions, a partner who is decaying due to a strange alien-borne illness, and even yet weirder stuff.

Thomas Mullen is the author of The Last Town on Earth, which was named Best Debut Novel of 2006 by USA Today and was awarded the James Fenimore Cooper Prize; the critically acclaimed The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers; and his new novel, The Revisionists. His books have been named to Year’s Best lists by such places as The Chicago Tribune, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, USA Today, The Onion, Atlanta Magazine, and Amazon.com.

1 Responses »

  1. Chabon and Lethem are great: I haven’t tried Green and Van der meer though: next up!

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