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The Past, Present and Future of Tartan Noir

Edinburgh“Too much black for the white.” That was the assessment of the Ayrshire novelist George Douglas Brown when asked what he thought of his novel, The House with the Green Shutters, over a century ago. It’s also, perhaps surprisingly, a very apt summary of a modern phenomenon known as Tartan Noir.

In both tone and theme, Shutters bares close familiarity to Scotland’s newest ‘Black’ novels. It’s a safe bet that this branch of the crime writing family tree is closer to Brown’s offspring than Agatha Christie’s cosy, drawing-room mysteries. Add Robert Louis Stevenson’s psychological explorations of seedy society, and the odds on a unique Tartan lineage become a racing certainty.

It’s no secret that Scottish crime fiction has undergone a boom in recent years, spearheaded by the soar-away success of the UK’s leading seller in the genre, Ian Rankin. So, perhaps a convenient marketing term was needed; but does Tartan Noir do it justice?

The man many regard as the Godfather of Tartan Noir, William McIlvanney has called the term ”ersatz” and distanced himself from the hype. But it was the Whitbread-winner who was first on the scene, with Laidlaw in 1977, clearly chalking a line around the corpse of familiarity.

“I’m a hung jury about the phrase,” says McIlvanney. “I suppose it works as an adman’s slogan. Certainly, for the American market, say, it probably gives the most succinct signal of Scottishness they would recognise. But simultaneously, it suggests an old-fashioned view of the place, as if modern Scotland were being observed through a lorgnette rather than the 20-20 vision of people like Ian Rankin and Tony Black.”
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Canarsie and Westlake, Parker and Stark (and Me)

[The below first appears as an introduction to Butcher’s Moon, republished in April 2011 by the University of Chicago Press, and is reprinted with the gracious permission of Lawrence Block. You can read his other intros for Backflash and Comeback here and here.]

One night around the end of 1960 or the beginning of 1961, I was in a second-floor flat in Canarsie, an unglamorous part of Brooklyn, located at the very end of the Canarsie Line, a part of the subway system which ran east across Fourteenth Street from Eighth Avenue, then crossed the river, and wound up running on elevated tracks all the way to Rockaway Parkway.  (The train was subsequently designated the LL, until years later they took one of its letters away and it became the L.  No one knows why, but I’ve always figured it was a cost-cutting move.  Of such small economies are great savings made.)

I lived in Manhattan at the time, on Central Park West at 104th Street, so I had to take two subway trains and walk several blocks to get to that flat, but I did it often and without complaint because that’s where Don Westlake lived.  We’d been best friends since we met in our mutual agent’s office in July of 1959, where we introduced ourselves before walking a few blocks to his flat in Hell’s Kitchen.  We sat around there and had a few beers and talked and talked and talked, and that was the pattern that prevailed over the months.  I moved home to Buffalo, met somebody, got married.  Don and his then-wife moved from an unsafe neighborhood to an inaccessible one.  My then-wife and I set up housekeeping in New York, first on West 69th Street, then on Central Park West.  And Don and I got together often, and had a few beers, and talked and talked and talked. Continue reading “Canarsie and Westlake, Parker and Stark (and Me)”

Noir in the Sunshine

IMG_8815So some years ago I was writing this series of P.I. novels about a detective in St. Louis. He wasn’t exactly your classic shamus but he did have Sam Spade DNA and he did walk some pretty mean streets in a gritty industrial city. But what I wanted to do was a second series, something different from what I’d been writing. More of a classic P.I. instead of my St. Louis guy who, while having some of the classic P.I. characteristics, was also a star-crossed schlemiel with a nervous stomach and a suicidal girlfriend. He also had his office over a doughnut shop, and smelled like a doughnut. This turned some women on, some off. Not classic. But the book market being what it was (is), I was going to write another series more in the classic vein, yet in some ways different.

Immediately I thought of California. I’d always enjoyed the California P.I. novel and its great practitioners, Hammett, Chandler, Lyons, Pronzini, Macdonald.

Wait a sec.

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Continue Reading Duane Swierczynski’s FUN AND GAMES

In just ten short days, we’ll be publishing FUN AND GAMES, the kick-a$$ first book in the kick-a$$ Charlie Hardie series. Continue reading the novel Josh Bazell called “insanely entertaining,” and which Booklist called “so bloody satisfying.”

Missed Chapter 1? Read it here.

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“California is a beautiful fraud.”—Marc Reisner

WHEELS WERE supposed to be up at 5:30 a.m., but by 5:55 it became clear that wasn’t gonna happen.

The captain told everyone it was just a little trouble with a valve. Once that was fixed and the paperwork was filed, they’d be taking off and headed to LAX. Fifteen minutes, tops. Half hour later, the captain more or less said he’d been full of shit, but really, honest, folks, now it was fixed, and they’d be taking off by 6:45. Thirty minutes later, the captain admitted he was pretty much yanking off / finger-fucking everyone in the airplane, and the likely departure time would be 8 a.m.—something about a sensor needing replacing. Nothing serious.

No, of course not. Continue reading “Continue Reading Duane Swierczynski’s FUN AND GAMES”

As Dark as Broad Daylight

We asked all the contributors to LA Noire: The Collected Stories to tell us about their story in the collection. Read Lawrence Block’s contribution “See the Woman” in LA Noire: The Collected Stories.

Available free (for a limited time) from your eTailer of choice. Amazon.com | BN.com | iTunes | Kobo | Sony

LA Noire?

I have to say it seems counter-intuitive.  After all, it never rains in Southern California, we have Albert Hammond’s word on that, and he’s always been reliable in the past.

Noir is the French word for black, but when we borrow it to categorize books and films, it morphs from color to mood.  It’s been defined in various ways; more often it’s left undefined, and one could say of noir what Potter Stewart famously said of pornography:  he knew it when he saw it.

The definition I like best is Charles Ardai’s.  He’s the publisher of Hard Case Crime, a line of books that is the very epitome of noir, and I can think of no one who’s more at home with the genre.  He defines it as crime fiction written by a pessimist, and the only change I’d make would be to tuck in the words “as if” between “written” and “by,” because the world of a novel does not necessarily reflect the world view of its author.

Dark crime fiction, pessimistic crime fiction.   It would seem to call for rain, or at the very least the threat of rain.  Dark streets, broken streetlamps, shadows in which something—anything!—might  be lurking.

But in Los Angeles?  Noir in the land of surf and sunshine?  Noir in Beach Boys Country?

You’re kidding, right?

Continue reading “As Dark as Broad Daylight”

Betty Short and Norma Jeane Baker Alive Again

We asked all the contributors to LA Noire: The Collected Stories to tell us about their story in the collection. Read Joyce Carol Oates’ contribution “Black Dahlia & White Rose” in LA Noire: The Collected Stories.

Available free (for a limited time) from your eTailer of choice. Amazon.com | BN.com | iTunes | Kobo | Sony

Writing ‘Black Dahlia & White Rose’ was an unnerving experience. After Blonde, my novel about the doomed Marilyn Monroe, which was published in 2000, I had not anticipated ever returning to the heightened and intense world of Los Angeles circa 1946-7. But here are ‘Betty Short’ and ‘Norma Jeane Baker’ alive again, living out cruelly prepared scripts in which they have no hand and of which they can have no awareness. That these beautiful and vulnerable young women are ‘Hollywood sisters’ of a kind seems absolutely right to me–in fact, inevitable.

Joyce Carol Oates is the recipient of the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction, the winner of the National Book Award, and the author of over fifty novels.

My Own Dark Places

We asked all the contributors to LA Noire: The Collected Stories to tell us their thoughts on why Los Angeles is so associated with noir. Read Jonathan Santlofer’s story “What’s In a Name?” in LA Noire: The Collected Stories.

Available free (for a limited time) from your eTailer of choice. Amazon.com | BN.com | iTunes | Sony

When Rockstar asked me to put together an anthology to accompany their darkly beautiful video game, LA NOIRE, I pounced. Having been enamored with noir both on the page and on the screen since my brooding teenage years, my mind was spinning Chandleresque tales before I wrote a single word or asked another author to contribute. I wanted to invite a hundred writers but it ended up a small collection, every story burnished black as ebony, all jittery gems that invite the reader to trespass along those sunny/seamy LA streets. For my own story I slipped into the mind of a killer and had fun mixing fact and fiction, bringing in shadowy underworld figures I’d only read about, like Mickey Cohen and Johnny Stompanato, real life bad guys who seem quaint, almost harmless, compared to my fictional psychopath, a true noir creation inspired in equal parts by the game LA NOIRE, postwar Los Angeles, and my own dark places.

Jonathan Santlofer is the editor of LA Noire: The Collected Stories, as well as the author of 5 novels. He is the recipient of a Nero Wolfe Award for best crime fiction novel of 2008, two National Endowment for the Arts grants, and has been a Visiting Artist at the American Academy In Rome, the Vermont Studio Center and serves on the board of Yaddo, the oldest arts community in the U.S. He is co-editor, contributor and illustrator of the anthology, THE DARK END OF THE STREET, and his short stories have appeared in every top mystery/crime anthology. He is also the artist behind Ken Bruen’s serial novel BLACK LENS.

Noir Seal of Approval

As a contributor to LA Noire: The Collected Stories, we asked Andrew Vachss to give us his thoughts on noir. Read Andrew Vachss’s story “Postwar Boom” in LA Noire: The Collected Stories.

Available free (for a limited time) from your eTailer of choice. Amazon.com | BN.com | iTunes | Sony

I learned, a long time ago, that people can read for entertainment and come away with enlightenment, so long as the vein of truth runs throughout and doesn’t detract from the narrative force. I understand there are those who believe “noir”—or “hardboiled,” or whatever term they prefer to lavish upon themselves—writing shouldn’t be cluttered up with “that other stuff.” As if littérature engageé is only acceptable in “magical realism” novels translated from original Incan scrolls. All these “outlaws” who want me to live by their rigid little rules … good luck to them. I understand I am too “pulp” for the literati, and too “literate” for the pulpsters. Lost a lot of sleep over that. I’d rather burn a bridge than crawl over it, and genre- worship isn’t one of my disabilities. Apparently, as with all religions, some people believe they can dictate definitions. I don’t ask these self-appointed high priests for the “Noir Seal of Approval” that only they (think they) can grant.

Andrew Vachss has been a federal investigator in sexually transmitted diseases, a social-services caseworker, and a labor organizer, and has directed a maximum-security prison for “aggressive-violent” youth. Now a lawyer in private practice, he represents children and youths exclusively. He is the author of two dozen novels, including The Weight, his latest. To read an excerpt from this crime-fiction novel about Sugar, an old-school professional thief, visit http://vachss.com/weight.

The Edge of Nothing

We asked all the contributors to LA Noire: The Collected Stories to tell us their thoughts on why Los Angeles is so associated with noir. Read Megan Abbott’s story “The Girl” in LA Noire: The Collected Stories.

Available free (for a limited time) from your eTailer of choice . Amazon.com | BN.com | iTunes | Sony

Noir in both fiction and film has taken rich advantage of cities like San Francisco (Hammett) and New York (Spillane, Himes). No city—or region—truly owns noir, which is a mood, a feeling, a set of universal principles (no sin goes unpaid for; desire will doom you).

But, for me any many others, its deepest roots lie in the lush turf of Los Angeles. No other place evokes, with such extremity, noir’s foundational opposition: that there are two worlds, the world of daytime—of family, respectability, business, progress—and night—of crime, corruption, danger.

In his book City of Quartz, Mike Davis terms this opposition “sunshine vs. noir,” capitalist utopia and urban nightmare, land of “milk and honey” and city of “seduction and defeat.” And, maybe most of all, no other city has Hollywood. From Sunset Boulevard to L.A. Confidential to L.A. Noire itself, noir offers up countless tales of failed starlets and shattered dreams. Not a physical location, not even an industry, Hollywood stands as a bright symbol of limitless promise that gives way to decadence and ruin.

Los Angeles is, by geographic fate, the dropping-off of the American frontier. Manifest Destiny at its endpoint. You reach your dream here or you’ve lost it forever. Raymond Chandler, L.A. noir’s founding father, once said, “I have lived my life on the edge of nothing.” The edge of nothing: that is where Los Angeles sits, precarious, beautiful—a femme fatale waiting for her kiss.

Megan Abbott is the Edgar-award winning author of five novels. She has taught literature, writing, and film at New York University, the New School and the State University of New York at Oswego. She received her Ph.D. in English and American literature from New York University in 2000. She lives in New York City. Her new novel The End of Everything will be published in July 2011. Start reading on Facebook and follow Megan on Twitter.

(Holly)wood Pulp: 15 Books That Helped Me Understand the City of Angels

[Editor’s Note: Visit Duane Swierczynski’s website for a fantastic opportunity. Check it out before you read this article.]

Until Fun & Games, I set most of my novels in Philadelphia. No, I don’t have some kickback deal with the local chamber of commerce. Philly’s where I was born and raised, and for better or worse, it’s where my imagination goes to play. If I had been born in, say, Grand Island, Nebraska, I’m sure I would have set my stories there, albeit with minor differences. (For example, The Wheelman may have been published as The Combine Harvester Man.)

Over the years, however, I’ve spent an increasing amount of time in Los Angeles—book signings, meetings, festivals, vacations. And then a funny thing happened: my imagination started to cheat on Philadelphia.

Fun & Games is the love child of one of those L.A. brain flings, as is “Hell Of An Affair,” my short story for the L.A. Noire anthology. (Sometimes my brain can be a total slut.) And while Fun & Games is mostly told from the perspective of an outsider, I felt like I had to learn all I could about the City of Angels. Otherwise, what kind of baby daddy would I be?

So I spent a lot of time gorging on L.A. music, L.A.-set movies, L.A. novels, and of course, L.A. history. Here’s an informal list* of the 15 books that put me in the mindset of this crazy town.

And please add your favorites in the comments section below. You never know when my brain will want to stray again…

*I’ve left out the obvious L.A. classics, both modern and vintage—James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet, Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels, Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole and Joe Pike thrillers, as well as Nathanael West, Horace McCoy, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain. I mean, you came here for the oddball stuff, right?

* * *

L.A. Bizarro: The All-New Insider’s Guide to the Obscure, The Absurd and the Perverse, by Anthony Lovett and Matt Maranian. This book was my Bible during my last couple of visits to L.A., and I’m not going to stop until I hit every last freaky cafeteria, kitschy dive and grisly murder site. There’s an older edition from 1997, and I recommend tracking that one down, too—there are enough differences to make it worth your time.

Continue reading “(Holly)wood Pulp: 15 Books That Helped Me Understand the City of Angels”

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