Tag Archives: noir

Offbeat Motherless Brooklyn resonates

motherlessWhat makes your protagonist different?  What makes him memorable?  Get this question right, and you’re halfway to a decent story.  Get it wrong – too quirky, too stereotypical, too shallow – and you’re probably doomed.  Jonathan Lethem makes all the right choices.

That’s why things were looking good, right off the bat, when I picked up Motherless Brooklyn because the book is told in first person by Lionel Essrog, a pretty smart and articulate guy, when he’s not undone by his Tourette’s.  Unfortunately, that’s pretty often, because it’s brought on by stress and Lionel leads a pretty stressful life as a low-level operative for a not-very-successful detective agency.  He barks.  He counts.  He shouts profanities.  He has an awfully hard time getting a date.

Lionel is one of four boys plucked by Frank Minna from St. Vincent’s Home for Boys (an orphanage, hence the Motherless).  Frank’s a good guy at heart, married to a woman who’s clearly too classy for him, and evidently in over his head because he’s stabbed to death by page 30.

The rest of the book outlines Lionel’s dogged determination to solve Frank’s murder.  The plot doesn’t move quickly – there’s too much back story and too many side stories for that – but it does move compellingly.  It’s pretty noir with its grit, hard-hearted women and heartless violence, and the Soprano-esque overtone is strong when the mystery is finally solved.  It’s also funny, filled with entertaining characters, and has a lot of heart.  Not much more than 300 pages, it’s still a bigger book than most of the others I’ve read recently and makes Joseph Finder’s Guilty Minds look like a formula caper.  It won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction.

How does it stack up as a summer read?  Maybe not a lazy hammock read, but I started it one evening, kept reading as the sun sank below the horizon, and couldn’t put it down until way after bedtime.  Definitely one to seek out.


Buried on Avenue B’s a pleasure to read

avenue BAging and stricken with Alzheimer’s, Gus Henderson’s pretty convincing when he tells his home health aide that he killed a man many years ago – a big man – and buried him under a tree in a nearby park.  It’s even more convincing when Detective Darlene O’Hara looks into it:  Gus Henderson had been a criminal, and his former partner hasn’t been heard from in recent years.   But the excavation uncovers the body of a ten-year-old boy, buried with care with some unusual items.  Peter De Jonge’s Buried on Avenue B  takes the tenacious O’Hara on a complicated path to the ultimate resolution.

Modern with a noir edge, Avenue B’s O’Hara is a flawed (of course!) but female protagonist with an interesting backstory.  She’s in her mid-30s and has a 19-year old son (Axl Rose O’Hara – just his name says a lot!).  She also has an 8 a.m. vodka habit and a streak of compassion a mile wide.  The plot’s interesting and there is a  surprising twist related to the boy’s death, but the best thing about the book is the characterization:  all the characters, to the smallest walk-on parts, feel real.  No cardboard here.  It’s not a pulse-pounding page-turner, but still, a pleasure to read.

Noir crime panelist stand-out Christa Faust

Q:  What do Neil Anthony Smith, Scott Phillips, Sean Doolittle, Victor Gishler, Brian Azzarello and Christa Faust have in common?

A:  They were all in the line-up at Murder & Mayhem in Muskego’s panel on noir crime fiction.

Fiction with a dark edge, where characters you like are in real danger, sex and violence often go together and a happy ending is the opposite of guaranteed.   The guys on the panel are all white.  All in that broad range of years in the middle of life.  And all very interesting.  Gishler wrote Go Go Girls of the Apocalypse.   Azzarello writes graphic novels.  Phillips’ first novel was made into a big-name movie with John Cusack (The Ice Harvest).

But still, the stand-out on the panel was Christa Faust.   The first woman published by Hard Case Crime, Christa’s memorable.  She’s attractive.  Tattooed. Her style is a bit on the biker chick side.  And she’s generally accompanied by her Boston terrier, Butch.

More importantly, she’s knowledgeable, assertive, well-spoken, and entertaining. I loved watching the gray-haired ladies at Murder & Mayhem (which I can totally say because I have gray hair and have passed that 55-year-old birthday myself!) visibly restrain themselves from clucking when Christa dropped the F-bomb.   One lady near me, when the Q&A started, asked the panelist to define “noir.”  And not in a “what’s your perspective on noir?” but the “what are you guys all talking about?” kind of way.

Personally, I’m not a huge fan of the pulp fiction kind of noir, the classic 50s noir with detectives, damsels in distress, and whiskey in the bottom drawer, but I like a good, dark story where somebody’s heart gets broken and somebody gets killed.  Christa and the guys have convinced me to take a look at their work. And I guess that’s why they hit the road!

Best American Series Out for 2010!

Every year, I look forward to the appearance in bookstores of Mariner Book’s The Best American Series – an annual compilation of the best short fiction and nonfiction.  First purchase is always The Best American Mystery Stories. This year’s editor is Lee Child, and the series editor is Otto Penzler author and owner of The Mysterious Bookshop, now located in the Tribeca neighborhood of Manhattan.

Penzler selected 50 stories from among the who-knows-how-many submitted by authors, publishers, fans, as well as through the ever-so-vigilant scouring of potential publications by Penzler himself.  Lee Child then chose 20 of the 50.  Child is the author of Jack Reacher series, so it will be interesting to see if he chooses stories similar to the type he tends to write, or if he is more wide-ranging in his tastes.

I always turn first to the front of the book to scope out A) what authors I know have made the book and B) the original publication for the selected stories.   Dennis Lehane (known for Mystic River and Shutter Island, among others) has a story, as does Phillip Margolin, the criminal-defense-attorney-turned-bestselling-legal-thriller-author.

This year Ellery Queen is the source for three stories and the sister publication, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, has one.  Noir is in store with Boston Noir getting two nods and Black Noir with one.

I plan to read all the stories and rank them, with a special “call out” if there are any that I think I could have written myself.  (Don’t hold your breath on that one – typically 18 out of the 20 stories blow me away and two out of 20 are great, just not my kind of thing.)  So watch this space, or better yet, go buy the book and read the stories!

So hilarious!

I am just getting around to reading yesterday’s newspaper, and Mr. Boffo is boffo this week.  As I am writing a mystery and my writing group are all doing the same, we have been discussions related to reader expectations.   This cartoonist captures some of the more common identifiers of the noir subgenre… as applied to an appliance manual.  Rich.

Hope you can read it.  The type is a little tiny for me!