It’s a Noir Noir Noir Noir World: The Best of the Darkest

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We live in dark times and noir fiction is everywhere. But why now is there so much attraction to the literary genre of unhappy endings?

“Noir fiction helps us better understand the world around us,” says Ibrahim Ahmad, Editorial Director at Akashic Books, publisher of almost 100 titles of noir named for different cities, from Atlanta to Zagreb. “Noir is the equivalent of the social novel for the 21st century,” he adds.

Just as social novels dramatize society’s ills — slavery in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the Great Depression in The Grapes of Wrath —new noir takes on today’s economic, racial and social injustices.

French for “black,” the word noir first described certain crime classics from the last century: James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Double Indemnity, two tales of lust and greed; Cornell Woolrich’s The Bride Wore Black about a female murderer, and Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, about a homicidal deputy sheriff. The genre’s protagonists, more often than not antiheros, are conflicted, desperate, or criminal. If the world is corrupt, what is innocence?

Two women both called the Queen of Noir are Patricia Highsmith, whose Ripley novels twisted ambiguity inside out, and Dorothy B. Hughes, whose 1947 In a Lonely Place became classic film noir starring Humphrey Bogart (genre film fans now have Noir Alley, TCM’s showcase hosted by noir czar Eddie Muller every Saturday at midnight).

Noir-thirsty readers will find an oasis at Akashic Books, which launched its series of original short story anthologies in 2004 with Brooklyn Noir. Around the world in 87 collections later, the latest three are Prague Noir, Montreal Noir, and Buenos Aires Noir. Due June 6 are Lagos Noir, São Paulo Noir, and Santa Cruz Noir, the last edited by Susie Bright, the feminist sex expert. Baghdad and Marrakesh noir books will be published in August.

Each story in these anthologies is set in the city of the title, says Akashic’s Ahmad. “It’s a way to find the contemporary literature coming out of a place, from authors who are still living there.” Ironically, he adds, the collections sometimes serve as “no-go” guides, pointing out the seedier places where you shouldn’t travel after dark.

Akashic’s stories often are nominated for Edgar Awards from Mystery Writers of America. This year alone, two stories from New Haven Noir won Edgars: Spring Break by John Crowley (Best Short Story), and The Queen of Secrets by Lisa D. Gray (the Robert L. Fish Memorial Award). Two best short story nominees were Ace in the Hole by Eric Heidle from Montana Noir, and A Moment of Clarity at the Waffle House by Kenji Jasper in Atlanta Noir.

World Noir is a series of international crime fiction from Europa Editions, a publisher dedicated to bringing European literature to the U.S. Since 2013, Europa has added more than 70 World Noir titles. Two of the latest are:

  • Time is a Killer by Michael Bussi: A woman travels to her childhood home of Corsica with her husband and teenage daughter and revisits memories and secrets buried since her parents and brother were killed in a car crash years before.
  • Weeping Waters by Karin Brynard: Winner of the University of Johannesburg Debut Prize, Weeping Waters features a disillusioned city cop relocated to the edge of Africa’s Kalahari Desert, which he finds isn’t far enough away from organized crime, murder and racial tensions.

Mulholland Books is a Little, Brown and Company imprint dedicated to suspense. Two of their latest, noirest are:

  • Jackrabbit Smile by Joe R. Lansdale, the latest in the Hap and Leonard series: these two amateur detectives (a working-class Vietnam conscientious objector and a black, gay Vietnam vet) look for the missing daughter of a revivalist cult leader and find white supremacists, and a pit bull in need of a forever home.
  • Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke, winner of the 2018 Edgar Award for best novel: a black Texas Ranger investigates the murder of a black Chicago lawyer and a local white woman and finds corruption everywhere. Locke is writer/producer for the TV series Empire.

And last but not least, Greeks Bearing Gifts by Philip Kerr (Marian Wood/Putnam), is the 13th book in the Bernie Gunther series. No noir listing is complete without this former German police detective who survives the war and continues as a private investigator after. Set in Greece, his latest case involves Nazi war crimes, treasures stolen from Jews, and murder; as always in this series, it’s a story inspired by real historic events. Kerr died in March, but there’s one more posthumous Gunther novel coming next year.

Go forth into the darkness.

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