In this month’s installment of our book club series, we gave ourselves a theme: “noir.” If you’re looking for a snappy, dark whodunnit, grab a magnifying glass and read on!
I kicked off our noir-themed round with Neil Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald.” Tasked with writing a story combining the worlds of Doyle and Lovecraft, Gaiman presents a London full of grisly mystery and ruled by a Great Old One. If that isn’t tantalizing enough, this short story is freely available online, delightfully laid out newspaper-style, and full of allusions.
But I am woolgathering. Forgive me. I am not a literary man.
This darkly fantastic “whodunnit” is told from a Watson-esque character’s point of view as he recounts the events that surround the titular study in emerald. Having moved into rooms on Baker Street with his roommate, London’s premier—and only—consulting detective, the narrator is drawn into a mystery surrounding the murder of the Queen’s favorite nephew.
My dear Lestrade. Please give me some credit for having a brain. The corpse is obviously not that of a man—the colour of his blood, the number of limbs, the eyes, the position of the face, all these things bespeak the blood royal.
We all thoroughly enjoyed the little details of the story: the dark atmosphere, the peculiar investigation, and the stunning subversion at the conclusion. Will the consulting detective catch the Tall Man and the Limping Doctor? Read to find out!
“Indie” by Steven Schwartz
When I think of noir fiction, I think of a good murder mystery, so what I ended up searching for was a good thriller that got me thinking and asking questions. Although my pick might not be considered noir (as the rest of the group made pretty clear), I still think it fit the bill of the kind of story I wanted to find.
“Indie” is a short, ten-part story about a history teacher who suddenly stands with a gun to his head at the front of his classroom. The story events span maybe ten or twenty minutes but—appropriately—feels like forever. Each chapter jumps from character to character, allowing the reader to view the narrative from a different person’s perspective.
Despite the subject matter at hand, we felt that aspects of this story were humorous. The jumps from one character to the next caused the tension to switch back and forth from an impending suicide to something as mundane as a teenager reflecting on their recent shopping trip with a friend. Interestingly, the piece failed to illicit a response of empathy or sadness. Instead, we ended up discussing the different ways people cope with trauma. If you’re looking for a thought-provoking investigation on different responses to trauma and tragedy, definitely pick up “Indie.”
“Start with a Corpse” by Larry Holden
Trying to find public-domain and good noir was a bit of a challenge. That was until I came across a fabulous website full of digitally preserved pulpwood magazines: The Pulp Magazine Project, created by University of Pittsburgh English Literature professor Patrick Scott Belk. This “open-access digital archive is dedicated to the study and preservation” of pulp magazines. It’s quite a treasure trove for the pulp fan and anyone simply fascinated by older, influential magazines, artwork, and advertisements. (Thank you, Professor Belk!)
Why was it that no one wanted it known just whom the Rutherford girl had killed?
I picked “Start with a Corpse” due to the intriguing title, cool two-page art spread, and no-nonsense noir mood. Barring a few plot holes we identified and a lack of whodunnit-nuance, this short story provided us with your cynical P.I. complete with a blood-stained dress, mysterious coins, abrupt bar fights, and deadly shoot-outs all leading up to a tidy ending. The only thing missing was a femme fatale and a dreary drizzle.
You won’t find much literary depth or character exploration, but if you’re in for a solid little 25¢ pulpy piece, pick this one up next.
“Bodies Piled Up” by Dashiell Hammett
Hammett wrote a series of stories in the 1920s that feature the Continental Op, an unnamed private detective in San Francisco. “Bodies Piled Up,” published in The Black Mask in December of 1923, is the fifth of Hammett’s Continental Op stories.
The story centers around a trio of bodies mysteriously stashed in the clothespress of a room in the Montgomery Hotel. As the Continental Op pulls on the threads of the three men’s identities, he unexpectedly finds himself on the trail of a mob conflict.
The writing is as stiff and dry as a martini without vermouth. The story has more holes than a wheel of Swiss cheese. The characters are as flat as the pages the story was printed on. If you’re looking for noir fiction with any punch, verve, or intrigue, then move right along—there’s nothing to see here. It seems like Hammett dashed this story off.
Black Maria by Kevin Young
Taking excerpts, however judiciously, from a book-length work can create confusion. This proved to be the case with Kevin Young’s Black Maria. Its chapters—“reels”—of poems track a plot, but characters and motives are hard to follow. So, with the story—a detective, a woman, a crime—out the window, what was left was the poetry itself.
There’s an inherently earnest quality to lyric poetry that stands at odds with the cynicism and world-weariness of the first-person noir narrator. Young writes almost exclusively in couplets, which could be read as the taciturn, repetitive diction of the private dick, but somehow none of us seemed inclined to defend that take on things. Instead, we read a tension between form and function—familiar tropes through an unfamiliar lens. A heavily discussed excerpt runs,
His real home was six feet
beneath ground, he was just
up here renting breath
with the rest of us, short term lease
he’s fallen behind on.
The first four and a half lines are good, solid noir, but we felt the “short term lease” pushes the image too far. Short lines and short stanzas keep the reader “pitching forward” but contribute to this tonal inconsistency, reading as intricately composed spoken-word rather than foggy, atmospheric noir. Black Maria is clever and fun but not “smelling of catharsis / & cheap ennui” in the way we’d hoped.
“Parting Gift” by Frank Ward
If you consider a characteristic of noir to be fatalism, then Frank Ward’s “Parting Gift” fits the bill. This ten-minute read follows a husband’s revenge plot on his cheating wife until the story takes an unexpected turn.
As we picked apart Ward’s writing, we found the short story comparable to a work of O. Henry. Considering that one of the most recognized elements of O. Henry’s fiction was a surprise ending, also known as the “O. Henry twist”, Ward’s short story possesses a similar structure. It focuses on the series of events rather than an exploration into the lives of the characters.
The standout feature of this story was the “expensive bronze table lighter fashioned after a globe of the world, with the ignition plunger where the north pole should be,” which makes for the ultimate noir accessory. While lacking emotional depth, the story does make for a quick, entertaining read equipped with stealth movements and mystery. Above all, “Parting Gift” is a reminder that some things in life are simply out of our control.