Why has noir made a comeback?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, recently. What is it about noir and hardboiled fiction that makes it so popular for modern day readers? After all, a happy noir ending is as rare as hen’s teeth and, although leavened with moments of humour, noir leaves its characters floundering in a Godawful mess that gets deeper and darker the harder they try to dig themselves out. Why would people actively seek out stuff like this when the world around them is so bloody dark, anyway?

We live in a world where banks are given a government licence to steal our money, safe in the knowledge that nothing will ever actually be done about it, safe in the knowledge that the taxpayer will pay for these transgressions aided by a crony political elite. We live in a world where governments spy without any constraints or accountability on our emails, phone calls, text messages and internet usage in the name of democracy and safety, when in fact it is nothing of the sort. We live in a world where the top one per cent will get richer to the detriment of the rest of society, and yet somehow manage make it seem like it’s the poor that are bleeding us all dry. We live in a world that allows corporations to control ever more of our daily lives (through political lobbying, weak and greedy politicians, and financial influence, among other things), allowing them to plunder resources, destroy the natural world and, in some cases, murder people, in their quest for ever more wealth. We live in the kind of world that celebrates fame over talent, youth over experience, beauty over almost everything. In short, we live in a world whose value system is irretrievably damaged, a world that is fucked.

I partly think it is because the world is so bad that noir has made a return to the mass-market. There’s something of the car crash about noir fiction; the way it shoves our faces into the piss and shit and viscera of this world. And if you drive a car for long enough you’ll know that there’s nothing we humans like more than rubbernecking at car accidents. Because as bad as things seem for us in the real world its nice to take a trip to places that are so much worse than ours, visiting characters whose lives are much more messed up than ours will hopefully ever be. What’s better than taking a trip to small towns where characters live out their lives of quiet desperation right up to the moment when they kick against the system and get really destroyed? I’ll tell you what’s better – that moment when you put the book down, breathless, thanking your lucky stars it’s them and not you.

Noir always seems to rear its head when times are bad. During the depression and post-depression years, during the cold war years and McCarthy’s witch hunts, during other recent periods of financial hardship. Look at Brit noir, for instance, which really started to come into its own when the swinging sixties turned ugly and faded into the early seventies, and the country was crippled by the unions, the three day week, and systemic corruption spread like cancer. Writers like Ted Lewis peeled back the skin of this ugly Britain and showed readers the rot that lay beneath. There was something appealing about somebody like Lewis saying: “Yes, your life is shit, but d’you wanna see something really ugly? Then read this.” Jack’s Return Home, Billy Rags and the peerless GBH pressed the noses of British readers into the filth and showed them lives that were far worse than their own, lives lived in squalid bedsits and B&Bs, lives lived in pornography, the sex industry, and other criminal endeavours, lives lived in prison cells or on the run, and lives lived so close to the edge that sometimes the balance is lost and they tip over the edge.

Of course, the ugliness of everyday life isn’t the only reasons for noir’s cyclical resurgence. Technology plays a big part, too. Affordable mass-market paperbacks and magazines propelled the earlier days of noir, back in the days when these things were truly affordable. And today’s noir and hardboiled fiction is propelled by the internet (e-zines etc.), relatively affordable e-readers, cheap or free ebooks, and improvements in printing technology that have enabled high-quality print-on-demand paperbacks. Today’s technological advances have allowed new small-press publishers to set up high-quality outfits with smaller outlays and overheads than Big Publishing can manage, which means they’re more inclined to take risks with material that might upset readers due to being too dark, or violent, or full of rage, or any number of other transgressions that can trouble those who might prefer ‘cosier’ stories: Blasted Heath, New Pulp Press, Snubnose Press, and Caffeine Nights are just some of the pioneers of this new trend. These folks are pushing real boundaries, taking real risks, and are putting out some cracking fiction that would never have been seen if Big Publishing was still controlling things.

There are currently a lot of Neo-Noir titans pushing boundaries that would make even the likes of Jim Thompson blush. Writers like Allan Guthrie, Ken Bruen, Ray Banks, Roger Smith, Anthony Neil Smith, Paul D Brazill, Tom Piccirilli, Heath Lowrance, Les Edgerton, Jedidiah Ayres, Megan Abbott, Nigel Bird, Josh Stallings, Ian Ayris, to name but a few, produce wild rides, break taboos, take real risks, and tell cracking tales with aplomb. If you haven’t read them yet, you should, they’ll really shake you up.

I hope that this new popularity for noir fiction doesn’t go the way of previous boom times. In the past, its popularity has been cyclical, and ended when times have got better…

Buuuut, the modern world’s a shithole, and things are probably only going to get worse from here on in (economically, socially, ecologically), so long may these noir writers and others like them reign.

Let a little darkness into your life.

Review: Sucker Punch by Ray Banks

Sucker Punch follows the story of Cal Innes about six months after the events in Saturday’s Child. Innes has given up the private investigator game and is instead working for his old friend Paulo at the boxing gym, doing any odd jobs that need sorting. One particular job involves babysitting a young up-and-coming boxer on a trip to LA to take part in a boxing tournament. Innes initially doesn’t want to go because he is addicted to Codeine – a by-product from his trip to Newcastle for Maurice Tiernan – and wonders how he will survive the trip without his fix. Plus, he isn’t all that keen on babysitting the young boxer, Liam, because his first impression of the lad isn’t an especially positive one. However, Paulo refuses to take no for an answer so Innes reluctantly takes his ‘holiday’. When he’s lands he meets a former boxer in a bar who tells him not to trust the fighter whose gym is being used to stage the competition. Innes asks the man to take a look at Liam and train him up for the competition. Liam is initially reluctant to meet the man, but when he does he’s impressed by the man’s knowledge and agrees to train with him. But  Innes realises that there are a few things about the man that don’t quite add up, and when the father of another fighter tries to bribe Innes to get Liam to take a dive the whole situation explodes into violence.

The sequel to Saturday’s Child is a different beast to its predecessor. For a start the novel is narrated solely by Innes, rather than alternating chapters between Innes and Mo, Maurice Tiernan’s son (who only appears in two violent cameos that bookend the story); Second, it moves at a more relaxed pace and has a less defined plot than the first novel; Third, Innes has changed from the man who appears in Saturday’s Child. He’s now a Codeine addict, and his alcoholism has changed from functional to barely functional. Plus, he’s angrier, much more bitter and less rational.

It’s this change in Cal Innes that makes Sucker Punch such a compelling read. It lacks the rocket-fuelled narrative and focus of the first book, so Innes himself has to take up the slack. He rails against authority, even when it’s trying to help him, has little respect for others and even less for himself. By the end of the novel, you can see the direction that Innes is heading and can only wince at the choices he’s made.

Although it isn’t as strong as the brilliant Saturday’s Child, Sucker Punch is still an excellent piece of gritty crime fiction. Ray Banks’ Cal Innes is a brilliant creation, with a superbly written narrative voice, a character who keeps the reader glued to the page. Highly recommended.

Review: Dead Money by Ray Banks

Alan Slater is a double-glazing salesman whose best-friend, Beale, a man he doesn’t even like very much, is an addicted gambler with a booze problem and a very fast temper. When that fast temper gets him into more trouble than even he can handle he calls on Slater to help him move a body. So far so bad. But when the reason for the body is a large debt that he has racked up with an Asian businessman/gangster things go from bad to worse. And when Slater is told that if Beale can’t make his payments the debt becomes his the whole course of his life goes from worse to truly fucked.

As regular readers will know I’m a big fan of Ray Banks’ work – Wolf Ticket’s was in my Top 5 of 2012, and I loved Saturday’s Child – so I had high hopes for this. But, I have to admit, this one left me cold. It’s well-written, and once the story kicks in wraps itself up nicely, but it has one element that left me utterly cold, and that’s the protagonist himself. Slater has no redeeming qualities whatsoever (not to my eyes, anyway), the man is an utter prick. He’s a coward, cheats on his wife (who he seems to despise without any real reason), has nothing but contempt for everyone and everything around him (including, towards the end, his mistress); he doesn’t even help his mate out of any noble intention, or sense of duty, he just does it because he thinks that’s what friends are supposed to do. The problem with a character like this is if the plot doesn’t kick in before you realise how repulsive they are you have a recipe for disaster (or at least putting the book down unfinished). It’s a testament to Banks’ immense skill as a writer that I made it to the end without putting the book down. The storytelling generated enough grip, along with my own morbid curiosity, to make me want to see how far Slater is going to fall; the problem was that when the end came I didn’t feel in any way emotionally tied to his plight. Banks’ best work is the kind I will happily read again (Wolf Tickets, especially), but – despite its obvious technical qualities (tight prose, fine dialogue, tidy plotting) – my dislike of the main character was such that I can’t say the same for Dead Money. Despite this, I would still recommend it because it is very well written and you might not have the same issues with the main character that I have.

Review: The Storm Without by Tony Black

According to the blurbs, Tony Black is apparently Irvine Welsh’s favourite crime writer. This is no small thing to have on your resume, that one of the most influential writers of the last thirty years thinks you’re the mutt’s nuts when it comes to writing crime fiction.

Black has made his name writing the Gus Drury series of books, all of which come with lots of critical acclaim, so he has a pedigree with this stuff. This Blasted Heath release isn’t one of those, this one is about Doug Michie, a former RUC officer with a past, who has returned to his old home town of Ayr. He’s barely back in town five minutes when he meets an old friend, and once more than that, Lyn, whose son has been arrested for the murder of his girlfriend. She doesn’t believe he did it. Doug takes it on trust and starts investigating. What he finds out leads him to old enemies, smuggling and council corruption. On top of which he has to deal with an alcoholic mother and ex-colleagues who aren’t exactly happy to have him back.

The Storm Without is a brisk read with plenty of style and a compelling narrator in Doug Michie. Tony Black’s excellent prose brings the rainswept streets of Ayr alive with nice little nuggets of description and he keeps the narrative moving along nicely. So far so good. But there is one flaw, one that takes a 5-star performance and turns it into a 4-star scrape. That flaw is the ending. Without giving away spoilers there is a rescue for a certain character, but the thing is we never find out how this happens or by whom or how the character gets found. Aside from a paragraph of a newspaper article explaining that it has happened there’s no further description to explain how it happened. Okay, I know they say show don’t tell, but if you can’t show something at least tell me how something occurred – I’d rather be told something than just be forced to accept that something has happened – without an explanation it becomes a deus ex machina and feels a bit rushed. This is a pity, really, because Black can really turn a sentence and he knows his way around a narrative and in Michie he has created a genuinely complex and likeable character. Despite the flawed ending, in my humble opinion, at least, this is still a fine read, but it could have been more than that. Still, Michie is a great character and I look forward to reading more from him and Tony Black.

Review: Saturday’s Child by Ray Banks

Drunken ex-con Cal Innes is making his living as a private investigator of sorts. He has somehow built a reputation for finding people who’ve gone missing and now seems to have turned that into a business. Although Innes does deal in divorce cases, he wants nothing to do with a pub landlady who wants to murder her landlord husband. He tells her he isn’t interested in that kind of work, tells her to give it more thought when she’s sobered up and leaves immediately. Then he’s contacted by the man responsible for putting him in prison – crime lord Morris Tiernan – and asked/told to find a croupier who has stolen ten grand from his casino. The trail takes him to Newcastle looking for a gambler with a taste for cash and a barely legal girl who just happens to be Tiernan’s daughter. Innes’ task is made harder by Tiernan’s psychopathic son Mo’ who has his own reasons for wanting the girl back, and by a brutal police officer named ‘Donkey’ Donkin, who wants to question Innes about the stabbing of the landlord. As Innes gets closer to the croupier and the girl things start to go really wrong. And after he’s beaten and left for dead, the detective is forced to take drastic action, including some eye-watering torture with a cricket bat, working his way towards an exciting and bitter climax.

Ray Banks is one of those writers who seems to be unable to write a bad book. His sense of pacing is immaculate and he uses language the way Mo’ Tiernan uses a Stanley knife – cutting through to the meat and bone of the tale, trimming away the excess flab. He uses a technique that I first noticed in the brilliant Wolf Tickets – having two different narrators give their voice to different parts of the tale – and much as it does in that novel it works beautifully. Innes provides a bitter, tragic commentary on his part of the journey (showing a true alcoholic’s eye for self-delusion, along with a lot of submerged fury). Mo’ Tiernan provides a funny, frightening and foul-mouthed counter-point. Both voices are superbly written and utterly unique. The story moves along at an incredible pace, never once dragging, and as first parts of a series go Saturday’s Child is one of the finest. Another absolute cracker from somebody who has become one of my favourite writers over the past year or so. Can’t wait to get started on Sucker Punch.

Review: We Are The Hanged Man by Douglas Lindsay

When the perpetually depressed DCI Jericho is asked to get involved with ailing reality show Britain’s Got Justice he is less than happy but he goes along with it because he’s given no choice. While this is going on he is being sent Tarot cards featuring various images of a hanged man. The show goes as disastrously as expected, with Jericho being made to look as incompetent as possible by the show’s makers, particularly as one of the show’s contestants has been kidnapped by a killer who rather enjoys performing torture experiments on people (just to see how much of it they can take). As more Tarot cards arrive Jericho realises that they have a link to some mysterious deaths that, in turn, are linked to him by blood. As the show progresses things get worse for Jericho and when a colleague that he is having an affair with disappears, leaving him as a suspect, he goes on the run in a desperate attempt to prove his innocence and work out who and why he is being targeted, setting up a final confrontation with the murderer.

This is the first Douglas Lindsay I have read and it won’t be the last, because I like his prose style and his facility with storytelling, both of which are excellent, but it will be the last DCI Jericho story I read. As much as I tried to warm to Jericho I simply couldn’t. His depression makes him surly and rude, and he spends much of the first half of the book just staring at people he doesn’t like (more or less everyone), which would be fine if he had other elements to his character that made him compelling – a way with words, a sense of duty, a brilliance of detection, or even a certain amount of self-deprecation – but he has none of these. Alas, he is a charisma vacuum throughout the entire novel.

Being a noir person, I can deal with detestable protagonists as long as there’s something about them, however minor, that I can warm to. I just couldn’t warm Jericho at all. Normally this would be the kiss of death to me finishing the story, but I have to say that Lindsay’s narrative was beautifully paced and his writing style is as smooth as warm butter, and these were enough to keep me flipping the pages. The last quarter of the book is a lesson in how to keep a story driving forward at an ever greater pace, at which point the last of my objections to Jericho became null and void and I just enjoyed the story.

I can’t highly recommend WETHM because of my issues with the character of DCI Jericho, but I can recommend it because Lindsay’s narrative and smooth prose style are excellent and he does know how to tell a story well.

Review: Wee Rockets by Gerrard Brennan

Joe the leader of a gang of Belfast yobs called the Wee Rockets has decided it’s time to leave the gang. Not because he feels in any way bad about what he does, but because he’s growing faster than the other gang members, and he’s worried that this will make him easier to recognise. At the same time, concerned local citizen and vigilante wannabe, Stephen McVeigh is desperate to do something about the Wee Rockets gang and stop them from attacking innocent pensioners in the area. He starts investigating, which brings him into contact with Joe and Joe’s mother, with whom he starts a relationship. Joe eventually passes the Rockets leadership over to Liam, a fat loser who desperately wants to be respected. The moment Liam takes control of the gang he ups the ante and, instead of playing safe like Joe, he gets them to move into robbing stores and younger people, because the takings are bigger. And when Joe’s criminal father also appears on the scene after many years away, the scene is set for mayhem that ultimately leads to fatalities.

Wee Rockets is the first Brennan that I have read and I must say that I was impressed by the confidence and fluidity of his writing. He is very good at fast scene-setting and renders his characters nicely in only a few sentences. The dialogue is also spot-on, with a nice grasp of how people really speak. The plotting is well handled, though I did have a few minor issues with the ending, which leaves one particular character still walking the streets when he should really be behind bars after all the mayhem he has caused. But, like I said, it’s a minor issue rather than a big deal, and is more than offset by Brennan’s confident storytelling abilities and his excellent characters. I like the fact that Joe, despite his occasional sentimental moment, remains a scumbag throughout. I also like the way that Liam’s transition from fat loser to remorseless gang-leader is realistically handled in terms of motivation. Like so many of Blasted Heath’s other publications this is an excellent crime thriller and marks them out as one of the most exciting new publishers around. Highly recommended.