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.

The Next Big Thing

Nick Quantrill tagged me for this in his excellent The Next Big Thing Interview that can be found here. So I guess I better get busy trying to get people interested in my ramblings…

What is the working title of your next book?
Which one? I’ve got three on the go simultaneously: The Glasgow Grin, sequel to The Hunters; Bone Breakers, a standalone Stanton brothers’ novella; and Cry Tomorrow, a revenge novella that will introduce readers to the Blood Smoothie!

Where did the idea come from the book?
The idea for The Glasgow Grin came from The Hunters, which even though it is resolved is also left open for a sequel. The sequel follows on a week or so after the events in the first novel. Bone Breakers came from a short entitled Hot Fat that was due to go in The Greatest Show In Town, but seemed like it would benefit massively from space to breathe. So I dropped it from the collection and rewrote it. Cry Tomorrow came out of reading Incident on a Rain-Soaked Corner from Heath Lowrance’s Dig Ten Graves. I wrote a story with a very similar premise long before I read Heath’s tale. I was ready to include it in my short collection, but when I read IoaRSC it was immediately obvious that the tales were quite similar, and that Heath’s was vastly better than mine, so I dropped it. However, much later, I recycled and altered the short and used it as the basis for a revenge novella that I’d already started drafting.

What genre does your book fall under?
Everything I write, barring a few minor exceptions, is a crime thriller.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
The Stanton brothers get revenge on the man who crosses their path.

Will you will be self-published or represented by an agency?
Self-published.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
The first draft has taken about six months. The next draft and additional edits will take another two or three.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Wanting to write something that I as a reader will feel compelled to read. Wanting to write something that thrills and excites my admittedly tiny readership, but also expands that readership further. Further inspiration was also provided by my love of tough guy thrillers: Richard Stark, Dan J Marlowe, and most of all James Crumley, whose C.W. Sughrue and Milo Milodragovich first-person narratives helped inspire the Stanton brothers’ general couldn’t give a shit attitude towards the world.

What else about your book might pique the readers’ interest?
A cynical and weary tone-of-voice, a Teesside locale that is pretty much virgin territory in fictional terms, an assorted cast of villains, both humorous and frightening, and most of all the brothers themselves. A series is only as good as its main protagonist/s.

After checking, it seems there is absolutely nobody on the planet who hasn’t already done this, so I haven’t a clue who to pass the virtual baton to. If you fancy being nominated then mention it in the comments below and I’ll tag you after the fact!

My 5 Best of 2012 (plus 3 spares)

It’s that time of year, I guess; when as an occasional reviewer of books I should recount my faves of the year. 5 seems to be the magic number this time around, rather than 10, so I’ll give you mine (with three ‘spares’ thrown in – because the difference between all these books is for the most part so bloody tight). Of course that doesn’t mean they were written and released this year; just that I read them in 2012. They are listed in order of preference except for the spares:

5) City of Heretics by Heath Lowrance
I simply had to have something of Heath’s in this list, because I’ve enjoyed his work so much. I polished off Dig Ten Graves and The Bastard Hand in record time, and both were on the longlist of my faves of the year, with the final decision about which I liked the most being a tricky one. However, thankfully, the appearance of City of Heretics took the decision out of my hands by being so damn good. It’s the tale of an ageing con who’s looking to get some payback on the people who betrayed him, only to get sidetracked by a search for a serial killer, which leads him to a shadowy organisation that uses killers to further its warped ideology. It’s as tight and tuned as a drum skin and the lead character Crowe is one of the finest I’ve come across this year. If you haven’t read it yet you should – it’s a damn fine read.

4) Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock
I’ve read some excellent short story collections this year, but this one took the prize. Alternating between ugly and beautiful, with an eye for spare prose and dark finales that would make Gordon Lish scream and shout with joy, Knockemstiff is a stunning performance with the kind of writing that makes most writers green with envy (I know I am!). The story Honolulu is probably the most perfect short I’ve read this year. Brilliant.

3) Wolf Tickets by Ray Banks
Bank’s thriller about two friends searching for some missing money (and a cool leather jacket) was one of the treats of the year, and certainly the most entertaining. I loved the pace, the story, and most of all I loved the voices of the two lead characters (Banks gives them alternating chapters to tell the tale). It’s a storming read by one of the finest British crime writers around. I polished it off in a day and was sad when it was done.

2) Capture by Roger Smith
Roger Smith’s Dust Devils was probably the best thing I read last year (and its villain Inja Mazibuko was easily the finest bad guy I’d come across in years), so I was eagerly looking forward to the follow-up. Obviously I wondered whether Smith could create another book quite as good as that noir masterwork – but I needn’t have worried. Smith’s pitch-black follow-up, Capture, a tale of murder, obsession, voyeurism, and psychological cruelty, is a stonking noir that starts low-key but gradually works towards as tense a climax as its possible to get. I’m still amazed at how Smith manages to make us care about characters as dark and practically irredeemable as these but somehow he does; and in Vernon Saul he has created easily the best villain I’ve read in recent memory (somehow even better than Mazibuko). If you’ve not read it yet, download it today. You won’t be sorry – it’s masterful.

1) The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
This really is the surprise of the year, for me. It’s not that I don’t read modern literary fiction, it’s just that I don’t read it that often (and by modern, I mean the last 20 years). Half the time the hype just leads to disappointment – the discovery that behind all the pretty prose is a story that probably could have been told faster, more economically and truthfully by ‘lesser’ genre writers. However, Barnes’ tale of friendship, memory, and the secrets that we keep really was a superb performance – the kind of tale that only a literary writer could do justice. The prose was economical but dense, the storytelling masterful, and the ending in its own quiet, unflashy way was one of the most powerful I’ve come across in quite some time. As you might be able to tell, I loved it.

THE SPARES:

All The Young Warriors by Anthony Neil Smith
A fine thriller from a writer who seems to improve with every book. This really was in the the top 5 until Julian Barnes sneaked in at the very last moment. I have a feeling that if Smith’s next Billy Lafitte book is an improvement on this one then I might need to keep the top spot free for that!

Beautiful, Naked & Dead by Josh Stallings
To be honest, I’ve read so much good stuff this year that choosing a top 5 has been a major bloody pain. And this excellent detective thriller by Josh Stallings is, like Warriors, really only out of the top 5 by a tiny, tiny margin. Superb stuff, and I’m looking forward to getting stuck into the sequel Out There Bad.

Bullets and Fire by Joe R Lansdale
Lansdale’s novelette (and even novelette might be pushing it in terms of length), is a revenge thriller with the kind of jet propelled storytelling that few writers possess. Ultra-violent but with a heart (even if it happens to be so twisted and diseased it’s gone black). In terms of pure narrative entertainment this is second only to Wolf Tickets.

Adios, this is probably the last you’ll hear from my blog till after Christmas, so have a happy and safe holiday season!

Review: City of Heretics by Heath Lowrance

Anybody who has read this blog over the past year knows that I’m rather a big fan of Heath Lowrance. The Bastard Hand and Dig Ten Graves are up there with the best I have read this year, so I had high hopes for his latest crime thriller City of Heretics. I interviewed Heath in September about his new novel for this blog, which you can find here.

The story concerns Crowe; an ageing mob enforcer who is fresh out of prison with some scores to settle with some colleagues who got him sent up and tried to kill him. Before he can settle those scores Crowe attempts to find and take care of a serial killer. This leads Crowe to the front door of a strange and secretive Christian society with some very Old Testament notions about the word of God.

Heath Lowrance’s second novel is a different beast to The Bastard Hand. For a start, it’s a much tighter, shorter affair; the prose is leaner, the pace faster and the protagonist a whole lot meaner. Richard Stark’s Parker novels spring to mind when thinking about the feel of this book (the earlier novels, that is, not the later, weaker, ones). Lowrance paints some memorable images using very few words (particularly concerning the Ghost Cat – a dream figure that weaves its way through the novel). Also, his ear for dialogue remains as sharp as it did for TBH, though, again, the dialogue is shorter, more direct. What makes it really work is Crowe. He’s a hard-ass, a tough guy, a smart operator, ruthless and single-minded. He drives the tale forward, propelling it like rocket-fuel. Despite the beatings he takes, Crowe never gives up, never takes his eyes off the goal. He is a first-class character, a character most writers would love to have created. But, the thing is, they didn’t, Lowrance created him, along with a world that leaps off the page. It’s superbly written and confirms the abundant promise that The Bastard Hand announced to the world. Highly recommended.

Heath Lowrance talks City of Heretics

On of the great pleasures of getting into the writing/reviewing game over the last eighteen months has been my discovery of Heath Lowrance. His Psychonoir blog has been regular reading since I discovered it early last year, and Heath’s history of hardboiled/noir writers introduced me to several novelists whose work would have remained a mystery to me without this valuable guide.

However, what’s really blown me away about Heath is the quality of his writing. The Bastard Hand and Dig Ten Graves are up there with the best things I’ve read this year, and I can say that thus far (haven’t finished it yet) City of Heretics is the equal of James Sallis’ Driven, which I’m reading concurrently.

Anyway, enough of my waffling. You’re here because of Heath, not me. So, here’s the man himself to talk about his latest and greatest…

1) Let’s get down to brass tacks – can you boil down the premise of City of Heretics for the readers, and let us know why it’s going to wow them?
CITY OF HERETICS follows Crowe, an aging hard man just out of prison, back in Memphis, and looking to even the score against his former employers. But before he can do that, he’s caught up on the trail of a vicious serial killer, ultimately leading him to uncover a conspiracy among the city’s rich-and-powerful, and a secret society of murderers disguised as a Christian splinter-group. Along the way, he re-opens old wounds, and sustains some brand new ones– literally and figuratively. He’ll discover his own humanity, but whether or not he accepts it or rejects it, well…

For those of you who’ve read my first novel, THE BASTARD HAND, this one is a bit different. It’s harder, and it’s meaner. So, you know, if you like that sort of thing…

2) What was the spark that set the whole project in motion?
I guess it came from being away from Memphis for so long. It’s been almost fifteen years since I left that city. A friend who is still down there told me that I wouldn’t recognize the place now, that it’s a lot darker than it used to be. I put my feelings about that into Crowe, a man returning to the city he knew so well after seven years away, and finding that he doesn’t know his place there anymore. Also, it came from getting older (though I’m not quite as old as Crowe) and feeling that the world is, perhaps, leaving you behind.

And religion, of course, my old obsession, rears its head. I was reading about the various Protestant groups that sprang up all over the country in the early 20th century, and how strange and secretive some of them could be. That lead to the “secret society” of Heretics in the novel.

3) What were your influences?
The approach of Charles Willeford to character, as always, had an influence on CITY OF HERETICS. But beyond that, I was stretching my hard-boiled muscles with this one. I was reading a lot of Dan J. Marlowe and Richard Stark, and both of them seeped heavily into forming Crowe. He’s a dark character, cynical and bitter, and, if he has a conscience, its been buried deep for most of his life.

4) In what ways would you say it improves on your previous work?
Well, it’s leaner and more direct, for one thing. I find my work lately has been moving in that direction. As nasty as THE BASTARD HAND could be on occasion, there was still a tiny little bit of sentiment here and there, because the main character was basically a decent-enough guy. He was just… in a crisis situation is all, and it brought out the worst in him. CITY OF HERETICS has no such nice guy. Crowe is a nasty piece of work, and that gave me license to get down to brass tacks. The story doesn’t meander, and a lot of what goes on in Crowe’s head is left up to the reader. So I suppose it’s more of a challenge than my previous work.

5) How long did it take to write? And how much did the rewriting/editing process shape what readers have their hands?
It’s funny, but my first novel took a good five years to write, on and off. CITY OF HERETICS, though, took about eight months for the first draft. Re-writes took another couple of months. And the re-writes made the book, I think. Before editing, it was a moderately hard-boiled story, but after taking the scalpel to it, it became very, very lean and direct, without any ornamental language at all.

6) You’re a prolific writer. How do you manage it?
I just write every day, that’s all. There’s no great secret to it. Write, and don’t worry about any of it until the editing part. Don’t second-guess yourself. Keep going, no matter what.

7) Once readers have read this, what else have you got in the pipeline?
Well, I’d urge readers to check out my Fight Card novella which just came out, BLUFF CITY BRAWLER, for a fast, stream-lined action story. I have more Hawthorne in the works (weird western short stories, put out by Beat to a Pulp) and a few short tales here and there. Keep an eye on Psycho Noir for upcoming stuff. I started a third novel a few months ago that’s been on the back burner because of other obligations, but I hope to get back to it soon.

8) Who are your top five most influential writers and why?
Flannery O’Conner, Charles Willeford, David Goodis, Richard Stark, and Ernest Hemingway. Because all of them were obsessive about telling the truth about human nature. And they were all masters of tight, tense prose.

9) Top five favourite crime novels?
Just off the cuff, I’d say:
The Black Mass of Brother Springer, by Charles Willeford
Pop. 1280, by Jim Thompson
Slammer, by Alan Guthrie
The Name of the Game is Death, by Dan J. Marlowe
The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith

If you haven’t read Heath’s work before then do yourself a favour, follow one of these links and download them now.

City of Heretics
Bluff City Brawler
The Bastard Hand
Dig Ten Graves
That Damned Coyote Hill
The Long Black Train
Miles to Little Ridge

Review – The Bastard Hand by Heath Lowrance

After reading Heath Lowrance’s superb Dig Ten Graves, a short story collection with a hell of a lot of bite, I decided to read his debut novel The Bastard Hand, which had been sitting on my Kindle unread for far too long. Let’s put it this way: the next thing Heath releases is going straight on my Kindle where it’s likely to be devoured in one greedy sitting. The guy is that good!

Charley Wesley is your typical noir protagonist: down-on-his-luck, sad, bad, and quite possibly mad, too. He’s also something more, but revealing that would spoil things. After running afoul of a gang who steal his money and leave him for dead, he is befriended by a rather unorthodox preacher called Phineas Childe, who has somea rather strange notions about what is fitting behaviour for a man of God. Childe takes Wesley to the small town of Cuba Landing where he is to take up the vacant preacher’s post there. Nobody quite knows what happened to the former preacher at Cuba Landing, but the fact that Wesley has the man’s bible and it has a bullet hole through it tells you that things are going to go very badly by the time the story winds to a close.

The Bastard Hand is a strange novel, but in a good way. It mixes plain old noir sensibilities with southern gothic and adds a dash of religion and well… again, to say more would spoil it, and this is the kind of novel that is best experienced fresh. It is superbly and economically written in a hardboiled manner. One example of Lowrance’s excellence can be found in the description of Mack Aarons – a maker of moonshine whiskey:

Ugly, the first thing that came to mind. But ugly is such a small and subjective word, it really didn’t do justice to the exquisite disaster of Mack Aarons’s face. It was the kind of ugly that went to the bone.

Lovely, and it’s just one of many, thrown off with the casual manner that only the truly talented can ever really master. The plot strands are well handled and characters who seem to have no relevance at the beginning of the tale take on a real significance at the end. It winds itself up very nicely and has a nice degree of carnage too.

Download it today. Chances are, once you start reading it you won’t be able to stop!

Review: Dig Ten Graves – Heath Lowrance

One of the beauties of being on Twitter is finding a thriving hardboiled crime fiction and noir community. Meeting people (in a virtual sense) with similar interests to you; Meeting people whose knowledge of my chosen field of interest far exceeds my own, people like Heath Lowrance.

Heath recently did a potted history of hardboiled/noir fiction on his brilliant Psychonoir blog. It was good enough to make me buy the Kindle version of The Bastard Hand, which in typical hoarder style I have yet to read (though it’s now next on the list).

But I also recently downloaded Dig Ten Graves, his collection of short stories, which in also typical style I got around to reading first.

What can I say? Well, it’s flat-out superb stuff, for a start. And second, just bloody well buy it. You’ll be guaranteeing yourself some top-notch reading, and finding yourself a new favourite writer!

The entire collection is of a very high quality, but the stand-outs for me are Incident on a Rain-Soaked Corner, which is not only superb but, damn it, similar to a story of mine that was going in a collection of shorts I’m releasing late in February (although I’m now wary of including it because, trust me, Heath’s story is far far better); The Most Natural Thing in The World, which beautifully takes a man’s relationship with his dog and turns it on its head – a gruelling bit of psychological survival horror; and finally, From Here to Oblivion, which chronicles one man’s attempt to kill himself with brilliantly comic results (I have two words for you, Sayonara, bitches) – I guffawed regularly during the story, which got me a fair few looks whilst travelling on the underground.

If you’re looking for a quality collection of shorts, with not a duffer amongst them, then look no further. Dig Ten Graves is superb short story writing from a superb writer. Buy it today.