Category Archives: Noir

MAJ SJÖWALL and PER WAHLÖÖ. The Laughing Policeman (1968).

One thing that Inspector Martin Beck and the policemen who serve with him on the Stockholm homicide squad rarely do is laugh. The emotions that they express, or that Sjöwall and Wahlöö express for them, generally align with the kind of gloom and dyspepsia that have come to define the Scandinavian soul (for non-Scandinavians, at any rate). The disappointments of married and family life, the unfulfilled promise of the welfare state, the dank and dreary skies that hover perpetually over the Swedish capital—these are the topics that typically preoccupy Beck and his comrades, who therefore come across as a dour and serious lot. The title of this novel, the fourth of the ten books that make up the Beck saga, thus contains a strong element of irony. And right away that irony takes on a dark hue, for The Laughing Policeman essentially begins with a dead policeman. Late on an evening in 1967, when the Stockholm police are focusing most of their energies on an anti–Vietnam War protest being held at the U.S. Embassy, an assailant guns down nine people on the 47 Bus as it nears its terminus in the city’s Vasastan neighborhood. Among the dead is an off-duty cop named Ake Stenstrom. Was his killing a mere byproduct of a senseless mass murder? Or was he the intended target of an assassin?


In the now-classic manner of the modern procedural, the investigation of that crime proceeds by fits and starts, with different investigators pursuing different leads with varying degrees of success and (more often) failure. Over time, usable clues—a hidden sheaf of sexually charged photos, a scrap of memory shared by a surviving bus passenger—do accumulate. Then comes a moment, understated but nonetheless climactic, when readers learn the source of the book’s title. Many weeks have passed since the murder spree, and it’s Christmastime. As a present from his daughter, Beck receives a recording of an old song called “The Laughing Policeman.” It’s actually a gag gift of sorts, but it triggers the stroke of insight that Beck needs to arrange an apparently ragtag set of clues in their proper order.

The resolution of the case carries no great surprise, yet it packs a real punch. In large part, that’s because it arises organically from its milieu. Stockholm is a city of islands, populated by residents who skillfully make islands of themselves, and Sjöwall and Wahlöö excel at depicting particular Stockholmers as they inhabit particular locations within that metropolis. The result is a somber, documentary effect that resembles the feel of mid-century noir film and fiction. Still, the noir scene that these authors evoke is a far cry from the prototypical American version. Life in Sweden might breed despair, but social breakdown is a problem that has limited salience in that well-ordered clime. The authors concede as much when they refer—in a glancing albeit telling way—to the day earlier in 1967 when motorists throughout the country miraculously switched from left-hand to right-hand driving.


Posted by on February 21, 2014 in International, Noir, Novel, Procedural


ELLERY QUEEN. The Origin of Evil (1951).

Many years after the fact, a sunken yet imperfectly anchored misdeed floats murderously to the surface of present-day life. On that classic formula, Queen predicates a detective puzzle that’s equal to the best efforts in the Queenian canon—a novel marked by deceptively transparent clueing and by a sequence of twists that fall just barely on the near side of implausible. OriginEvil.jpgOther Queenian motifs are also present: a series of anonymous gifts that have an elusive symbolic import; a Napoleon-like figure whose charisma and power-lust implicitly raise the specter of mid-century authoritarian politics; and repeated allusions to the “origin of evil,” a malign force that lurks in the human heart and that now, amid the prospect of atomic war, casts doubt on the survival of the species. These elements swirl about an equally classic situation that involves the linked dynastic households of Leander Hill and Roger Priam. Those two patriarchs had been partners in a successful Los Angeles jewelry firm, and the tale begins with Hill having recently died of heart failure. Ellery, who has come to Hollywood to work on a novel, gets drawn into investigating whether the cause of Hill’s demise was as natural as it seems.

An atypical and unwelcome element of the book, meanwhile, is its obsessive focus on the sexuality of two major female characters: Lauren Hill, a virginal maiden who enlists Ellery’s help in cracking the mystery of her father’s death, and Delia Priam, an over-the-top temptress who entangles Ellery in family business by other, less noble-seeming means. The two men who wrote as Queen apparently believed that they had to compete with Mickey Spillane, whose patented mix of brute violence and crude sex (with a chaser of misogyny) had helped make him—at that dark moment of American cultural history—the nation’s best-selling writer.


Posted by on November 13, 2013 in American, Noir, Novel, Puzzle


IAN RANKIN. Knots and Crosses (1987).

KnotsCrosses.jpgDespite his name, Detective Sergeant John Rebus of the Edinburgh Police doesn’t present himself in this début adventure as a solver of puzzles. To be sure, the apparatus of puzzling—cryptic letters to Rebus, a killer who plays games with the names of his victims—do clutter the foreground here. But Rebus fits the mold of a troubled action hero far more than he does that of a cerebral master of detection. The mood and the plot of this novel, which centers on the abduction and murder of several teenage girls, echo the serial-slayer genre that was in vogue at the time of its creation. Working in that genre, Rankin excels. His sense of pacing and characterization combines the best of both the literary and the cinematic traditions of thrill-driven storytelling, and he wields a stylish pen overall. His use of Edinburgh, a citadel of Enlightenment that contains a dark and brooding interior, is likewise apt and well done. (Rankin draws explicitly and exuberantly on the model of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, that great novel of Edinburgh in which a man, er, hides a monster behind his blandly civilized front.) Yet the whole thing has an over-the-top feel. It carries all the pomp and bluster of a holiday blockbuster or a sweeps-week TV episode. For an introductory installment in a series, moreover, the novel dwells too much on the character of Rebus; the murder case revolves too much around his past and his passions. Imagine a first date on which one party skips the usual charming banter and dives straight into making explosive confessions about himself. That, in effect, is what Rankin serves up in this tale. In fiction, as in romance, it’s nice to preserve a little mystery when you’re letting someone get to know you.


Posted by on July 4, 2013 in British, Noir, Novel


ALAN FURST. The World at Night (1996).

Twice in the span of a few dozen pages, the author refers to Eric Ambler, a novelist who specialized in World War II–era tales of ordinary men thrust into extraodinary service as spies of one type or another—tales, in other words, much like this one. Along with his excellent use of primary research, Furst draws generously from secondary sources for inspiration. Other creative touchstones, in this saga of France during the 1940s, include the novels of Georges Simenon and the films of Jean Renoir. (Each man receives a glancing, telling mention from Furst). It’s a story of Gallic wartime intrigue for readers already steeped in the ways of French culture and in the plot lines of Ambler, of Graham Greene, of John le Carré.

WorldAtNight.jpgJean-Claude Casson, as Furst calls his Ambleresque hero, produces films that are successful enough to earn him a life of high-bourgeois ease in the fashionable 16th Arrondissement of Paris. With a world-weary smile, Casson accepts the round of comfortable compromise that appears to be his lot. But after May 1940, when the Nazi Occupation begins to settle upon his city, he discovers that there are compromises and then there are compromises. When a chance comes to perform an undercover operation in Spain, ostensibly on behalf of British Intelligence, he takes it. But the mission goes awry, information about it falls into German hands, and the Nazis use that information to pressure Casson into becoming a double agent. Alongside such misadventures, a romance takes hold between Casson and a tragically lonely actress named Citrine, who steps into the flickering candlelight of Furst’s imagination as if she were fresh from a story by Guy de Maupassant or a song by Édith Piaf.

Mystique is everything to Furst, and mystery matters very little. The question of who betrayed Casson to the Gestapo spurs no investigation and finds no answer; it’s met, instead, with a “C’est la guerre” shrug. What Furst cares about is the intersection of a certain place, a certain moment, and a certain kind of man. While he explores that territory with real panache (or is “élan” the right term?), he also carries his romanticism a bit too far. The finale, for example—meant to strike a chord that is astonishing yet inevitable—falls short on both counts. The destiny of Casson and the destiny of France have much in common, but they are not identical.


Posted by on May 17, 2013 in Historical, Noir, Novel


HOWARD BROWNE. Thin Air (1954).

A hotshot advertising executive, with his pretty wife and darling daughter in tow, arrives at their Westchester County home after a long drive from a summer place in Maine. The wife rushes into the house—and vanishes. ThinAir.jpgThe young ad exec, Ames Coryell, calls the police, but they’re of no help; to them, the natural corollary of a missing wife is a guilty husband.So Coryell races into town, where he puts his glib tongue and his ad agency to work. Rather than hire a private detective, he turns his fellow admen into a team of skip tracers, using their arts of persuasion and their media connections to cast a dragnet for his wife across Greater New York. These scenes, which send up Madison Avenue and the travesty that is “agency English” (a local patois in which ideas are perpetually being “run up a flagpole”), are the highlight of the novel. They hold echoes of Kenneth Fearing’s noir masterpiece The Big Clock (1946), and so does the tale’s chase and counter-chase plot. Although it lacks the poetic depth of the classic Fearing tale, this brisk little thriller does “meet the ball on the rise,” as one of Browne’s pitchmen might say.


Posted by on May 9, 2013 in American, Noir, Novel


PATRICK QUENTIN. Black Widow (1952).

It’s a classic noir set-up. A happily married man gets to feeling a bit lonely in his swank Sutton Place apartment after his wife leaves town for an extended trip. He wanders upstairs to a party thrown by his friends, and there he meets Nanny Ordway, a drab but plucky sprite who strikes a vaguely paternal chord in him. A friendship, wholly nonsexual, gels between them.BlackWidow.jpeg And then it all goes very wrong, very fast. His wife comes home, and in their bedroom the couple find Nanny’s dead body swinging from a chandelier. To Lieutenant Trant of the NYPD, to nosy neighbors and prying reporters, and perhaps even to the man’s wife, the scene suggests a suicide for which he’s morally to blame—the tragic upshot of a love affair gone sour. Which would be bad enough, but worse is his plight once Trant determines that someone strangled the girl; she didn’t kill herself, after all. A web of incriminating circumstance tightens around the man, a theatrical producer named Peter Duluth, and as he learns more and more about poor, demure Nanny, he comes to believe that she has woven that web, as if from the grave: “Nanny-spider,” he calls her. Duluth appeared in several earlier tales that cast him as a solver of urbane whodunits. But here he finds himself in Cornell Woolrich territory, a nightmare Manhattan where the routine amenities of big-city life (an all-night hamburger joint, a Bohemian bar in the Village, the tiny Murray Hill bachelor pad of an over-the-hill actor) take on a sickly sheen of doom and desperation. Quentin lacks Woolrich’s ability to construct an atmosphere of pure, frenzied claustrophobia. Yet he makes up for that flaw with a slick plot that delivers one, two, three twists of the narrative knife—really, it’s hard to count them—before freeing Duluth from the last dark strands of a spider’s handiwork.


Posted by on April 11, 2013 in American, Noir, Novel, Puzzle


THOMAS H. COOK. Places in the Dark (2000).

Cook specializes in exploring the spaces that exist within one particular kind of “dark”—the darkness of the human heart, a metaphysical region where desire and memory go into hiding, and where dangerous schemes of deliverance are born. Exactly what Dora March may be hiding from is the secret that hangs longest and most provocatively over this novel, an unapologetically gothic affair set in a Maine town called Port Alma during the Great Depression. PlacesDark.jpgComing seemingly out of nowhere and bringing little more than her cryptic beauty, Dora enters and eventually turns upside-down the lives of Cal and Billy Chase, scions of a prominent local family. The contest that Cook shrewdly limns between Cal, a gloomy soul of classical temper, and Billy, a true-blue romantic, provides a powerful narrative substructure. Sibling love and sibling rivalry drive the story, which opens in the aftermath of Billy’s violent death and starts with a quest by Cal (who serves as the tale’s first-person narrator) to find Dora, who fled town immediately after the murder. As usual in a novel of this type, the key to understanding the recent past lies in a more distant past, and Cook puts forth several possible keys that might unlock the mystery that is Dora March. Cook’s failure to make the most of those possibilities is the only flaw in an otherwise elegant plot. In the end, we discover where Dora came from, but not what compelled her to travel across a continent to the storm-battered, love-forsaken world of Port Alma.

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Posted by on April 5, 2013 in American, Historical, Noir, Novel


BARBARA VINE. A Fatal Inversion (1987).

In an afterword to this novel, the second title to feature the Vine alias, Ruth Rendell describes the literary goal that underlay her decision to adopt that alter ego: “It would be a softer voice speaking at a slower pace, more sensitive perhaps, and more intuitive.” Seeing that line after stumbling off this tumultuous ride of a book, the weary traveler to Vine-land must assume either that Rendell is kidding or that she’s a supremely obtuse reader of her own work.Fatal-Inversion.jpg It’s hard to imagine a set of phrases (“softer voice,” “slower pace”) that would be less applicable to the work at hand—a work whose narrative voice is detached and unforgiving but never soft, a work whose pace affords the reader no breathing space between one scene of cruelty, or betrayal, or self-deception, or callousness, and the next.

A Fatal Inversion is a wickedly fine crime novel that inverts key features of the classic crime genre—a genre in which Rendell, writing under her own name, has proven to be a past master. Although there is plenty of mystery, and a plot as exquisitely complex as one could wish for, Rendell in her guise as Vine makes no attempt to play fair with her readers or to provide more than a light dusting of detection. (She even allows a loose thread to hang obtrusively at the close of her tale: Childbirth, parenthood, and parental identity are themes that drive much of the plot, yet Vine never explains what ultimately happened to a certain infant.) What’s more, although the police do investigate the events in question, they remain forever ignorant of the true contour of those events. But the most “fatal inversion” that Vine achieves occurs on a moral plane. In her darkly ironic fictional world, those who are least culpable of evil-doing feel most responsible for it. The guilty parties largely elude punishment, while others face retribution of a cosmic (if not civil) kind.

[ADDENDUM: A Fatal Inversion is one of the most compelling novels that I’ve read in any genre. Trenchant social and psychological observation combines with stomach-churning suspense to produce a tale that reminded me a lot of A Secret History, by Donna Tartt. In each of those books, a group of young men and women come together to pursue a certain dream of freedom, and that pursuit takes a wrong turn, with consequences that haunt them ever after.

The mini-review that appears above, by the way, is one that I wrote back when I felt no need to waste words on describing a book’s plot or its characters. So, for the record, here’s the Wikipedia plot summary for this novel: “In the hot summer of 1976, a group of young people are camping in Wyvis Hall. Ten years later, the bodies of a woman and child are discovered in the Hall’s animal cemetery. Which woman? Whose child?”]


Posted by on November 8, 2012 in British, Noir, Novel


HARRY WHITTINGTON. You’ll Die Next! (1954).

Henry Wilson was the most unexceptional of men, a guy with below-average looks who held a crummy $65-per-week clerical job at the Veterans Administration. He was nothing special, and nothing special—for good or ill—had ever happened to him. Then two remarkable things happened. First, an out-of-this-world beautiful lounge singer named Lila took him as her husband. Swapping her gig at the Kit-Kat Club for a life of matrimonial devotion, Lila made Henry feel as if the gods had decided to shine a light of grace on his every Everyman move. You'llDieNext.jpgThat’s where this short, lightning-crisp thriller begins. Then a second remarkable thing happens. One morning, while he finishes a breakfast that Lila has lovingly prepared for him, Henry hears his doorbell ring. Waiting for him on the front stoop of his humble bungalow, there is a slick, pale-skinned man in a snappy, pale-colored suit. The man is a goon, a tough customer of the kind who might patronize the Kit-Kat Club. He’s come to deliver a message to Henry, and it comes in the form of a blistering sucker punch.

The forces that uproot Henry from his drab daily existence are as elemental as can be. Lila embodies the mystery of sex, and that cold-white stranger embodies the certainty of death. Henry doesn’t die from the punch that he takes, but the threat of a violent end hangs over him now. From the stranger, he learns that someone—he doesn’t yet know who, or why—bears a fatal grudge against him. Other threats rapidly follow: a threat to his livelihood, a threat to his faith in Lila, a threat to his basic freedom to move within the city that he calls home. That city, which bears the generic name of Richmont, might as well be Anytown, U.S.A. You’ll Die Next!, published as a cheap paperback original, resembles many works of its kind (and many works of its era) in that it draws narrative energy from the confrontation between an ordinary “mass” man and the impersonal, unforgiving institutions that define postwar American life. Caught between a criminal machine on one side and a faceless public bureaucracy on the other side, Henry struggles to establish not just his personal safety, but his very identity. He stands naked in the naked city, and yet no one will see him for who he really is.

Whittington ends this noir-inspired tale in a brightly conventional, and not altogether convincing, way. That’s understandable: The norms of mass-market publishing in 1954 usually didn’t allow an author to take his hero very far in the direction of anti-heroism. Otherwise, Whittington succeeds in taking Henry Wilson—and readers, too—on a white-knuckle ride through the modern concrete jungle.

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Posted by on October 11, 2012 in American, Noir, Novel


THOMAS HARRIS. The Silence of the Lambs (1988).

Clarice Starling, as her last name implies, is a neophyte destined for high accomplishment. When we first meet her, she’s a mere trainee at the FBI Academy in Quantico. But then a senior agent taps her to star in the investigation of a major serial-killer case. Her first name is equally suggestive. It indicates, ever so subtly, that Starling hails from a social class that is long on aspiration and short on status. She’s a hillbilly who has made good, at least so far, and the energies of ambition and resentment that arise from her class position give her a hard, endearingly human edge. SilenceLambs.jpgThose energies also infuse this well-managed literate thriller with an unusually keen sense of urgency. We want our heroine to catch “Buffalo Bill”—a fiend who kidnaps and kills women so that he can harvest their skin—not simply for the sake of justice, but also for the sake of her career. When Starling confronts Hannibal Lecter, a notorious murderer who now languishes behind bars, we root for her all the more because of the elitist air that suffuses every syllable that he utters. (Here again, the name is telling: Hannibal both rhymes with “cannibal” and recalls the African general who sought to conquer Rome, the seat of ancient civilization. And Lecter, meaning “reader,” connotes high-culture pretensions. This Lecter, in short, is part beast and part would-be god; he has forfeited his humanity.) In Lecter’s mind, she will find a map of depravity that will leader to Buffalo Bill. But first she must hold her own as he plays a series of games with her mind.

Harris, in Silence, has produced a minor masterpiece by honoring both sides of the “literate thriller” equation. Voluminous research, on subjects ranging from entomology to penology, leaves its trace on every page, and shrewd psychological insight lurks within every scene. Yet Harris doesn’t shy away from gleefully, and sometimes gratuitously, exploring the more lurid elements of the thriller genre. Unlike most thrillers, meanwhile, this one pays due regard to the core function of its detective hero—which is, of course, to detect. Clarice Starling rises above her backgound through work, and the focus of her work is the pursuit of knowledge. In one fine passage, Harris celebrates that pursuit: “The idea swam away and circled and came again, came close enough for her to grab it this time and she did with a fierce pulse of joy. … Starling put her head back, closed her eyes for a second. Problem-solving is hunting; it is savage pleasure and we are born to it.”


Posted by on September 20, 2012 in American, Noir, Novel