Thursday, May 11, 2017

Dead, White, and Blue: A Brit’s
Coast-to-Coast Survey of U.S. Crime Lit

Assembling a guide to modern American crime fiction sounds like a task guaranteed to frustrate even the most astute observer and critic of the field—especially such an authority, in fact, because he or she would be unlikely to ever earn enough payment or be granted sufficient pages to do the subject justice. My office contains several shelves of reference books on this very topic, and yet every month I hear about a freshly published author or a sub-sub-subgenre of U.S. crime, mystery, or thriller fiction that I had not previously thought to investigate. American crime fiction is as sprawling and varied as the nation itself, and just as ambitious.

Nonetheless, British reviewer and raconteur Barry Forshaw has stepped up to deliver American Noir (Oldcastle/Pocket Essentials), which he calls “a snapshot” of the authors, books, films, and TV shows defining U.S. crime fiction in the early 21st century. At 192 pages long, this paperback overview—which is currently for sale in Great Britain (the American release isn’t expected until September)—can obviously not be comprehensive. It leaves out a number of rising writers and recognizable Hollywood productions that other specialists in this school of storytelling might have featured. However, for all its supposed concentration on “noir” narratives (that term is applied here only in the loosest sense), the book’s focus is broad enough that readers who think themselves well-versed in this genre might still discover new works and wordsmiths to sample next.

American Noir is the fourth entry in Forshaw’s series of brief directories to criminous yarns from around the world. It follows Nordic Noir (2013), Euro Noir (2014), and Brit Noir (2016). The author, a former vice chair of the British Crime Writers’ Association who for many years edited Crime Time magazine, also counts among his credits volumes as diverse as British Crime Writing: An Encyclopedia, The Man Who Left Too Soon: The Biography of Stieg Larsson, Death in a Cold Climate: A Guide to Scandinavian Crime Fiction, and Italian Cinema: Arthouse to Exploitation. Oh, and let’s not forget The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction, to which Forshaw directs readers wishing to learn more about U.S. writers of “the hard-boiled and pulp era.”

He devotes most of American Noir to alphabetically organized mini-profiles of novelists. Familiar names abound, from David Baldacci, Sara Paretsky, and James Ellroy to David Morrell, Laura Lippman, Walter Mosley, Carl Hiaasen, Karin Slaughter, George Pelecanos, Tess Gerritsen, Linwood Barclay, Megan Abbott, and Jeffery Deaver. Yet Forshaw finds room as well to remark upon the first-rate efforts of fictionists who less often draw the spotlight, folks such as Max Allan Collins, Dan Fesperman, Chris Holm, S.J. Rozan, Loren D. Estleman, Steve Hamilton, Linda Barnes, Robert Ferrigno, Philip Margolin, Chelsea Cain, Wiley Cash, and Wallace Stroby. (A requirement for admittance to these ranks was that the person still be living, which explains why such names as Donald E. Westlake, Stuart M. Kaminsky, and Elmore Leonard are missing from the book.) Included, too, are a few writers not usually associated with crime novels—Stephen King, Richard Price, Steven Bochco, etc. In most cases, Forshaw commends one or more books by the author, so you’ll have a starting point from which to explore his or her oeuvre.

By way of full disclosure, let me note—in all modesty—that I was among the “experts” Forshaw solicited for advice in compiling his list of authors to represent the current state of U.S. crime fiction. I had no say, though, over his final selections. If I had, I would probably have made a few minor alterations. For instance, I don’t see why Karen Kijewski (creator of the private eye Kat Colorado series, which hasn’t seen a fresh installment since 1998’s Stray Kat Waltz) should have merited attention here, while Stephen Greenleaf (whose John Marshall Tanner books are, I think, far superior) did out. Nor do I understand devoting a write-up to Viet Thanh Nguyen (who has published only one crime novel, be it the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Sympathizer), but referencing the more prolific Ingrid Thoft (Duplicity) and Dick Lochte (Sleeping Dogs) only in a back-pages tally of “other authors.” And why did Lawrence Block—still breathing and entertaining Bouchercon crowds at age 78—merit no mention at all? Perhaps Forshaw was satisfied with having included him in The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction. Less mysterious are the omissions of such historical mystery writers as Kris Nelscott (aka Kristine Kathryn Rusch), Louis Bayard, Kelli Stanley, D.E. Johnson, and Caleb Carr: Apparently, Forshaw is planning a separate study of their literary field.

Of course, these are mere quibbles, right up there with my lament that this paperback does not boast the sort of useful index found in the previous three Noir guides; and that Forshaw several times cites Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, even though the title of that publication became the non-possessive Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine back in the early 1990s. Thankfully, such flaws are more than made up for in other respects—by the fact, for instance, that the section of “Selected Crime Films and TV of the New Millennium” embraces worthy but forgotten productions on the order of the small-screen dramas Big Apple and Karen Sisco, plus the 2001 movie adaptation of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Pledge starring Jack Nicholson. Forshaw’s picks of “The Thirty Best Contemporary U.S. Crime Novels” are also excellent.

Nitpicking aside, American Noir offers a lively little tour of crime fiction sprouted from the Land of the Free and the Home of the Deranged, conducted by someone skilled at distinguishing gems from junk. As I said before, it’s not complete in addressing its subject; you’ll need complementary works, such as Steven Powell’s 100 American Crime Writers, to fill in the gaps. But Forshaw’s confident, often playful writing style and this book’s information-capsule format make American Noir a work that’s easy to dip into now and then, put aside, and come back to later. Consider yourself warned, though: The longer you spend with this guide and the more you learn about the current state of U.S. crime and thriller fiction, the taller your to-be-read pile is likely to grow.

1 comment:

TracyK said...

I buy practically any mystery reference book that I can find and afford, just because I like to read about mystery fiction and authors. So I am sure I will get this book. But the omission of Lawrence Block is disturbing, and I don't understand using "Noir" in the title when the book is not really about Noir mysteries.