Review: The Best American Noir of the Century

The Best American Noir is a pretty sizeable sampling of hard-boiled stories that is largely very entertaining with a few real gems.  The editors, James Ellroy and Otto Penzler, argue at some length for a broad definition of noir.  This is not the sort of broad inclusion that means “anything we like is noir.”  Their definition is broad, but excludes more than it includes.  It is reasonable and they stick to it.  They include a few stories that are outside of my characterization of noir, but there’s nothing in here I would not feel comfortable defending as noir.

While sticking to a definition is all well and good, my point is that the stories in here are different enough that you never know quite what you will be getting.  That is largely good.  Any collection will have highs and lows, but this one has many more hits than misses.  And several of the hits are outstanding.

In particular, I found James Crumley’s “Hot Springs” to be breathtaking.  Every sentence seems cut like a diamond for maximum sparkle and precision of meaning, and each is integrated into a seamless propulsive narrative.  Brilliant work and I will be looking for more.  Elmore Leonard does not disappoint with his “When The Women Come Out To Dance,” a tour de force of dialog and spare prose.  Dennis Lehane’s “Running out of Dog” is atmospheric and sad, and Tom Franklin’s “Poachers” has a strong sense of place.

Several of the stories here are more experimental than noir’s usual reputation.  I thought Joyce Carol Oates’s  “Faithless,” Bradford Morrow’s “The Hoarder” and especially Christopher Croake’s “All Through The House” did unexpected things well.  Croake’s horror story told backward in time is particularly compelling.  I liked Harlan Ellison’s “Mefisto in Onyx” and Chris Adrain’s “Stab” less.  Even for the stories I didn’t like, it was more a matter of not being won over, not of thinking that the work was badly done.

As with many of the things I read these days, I read this on the Kindle.  I found the OCR to be noticeably bad.  Most stories have at least one word break that is confusing in them.  And Joyce Carol Oates’s name is misspelled – an “O” taken to be a “D”.  The prose quality is high enough that this was never more than an annoyance, but if you notice these things you’ll be annoyed.

Strongly Recommended.

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