Book Review: The Best American Noir of the Century – Edited by James Ellroy and Otto Penzler

I checked this hefty volume of short stories out of the library because I had been so impressed by the collection The Best Mystery Stories of the Century.  What is noir and what makes it different from mystery?  Well, it’s a subgenre of mystery that’s particularly gruesome.  It’s often told from the perspective of the criminals and involves foul deeds such as murder.  Several of the stories in this volume, in fact, also appeared in the Best Mystery Stories anthology, which I thought was redundant because one of the editors is the same and it comes across as a sort of companion volume.

This anthology has a lot of fine stories, but it is not as uniformly excellent as the other.  For one thing, it’s depressing reading when all of the stories are dark.  For another, several of the stories, especially the early ones (they are arranged in chronological order of first publication) come across as dated – little more than pulp fiction whose whole purpose is the lead up to the twist ending.  Some of these older stories are more silly than scary.  In fact, I almost stopped reading the book because of the lack of quality of the early stories, but I’m glad I persevered, because the quality dramatically improves about a quarter of the way in.

Among the outstanding stories in this volume is “Texas City, 1947” by James Lee Burke.  It’s a bleak tale about three children in the hands of an abusive stepmother, but its poetic descriptions and vivid characterizations make it leap out of the pages and draw the reader in.  Similar excellence is found in “Faithless” by Joyce Carol Oates.  It’s another story, curiously, of the reactions of children to tragedy.  As I mentioned, there are a number of other fine stories as well.

One story that particularly caught my interest is “Midnight Emissions” by F.X. Toole.  The story is about the world of professional boxing, and Toole was the pseudonym for a boxing trainer.  The book of short stories that “Midnight Emissions” appears in was the basis for Clint Eastwood’s Academy Award-winning movie Million Dollar Baby.  The most fascinating fact, though, appears in the editor’s introduction of the author.  Toole received nothing but rejections for forty years before he managed to get a short story published in a literary magazine at the age of 69.  Talk about persistence!  Then his collection was published, and he died soon after when he was 72.  His only novel was published posthumously to great critical acclaim.  This anecdote reminded me that fame is illusory, and desire alone is not enough for writers.  Imagine forty years of rejections.  You sure got to have a thick skin.

Anyway, as I said, this book is readable, and some stories leap out at you and grab you like great stories should, but it is not as consistently excellent as The Best Mystery Stories of the Century.  So if you have time to read just one thick book of mystery stories, read that one.

*     *     *

I came back to this collection to finish it off after a trip to New York and back.  I couldn’t take the book with me because it’s too heavy.  Something else bothers me about it.  It’s full of dark, bleak, twisted characters who allow themselves to perform ghastly deeds with sometimes very little motivation.  Some of the stories have decent character development, although not all; but even the ones that do leave you with the feeling that life is impure, gross, and illicit – not something that can bring you joy, but rather something like a minefield that can easily explode and destroy you.  Going through over seven hundred pages of stories like this left me disquieted and uneasy.  I really don’t have such a cynical, negative view of life.  To be honest, I have written some very dark stories too, but then I turn around and write something else to restore balance.  There is no balance in this collection – only darkness.  So beware.  I’m going to have to change my focus for awhile and concentrate on more positive things.  Too much negative drags down the soul.

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