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Monday, Aug. 23, 2010

Discover ‘The Best American Noir of the Century’

Ellroy, Penzler’s anthology of dark fiction

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Noir. The word has at least two meanings—the first is blackness, darkness and mystery; the other defines a genre of fiction in which hard-boiled detectives and cops mop up crime or commit them, and the common theme is death of the cop or the criminal, or both. Shakespeare once said that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, and this rings true in The Best American Noir of the Century (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), which mingles the two related genres of true crime and dark prose approaching horror.

Edited by James Ellroy and Otto Penzler, the anthology includes 39 stories published from 1923 to 2007. The opening shot, “Spurs” by Tod Robbins, is a noir extravaganza set in a French circus. A good-natured dwarf lusts for the beautiful bareback rider Jeanne Marie, who in turn loves the drunken rogue St. Eustache. After the farcical dwarf inherits his uncle’s estate and weds Jeanne Marie, she contrives for St. Eustache to kill the little man. With its themes of betrayal and revenge, the story sets the stage for much of what is to come in the anthology.

Without doubt the best stories are (1) David Morrell’s “The Dripping,” which begins with an artist returning home to a seemingly empty house. Soon, however, he hears a dripping noise coming from the basement, and finds milk dripping from every possible angle. Is he alone in the house? The suspense is maddening and the final revelation will bring the horror full circle; (2) Evan Hunter’s “The Last Spin,” wherein two New York gangland kingpins play Russian roulette to settle a score that neither really understands. The tension between turns with the gun is filled with the optimism that neither combatant will die and that they will actually become friends, just before the last pull of the trigger; and (3) Harlan Ellison’s “Mefisto in Onyx,” which may be the longest and best psycho rant of all time.

The format of the book is insidiously alluring, if the reader is patient enough to read the stories in order and discover the evolution of styles and themes from one decade of noir to the next. Each step is not necessarily better, but more inventive and written with greater confidence, adding to the fertile creativity of the genre and allowing it to advance itself in a rich and scary outré reality where the bad guys and good guys meet in the middle.