Discover ‘The Best American Noir of the Century’
Ellroy, Penzler’s anthology of dark fiction
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.