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Find more Hard-Boiled Gazetteer to Country Noir
Let’s begin with a few words about the sorry degradation of the word noir. As far back as 2005, I was decrying the use of the term by publicists and reviewers to describe “every kind of crime novel that doesn’t take place in a Cotswold village or include recipes for blueberry muffins.” It hasn’t improved. If there’s a male character in the book who doesn’t shave every day, or a female who uses the f-word, or something bad happens to someone somewhere, it’s noir. Sorry, but it isn’t. Think of the crime-fiction world as a speedometer. From zero to 50, we’re talking cozies; from 50 to 90, we’re talking hard-boiled; and from 90 on up, the red zone, we just might have reached noir. This analogy, I should explain, has nothing to do with the pace of a story but, rather, with its intensity, emotional and otherwise, and its direction. In noir, the narrative always moves downward, from bad to worse. Not only that, but the protagonist’s foot is glued to the gas pedal, and he or she has no choice but to hurtle toward disaster. Lots of hard-boiled novels have a noirish feel, but they aren’t noir. Put it this way: if that unshaven protagonist shaves by the end of the book and maybe buys a new shirt, it isn’t noir.
But, at some point, it’s time to raise the white flag. I can see I’m not going to win the noir argument, so how about this for a compromise: when you see the word noir used to describe a book, assume the book is noirish in tone at best. You’ll be right more often than wrong—and that’s especially true in terms of what we’ve come to call country noir. Daniel Woodrell is the reigning master of country noir, but the genre has its roots in Erskine Caldwell, who set the mood and tone in such once-scandalous books as Tobacco Road and God’s Little Acre (a copy of the latter once resided in my mother’s underwear drawer). And then there was Deliverance; James Dickey’s novel isn’t strictly noir, either (the clean-shirt-at-the-end rule), but what we remember from the book and movie isn’t the end; it’s the middle part, which is as deep into noir as you can go.
The writers I feature below use the idea of country noir in a variety of ways, adapting its tone and mood for high-octane chase thrillers and caper novels as well as straight-ahead tales of femme fatales and lives gone wrong. Some are pure noir, many are just noirish, but they all turn rural into a synonym for menacing. Usually, you have blinking neon lights and tilted Venetian blinds in noir; in country noir, you don’t. Instead, you have dust and desperation.
And then there’s Woodrell, who draws on the tradition of country noir to write novels that leapfrog beyond all categories. In reviewing his marvelous Tomato Red,I attempted to capture the many sides of his brilliance by saying, “Take Elmore Leonard’s grit, Barry Gifford’s wild heart, James Crumley’s mean streak, and—stay with me here—a wisp of Truman Capote’s lyricism, and you’re ready to visit the Ozarks, Woodrell style.”
This is the sixteenth annual installment of our Hard-Boiled Gazetteer, and, as always, thanks must go to all the Booklist reviewers whose words I have borrowed so shamelessly in the annotations below. It’s also important to note that, while several of the titles mentioned are out of print, all are readily available from multiple online sources.
Raylan. By Elmore Leonard. 2012. Morrow, $26.99 (9780062119469).
U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, formerly rousting mobsters in South Beach (Riding the Rap, 1995), has been sent home to Harlan County, Kentucky, where he’s reduced to tracking backcountry marijuana growers. Then one of the growers turns up with his kidneys missing. The three vaguely interconnected stories collected here feature plenty of Raylan, the fast-drawing, iconoclastic lawman who’s never at a loss for words or bullets, but the disjointed nature of the whole is a bit disconcerting. Still, hardscrabble Harlan County makes a perfect setting for Leonard’s signature dialogue and delightfully warped characters.
Welcome to the Fallen Paradise. By Dayne Sherman. 2004. MacAdam/Cage, OP.
The Tadlock clan in Louisiana’s Baxter Parish isn’t known to run from a fight. So it strains familial relations some when young Jesse Tadlock avoids a legal scrape by enlisting in the army and then stays overseas for a dozen years. When he gets home, though, the bills come due in the form of a hellish man under the law’s shady protection, who arrives to claim the repossessed property that Jesse had been coveting. This pitch-perfect debut novel, about a hard-luck place where blood feuds spring up as natural as pit bulls after raw meat, will go down easier with fans of rural crime stories than a juicy pork steak steeped in red-eye gravy.
American Salvage. By Bonnie Jo Campbell. 2009. Wayne State Univ., $18.95 (9780814334126).
The houses are ramshackle, the trucks hard-used, the weather extreme. The men, clad in shabby camouflage, are battered and scarred. They labor at dangerous, soul-killing jobs; drink too much; and stand by their loved ones no matter how flat-out crazy they are (or they think about killing them). Welcome to rural Michigan, Campbell’s home ground, and a story collection with the same impact but more artistry than Frank Bill’s Crimes in Southern Indiana (see below). There is a strain of country noir that counterbalances loss and despair with a kind of fierce compassion, and Campbell leads the league in that category.
Crimes in Southern Indiana. By Frank Bill. 2011. Farrar, paper, $15 (9780374532888).
Fire up your pickup in Bonnie Jo Campbell’s rural Michigan, drive a ways south, then turn west, and pretty soon you’ll come to Bill’s southern Indiana, where the crimes are sordid and the compassion a bit harder to find. The stories in this collection are short, merciless bursts of sorrow, bad choices, and violence; of depravity and abuse; of people whose only solutions lie in guns, knives, fists, and fire. The writing is uneven, with the line between the narrative voice and the characters’ voices often porous. Dialogue is sometimes keenly pitched, other times caricaturish, but for those who like their bleakness served straight up, these portraits of rural despair have undeniable power.
The Devil All the Time. By Donald Ray Pollock. 2011. Doubleday, $26.95 (9780385535045).
Like Campbell, Pollock isn’t really a crime writer, but his portrait of his hometown, Knockemstiff, Ohio—first in the story collection Knockemstiff (2008) and then in this follow-up novel—breathes country noir. Jumping between Ohio and West Virginia, the novel follows hapless Arvin Russell as he attempts to navigate a Flannery O’Connor world populated by crazed preachers, husband-and-wife serial killers, and a crippled virtuoso guitar player who seems to have wandered in from Deliverance.
The Devil You Know. By Wayne Johnson. 2004. Crown/Shaye Areheart, OP.
Speaking of Deliverance,it’s Minnesota lake country, not Georgia, this time, but we’re back in the canoes, and unspeakable evil is on our tail. The pull of Dickey’s novel was entirely mythic, but Johnson manages the dazzling feat of surrounding his mythic confrontation with a human drama, the coming-of-age of a troubled teenager, that is as subtly realistic as the battle with evil is archetypally grand. Johnson’s villains, who violently disrupt a father-son canoeing trip, are a little more human than Dickey’s toothless messengers from hell, but like Stephen Hunter’s dirty white boys, their wisps of humanity only add to their menace.
Dirty White Boys.
By Stephen Hunter. 1994. Dell, paper $7.99 (9780440221791).
This unrelenting thriller about two white-trash sociopaths and the determined cop who tracks them drives a spike deep into the black heart of country noir. The story of Lamar Payne and his cousin Odel, who break out of MacAlester State Penitentiary and begin a crime spree that extends across the Midwest, seems like it’s going to be a modern western in which an obsessed lawman tracks pure evil across the prairie, but it turns out to be much more. Lamar is a sociopath, certainly, but he is made more frightening by the multidimensionality that Hunter brings to his character. This may be the most gripping, textured portrayal of the criminal underclass since In Cold Blood.
Wire to Wire. By Scott Sparling. 2011. Tin House, paper, $15.95 (9781935639053).
Sparling’s debut novel employs a fascinating ensemble cast of low-life outcasts and desperadoes in the economically devastated area of northwestern Michigan, circa 1980. The main character, Michael Slater, modulates the jolt of his amphetamines with beer and occasionally sees things that aren’t there—but what is there is a determined sadist searching for Slater and determined to kill him very slowly. Starling’s writing is self-assured, suffused with a streetwise insouciance, always edgy, and frequently lyrical, particularly on the pleasures of riding the rails to find some kind of peace—or escape.
Ranchero. By Rick Gavin. 2011. Minotaur, $24.99 (9780312583187).
Mississippi repo man Nick Reid attempts to collect the $20 Percy Dubois owes on a rented TV. Percy has another idea: bean Nick with a shovel and steal his 1969 mint Ranchero to hold for ransom. Nick and his pal Desmond give chase. The dialogue in this first novel hits every note perfectly; Nick and Desmond are likable, tough-but-not-psychotic protagonists; and the bad guys are unsettling mixtures of stupid and deadly. Think Hap Collins and Leonard Pine in Joe R. Lansdale’s series.
The Devil’s Right Hand. By J. D. Rhoades. 2007. Minotaur, OP.
This supercharged crime-fiction debut, in which bounty hunter Jack Keller, a Gulf War vet with a head full of nightmares, tracks a couple of dumb and dumber ex-cons, is the narrative equivalent of a string of homemade bombs timed to explode at random along the North Carolina back roads. Like Stephen Hunter’s Dirty White Boys, however, this is not simply a car chase with fireworks; Rhoades builds his rampaging white boys from the ground up, and Keller is the kind of flawed noir hero whom women want to nurse, cops want to bust, and bad guys want to hurt.
All Hat. Brad Smith. 2003. Picador, paper, $15 (9780312423179).
“The gelding had character and a heart as big as a washtub. He was never destined to be anything more than a ten-thousand-dollar claimer, but that didn’t change the fact that he had heart.” Ex-con Ray Dokes, just out of prison and trying to live a “half-ass normal life,” is talking about a racehorse with a broken leg, but he could just as well be describing himself, or, for that matter, this rollicking romp of a novel—except that the book, unlike the horse, has legs enough to run with the big boys. It’s a caper novel, finally, about a scam involving switching horses before a big race, but Smith effortlessly mixes laugh-out-loud comedy with streaks of country noir that often leave the laughs caught in your throat.
Missouri and the Ozarks
By Matthew F. Jones. 1999. Bloomsbury, OP.
The exact location of this gripping mix of country noir and psychological thriller isn’t named, but there are mountains, and it’s in the South, so let’s call it the Ozarks. Nat Banyon stops on a country road to help the wrong guy, and the wrong guy introduces him to the wrong girl, who happens to be the wrong guy’s wife, who just happens to have a plan about how to get rid of the wrong guy and make the right life for her and Nat. And then there’s the wrong guy’s dog, a nasty rottweiler that seems to have wandered in from a Stephen King novel for the sole purpose of reminding noir fans that black comes in more than one shade these days.
Give Us a Kiss: A Country Noir. By Daniel Woodrell. 1996. Back Bay, paper, $14.99 (9780316206204).
Really, you can’t talk country noir without talking about Woodrell’s entire oeuvre, but since this novel actually has the words country noir in the subtitle, it’s kind of a no-brainer to include it here. It also has perhaps my favorite line in any country noir novel: “It’s a strange, powerful bloodline poetry, I guess, but there’s something so potent to us Redmonds about bustin’ laws together, as a family.” (Fans of Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone will recognize the Redmonds as the archenemies of the Dollys, the clan to which Ree Dolly, the novel’s indomitable heroine, belongs.) Dirt farmers, Woodrell tells us, “have no quit in them.” Neither does a novelist determined to portray the special mix of poetry, stubbornness, humanity, and just-plain meanness in the souls of a few Ozark hill folk.
Cypress Grove. By James Sallis. 2003. Walker, paper, $13 (9780802776952).
The first in a deeply melancholic trilogy finds ex-cop, ex-con, and ex-psychotherapist Turner settled in the deep country outside Cypress Grove, Tennessee, looking only for solitude. Then the local sheriff shows up bearing a bottle of Wild Turkey and a plea for help: murder has come to Cypress Grove, and the sheriff needs the expertise of a mean-street-hardened investigator. This isn’t the first country noir to explore the theme of a wounded urban refugee failing to find peace where the trees grow, but it’s one of the best and definitely among the most lyrical.
Dust Devils. By James Reasoner. 2007. Pointblank, paper, $16.95 (9780809572458).
A pickup truck bumps down a dusty dirt road somewhere on the plains. It may be Dakota, but New Mexico would be better, and the Texas Panhandle, where veteran pulp novelist Reasoner begins his tale, is best of all. Vintage noir always has a femme fatale at its center, and the woman in bed with sad-sack Toby is an old-school classic from the James M. Cain school. Soon enough Toby is riding shotgun on a crime spree, and we know it can’t end well. Shockingly, Reasoner also writes western romances under the pseudonym Dana Fuller Ross, but noir devotees won’t hold that against him. This is the real thing.
Robbers. By Christopher Cook. 2000. Carroll & Graf, OP.
Eddie didn’t mean to shoot the 7-Eleven clerk in the head, but the pack of Camel straights he was trying to buy cost $4.01, and he was a penny short. Eddie starts shooting first, but sociopath Ray Bob quickly calls Eddie’s clerk and raises him a cop and a few more clerks. Then there’s Della, a hairdresser who hitches a ride in the runnin’ buddies’ ragtop caddy, and, naturally, three’s a crowd. Yes, we feel the pathos of white-trash lives gone wrong, but soon enough, we’ve forgotten the big picture; we’re runnin’, too—tasting the dirt of the back roads and rooting for Eddie and Della, murderers each, to escape both Ray Bob and the law and to make it into the middle class of their naive dreams.
The Rogues’ Game. Milton T. Burton. 2005. Minotaur/Thomas Dunne, $23.95 (9780312336813).
The stranger who comes to small-town Texas in this gripping country noir, set in the post-WWII era, arrives with a fine car, a finer blonde on his arm, and a taste for high-stakes poker. We’re not sure what the stranger’s game is, but we’re not about to leave town until we find out. Readers will eventually learn the truth, and the truth will set them free in a conclusion that is exhilarating and extraordinarily satisfying. This is a stunningly mature, layered first novel from an author who knows Texas and people in equally fine measure.
Sunset and Sawdust. by Joe R. Lansdale. 2004. Vintage, paper, $13.95 (9780375719226).
Beginning with a hold-your-breath set piece in which red-haired beauty Sunset Jones kills her husband, Pete, who happened to be raping her at the time, Lansdale’s novel follows the story of killer turned law-lady Sunset, who attempts to solve a murder in the sawmill settlement of Camp Rapture in Depression-era East Texas. Sunset is a marvelous character; you don’t see many feminist heroines in the femme-fatale world of noir, which makes her emergence, her coming-of-age in an age set firmly against her, so exhilarating. Lansdale layers the mystery elements skillfully, but where he really shines is in his evocation of both the desperation and the determination that grew from the dirt of the Depression.
The Legal Limit. By Martin Clark. 2008. Knopf, $24.95 (9780307268358).
Raised hardscrabble by a violent, abusive father and an overwhelmed mother, Mason and Gates Hunt remain close even as their paths diverge, Mason becoming a lawyer in Patrick County, Virginia, and Gates hanging on as a low-level drug dealer. Then a secret from the men’s distant past surfaces to threaten everything Mason values. Like Daniel Woodrell and Willy Vlautin, Clark offers a tough-minded look at hard lives lived by hard but not insensitive men.
East of Denver. By Gregory Hill. July 2012. Dutton, $25.95 (9780525952794).
Stacey (“Shakespeare”) Williams drives to eastern Colorado to bury his cat (Denver has a shortage of good cat-burying venues). Returning to the family farm, way back of nowhere, Shakes (nickname to the nickname) finds his father gone senile and the caregiver dead on the bathroom floor (she’s been there a while). What next? Rob a bank, of course—at least that’s what Shakes and his two pals, “the paralytic asshole” and the “fatso anorexic,” decide. But stuff happens. The thing about country noir is you don’t really need crime; all you need is that inexorable sense that things are getting worse. It’s fine to laugh on the way down, of course, and Hill gives us plenty of laughs to go with the pain.
The Motel Life. By Willy Vlautin. 2007. HarperPerennial, paper, $13.95 (9780061171116).
It starts in Nevada, but Frank and Jerry Lee are on the run all over the West. Self-described losers, they live and sometimes work in motels, drink too much, and bemoan their lot—but always with raucous black humor and an underlying tenderness that grabs at you like a Hank Williams song. In this novel, as well as in Northline (2008) and Lean on Pete (2010), Vlautin does for the New West what Woodrell does for the hardscrabble Ozarks.
West Virginia and the Ozarks
The Baptism of Billy Bean. By Roger Alan Skipper. 2009. Counterpoint, paper, $15.95 (9781582434605).
Vietnam vet Lane Holler runs a bait shop in West Virginia, is estranged from his only son, has few friends, and thinks only about his daughter-in-law and grandson. Then he and his grandson witness a drug-related murder, and Lane and his loved ones become targets. Country noir lives on character and dialogue, and Skipper, an Appalachia native, hits both out of the park. Take Lane’s running buddy, Nobob Thrasher, whose nickname derives from his wife saying, “No Bob,” to everything he desires.
Riding a Blue Horse. By Elliott Carter. 2003. Carroll & Graf, OP.
The God-fearing folks of Shawnee, West Virginia, aren’t prepared for 14-year-old Molly Small, trash-talking child prostitute. Rejected by her latest “client,” whose tastes run to younger, less-developed girls, Molly hopes to graduate to the big leagues, but her pimp sees her only as damaged goods. Thus begins a Twin Peaks–like odyssey in which Molly dodges her tormentors while befriending simpleminded Stupe, an 18-year-old as innocent as Molly is experienced. There are elements of 200-proof country noir here, but there is also an unfortunate sentimental overlay, as if the author were trying to graft Daniel Woodrell with a dose of Mayberry morality. The graft doesn’t take, of course, but the noir sensibility is too good to ignore.
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