Lavender House

By Lev AC Rosen

This mystery novel had shown up on several recommendation lists over the last few months, and it is well justified! Rosen beautifully takes the noir sensibility, which imbues generalized disenfranchisement, and applies it very directly and acutely to the LGBT community in 1950s San Francisco. It becomes a somewhat pointed critique of noir in general, I think, by contrasting what has typically been a general mental oppressiveness in the great noir writers like Chandler and Hammett, with actual systemic and malicious oppression against specific people.

Traditional noir characters sense a true darkness in the world that the general populace ignores or is blind to. In Lavender House, the gay characters only wish they had the option to ignore the ugliness of the world, instead of having it thrust upon them if they drop their defenses for a second. While San Francisco was just starting to be a budding haven for gay people, so there were more underground clubs and the like, the whole of the United States remained very dangerous.

Our protagonist, Levander “Andy” Mills is as aware of this anyone else. As a (closely closeted) gay cop, he is both threatened and the threat, and straddling that line, can trust no one. Before the start of the novel, however, he was discovered in a club raid, kicked off the force, and all but run out of town. He is getting drunk in a bar before throwing himself into the Bay, when Pearl comes to ask him to investigate the suspicious death of her wife. Pearl is the surviving matriarch of the Lavender House, where the now deceased scion of a wealthy soap family created a home where a handful of gay couples can live freely, while showing a much different face to the outside world.

Andy moves into the house in order to investigate, mostly with the idea that he has nothing left to lose at this point, but it opens his mind to a whole different world. And this is what I really loved about the book: it explores the seductive but false appeal of noir and cynicism. It’s a really interesting play on noir – the detective himself has bought into the ideological grimness, but the novel makes the effort to show that his cynicism, though not unfounded, is a blindness of sorts. He expects the worst from people, and while this protects him to a point, he closes himself off so no one can either hurt him or care for him. And then, worst of all, believes that is all there is to life.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book before that did such of a good job of criticizing its genre so validly, while also perfectly exemplifying it. A very minor spoiler: the end is both satisfying and a poignant summary of the overall themes, with a hopefulness that would feel jarring after a traditional noir but feels like the point of the whole book here.

Velvet Was the Night

By Silvia Moreno-Garcia

I am a big fan of Silvia Moreno-Garcia, and I love following her across all her genre hopping: Gods of Jade and Shadow was a breathtakingly dreamlike and philosophic fantasy novel, Certain Dark Things an engrossing and gritty vampire/mob suspense novel, and Mexican Gothic a beautifully atmospheric and bizarre gothic (of course). And now, Velvet Was the Night is a picture-perfect noire in every way!

In the acknowledgement, Moreno-Garcia mentions that noir is a proud tradition in Latin America, and she has certainly done it proud with every character, scene, and even the descriptive tone of the writing. Velvet Was the Night centers around two very distinct protagonists: an apolitical, daydreaming woman stuck in a secretarial job she loathes, and a young thug hired to infiltrate and repress (i.e. beat) student and/or communist protests. Moreno-Garcia teases out throughout the book how similar they are to each other, regardless of their wildly different circumstances, as well as how each of them incrementally matures through the events that push them outside the ruts of their daily lives.

Like all good noirs, Velvet Was the Night connects the daily lives of these two individuals and the people around them to the wider scope of politics. In this case, the politics of 1970s Mexico are complicated and literally foreign to me, and yet Moreno-Garcia somehow manages to spin it out in a way that I could understand and follow along to, starting small and generalized and building up the complexity of the different factions along with the plotlines. It felt like some kind of magic trick and I have no idea how she kept me tracking all the twists and turns!

The Ghost and Mrs. McClure

By Alice Kimberly

Book Cover: The Ghost and Mrs. McClureI have been kind of a cranky reader lately (post Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell), and I was cranky starting this book, too. You may have noticed that I can be a bit snooty about my pulp mysteries, and I only condescended to read this mix of a cozy and pulp mystery on my mom’s recommendation. It has a ridiculous premise: a recently widowed woman leaves her up-scale career and lifestyle in New York City to help her aunt run a small-town bookstore, which turns out to be haunted by a hard-boiled private eye, shot there in 40s.

The private eye ghost is a little over-the-top, our protagonist is often ditsy, and the writing is a bit amateurish (the author definitely hits her stride later in the series, though). It is the fluffiest of fluff, and it just makes me really happy. All of the various oddball characters in the small town are cartoonish in the way that cartoons are awesome: they are quirky, and accessible, and just so comfortable. I’ve read the first three on the last two weeks, so they are each a quick read and quickly addictive, too.

On the flipside, in case I was feeling too pleased with my new series, I also checked out Werewolf Cop from the library, thinking Werewolf! Cop! I should have been warned off by the blurb by Stephen King, but I was just too eager to read a possible supernatural noir novel! This book was so offensively bad that I couldn’t even hate read it for the blog. I won’t go into details or this post will run as long as my last one (and I only made it to chapter 2), but it reminded me why I stopped reading all male authors for a chunk of time in my teens. (I went back and got books four and five of the Haunted Bookshop series instead.)


Edited to add more praise: I just finished the fifth and final published novel in the series (though another one is rumored to be in the works), and they just keep getting better and better! In the later novels, the ghost shows Mrs. McClure memories of his old cases, and the novels are build around two mysteries from different time periods in interesting ways. Reading all five books back to back, I also started to notice the subtle evolution of Mrs. McClure’s character. Through the encouragement of the supportive ghost and her successful investigations, she noticeably gains confidence and takes increased control of her life. It is just a really nice through-line.

Also, I meant to write this before, but forgot: with every single novel, about halfway through I would start thinking how obvious the solution was, but every single time, I got it wrong, and not in a disappointing way, either. (Of course, in my defense Mrs. McClure was wrong as often as not as well.)

DC Noir

Edited by George Pelecanos

Book Cover: DC NoirI’d checked this book out way back in Boulder, when we were first thinking of moving to DC because I thought it would be a fun introduction, but then I got busy with all the moving stuff. However, now I’m feeling pretty DC noir myself, so I figured I’d give it another go.

This is part of a whole series of [City] Noir books, so if noir mystery is your thing, you might want to check whether the Akashic Noir series includes your city (there is an incredibly wide range of cities, and not just confined to the US, either).

I’ve complained before about authors not getting “noir” quite right, thinking you can just slap on a bunch of the more obvious earmarks, but reading these stories helped me refine my thoughts on it. Too many people think that noir is about how horrible people can be to each other, but in really good, nuanced noir, it is about how decent people struggle to stay that way in a general horrible world. So, while there are very often horrible people in noir, they are usually side characters and may well also be originally decent people who have failed in their own struggle. Of course, making a whole universe that is generally grim and destructive is a lot more difficult than just throwing some unexpected murderers in there, and that’s why noir is a true art form.

Some of the stories here got it and some didn’t; while I would say that the ones that missed the mark outweighed the one that just got the true noir feeling, those with the right feeling were awfully good (though depressing, of course).

The stories were set in a wide range of different neighborhoods, and while there’s a few set in wealthy neighborhoods, most are set in the poorer ones. (And, as a sort of funny aside, I’m currently apartment hunting once again, and thought I’d found a very reasonably priced townhouse until the neighborhood it was in showed up in one of the stories here. When I texted Kinsey, just to confirm my suspicions about the neighborhood, she just texted back “NO.”)

Anyway, the stories also spanned different time periods, which threw me off sometimes – a lot of them, of course, wanted to focus on DC’s most crime-ridden times, and some of them were sort of indeterminate. One of the stories began with riots caused by a black cop shooting a handcuffed Hispanic suspect, and except for the respective races, that seemed very current. My favorite story featured one of the more radical black power movements taking on the mob in the 60s.

Only one of the authors in the collection is female, and only two of the stories had a female narrator, which was a bit of a disappointment. There is a DC Noir 2, though I think I may instead want to check out some of the other cities, possibly Dublin Noir, since that sounds pretty interesting.


Sin City Series

By Frank Miller

So, after reading Frank Miller’s A Dame To Kill For, I rewatched the movie “Sin City” and then decided to read ALL the Frank Miller Sin City graphic novels. I went on a wild reserving spree at the library; the library rental system just sort of lists “Sin City Frank Miller” for each of the volumes, so I had to do scattershot holds on all the books. I ended up reserving multiple copies of some volumes and no copies of the first volume until about a month after all the rest. So, I’ve been reading them as they come, completely out of order, but I’m going to quickly review them all in order here.

Quick caveat upfront: Frank Miller is not to everyone’s taste, so while I love the comics, I can’t indiscriminately recommend them to everyone. If you don’t like broad noir stereotypes and ultra violence, it doesn’t matter how well it is done, this is not going to be for you. For the rest of us, here’s my rundown, with semi-spoilers (revealing a character is in volume 5 sort of spoils that he doesn’t die in volume 4, I guess? Although, actually, only sort of. I was reading them out of their published order, but the volumes weren’t written in strictly chronological order, either):

Volume 1: The Hard Goodbye

The first panel of the book and the series:

First Panel: Sin City

It doesn’t get more classically noir than that. Most noir mysteries are sweltering hot; sometimes they are bitter cold, but mostly roasting. Reading this issue last, I can tell that it was Frank Miller’s first (he is still finding his style for this series) and I can understand why it made such a splash in the comic book world. Everything is just so in-your-face: the violence, the machismo, the sex – I think it was probably unlike anything else people were reading at the time.

Book Cover: Sin City Volume 1

The Hard Goodbye is Marv’s (Mickey Rourke) story from the “Sin City” movie, the plot line with the most action but the least explanation, so I was happy to get more of the backstory this time around. With a couple of well-placed lines, The Hard Goodbye also gives a very quick overview of the origins of Sin City itself, which was most welcome after reading the other six volumes. At the end of this volume, too, I realized that The Hard Goodbye bookends at least several other volumes, with several of the subsequent volumes occurring to other characters within the span of time of this volume.

Volume 2: A Dame to Kill For

Previously read and reviewed here, inspiring this extended post.

Volume 3: The Big Fat Kill

Book Cover: Sin City Volume 3

The Big Fat Kill is Dwight’s (Clive Owen) story, starting with him in Shelly’s (Brittany Murphy) apartment while she argues with her ex-boyfriend (Benicio Del Toro). I kept thinking that I had already read this one, but then realized that it is literally the same as the movie, frame by frame, line by line. It’s really quite impressive.

It also made me appreciate the movie even more. By entwining volumes 1, 3 and 4, they made for a diverse group of characters and quick pace that the original comics seem to lack a bit in comparison.

Volume 4: That Yellow Bastard

Book Cover: Sin City Volume 4

That Yellow Bastard is the Bruce Willis/Jennifer Alba story line from the movie. This is probably the most…problematic of the Frank Miller stories (and that is saying something). Spoilers for both the book and the movie, of course:

Continue reading

Femme Fatales: Femme and A Dame To Kill For


By Bill Pronzini

Book Cover: FemmeAh, Bill Pronzini. You were one of my early introductions to pulp mysteries, and I have a lot of left-over affection for you, but I’m afraid I may have outgrown your nameless detective.

I hadn’t read a Bill Pronzini novel in at least 15 years, but I ran across this very short novella in the new releases shelf at the library and picked it up, as I do love a femme fatale! I also had very fond memories of Pronzini’s nameless detective series from high school; they are somewhat run-of-the-mill novels, but are told in first person by a detective who is never named (I was also at the time watching Clint Eastwood’s “The Man with No Name” series, so it was a bit of a theme).

I read Femme in the space of one delayed flight, so probably over 3 hours total, and it was the fluffiest of fluff. I have a bit of a problem with novellas, actually. Whereas authors seem to put extra effort into short stories to be concise and compact as independent entities, novellas have a tendency to just come off as reading like general outlines for a future novel, and this one was no exception.

The plot, characters, and setting were quite generic, which is especially problematic when it comes to a femme fatale. A woman who uses her very femininity to lure men to death and destruction really needs to stand out. This particular femme seemed no different than the average murderess on any given Law & Order episode. I get that it is more difficult to make violence stand out in this modern age, but that’s what makes writing a femme fatale such a challenge.

Now, if you want someone who is up to that challenge:

A Dame To Kill For

By Frank Miller

Book Cover: A Dame to Kill ForFrank Miller’s A Dame To Kill For is the basis for the new Sin City movie coming out next year, and coincidentally the only Frank Miller graphic novel that Rebecca owns. I really enjoyed the first Sin City movie and was torn over whether to read the graphic novel for the second one, and thereby “spoil” it for myself, but finally decided that part of the fun of the movie is seeing what a brilliant job it does of bringing to life each individual illustrated panel. (I saw in a “making of Sin City” that they actually used the graphic novel as the original story boards for the movie, which makes a lot of sense, given Frank Miller’s very cinematic style.)

While it is no spoiler that Frank Miller loves a femme fatale (or ten), I’m going to go ahead and spoil this particular book (and upcoming movie), so proceed with caution. Continue reading

Vanish in an Instant

By Margaret Miller

Book Cover: Vanish In An InstantI previously wrote about my love of pulp and noir mysteries, showcasing some of my favorites, and from the list, you can see that it is very much a man’s genre. Which makes sense, I guess; there weren’t as many published women at the time, and the kind of nihilism described in noir novels is kind of the antithesis of traditional femininity.

Margaret Miller is the exception, though, and she is brilliant. Vanish in an Instant, published in 1952, is my favorite, but I’ve read and enjoyed many of her other novels. The thing that makes Vanish in an Instant so exceptional that it is a love story in addition to a murder mystery, which should negate the noir style but only serves to emphasize it, as the two characters cling to their love as a fragile and temporary way to stave off the full bitterness of the world.

This quote captures Miller’s writing, and noir writing in general:

“Outside the wind was fresh, but he had a sensation of suffocating heaviness in his throat and chest, as if the slices of life he had seen in the course of the morning were too sharp and fibrous to be swallowed.”

Yay! I have no idea why this kind of writing gives me such satisfaction, but I do love these noir books and reading them actually brings me a sort of comfort in a way that I cannot analyze at all.

*I’d like to add that my copy is a reissue from the 70s and has much more subtle and attractive cover art.

— Anna

The Fabulous Clipjoint

By Fredric Brown

Let’s talk a little bit about Pulp Mysteries. I LOVE them, even though they are deeply offensive by most of today’s standards, and the mindset of a hardboiled detective is about as far from my own as it is possible to be.

Book Cover: The Thin ManI was first introduced to them in high school, when my family went through a phase of watching movies from the 40s, including The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, and The Thin Man. I went from there to reading Dashiell Hammett, who I absolutely love, and a little Raymond Chandler, who threw around the n-word enough to make me too uncomfortable to read most of his books.*

For a while, I looked for contemporary authors who also used the hardboiled style, and found Robert B. Parker (entertaining fluff that my mom accurately criticized for never allowing his characters to grow), Bill Pronzini (who has a nice gimmick of having a narrating detective who is never given a name), and my then favorite Joseph Hansen (featuring a gay insurance investigator who is as tough and stoic as any Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe).

Book Cover: Detective DuosSeveral years ago I picked up a collection of short stories titled Detective Duos, and was introduced to Fredric Brown’s Ed and Am Hunter, who immediately supplanted all other pulp mysteries in my heart forever. He wrote seven novels and one short story about the detective pair, all of which were published between 1947 and 1963 and are currently out of print, as far as I know. Tracking down each precious copy might have added just a little bit to my love of the series. (Much thanks to my wonderful sister for finding the seventh and rarest novel for me as a Christmas present a few years ago!)

In my opinion, Fredric Brown has not gotten the recognition he deserves as an author in any genre, though he is more known in the science fiction genre. I haven’t actually read any of those, but my impression is that they fit in fairly well with other contemporary science fiction novels, while his pulp mysteries really stand out from the rest.

The first book of the series, The Fabulous Clipjoint, introduces us to Ed Hunter, who is just 18 and teams up with his uncle, Ambrose “Am” Hunter, to solve the murder of his father. They live in gritty noir-ish Chicago, and feel the bitterness and cynicism of every other pulp detective, but Brown writes them with honesty and vulnerability that makes them more relatable and likeable than any other pulp mystery characters I’d read. I knew this book was something special when Ed makes a speech about wanting to have a drink of whiskey in honor of his dad, downs a hefty shot of whiskey, and promptly throws up.

Funny story, though: My first copy of The Fabulous Clipjoint ended with a plot dead-end with the detectives stumped, and I was a little taken aback but impressed at Brown’s moxie at showing that real-life mysteries don’t always end in tidy packages. Then, I ran across another copy in a used book store, and realized that my first copy was missing the last third of the book. The actual ending isn’t as bravely unusual, but is a lot more satisfying as a reader.

*Rereading The Fabulous Clipjoint, there are more casual racial slurs than I’d remembered, which is very unfortunate. They never actually describe a specific character, which is something of a poor salve for my conscience, but one I have to hang on to or else quit pulp mysteries forever.