Friday, May 04, 2007
"noir," "pulp," Declan Hughes, and Ken Bruen
There have always been two strains in noir fiction, one more oriented to the crimes of the upper class: the template for this sub-genre is The Big Sleep, and the stories often feature private detectives (logical enough--the rich clients can afford to hire them). Perhaps the culmination of this subset of noir can be found in the novels of Ross McDonald, with their atmosphere of the corrupt rich threatening to destabilize the smooth operation of capitalist society. The other strain of noir is (more associated with "pulp" publishers) focuses on working class people struggling against corrupt cops and small-time gangsters--this strain leads from James M. Cain to William Goodis to Jim Thompson; these books provide a critique of capitalist society no less than the portraits of corrupt rich folks in classic noir, but from underneath, where there isn't much evidence of a stable order in the first place. I myself am more drawn to that segment of noir, having been blown away by the likes of Thompson and Goodis when I first started reading crime fiction. In Irish crime writing, the prime representative of pulp noir has recently been Ken Bruen (though perhaps a better Irish representative of the working class crime novel, and certainly a better writer, is Gene Kerrigan). Now there's a series that is very much in the Ross McDonald mold, in the crime novels of playwright Declan Hughes. Hughes is hardly hiding his debt to McDonald--his detective, Ed Loy, has just returned to Dublin after 20 years in Los Angeles (California being the stomping ground of McDonald's detective, Lew Archer). And the second novel in the Ed Loy series, The Color of Blood, begins with the detective being hired by a classic Ross McDonald client: the rich, screwed up, decadent Howard family. McDonald is also the most literary of the early noir/detective authors, both in the style of writing and the metaphorical weight of his plots. Plus Hughes uses a quote from McDonald at the head of one of the novel's three sections (the others begin with quotes from Dante and St. Matthew, pretty grand company and a pretty big hint as to his opinion of McDonald). Hughes, as an established playwright, may have been drawn to this more literary model of noir, but in any case the style of writing is self-consciously literary (not stripped down in the terse style of Simenon or the journalistic style of Kerrigan, and not full of references to fiction and pop culture like Bruen, but full of descriptions, metaphors, and allusions in the voice of the first-person detective narrator. His dramatic sense is evident in that first-person narrative, and his skill with dialogue forms a counterpoint to the allusive prose. The Color of Blood moves briskly along: the characters are three-dimensional, and the extremely complicated plot is lively and not predictable. One of the interesting aspects of the book is its explicit analysis of Irish culture: in these days of the "Celtic Tiger," an Irish noir story requires an explanation (or a leap of faith). Either you show the underside of the succesful social development (much as Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö did in the boom years of Sweden's welfare society, in which the lives of those left out of the social-democratic miracle are portrayed and some of the characters refer to the society's failure with bitterness). Hughes operates in a similar mode, and among the Irish crime novels I've seen, Hughes offers the most explicit analysis of who's left out of the Irish miracle, and what the sources are of the miseries that linger in Irish society--he puts it in the mouth of a therapist who has been treating the disfunctional family at the center of The Color of Blood, and this passage is important to the success of the book, as well as several less explicit hints concerning, for example, babies born in fields as a result of Church-bound attitudes toward sex and birth control. These sociological threads provide a grounding for the discomforts, perversions, and miseries portrayed in the novel: all of which rise in Faulknerian, apocalyptic tensions vividly described in the novels final chapter. The Color of Blood is more noir than mystery, but there is a complex series of revelations in the final sections--the book satisfies on many levels and across several sub-genres, making good use of the McDonald model.
I mentioned Ken Bruen's books, and his new American Skin has arrived in the U.S. The usual Bruen style is here, but in what could be seen as a more "American" plot but is actually a self-conscious homage to the pulp noir that I described above. Bruen's Irish-criminal-on-the-run, American psycho murderer, and a few other desperate characters are resolutely working class, as is usually the case with Bruen's books, whether in the Galway private detective series, the London police procedurals, or the miscellaneous other novels (Bruen is nothing if not prolific). American Skin displays some of Bruen's usual mannerisms, including the multiple allusions to popular music, movies, and literature (Bukowski, among others). The timeline of American Skin is more splintered than is usual with Bruen's books, and the point of view is divided among the first-person Galwayman who is the main character and third person narrative focusing mostly on the American psycho. But Bruen's virtue is in the author's voice, not his characters or plots. A reader has to be convinced by or interested in that voice in order to get anything out of Bruen's books, and for me it's just not interesting enough. For me, in spite of Bruen's fidelity to "pulp noir," American Skin's story lacks the lively characters of the Brant novels or the atmosphere of despair in the Galway novels. And in spite of my allegiance to pulp noir, I enjoyed Hughes's new novel much more than Bruen's.