Who uses it: Readers and writers of crime fiction
What it means: A story that focuses on a single alienated character who is motivated -- and usually betrayed -- by desire.
How you can use it: To describe something moody and dark, where dreams are unlikely to come true.
Noir is a term that gets tossed around a lot, and too many people use it interchangeably with "bleak." Plenty of bleak and nasty crime fiction doesn't count as noir, and noir is not a synonym for "hard-boiled" -- though some hard-boiled detective novels are also noir. (The Maltese Falcon is a classic example, and I'd also put James Crumley's The Last Good Kiss in this category.)
Noir is less a subgenre than a mood, or maybe a set of conventions. The classic noir hero is a single man, usually an orphan (but not always -- think of The Grifters), who lives outside the mainstream for some reason. He's often just out of the military, or just out of prison, coming out of rigid order and repression into the chaos of freedom and desire. He tells himself he can't be fooled and he believes in nothing but himself, but he inevitably finds himself in a situation that rekindles his hopes for love, wealth, and a place in the world. These hopes almost always revolve around a woman who proves treacherous. The tone of noir is cynical, but cynicism is just love, disappointed.
By this definition, nothing I read this week really falls in the noir category, though three of the books offer wildly different takes on "hard-boiled."
What I Read This Week
Jasper Fforde, The Big Over Easy. Detective Inspector Jack Spratt and his Sergeant, Mary Mary, investigate the mysterious death of Humpty Dumpty. Fforde's comedy works because it's entirely straight-faced; this is a hard-boiled (ow) police procedural that just happens to be set in the Nursery Crimes division of the Reading (ow again) police department. You like this stuff, or you don't -- I absolutely love it, found The Big Over Easy ingenious. I like Fforde's Thursday Next series, but think it's bogged down under its own weight -- here's hoping we see much more of the Nursery Crimes Division.
Duane Swierczynski, Secret Dead Men. What sets this hard-boiled detective novel apart is that almost all the characters are dead -- including the protagonist, Del Farmer. Del had been a reporter in Las Vegas, until his investigation of an organized crime ring got him killed. At that point, a mysterious man named Robert "collected" his soul, and offered him the opportunity to continue his investigation. Over time, Del took over, and continued to collect souls to help his investigation -- housing them in a Brain Hotel of Del's own design. The plot, though clever, is just an excuse to explore the conceit of the Brain Hotel, which is one of the most original and enchanting literary constructs I've ever come across. It winds up being a pretty amazing metaphor for the dangers of staying too long in one's own head... Swierczynski's new novel, The Wheelman, is a stand-alone that's getting great reviews, but I hope he takes us back to the Brain Hotel soon.
Robert B. Parker, School Days. I say it all the time: do anything long enough and it becomes a parody of itself. Every time I think Spenser has slid off into self-parody, though, Parker turns around and brings him back in all his glory. The one-named detective investigates a school shooting that seems to be an open-and-shut case. The kids involved have confessed, and everyone wants to put the incident behind them. But Spenser, hired by the grandmother of one of the shooters, wants to find out why. School Days winds up being a serious and sobering look at modern teenagers, and the best Spenser novel in a long, long time.
Judy Clemens, Three Can Keep a Secret. Judy Clemens' first novel, Till the Cows Come Home, was one of the best surprises of my Anthony-nominee reading: a sharp, engaging first novel introducing dairy farmer and motorcycle rider Stella Crown, who was neither cute nor gimmicky. In this sequel, Stella is still coping with her losses from the first book, and hires Lucy, a Mennonite widow, as her new farmhand. Lucy's hiding something about her husband's death, though, and seems to be a target of hard feelings among her former in-laws. Meanwhile, Stella's friend Lenny, who runs the Biker Barn, is dealing with the return of his own long-buried past. This may be my favorite new series of the year, and I'm really looking forward to the next book.