Tag: pulp fiction

First Steps: Suburban Noir

Posted June 14, 2014 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in First Steps / 6 Comments

First Steps is a new segment that was inspired by the Literary Exploration Reading Challenge. I plan to talk about what books might be great to read from different themes, genres or maybe authors. Not necessarily all easy to read books but the ones that are worth the time and effort. My goal is to have First Steps guide you to some great books in places you don’t normally venture.

I was asked in the comments about the sub-genre suburban noir and at first I didn’t want to write a post about it, but the more I thought about it the more I liked the idea. I need to revive my First Steps guides, but first I think it might be necessary to firstly explain what noir is before looking at suburban noir. Noir is a crime genre that came from the age of pulp fiction; it tends to focus on a plot where the protagonist is the victim, suspect, or perpetrator. It is a genre that normally plays with gritty realism and the psychological.

Suburban noir plays with the idea that there is something sinister going on in the nice quiet neighbourhood. Is there a killer living next door? Are you teenagers hiding a deep dark secret? There is often an element of crime and psychological suspense that runs through the narrative. While most novels are most likely to be classed as something more generic like crime or thriller this sub-genre (like the millions of other sub-genres) does exist.

Dare Me by Megan Abbott

Beneath the glitz and glamour of this high school cheerleading squad is something dark. Beth Cassidy is the head cheerleader, her best friend Addy Hanlon is her right hand woman. While Beth calls the shots, Abby enforces; this has been the long established hierarchy. But when the new coach arrives, the order is disrupted. While coach draws the girls in and establishes a new regime, a suspicious suicide will put the team under investigation.  Think of this as Mean Girls to the extreme; you have the bitchiness of the girls, the struggle for popularity, and the angst but this is all turned upside down due to the shake-up caused by the new coach and the mystery surrounding their lives.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

When Amy disappears in suspicious circumstances all eyes fall to her husband as the primary suspect. Nick claims he is innocent but the evidence is not in his favour. Did Nick kill his wife? As this novel progresses any ideas of what happened will be shattered, any presumptions you’ve made about the characters will be wrong. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn is a dark and twisted journey with so much unpredictability that you will be up all night trying to find out what really happened to Amy.

The Fever by Megan Abbott

Megan Abbott is the Queen of suburban noir, her books epitomise the genre. The Fever is a dark and chilling story that explores the ideas of desire, guilt and secrets. A mysterious contagion that is causing seizures to a group of girls is also promoting mass hysteria within this community. In an effort to make sense of this mystery, the community focus their blame on anything they can think of, from HPV, vaccinations, toxic algae and whatever else might make sense of the situation.

The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison

Jodi and Todd are in a bad place in their marriage, and their house and their lives are now at stake. The Silent Wife is about a marriage in the throes of dissolution, a couple headed for catastrophe, concessions that can’t be made, and promises that won’t be kept. This novel questions marriage, our way of life and how far you will go to keep what is rightfully yours.


We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

We Need to Talk about Kevin  tells the story of Eva, who is writing a series of letters to her husband recounting, and trying to understand what happened to cause their son, Kevin into a sociopath. From the very start, you are going to hate Kevin – you’ll probably even hate Eva – their relationship is far from perfect and it is possible that this may scare you from wanting to have kids. There was nothing really wrong with Kevin’s childhood, he was given everything he could ever need; he was just stuck in suburban hell. This book explores the nature versus nurture debate. It could have been Eva’s ambivalence to Kevin and motherhood that affected him, or something else.

Guest Post: Brief Overview of Pulp Fiction – Part 2 (1950’s)

Posted December 2, 2012 by Guest Post in Guest Posts, Literature, Pulp / 0 Comments

In part one we looked at the birth of the genre as a more realistic type of literature in reaction to the traditional whodunit from Britain. The cynical approach towards life of the protagonist summing up the attitude of the hard-boiled hero and how the worlds of noir novels are never happy places where things go right.

We looked at Hammett and Chandler and Cain, the three pillars of the style that all who followed evolved from. Now we move on to the second generation of hard-boiled men who took advantage of a new publishing idea and the post WWII atmosphere of paranoia and fear.

Fawcett publications created the Gold Medal Books imprint in 1949 with the idea of publishing pulp novels directly to paperback formats. Paperback originals were published for the first time under this new imprint and very quickly became the home of noir fiction, the dark brand of crime writing that would go on to capture the mood of the general public.

At the end of WWII a new fear was brewing in the minds of America; images of nuclear warfare were embedded on the consciousness of a generation of people and McCarthyism via the House Committee on Un-American Activities hearings instilled a previously unknown universal paranoia to the people.

These two key developments combined to provide a hotbed for bleak, raw, sleazy, deranged, violent, uncompromising, chilling, and warped, existentially horrific noir fiction with novels selling in excess of one million copies on a regular basis and spawning numerous copycat publishing imprints.

The first name from this second generation is one a lot of people are already familiar with, Mickey Spillane; his first Mike Hammer novel was I, The Jury (1947) and continued to write in to the 50s yet it wasn’t until the end of the era that he really came in to his own. Kiss Me Deadly (1952) was the basis for the iconic film noir of the same name and serves as a great introduction to a protagonist who is a complete and unashamed misogynist, unafraid of offending anyone, in stories that you jump on and ride like the wind through intrigue, fist fights, witty dialogue, sexual encounters and the inevitable denouement.

The other name that regularly gets mentioned as the obvious hardboiled heir to Chandler and Hammett is Ross MacDonald. The Moving Target (1949) was the first appearance of Lew Archer, a PI that would last through 18 novels to The Blue Hammer (1976). This series longevity alone makes MacDonald stand out from the field of hard-boiled authors but the growth of the character and the evolution of writing style from Chandler copycat to a writer who was as comfortable with poetic imagery and psychological insight as witty putdowns and biting sarcasm marks him as one of the true greats of the genre.

Gil Brewer is something of a forgotten man but he was prolific and popular in his time, having over 30 novels published in the new paperback original format. But to those in the know Gil Brewer is a treasure trove of 50s noir goodness. His protagonists are ex-soldiers, ex-cops, drifters, convicts, blue-collar workers, charterboat captains, unorthodox private detectives, even a sculptor.  The plots range from searches for stolen gold and sunken treasure to savage indictments of the effects of lust, greed, and murder to chilling psychological studies of disturbed personalities. The Vengeful Virgin (1958) that was recently republished by Hard Case Crime and The Red Scarf (1955) are amongst the standout titles from his bibliography.

Another man you could make the same statements about is Day Keene, the pair seems to go hand in hand infact. Even more prolific than Brewer, Keene has left a lasting legacy of entertaining noir stories that occasionally border on genius. Hard Case have also reissued a Keene novel in Home Is The Sailor (1952), you may also enjoy To Kiss or Kill (1951) and Dead Dolls Don’t Talk (1959).

Charles Willeford is the author who found fame in the 80s with his Hoke Mosely series but he published High Priest of California (1953) at the start of the boom in paperback sales and quickly followed it up with Pick-Up (1955) whilst still enlisted in the air force. Charles Willeford, in his best works, puts art, aesthetic sensibility, critical acumen, morality, and American ideology on a dramatic collision course, he was known for his quirky nature and eccentric characters and his juxtaposition of humour and violence is said to have influenced a young Quentin Tarantino (but then what didn’t?)

The other big Charles of the period was Charles Williams and he really was a BIG Charles. In 1951 his debut novel sold over one million copies in a time when one hundred thousand was the norm and in 1953 he became the first paperback original to be reviewed by The New York Times. Widely praised by critics Charles Williams is to the paperback originals what Hammett was to the 30s. He is known for frequently satirizing his male protagonists’ points of view, while implicitly reassessing the traditional genre figure of the femme fatale.

As mentioned previously about Woolrich, Williams was always more popular in France and only A Touch of Death (1954) and River Girl AKA The Catfish Tangle (1953) appear to be in print in English, a fact made even more shocking by the following statement made by pulp historian Woody Haut:

“So prolific and accomplished a writer was Charles Williams that he single-handedly made many subsequent pulp culture novels seem like little more than parodies.”

David Goodis is perhaps my personal favourite from this period (again he is widely available in French but not so much in English) his novels depicting the bleakness and darkness of lives in free fall, his words a statement of frustration, telling tales of gloom, depression and despair. Noir at its blackest. Down There AKA Shoot The Piano Player (1956) and Cassidy’s Girl (1951) represent him at his peak.

I’ve saved the biggest name, arguably the best writer of the bunch and possibly the most prolific for last, Jim Thompson. There are no good guys in Thompson’s literature; everyone is abusive, opportunistic, or simply biding time until able to be so. His style and prose elevated his work above well written genre pieces and in to literature which resulted in him being dismissed as just another pulp writer by those that read the paperback originals. The Killer Inside Me (1954), is perhaps his most famous work and represents the first time the reader was treated to an intimate portrait of a psychotic mind whilst The Grifters (1963) was his most successful movie adaptation.

Part three will take a look at the end of the popularity of paperback originals and what happened to crime fiction in the 60s and 70s.

This is a guest post by blahblahblahtobyYou can find him discussing books on Goodreads, discussing movies on Letterboxd, tweeting nonsense as blahblahblahtoby and on his blog blahblahblahgay, feel free to say hi.

There are literally dozens of great authors and great novels that could have been suggested as essential reading for this guide. The writer of the article went through agonising decisions over who to leave out and is more than aware that your favourite author probably hasn’t been mentioned but feel free to start a discussion in the comments.

This post is part of a four post series exploring the history of Hard-Boiled and Noir Fiction, for recommendations check out each post;

The 1930’s – 1940’s

The 1950’s

The 1960’s – 1980’s

The 1990’s – Onwards