J.'s Reviews > London Noir

London Noir by Cathi Unsworth
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Dec 06, 2009

liked it
bookshelves: united-kingdom, mystery, noir-environs, short-stories

There's something to the idea that certain disctinctive genres can only legitimately be created in their own era. Hard-bop Jazz from the 40s/50s, for example, really doesn't sound right when it comes from earnest practitioners in the eighties, or for that matter in 2010. Nothing against playing the standards of other eras, in whatever medium-- otherwise how could we hear Mozart, witness Shakespeare... But writing a new enlightenment-era Concerto di Camera in this millenium, say, is more of a student's excercise than a likely shot at something that will last.

And so to Noir. It's a feel, it's a tension, it's a period-infused vibe. Everyone loves the brilliant grit of the films, the impending-disaster in the tone of the novels and short stories. Hammet, Chandler, Cain--- lesser-knowns like Chester Himes and Derek Raymond-- all had an ear for the desperate-loner-in-a-tight-squeeze, the knack for pacing hard and fast-- that their form required, but they had more. They had instant access to the deep ennui of a morally exhausted postwar generation, and a kind of effortless anti-art-direction, that took minimalism to a deeper level.

Something a bit difficult to translate in the late nineties or early 2ooos, and something certainly impossible to fake. And even that knowing / modernist tone only gets you so far.

I don't want to sound discouraging about London Noir, which is a page-turning noir-ish rave of a collection. Seventeen authors, full of pulpy spirit and tricky plot strategems, this is a fast ride that doesn't flag. And to be fair, odds are that at least half the contributors didn't know they'd be sandbagged with the 'Noir' title in the first place. But many here can't help themselves, layering homage, pastiche and parody into every crack in the landscape. With a spade.

With that particular landscape being the UK urban idiom, it helps to know your Spivs from your Toffs, avoid the Hoodrats and Wideboys, but most of all steer clear of the Hard Men. Come to think of it, all of the London-centric terms actually help to make this collection a lot more enjoyable. I can't help but think these same stories would tie themselves in knots if they were located in Chicago or Los Angeles, where they'd have to distance themselves from the Noirists of the classical era....

Here's a droll moment from one of the more out-front pastiche entries :

"As dumps go," she'll remark, looking around at the room, "this is a dump. Who do you suppose did the decorating ? The Three Stooges ?"
But you're already staring at the body on the bed.
"Is that your contact?" she'll say.
You'll nod.
"What happened?"
"Electrocuted."
"You can tell by just looking?"


All in all, loads of fun, but no more serious a pursuit than, say, Kabbalism as told by Madonna, or maybe Alpine Telemark Skiing, on the majestic indoor slopes of Dubai.
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