Noirest of noir

The new "Hard Case" crime-fiction series is justly celebrated. This is a combination of "classic" pulp fiction from the post-WW II era and new noir novels. The covers are the initial selling point -- loving modern recreations of a lurid 50s-retro style. The one below is among the more violent looking; after the jump, samples of the more typical hot-dame type of luridness.

The few books I've read in the series have been very good, and Grifter's Game, above, is remarkable in two ways.

One, it's a kind of time capsule, showing what's changed, and hasn't, in U.S. pop culture. It came out in 1961, and some aspects seem positively antique. The protagonist needs to go from NYC to Cleveland -- so he takes the train. (Yes, it may come to that again.) TV broadcasts shut off after midnight. All prices need to be adjusted by a factor of ten or more. Newspapers cost a nickel, a good meal costs $2.50, a dollar bill is a huge tip.

But if you touched up a few of those references, the book could have been written last year. The language people use, the rhythms of daily life, the patterns of suburb and big city -- they seem surprisingly current. It is also racy in ways that are taken for granted now, though they must have been on the edge back then.

This is on my mind at the moment because I know that nothing about urban China in 1961 would in any way resemble the texture of life now. It is surprising how settled, even staid, U.S. life seems from this perspective.

Two, though written in a jaunty tone, this is about as dark a book as I've read in a while. The end takes a turn I hadn't seen coming -- unusual for these genre books. It made me think of the bleakness champion in crime fiction, Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me.

Worth checking out. Here are a few more cover images from the Hard Case web site. It can be embarrassing to read these on a plane!

You have to love the cover line on this last one: "Those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained." Luridness distilled!

Update: Well, now I feel like an idiot! The editor of the Hard Case series, Charles Ardai, who under the alias Aleas is also the author of Songs of Innocence, above, wrote to point out that the cover line is from William Blake's "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell." Sigh. Next few books on the airplane should be Romantic poetry anthologies, not any of this pulp.

Also, Lawrence Block, author of Grifter's Game, is an unbelievably prolific and entertaining novelist, whose own site is here.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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