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Down The Black River
Bluecoat, Liverpool

In April 2016 I was commissioned by The Bluecoat to curate a reference library of crime fiction for a day-long symposium on the genre with readings and discussions focused on social stereotypes, anti-heroes and literary connections. Showing a preference for hard-boiled US pulp fiction and french noir, these selections act as a starter guide to a vast body of work, highlighting works by well-known and obscure authors which illustrate the malleability and potential of crime writing from the 1940s to the present day. The library was displayed in Bluecoat during Spring 2016.

From the cramped detective offices and scorching desert of 1940s Los Angeles to the mountains of the Ardèche, the appeal of crime writing lies as much in its vivid evocations of time and place as in the presence of base thrills like murder, mystery and romance. The noir sub-genre in particular has been described as 'intrinsically related to [its] cultural and socio-historical surroundings', and in deriving so many key aspects of its plot and atmosphere from the genuine tensions of 20th century life, it inevitably has much to say about the world around us, and often finds itself as a vehicle for the voices and narratives of the disposessed or downtrodden.

The dominance of the heterosexual white male lead is challenged by JP Manchette’s Fatale and Charles Williams’ Nothing In Her Way, wherein female protagonists take their bloody meta-textual revenge upon men hamstrung by their own desires. In the Duffy and Brandstetter series’ by Dan Kavanagh (a pseudonym of Julian Barnes) and Joseph Hansen respectively, the titular characters are openly gay or bisexual. Patricia Highsmith’s Ripliad features a central character whose complex sexuality is a consistent theme, though in the first and fourth books particularly, Tom Ripley’s interactions are particularly charged with homoerotic longing. Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series revolves around a black Private Investigator navigating the racial unease of 1960s LA against a backdrop of real-life incidents such as the Watts riots. Other writers to have derived material from these tensions include Elmore Leonard and Charles Willeford.

Female authors have made a sizeable contribution to the genre in works which challenge and critique sexist attitudes prevalent in their time. Dorothy B Hughes’ In A Lonely Place exposes societal misogyny in the pursuit of a rapist and serial killer. The titular heroine of Vera Caspary’s Laura seems at first like the traditional femme fatale but emerges as the most capable, intelligent and morally upstanding character in a cast of schemers and deadbeats.

American noir progenitors such as Raymond Chandler found great popularity in France in the 1940s, where their works were published in translation by imprints such as Gallimard’s Série Noire. The demand for these works was such that French writers such as Boris Vian, Serge Arcouët and Jean Meckert began to submit their own work under American pseudonyms. Vian’s I Spit On Your Graves, an explosive, racially-charged revenge thriller written as Vernon Sullivan, was described by the Guardian's Chris Petit as "straight noir, but also a work of liberated imagination after four years of Nazi occupation: heady, abandoned, fevered and lubricious". It effectively fuses the experimental sensibility of the French polymath with the hardboiled style of James M Cain. Like a number of Arcouët and Meckert’s works, the Vernon Sullivan novels were soon translated into English for US publication. As such, a Gallic sensibility has helped shape the genre almost since its inception, and the finest noir from both sides of the Atlantic combines the best qualities of pulp fiction with strong political and existential undertones.

This injection of European philosophy explains why the genre favours the criminal, or the detective with little regard for the law; it’s difficult to challenge convention with well-behaved characters. An examination of man’s craven, corruptible nature is in many cases an exploration of the self – noir novels are often written as first-person confessionals, a form which also fosters intimacy and encourages empathy. Examples of this approach include James M Cain’s seminal works Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Elliot Chaze’s Black Wings Has My Angel. Conversely, JP Manchette takes the methodical, behaviouralist style of Dashiel Hammett to extremes in The Prone Gunman, which contains no trace of its protagonists inner monologue. Through actions alone, he is depicted as enviably tenacious and skilled; his actions are dictated by circumstance and his principles left for the reader to discern. This elliptical approach encourages us to identify with the narrator and makes for a masterful exercise in tension.

P.D. James offered the following formula for a good crime novel – "50% good detection, 25% character and 25% what the author knows best". Perhaps this is why many of the great noir writers of the 20th century had backgrounds in newspaper journalism and the armed forces. In writing what they knew best, these well-travelled writers filled their books with the unpredictable reality of the underworld and its attendant characters, who had formed the basis for their stories and interviews; with violence as brutal and affecting as that which they had seen at war. Their experience is felt in the credibility of the characters’ actions and the rhythms of their speech, believably rich with abandoned clauses and emotional u-turns, flavoured with patois and aphorisms; and in the small details that enrich descriptions of everyday events. As crime fiction has matured, authors have utilised its familiar tropes to mount works with more experimental literary ambitions, exploring diverse genres and settings.

Literalising the self-dissection common to the genre, Michel Houellebecq’s The Map And The Territory depicts the central character, a portrait painter, discovering the eviscerated corpse of his most recent sitter – the author Michel Houellebecq. The Map And The Territory, like Tonino Benacquista’s Framed, examines the art world as a criminal enterprise. China Miéville’s The City & The City takes the format of a police procedural and applies it to the fictious European states of Besźel and Ul Qoma, and the speculative-fiction conceit that the citizens of each are able to lead separate existences by consciously erasing the other from their perception, despite the two locations occupying the same physical space. The murder of a prostitute prompts an exploration of this concept, a potent metaphor for society’s collusion in ignoring less pleasant aspects of itself.

City is reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges in parts, as is the sole crime novel by his contemporaries and friends Silvina Ocampo and Adolfo Bioy Casares - Where There’s Love, There’s Hate, which functions both as a satire on the genre and a valid addition to its ranks. The doomed romance of the coruscatingly downbeat 
The Wounded And The Slain by David Goodis is haunted by the spirit of Zola’s Thérèse Raquin. Georges Simenon’s works, and those of the lesser-known Pascal Garnier, are rich with allusions to Camus and Sartre. Simenon’s characters (with the exception of his best known creation, the genial eccentric detective Jules Maigret) are frequently plagued by the same desires as their author, a famed libertine – strong examples of this are The Mahé Circle and The Man Who Watched Trains Go By. Additionally his Dirty Snow is a startling portrait of a truly deranged mind – a European counterpoint to Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. Pascal Garnier’s plots, in titles like The A26 and Moon In A Dead Eye, move like lucid dreams through the French countryside, punctuated by bouts of ecstatic violence and unremitting bleakness.