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Finding the black in noir

February 27, 2009 |  8:14 am

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The origins of noir are as twisted as one of its best plots. Mysteries and detective stories were published in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the US and UK; there were books and cheap paberbacks and  popular magazines. Maybe it was their accessibility that led Hollywood to make movies from them. Or maybe it was that, by the 1930s and '40s, some of those writers lived in L.A. -- James Cain, Raymond Chandler -- and they were the kind of guys a movie producer might have a drink with. The result ranged from really lousy films to B-movies ("D.O.A.") to high-end productions like "Double Indemnity," which was nominated for seven Oscars. The people who worked on them fell along a huge spectrum of Hollywood nobodies and up-and-comers and gadflies and oddballs and ambitious visionaries; expatriate directors Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder (from Austria) among them. But nobody, in all that time, called them "noir."

After WWII, France saw a sudden influx of American films that they'd missed during the war. Film scholars noticed that many had dark themes (all those mysteries and drinking detectives) and dark screens (a legacy of German Expressionism). They called these films "black" -- in French, noir

But the parameters of noir were never clear to people at the time they were making the films -- not like someone making a musical knows they're making a movie with song-and-dance numbers. But something in the idea was so powerful -- that detectives and mysteries with dangerous women and little chance of things turning out all right could play out in a twisted moral landscape -- that it was exported back to America, and back to fiction and books. It is, sometimes, an awkward fit.

But there are a few running threads, and one is that noir is very, very white.

Except it's not. That's what "Black Noir: Mystery, Crime, and Suspense by African-American Writers" shows. It includes writing by Chester Himes, Edward P. Jones, Gary Phillips, Paula Woods and Walter Mosely, and is edited by Otto Penzler. Details after the jump.

Penzler is a master editor of crime fiction, and he finds African American authors who were writing more than a century ago. Charles Waddell Chesnutt's story was published in 1889; Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins' "Talma Gordon" in 1900. Her story is a racial lesson wrapped in an Edgar Allen Poe-style mystery.

I did not fall asleep readily; there was something in the air that forebade it. I was still awake when a distant clock struck the second hour of the morning. Suddenly the heavens were lighted by a sheet of ghastly light; a terrific midsummer thunderstorm was breaking over the sleeping town. A lurid flash lit up all the landscape, painting the trees in grotesque shapes against the murky sky, and defining clearly the sullen blackness of the waters of the bay breaking in granduer against the rocky coast. ... Now the uncanny howling of a dog mingled with the rattling volleys of thunder... .

After these and other early writers, there's a bit of a lull, but Chester Himes fills in the thin mid-century period with a story that's got a great chase scene and no morality at all.

In the modern era, Los Angeles writers dominate. There's Gar Anthony Haywood, who kicked off the African American privat-eye series in 1987 with "Fear of the Dark." Walter Mosley's "Devil in a Blue Dress" came three years later. Books by L.A.-native Paula Woods often make the L.A. Times bestseller list. And Gary Phillips' first book was set against the 1992 riots.

Their work here is fun, if you think spending time reading about cops and murderers, heists and hussies is fun. Two of their stories -- Woods' and Mosley's -- incorporate dogs into their plots. Heywood's and Phillips' include fictional versions of celebrities -- Magic Johnson and Phil Spector, respectively.

The line from thunderstorm to Alhambra mansion makes sense in this collection, which, in addition to tugging on noir's black thread, is a great read.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo by uqbar via Flickr

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