pulp (2007-08)

Pulp Noir

New kicks from Charlie Huston and Duane Swierczynski

by Paul Lewis

It's great to find something you love, be it the perfect bowl of Tom Kha, a quiet spot along the river, or a person who really does it for you. Something you can go back to time and time again and, assuming care and quality, it just sates you, makes you happy.

For instance, you just can't beat some good noir. Morally conflicted protagonists, dangerous women, wicked humor, high stakes, and definitely not knowing what could be right around the corner... basically, something for everyone. If you read enough books, you can easily guess what's next a majority of the time. Noir will knock you on your ass and laugh at you just when you relax and think you have it figured out.

Most of the noir classics still hold up today--your Dashiell Hammetts, your Jim Thompsons, your Raymond Chandlers--and they've so informed the culture that any number of books and movies unknowingly rip these guys off without realizing it, because they're copying someone who copied Chandler. So when you find a young voice writing the good stuff, it evokes a joy in direct contrast to the bleakness so associated with the genre. When you find two, like Charlie Huston and Duane Swierczynski, that's enough to make your wallet just as traumatized as some guy who just got punched in the gut.

Huston is probably the more textbook noir of the two. His recently concluded Henry Thompson trilogy ( Caught Stealing, Six Bad Things , and most recently, A Dangerous Man , Ballantine, $12.95) is one of the stronger entries in crime fiction over the past few years. Henry Thompson is a gifted baseball player whose career ends in injury before it ever gets started, and then it's years later and he's a dude tending bar in New York. Soon, just because he's a decent guy who does a favor for a friend, he's running from people, and then killing them. Even leaving the country doesn't stop the killing, because when a lot of people think you have a lot of money, they tend to want it and you.

The Henry Thompson trilogy is structured as a trip to purgatory and beyond. First, a normal man (with a lot of inner turmoil, granted) finds himself in an untenable situation and learns he's capable of far worse things than he had ever dreamed. Then, even his escape offers no respite, because he finds himself committing terrible acts again, and they come more easily. Finally, even though every act of violence leaves him hollow, he continues to commit them, knowing every life he takes allows someone else to breathe for another day. It may not be fun to watch a life spin out of control, but Huston makes it darkly compelling, never losing sight of his character's lost humanity. Even more, he makes you root for Henry Thompson to find it again. Huston makes you wince at every wound, grind your knuckle for every scar, and weep for every glimpse at redemption.

Swierczynski, on the other hand, is a riot, and he doesn't want you to sleep until you've finished the next paragraph, the next page, the whole damned book.   If his novel The Wheelman is a modern speed noir take on the getaway caper, then The Blonde (St. Martin's Minotaur, $23.95) is his international technothriller (if international technothrillers can be set almost exclusively in the seediest parts of Philadelphia).  

The story bounds forward when the titular beautiful blonde claims to have poisoned traveling journalist Jack Eisley in an airport bar. She claims she can't be alone or she'll die, so she's probably nuts, and she'll also do anything within her power to keep Eisley next to her. Soon, for personal reasons (read The Wheelman ), a black ops government agent in Philadelphia gets involved in trying to track them down, because people who cross The Blonde's path are falling dead. As Jack quickly learns, just because you're nuts doesn't mean you're not telling the truth.

Swierczynski is jacked up where Huston is meditative, and his plots accelerate from one dark cliffhanger to the next. He also has a gift of unexpected humor, perching jokes in the most precarious of places. ("You know you've sunk to a new low when you're being mocked by crack whores," notices one character in a particularly dire strait.)

Though stylistically different, both these writers delight in oddball characters, whipsmart dialogue, and a sense of unease. And, like most great noir novelists, they delight in straining their protagonists through a physical and emotional sieve, beating them up and daring them to get on their feet so they can do it again. Readers should keep coming back for more from these talented newcomers to the game, because, if nothing else, they remind us of just how good we really have it when they entertainingly illustrate those unlucky folks who have it bad.