Prominent on the lists of popular commercial fiction and television today is a category called “Scandi-Noir” or “Nordic Noir,” characterized by a police point of view, plain language, bleak landscapes, a dark and morally complex mood, and murder, of course. As I began Vic Peterson’s novel The Berserkers (Hawkwood Books, 240 pages), I was anticipating exactly that sort of genre experience. The first chapter, depicting a crime scene investigation on a frozen lake, did not begin to alter my expectations until its final two paragraphs:
“A pale tangle lay beside the hole the girl had been sunk in. It then dawned on me that the pale tangle was the girl. Her body lay sprawled on top of the ice, displaced by the minor tsunami of the sinking car, and ejected from the ice like the cork from a champagne bottle. Her clothes spread about her in wet snarls lurid under the dim sun, a cape and corset and stockings.
The girl’s pallor was blue and ruinous. My jaw slackened. I tried to utter some words, any words, whether of shock, wisdom, or warning. No sound emanated from my lips. For a pair of large wings had begun unfolding around the corpse, beautiful, wispy, shivering with each gust like the pinfeathers of a hatchling drying in the dying light.”
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Seven Cries of Delight (Recital Publishing, 170 pages) is not like most collections of literary short stories. As legions of MFA students busily workshop their childhood drama into market-friendly “realistic” fiction, Tom Newton has clearly been following a different muse. These stories (two dozen of them!) range widely in setting and imagery and allusion, but all are hung on a solid spine: a lively curiosity about the deeper, invisible nature of what we call reality. This curiosity is expressed as speculative imaginings and unharnessed mental rovings, with an articulate, wryly humorous voice that obviously springs from a well-traveled and well-read intellect. At every turn are enjoyable discoveries of unlikely connections, unpredictable logic, and unanswerable questions.
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Sometimes I like to explore the foggy borderlands between genre fiction and literary fiction.
Raymond Chandler’s crisp and evocative prose and insightful character development transcend the hard-boiled detective genre. His novel The Long Goodbye was praised in an anthology of American crime stories as “arguably the first book since Hammett’s The Glass Key, published more than twenty years earlier, to qualify as a serious and significant mainstream novel that just happened to possess elements of mystery.”
For similar reasons, the movie Chinatown escaped its noir pulp pigeonhole to become a classic of serious film (if such can ever come from Hollywood). Screenwriter Robert Towne and director Roman Polanski took it deeper than the standard commercial mystery pic.
If “eco-thriller” can be said to be a genre today, Biff Thuringer’s novel Wasted: A Story of Love Gone Toxic (Chronic Publishing/Epigraph Books, 280 pages) walks the liminal space where that category’s conventions give way to something more, an artful challenge to everyday thinking. Continue reading →
I’ve always been fascinated by stories of doubles, twins, doppelgangers, minds and actions mirrored (perhaps as a reaction against the profound truth that each of us is utterly unique, and therefore alone). Jim Murdoch’s short novel, Milligan and Murphy (Fandango Virtual, 180 pages), is not really one of those stories, but it toys with the trope of twins who together make a single person. The half-brothers Milligan and Murphy (both named John!) are not twins but are enough alike that their non-twinness is just a technicality. Murphy, the firstborn, may be a shade more introspective, and Milligan a trifle more action-oriented, but essentially they are one mind, and the fact that they inhabit separate bodies is primarily a storytelling device. Without it, the extensive dialogues exploring their limited reality would become claustrophobic solipsism. Such is the reason for the respectable literary history of twins, brothers/sisters, bosom buddies, even the hero/sidekick construct: it works. Continue reading →
Mean Bastards Making Nice (Leaky Boot Press, 168 pages) is a slim volume from small UK publisher Leaky Boot Press. It contains two novellas related by theme and setting. It’s a thoroughly New York book, but that doesn’t mean stock Big Apple accents or tired tropes from TV. It means both city streets and upstate forests are simply there: as integral as the air the characters breathe.
To gloss the surface: “Book One: The Pain of Wearing Our Faces” introduces a painter, a composer, their shared alcoholism, and a mysterious woman who is a muse for both of them, but a dangerous one. “Book Two: Grace” follows a girl on the run from country to city, her discovery of her own warrior strength on the streets, and her profound impact on a few of the city’s art-world glitterati. Continue reading →