Friday, November 18, 2011

FICTION NOIR Review: Thirteen Noir Tales in Brief

I love books as much as I love movies, so I was delighted to get the opportunity to read Fiction Noir, the latest suspense anthology from Hen House Press. The trick will be to give you all a taste of each of the 13 compelling short stories without spoiling any of the endings!

Eve Gaal’s Loser’s Ledge focuses on Viola, a woman of a certain age standing on the roof of a twenty-story building, ready to jump to her death because she can’t forgive herself for all the things that went wrong in her life, particularly one fateful day when “a simple but massive blunder…fogg(ed) up all of her good intentions and all her judgment by clouding her brain with self-pity and loathing,” all because of a lottery ticket. If there’s a moral to this poignant, tense drama, it would be: “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself!”
Joanne Dobson is renowned for her popular mystery book series about Professor Karen Pelletier, but I’ll admit I was particularly eager to read Dobson’s story Hey, Girlie because I grew up primarily in the Bronx myself, including being an alumna of Fordham University, where Dobson has taught. The emotions and the setting of the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx after World War 2 really rang true for me, having had family members who’d fought overseas as well. My heart went out to Rachel Cohen, the unfortunate poet and concentration camp survivor who has to face her tormentor from the camps regularly now that the creep is the building’s new super. Rachel’s account of wearing her white linen dress in hopes that “if I looked nice, they’d know I was a nice girl” broke my heart—which also went out to our bewildered, apprehensive young heroine, and her rude awakening about terrible truths that she’s not quite ready to comprehend. Rachel gets her well-deserved revenge, but at a terrible cost. If Stephen King/Richard Bachman’s Thinner made you think twice about eating strawberry pie, you might never think about cherry-topped coconut cake quite the same way again after reading Hey, Girlie.
Alfred Hitchcock by Rick Geary
On a more playful if darkly comedic note, there’s Everyone’s a Critic by A.R. Philips, also known for his entertaining blog Hitchcock and Me. Sure, every director wants a hit movie, but in Philips’ slyly satirical universe, film criticism can literally be murder, especially if your magnum opus is an unnecessary remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy! Here’s one of my favorite lines from our witty narrator: “…he looked like a no-foam soy latte kind of guy, but I could have been wrong…Give me the cheap coffee in those heavy cups you get in a diner and I’m happy.” Philips’ plot cleverly veers into unexpected but satisfying directions.

Fiction Noir meets Food Noir in author and radio host Amy Beth Arkawy’s elegantly cheeky murder tale Dangerous Appetites! Pity the artist who doesn’t have the opportunity to take part in his/her craft, like Stella, Arkawy’s frustrated chef/heroine/narrator, whose medium happens to be food. Stella curses the day her ruthless, high-powered attorney husband decided to lose weight, contributing to their crumbling marriage: “It’s been nine months since Leo first appeared on cable TV as the defense attorney in the high profile Dillinger murder case. The day after he saw his bloated visage float across the screen like a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon, Leo started ordering those vile diet dinners.” That’s not the postman ringing twice, nor the pizza guy; it’s gourmet murder to go. As in Joanne Dobson’s Hey, Girlie, coconut cake is enticingly mentioned here. Suddenly I’m getting hungry; must be Arkawy’s great sensory details and deliciously witty dialogue!

Raymond Chandler by Rick Geary
You loved Scott Fivelson’s zany movie-oriented comedy Dial “L” for Latch-Key; now Fivelson teams up with Tim Cleavenger to bring us the daffy detective spoof Johnny Passe, in which Frank Sinatra, private eye plots, and avid music collectors are affectionately lampooned. Johnny’s the kind of outwardly tough, inwardly addlepated gumshoe manqué who smokes in the shower and generally makes Police Squad’s Frank Drebin look like Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Here’s a taste of Johnny’s snappy patter: “Yeah, it’s my philosophy that dreams are like snowflakes. No two dreams are ever alike. In fact, no two clubs are ever alike—although once I was in a club where they served a drink called The Snowflake. There was a lot of ice in it, and if you drank enough of ‘em, you’d fall down. If you didn’t drink ‘em, they’d only evaporate, and like dreams, become air. At least that’s what happened to mine.”

Grim Reaper by JWilliams
Steven Fried’s Anvil combines noir-style storytelling with philosophy and surrealism, in a rueful meditation on death and rebirth and plenty of food for thought.

Dennis Brock’s The Vinegar of the Seven Thieves is a tale of desperate, hungry people who find themselves running afoul of spies during World War 2, including the draft-dodger narrator. No glamorous James Bond-type spies in this brooding, gritty tale. To me, it’s the most deeply steeped in the noir style, with its no-way-out fatalism.

Art by Rick Geary
Remind me not to go boating with Greenbaum, the lawyer protagonist of Isaac Grimm’s sharp, cleanly-written Wrongful Death! Furiously miserable in his imploding marriage, he gets ideas when a new client comes to him certain that her mother’s fatal boating accident was murder, giving Greenbaum ideas about how he could literally get away with murder.

We love Lucy—Lucy Gordon, that is! Lucy is a young local newspaper reporter by day and, in today’s tough economy, a janitor by night in Murder Brokers by Jennifer Leeper. One of her cleaning clients, Arrow Property Group, is quite neat—too neat, as if nobody uses their chairs and desks at all. And what connection does it all have with the recent spate of pretty cleaning ladies turning up dead? As a writer and editor, I could relate to heroine Lucy Gordon’s annoyance about “the drastic surgery performed on my county commission stories by our copy editor.” Another great line: “It’s a voice that commands, it doesn’t request.” In addition to Lucy, I also found the other characters memorable and engaging, as was the depiction of small-town life and its newspaper reporters.

In The Village Idiot by Rivka Tadjer & Roberto Gottardello, troubled, vulnerable FBI agent Mary returns to the scene of a long-ago tragedy in Woodstock, NY that she was powerless to stop due to her own failings. Now that she’s back, will she redeem herself at last, or will history repeat itself? To me, Mary comes across as somewhat of a Clarice Starling who’s fallen on hard times, both emotionally and physically. Although I empathize with Mary, I’m afraid I’d be reluctant to put my life in her hands (not a criticism, simply an observation). I feel sorry for her and frustrated with her at the same time. The emotions and the brooding, sordid atmosphere and goings-on sound authentic. Loved this line: “Did you eat a fox sandwich to become so smart?”

Bernard Schaffer’s When the Man Comes Around is another standout, a suspenseful story harkening back to a shameful chapter of medical history. In 1935, Dr. Antonio Egas Moniz devised the lobotomy, convincing other doctors and the public that it was a surefire cure for any and all mental disorders. The 1940s and 1950s were the lobotomy’s heyday until people wised up and antidepressants were invented to make all those pesky emotional problems go away. New York City Police Detective Jimmy O’Leary is horrified to discover that a certain Dr. Freid is performing lobotomies the no-frills way: with a spike and a mallet and a life of being a virtual vegetable—if the patient lives. And Jimmy’s troubled  ten-year-old nephew is next, despite his having responded well after spending time with Uncle Jimmy! The kid’s all-but-neglectful parents just seem to want the quick fix promised by Dr. Freid. But Jimmy has his own prescription for the “good doctor”…. Great dialogue, including this passage at the station house:
“Hey, what’s a nice way to say I was dealing with an ass…and he wouldn’t shut his yap?”

One of the older detectives said, “The subject was belligerent despite my repeated attempts to coerce him otherwise.”

Cornell Woolrich by Rick Geary
If you like gambling and the films of Martin Scorsese, I’m betting that Semyon White’s High Stakes Graft will be up your alley. When Las Vegas gambler Dean Curtis looks into the apparent murder of a bewitching, enticing young gambler he's attracted to, he finds there’s more than meets the eye in this fast-moving tale. There’s action and exotic atmosphere aplenty, vivid enough for me to picture it in my mind’s eye. I wouldn’t mind following Dean and Noelle on further adventures!

The anthology ends on a moody yet playful note with Ivan Jenson’s poem Love Noir, crystallizing the classic film noir tropes beautifully. Fiction Noir’s fabulous smorgasbord of noir tales are the book equivalent of a Thanksgiving feast!

Find more terrific Hen House Press books at

Fiction Noir is perfect for light reading.... give Fiction Noir a shot!

Would Dashiell Hammett steer you wrong? (Art by Rick Geary.)

Art by Eric Bowman

Step into your local bookstore and get ahold of Fiction Noir today! Available at  Barnes & Noble Nook, Amazon Kindle, and the Google eBookstore, as well as in paperback. (Holiday gift-giving season is just around the corner!)


  1. Sounds like an interesting collection (I particularly like the combo of reporter by day/janitor by night) - thanks for the heads up!

  2. Dorian,
    You've certainly put a lot of work into letting us know about this quirky but intriguing series.
    I love the food meets noir titles.

    Being off today I stayed up late watching Hitchcock's early Rich and Strange then Abandon Ship with Tyrone Power, so forgive me for being a bit sea sick and queasy. Ha Ha! What a lovely surprise both films were.

    High Stakes Graft sounds like a must see!
    Love your posts DB,

  3. GOM, thanks for your positive feedback! Like you, I was also tickled by Lucy Gordon's reporter by day/janitor by night double-duty. If/when you get an opportunity to read FICTION NOIR, I think you'll really enjoy it!

  4. Page, thanks for your kind words about my FICTION NOIR review! I love reading, even though I don't get to do as much just-for-fun reading as I'd like. Ironically, I often find myself writing more than I read, so I was pleased to be able to spread the word about FICTION NOIR.

    How cool that you got to sit down and watch ABANDON SHIP and Hitchcock's RICH AND STRANGE! I saw those movies years ago, and they made an impression on me. Will you be using either of those films in one of your delightful pictorials sometime, or just watching them for the heck of it?

    Thanks again, Page, you're a dear!

  5. Desert Rocks, thanks for your upbeat praise of my FICTION NOIR post! I read and enjoyed your blog and thoroughly enjoyed it. I've taken the liberty of Following your charming blog. Looking forward to reading more of it!

  6. Dorian, you had no need to worry about spoiling the stories for us -- you gave just enough to really whet the appetite. I love story anthologies, and would love to read this one! I am most interested in "Everyone's a Critic", "Johnny Passe", "The Vinegar of 7 Thieves" and "When The Man Comes Around." They sound just marvelous. This is something that is going to go on my Christmas wish list. Your excellent review is a good advertisement for this book!

  7. Becky, beaucoup for your positive feedback on FICTION NOIR! I'm pleased to hear that you felt I described the stories well without giving away too much. I definitely think you'd enjoy these stories. If/when you get ahold of the book, I'd be very interested in hearing your thoughts about them. Let's all give the gift of great storytelling this year! :-)

  8. Oh no - MORE books on the list to read now that you've made them sound so intriguing!

  9. FlickChick, thanks for your FICTION NOIR comment! Your reply made me smile, because I'm in the same boat as you: I love to read, but I have so many books waiting in line for me to read them! In fact, I have an Edward Gorey rubber stamp that says "So many books, so little time." (As you may have noticed with this blog's illustrations, I own almost as many rubber stamps as I have books and movies!) It's nice to know you and I and all of our fellow book-loving bloggers are in such good company! :-)

  10. Great review of these short stories. They do sound good.

  11. DM, thanks for your positive feedback! I hope you'll take the time to read and enjoy FICTION NOIR yourself. Drop by to join the conversation here anytime!

  12. Dorian, You have given me a couple of ideas for Christmas gifts. Thanks for the wonderful book reviews.

  13. I thought I had passed by this way earlier, but it seems I left a ghostly trail. Thanks for the heads-up on these terrific sounding reads. Now all I need is the time.

  14. Caftan Woman, we're on your trail! :-) I think you and I and many of us here share the "so many books, so little time" lament. Perhaps we all need to take baby steps to read more books, like starting with one chapter a day, or maybe just a page a day! :-)

  15. Dawn, thank you and you're welcome for your kind words about my FICTION NOIR review! I like your Christmas gift idea; I for one an always happy to give and receive the gift of suspenseful books and films! :-)