Books: Bring on the men with loaded guns

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Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction

by Woody Haut

Serpent's Tail pounds 9.99

Woody Haut could be the name of a character in a crime novel, and in this, the sequel to Pulp Culture, his study of the roots of American hardboiled crime fiction, he brings us up to date with essays on the leading figures in the genre at the turn of the millennium. Or at least, his idea of the leaders. As always with a topic as subjective as this, no two readers are going to agree. On the whole Haut manages to avoid too many pitfalls, although sometimes he does tend to steer too far towards the scholarly. And at times, to paraphrase Raymond Chandler, I was crying out for the exhilaration of men bursting through doors with loaded guns in their hands, which surely is the point of pulp. Sometimes too much analysis can lose the beauty of the melody, as Chuck Berry might say.

So who then to include? And more importantly who to leave out of such a book before it gets to be as weighty as the Encyclopaedia Britannica? The answer is once again purely subjective, but it does strike me as strange that if Carl Hiassen gets five entries in the index, why does Robert Crais for instance get none? And none for Les Standiford, or for that matter John Sandiford, Laurence Shames and Kem Nunn, all four being rising stars in pulp land. And why do Robert B Parker, Michael Connelly and Joe Lonsdale [sic] only manage four between them, while James Ellroy gets a staggering 32?

Obviously Haut's opinions of the stars of hardboiled differ greatly from mine. But that is only to be expected, and I don't intend to be too harsh. What is ultimately the major reason why this book should appear, not only on the bookshelves of committed crime fans, but also anyone interested in American social history in the last third of the 20th century, is that Haut returns time and time again to the Vietnam legacy that has influenced so much hardboiled American fiction over this period. And perhaps more interestingly why this sort of book couldn't be written about British crime fiction, or if it was, would be little more than pamphlet-size. Our Vietnams were Northern Ireland, the Falklands and the Gulf, but little reference is made to this in home-grown crime writing. A handful of crime novels have featured returned veterans, but compare this with the literally hundreds, perhaps thousands of books from the US, where either the protagonists of the crime, or the hero, or sometimes both, is suffering, or has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder related directly to the police action in South-East Asia during the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, maybe that's what we need in this country to give our own crime writers a kick up the backside - a damn good war.