Books: Pulp fiction's prophet motive

Does the new, wickedly fashionable crime-writing capture the soul of modern America? Julian Rathbone looks at the appeal of the postmodern mobster, in practice and theory

Be Cool

by Elmore Leonard

Viking, pounds 16.99, 288pp

Neon Noir

by Woody Haut

Serpent's Tail, pounds 10.99, 296pp

PURSUING A producer of schlock-horror movies and pursued by a mobster whose hair he had parted with a gunshot, Chili (Look at me) Palmer, a debt-collector with mob connections, came from Miami to Los Angeles. He sold a script idea to the producer, which he developed using events that happened to him. Then the plots that he brought with him collided with LA drug barons. So the movie was composed, stage by stage, out of what was happening, adding an extra dimension to what would anyway have been one of Elmore Leonard's best novels.

That was Get Shorty. is a sequel. Chili, now an established producer with a studio contract, lunches with an old acquaintance, an indie record promoter, who suggests the indie music industry would make a great background for a movie. Chili leaves the table to take a leak, and comes back to find his friend has been shot in a drive-by killing.

Chili now embarks on a three-fold odyssey. He wants to find out what happened and why, he becomes an indie producer with a young rock combo to manage, but above all he remains a film producer looking for a script. This time he does not simply let events unfold and feed them into the story; he consciously tries to manipulate them and the characters to get the plot he wants. In short, he plays God, and of course that implies a near-fatal hubris.

That's the subtext. On the surface is all you ever wanted to know about the indie music industry, dialogue like broken glass, sharp and glittering, and a raft of low-lifes individualised in primary colours like hard edged pop-art. Above all, there is Leonard's wry cynicism, which refuses to despair. "The guy saved my life. The least I can do is put him in a movie" - the guy is a psychopath who has just, not for the first time, dropped a man off a high balcony with the comment "They always scream like that."

So Leonard at his best? I think so, though for all the obfuscations the plot remains pretty transparent, and here and there one finds a soft centre among the hardboiled ones: buddyism with a black policeman, a female interest who is mature, intelligent, warm, generous, sexy, and a slight feeling that occasionally he's on automatic pilot. Leonard can be angry, but there is little sense of that here.

Woody Haut finds late Leonard occasionally "placid", rather than cool, and that is the sort of accurate judgement that illuminates every page of Neon Noir, a study of American noir fiction from the late Sixties until now. A serious analysis of noir fiction? Does this mean we are meant to take it, or crime fiction in general, seriously?

Clearly, it depends on the author or authors. Colin Dexter is on record as saying he is not to be taken seriously, nor should crime fiction seek to be. Well, yes to the first... and no to the second. Chester Himes, say, or Walter Mosley, Sara Paretsky, James Sallis: while wishing to entertain, each writer sought or seeks a resonance, a context that goes beyond entertainment. Race, history, feminism, the relationship between art and reality, are their legitimate concerns.

Haut goes a lot further. He finds in American noir the literary form which not only provides the best critique of American society and culture we have, but also reflects most cogently the two cataclysms which have impacted on that culture - the Vietnam war, "the era's primary crime", and the deregulatory policies of the Carter, Reagan and Bush presidencies. Responding to these events, noir fiction moves through the psychoses produced by a meaningless war; overcomes, in a criminal society, the problem of seeming like true crime by seeking ever deeper extremes of vice; and arrives in a neon-lit world that is satirical, surreal and looks towards an engagement, if not marriage, with SF and horror.

One cannot fault his analyses of the writers he chooses to substantiate his thesis. His accounts of Mosley, James Ellroy and Charles Willeford are especially good, and one of the many virtues of this book is that it directs the attention to great writers one might have overlooked.

If Neon Noir has a fault, it is that it leaves some avenues tantalisingly unexplored. Although it has a look at the two-way relationship between film and novel, there is more to say than Haut finds room for. There was a window, too, for a consideration of cross-fertilisation with writers outside the genre or with practitioners of other art-forms, such as rock or even conceptual art. William Burroughs, himself a mean pasticheur of noir and westerns, showed the way in both substance and form for many of Haut's chosen writers. And, whatever else it may be, that Damien Hirst shark is noir.

Julian Rathbone is revising his screenplay for a noir film starring Michael Caine

Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups


An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment


Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'


Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea