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