The old woman sits in the easy chair, chin slumped in sleep, the picture of repose. Only on closer inspection does it become clear: she is not sleeping, she is dead. By the door, a man who recently made an inconspicuous entrance now succumbs to helpless convulsions. In the bathroom, junkies shoot up. In an aisle, a man lies face down, immobile. He, unlike the woman in the chair, will get up again - he is not dead, only resting.

Are these victims and suspects at a murder site, you may ask, or perhaps the clientele of one of New York's more popular police stations? Far from it: incredible though it sounds, they are actual patrons of Manhattan's trendy book superstores, spotted by our book store-employee spies, who bemoan both the difficulty of distinguishing between potentially distressing clients and the harmless throng of desirably grunge-dressed loungers, and the awkwardness of compelling the doubtful guests to leave when their eccentricities (dying, getting violently ill, doing drugs, camping) have made their presence unwelcome. Police escorts are sometimes necessary. It's easy to understand the allure the book stores hold for some marginalised New Yorkers. In addition to being clean, well-lit places, far safer than the average public shelter, they lull with their fragrant cappuccino stands, their protecting walls of books and cosy reading nooks, cuddled among overstuffed armchairs and occasional tables. For savvy derelicts and aged loners, they offer a home away from the homeless.

While the book store lonely hearts and desperadoes are mostly oblivious to the text-crazed shoppers that dart among them, hell-bent for copies of Arundhati Roy or the latest thriller, the reading public at some point detected the evocative stragglers on their peripheral vision and wanted to know more. Sensitised by Pulp Fiction, and enured to ubiquitous city film crews, at first they thought that the people they were seeing were extras who had been hired by local Tarantino-wannabe film-makers. When they noticed there were no cameras, they decided instead that they must be actors hired by subtle and ambitious book publicists to present tableaux vivants of characters from gritty American classics to boost sales. When they learned this was not the case, they concluded that it ought to be, and began to clamour for a revival of American Noir - the fiction of fedoras and hard-boiled blondes, revolvers and desperate men, washed in whisky and ashes and sour urban morning light. It was not enough to see a few isolated slipping-down lives sputtering out among them, they wanted to read about them, too.

New York authors have raced to oblige them, but in the necessary interim of four months or so (the time required to write an indelible masterpiece of crime fiction) added to a year and a half or so (the time required to convince a publishing house that it can make millions on said indelible masterpiece and then rush it to press) something called the Library of America rushed to provide the public with what it wanted. So was born a glossy, hard-bound, two-volume collection called Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 1940s, and American Noir of the 1950s, in which New Yorkers who slavered for some violent terseness could at last slake their thirst. They revelled in reading such titles as I Married A Dead Man, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Pick-up; rejoiced in learning the lingo of low types who were wont to declare, "I've got to get drunk with you, Frank. You know what I mean? Drunk", or "Even in death he wouldn't let her alone. A strangled scream wrenched at her windpipe." On the eve of the release of blood-soaked Hollywood film L.A. Confidential, New York raced to beat California with its own homage.

At an exclusive Park Avenue club, illustrious actors and novelists gathered to read aloud from the collection, give their best impressions of Humphrey Bogart, and toss back cocktails and canapes, and the wily readers who managed to hustle invites exulted in the lurid mood. It was almost as good, they agreed, as the crime scene back at the book store.