Review: “Sunburn” By Laura Lippman (Novel)

Well, after the previous book I reviewed, I was in the mood for something a bit more fast-paced. So, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to read a noir thriller novel from 2018 called “Sunburn” by Laura Lippman that I found in a charity shop in Petersfield last February (and, yes, I prepare these reviews quite far in advance of posting them). If I remember rightly, I ended up choosing this novel because of the cool cover art and the fact that there were author quotes from both Lee Child and Stephen King on the back cover. Naturally, I was curious.

So, let’s take a look at “Sunburn”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS. I’ll avoid major ones, since this book is best read with as few spoilers as possible.

This is the 2018 Faber & Faber (UK) paperback edition of “Sunburn” that I read.

The novel begins in America in 1995. In a bar in the small Delaware town of Belleville, a mysterious man spots a red-haired woman with sunburnt shoulders sitting alone. He goes over to talk to her and tells her that his car broke down near the town. She isn’t that interested in him. Still, the man decides to stay in town and book a room in the same motel as she is staying in.

The red-haired woman, Polly, has stopped off in the town after leaving her husband and daughter several hours earlier. The man, Adam, is a private detective who has been following her for several weeks. As the two both end up working at the bar and gradually get to know each other, it soon becomes obvious that they both have many more secrets….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it’s a really cool modern-style noir suspense thriller that reminded me a little bit of a mixture between Marc Behm’s “The Eye Of The Beholder“, the film “Blood Simple“, Alice Hoffman’s “Turtle Moon” and maybe even the second or third season of “Twin Peaks”. In other words, it’s a dark, claustrophobic and grippingly suspenseful novel πŸ™‚

In terms of the novel’s noir elements, they are brilliant. Although this novel doesn’t feature any trilby hats or anything like that, it has a wonderfully noir atmosphere thanks to a whole host of things. Whether it is the understated fast-paced “matter of fact” hardboiled third-person narration, the fact that almost every character is morally ambiguous and/or has a shady, secret and/or tragic past, the complex web of criminal intrigue, the brilliant focus on mystery and suspense or even the claustrophobic small town setting, this novel is modern-style noir at it’s very best πŸ™‚

Plus, this novel also updates the gloomy realism of the noir genre too. Although traditional noir fiction is often currently thought of as a wonderfully stylised fantasy of trilby hats, rainy streets and old-timey America, these novels were actually gritty pieces of social realism at the time they were written. And, “Sunburn” updates this to the 1990s – with quite a few bleak and/or grim scenes about realistic tragedy, crime, cruelty etc.. all delivered with the kind of detached tone you’d expect from the noir genre. So, although this novel is a very gripping one, don’t expect it to be a very cheerful one.

This novel also does some really interesting things with the staples of the noir genre too. For starters, although Polly would probably have been written as a “femme fatale” character in a traditional noir story, she’s much more of a complex, and even sympathetic, character here. Likewise, although Adam is that most classic of noir characters – a private detective – he’s a million miles away from the grizzled gumshoes of old. He cooks, he falls in love etc.. and, in a lot of ways, is much more like the traditional naive “love interest” character you’d expect in an old film noir. So, this novel is an intriguingly unpredictable twist on the noir genre.

And, like in many great noir stories, the characters (or, rather, their flaws) are the main driving force for the plot too. This is a novel about complex, imperfect people with ulterior motives that collide in a way that you can’t really look away from. There’s a palpable sense of impending doom, or damnation, hanging over this story – which really helps to add a lot of suspense. Yes, the drama and suspense in this story is fairly small-scale, but this actually works really well since it not only adds realism to the story, but it also helps to add to the tense, suspenseful feeling of claustrophobia too.

Likewise, this novel handles the balance between mystery and suspense really well. The first half or so of the novel focuses slightly more on mystery, with intriguingly dark details and plot twists about various characters being slowly revealed to the reader as the story progresses. Then, when many of the twists, mysteries and secrets have been revealed (with a few held back for the ending, of course), they help to create extra suspense during the later parts of the story.

In addition to the suspense and noir-style plot, another cool thing about this novel is the setting and atmosphere. Given that I absolutely love stories, films etc… set in 1990s America, I knew that I was in for a treat when I saw “1995” on the first page. Interestingly, this novel is a lot more like an actual 1990s novel than a modern historical novel, in that there are very few “nostalgic” 1990s references here (the only ones I spotted were TLC’s “Waterfalls”, a video rental shop, Beanie Babies and a mention of Bill Clinton) and the story is just about ordinary life in a small town.

This actually makes the story feel more 1990s, especially since several of the story’s twists and turns rely on it being set somewhere without internet access. Not only that, the story’s 1990s setting is also relevant to the plot for a reason that I won’t spoil.

I’ve already talked about the complex, realistically flawed characters and the fast-paced “hardboiled” narration, so this just leaves the novel’s length and pacing to talk about. And, in this regard, it absolutely excels too πŸ™‚

Like an actual novel from the 1990s, this one is efficiently short at about 292 pages in length. This helps to keep the story focused. Likewise, although the novel takes the time to set the scene and focus on several characters’ backstories, this never really feels slow-paced thanks to both the fast-moving writing style and the fact that all of these details help to add extra mystery, atmosphere or suspense to the story in some way or another.

Even so, the novel’s pacing is more like a traditional moderate-fast paced thriller rather than an ultra-fast paced action thriller. Still, compared to -say- a Raymond Chandler novel, this novel is a fairly fast-paced one. And it is very compelling.

All in all, this novel is really great πŸ™‚ It’s a modern-style noir suspense thriller that is set in the 1990s and is filled with intriguing characters who drive the plot in a really dramatic way. Yes, it certainly isn’t a “feel-good” novel but if you like the 1990s, the noir genre or suspense, then this novel is well worth reading πŸ™‚

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.

Four Thoughts About Writing Modern Noir Fiction

Well, since I’m currently reading a modern noir novel (called “Sunburn” by Laura Lippman, which is set in the 1990s but was first published in 2018), I thought that I’d look at some of the ways that writers can use this genre in more modern settings.

After all, although classics of the genre like Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon” and most of Raymond Chandler’s novels are all set in 1920s-50s America, the genre can work in a surprisingly large number of places and times.

So, here are some thoughts about writing modern noir fiction:

1) Writing style: This is one of the most important parts of the noir genre and one of the easiest ways to tell if a novel is “noir” or not.

In short, the writing style in a noir novel should be “matter of fact” and fast-paced. The thing to remember here is that the original hardboiled crime novels of the 1920s-50s were meant to be mass entertainment – they were the paperback thriller novels or action blockbusters of their day. And, because of this, the writing style usually tends to have a certain detachment and speed to it.

In other words, noir stories usually don’t tend to spend too long describing things (descriptive moments are usually only a few carefully-chosen words or a couple of sentences at most), with the focus being more on events and dialogue. Their writing style often also has a certain emotionless, understated and detached world-weariness to it, like a simple statement of events or a documentary film.

Yes, it is difficult to get this right without making your story’s narration sound boring (and this is where actually reading some of this type of fiction comes in handy, since you can see how other writers handle it). But it is one of the most essential, and timeless, qualities of the noir genre.

2) Characters and morality: Another important, and timeless, part of noir fiction are the characters. In short, most of the characters should have ulterior motives, realistic flaws/motivations and/or a certain level of moral ambiguity.

One of the major things that gives the noir genre its famous atmosphere is the feeling of stepping into a murky, complex world that is a far cry from the more simplistic “good and evil” worlds of many stories. Of reading a story set in a more “realistic” world where people aren’t perfect.

This unflinching and realistic exploration of human nature is something that works well in almost any time or setting. Focusing on moral ambiguity also adds a lot of atmosphere to your story for the simple reason that your reader has almost certainly grown up on more traditional and moralistic “good and evil” stories, so they will be worried about what will happen to the main characters. In other words, it adds extra suspense to the story for the simple reason that the reader has no clue whether there will be any poetic justice or not.

For example, the main character in Mickey Spillane’s 1947 novel “I, The Jury” is a private detective who wants violent revenge against whoever killed his friend. In the 1984 film noir “Blood Simple“, the most sympathetic character (Abby) is having an affair with a guy who works for her dodgy boyfriend. In the 1982 sci-fi film noir masterpiece “Blade Runner“, the main detective (Deckard) is actually more of a villain than the people he is trying to catch. I’m sure you get the idea.

In pretty much every noir novel or film, even more traditional detective-based ones, no character will be entirely “good” or “evil”. And it is the characters, or more importantly, their imperfections – that should drive your story’s plot.

3) Suspense and violence: Although traditional hardboiled “noir” fiction was a precursor to the modern thriller genre, the important thing to remember when writing a modern noir story is that your story should be compelling because of suspense and not because of fast-paced action violence.

Although the modern noir genre can certainly be fairly violent, brutal and horrific (watch “Blood Simple” and read Jack O’ Connell’s 1998 novel “Word Made Flesh” for two unflinchingly grim examples of this), this isn’t usually presented in the thrilling and sanitised way it might be in a modern action-thriller novel. Instead, it is usually the grim result of lots of suspense and – realistically – it usually has serious consequences of one kind or another too.

In other words, noir stories emphatically don’t glamourise violence and will often be more about the fear of impending violence (so, they’re a bit closer to the horror genre) than anything else. This suspenseful feeling of impending doom is one of the key parts of the noir genre and, even in more non-violent stories, it is an important thing to remember. The reader needs to feel “this probably won’t end well” fairly early in the story. There needs to be a sense of tension, claustrophobia and/or dread lurking in the background throughout the story.

For example, although I’ve only read about a third of Laura Lippman’s “Sunburn” at the time of writing, it is a novel where the main characters are either hiding from people, running from people or spying on people. And it is incredibly suspenseful as a result. Add to this the fact that most of the earlier parts of the novel all take place in one small, claustrophobic rural town and – even though it is a million miles away from the trilby-wearing chain-smoking gumshoes of traditional noir fiction/film, it still feels very much like something from the noir genre.

4) Settings: Although noir stories can be set anywhere, there are a few things to remember when creating settings for modern noir fiction. Not only do your settings have to feel run-down and lived-in (to add atmosphere and realism to the story) but they must also seem hostile in some way or another. Again, this has to do with the fact that the noir genre relies heavily on suspense and one of the best ways to add suspense is to put your characters somewhere where they aren’t safe.

Traditionally, this usually means that noir stories either take place in large, impersonal crime-ridden cities or in claustrophobic and hopeless small towns. Although it is probably possible to set a noir story somewhere other than this, the important thing is that the location not only has to feel “realistic” (even the futuristic city in “Blade Runner” deliberately looks old and lived-in), but it should be somewhere that feels unsafe in some way or another.

Again, the noir genre actually has slightly more in common with the horror genre than the thriller genre in this respect.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

Review: “Box Nine” By Jack O’ Connell (Novel)

Well, after reading Jack O’Connell’s excellent “Word Made Flesh” about three weeks ago, I was eager to read more of his novels. And, I thought that I’d start with a second-hand copy of O’Connell’s 1992 novel “Box Nine”. And what a novel it is πŸ™‚

So, let’s take a look at “Box Nine”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2015 No Exit Press (UK) paperback edition of “Box Nine” that I read.

The story takes place in the fictional New England city of Quinsigamond. A new drug, lingo, has hit the streets. It lights up the language centres of the brain like a Christmas tree before eventually sending the user into a violent homicidal rage.

Lenore is a badass, heavy metal-obsessed speed freak whose main spiritual belief is in the power of her .357 magnum. She’s also a narcotics cop who, much to her disdain, has been paired with a mild-mannered scientist for the investigation into lingo…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is wow! It is a masterpiece. This is an information-dense, intelligent, imaginative noir detective novel that is so well-written that you’ll be reading it as quickly as an action-thriller novel. It is a book that has the human depth of Winston Rowntree’s “Subnormality“, as much atmosphere as a cyberpunk novel, the uncensored weirdness of old beat literature (or maybe something a little bit like Warren Ellis’ “Crooked Little Vein”) and more cool-ness than you can shake a stick at. Seriously, this novel is awesome πŸ™‚

This is a book that really has to be experienced first-hand to truly be appreciated. A mere review really doesn’t do it justice. And, like with “Word Made Flesh”, it probably isn’t for everyone either. But, I’ll try to describe it to the best of my abilities.

I should probably start by talking about the detective/thriller elements of this story. Like any good noir novel (and, yes, “The Maltese Falcon” is referenced in this book), this novel focuses on things like moral ambiguity, atmosphere, complex plotting and an intricate web of criminal intrigue. Although the investigation sometimes seems more like a background detail (when compared to all of the compelling characterisation, drama etc..) it is certainly well-written and well-plotted. Like a thriller novel, there are also quite a few story threads that are expertly brought together by the end of the story.

One interesting element of the detective parts of the story is how the story approaches the topic of policing and drugs. Not only is the novel’s main detective (Lenore) a morally-ambiguous gun nut who takes a lot of amphetamines, but the story also includes a brilliant satire of the war on drugs too. Whilst the story doesn’t shy away from the damage drugs can cause, the novel’s police and drug dealers are shown to exist in a symbiotic relationship of sorts.

But, although this is a detective story, the main thing that keeps this novel page-turningly compelling is the writing and the characterisation. Like a good cyberpunk or noir novel, this story is written in both a grippingly fast-paced way and an information-dense way. This links in absolutely perfectly with the novel’s themes of language, paranoia and stimulants. This story dazzles you with atmospheric descriptions, deep insights and complex drama at a hundred miles an hour and it is a joy to behold πŸ™‚

The novel’s third-person narration is written in an intelligently informal way and this is one of those stories that has a wonderfully distinctive narrative voice that you’ll want to read more of. The narration flickers between “matter of fact”/thriller-style descriptions and more literary narration so quickly that you’ll read it as fast as the former and get the intellectual satisfaction of the latter. Seriously, this is the kind of novel that tells a high-brow story with the gripping intensity of a more low-brow story πŸ™‚

The novel also includes some interesting experimental touches too. These take the form of conversation transcripts, talk radio excerpts and dictaphone messages from one of the other characters (which are related in breathless, paragraph-less “stream of consciousness” rambles). These segments really help to add some intensity and background depth to the story, although the dictaphone segments can – ironically- slow the story down a little.

The other thing that keeps this novel so brilliantly compelling are the characters πŸ™‚ This novel devotes a lot of time to characterisation and, yet, all of this characterisation was so fascinating that it never really seemed like a distraction from the gripping, atmospheric story.

Lenore is an absolutely fascinating protagonist (plus, she listens to Iron Maiden too πŸ™‚ ) who could have easily become a two-dimensional “Tank Girl“- like cartoon character in the hands of a lesser writer. But, here, she’s presented as a complex, flawed and intriguing character who is more interesting and original than the characters in many other novels.

The other characters are also really fascinating too. Whether it is Lenore’s shy, methodical and introverted twin brother Ike, some of the other detectives, some of the local gangsters, the owners of Lenore’s favourite restaurant, the boss of the local post office or the scientist that Lenore has to team up with, I cannot praise the characters enough πŸ™‚ Not only are they interesting and well-written, but a lot of the novel’s characterisation also comes from character interactions and the contrast between different characters too.

Thematically, this novel is really interesting too. In addition to the story’s main theme of language and communication, the novel also tackles topics like loneliness, memory, drugs, books, politics, violence etc.. too. Seriously, this is one of those books that probably needs to be read multiple times in order to be fully appreciated.

In terms of length, this novel is really good too. Although this novel is 352 pages long, it manages to cram 450+ pages of storytelling into this space. In other words, this novel never really feels like it is too long and the story doesn’t suffer from the bloatedness that more modern novels can sometimes suffer from.

As for how this twenty-seven year old novel has aged, it has aged really well. Yes, it is clearly the product of a slightly more “edgy” decade (and a few descriptions/words in it would probably be frowned upon if written today) and there are a couple of brilliantly ’90s moments – like a hilarious scene where some gnarly 1990s surfer dudes perform Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” but, for the most part, this novel is pretty much timeless. In addition to still being very gripping and atmospheric, a lot of the novel’s satire has also aged astonishingly well too.

For example, the novel’s satirical depiction of paranoid, ranting talk radio hosts could easily be a satire of the more unsavoury parts of the modern internet. Likewise, the novel’s hilarious satire of the trendy, hipsterish part of Quinsigamond wouldn’t seem too out of place in the 2010s. The novel’s satire of things like police violence, corruption etc.. are also still reasonably relevant in the present day too.

All in all, this novel is a masterpiece πŸ™‚ Yes, it probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I absolutely loved it. It’s an intelligent, atmospheric, creative and complex novel that is as grippingly fast-paced as an action-thriller novel. But, as I mentioned earlier, this is one of those novels that has to be experienced in order to be fully appreciated. A mere review really doesn’t do it justice.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a very solid five.

Review: “I, The Jury” By Mickey Spillane (Novel)

Whilst waiting for some books to arrive, I decided to look around my room for something to read in the meantime. And, to my surprise, I stumbled across an omnibus of three of Mickey Spillane’s “Mike Hammer” novels.

According to the reciept that was still in the book, I’d bought it about eight or nine years ago, presumably because of the connection to the film noir genre. But, at the time, I didn’t read more the first ten pages or so of it for some reason.

So, because it’s been a while since I’ve read an old-school noir detective novel (the only two I’ve read recently are Raymond Chandler’s “The High Window” and Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon), I thought that I’d check out Spillane’s 1947 novel “I, The Jury”.

So, let’s take a look at “I, The Jury”. Needless to say, this review will contain some plot SPOILERS.

This is the 2006 Allison & Busby (UK) paperback omnibus that contained the copy of “I, The Jury” that I read.

The novel begins with tough guy New York P.I. Mike Hammer finding that his old war buddy Jack has been shot. Mike’s friend on the police force, Pat Chambers, is already at the crime scene and isn’t entirely impressed when Mike swears bloody vengeance against whoever killed Jack.

Still, despite Mike’s murderous speech about what he’s going to do to the culprit, Pat and Mike are friends. So, they decide to see who can get to the killer first. Will Pat arrest the murderer? Or will Mike get there first and dispense harsh vigilante “justice” with his .45?

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, although it isn’t perfect, this story is surprisingly gripping. Although I knew that pulp novels/ noir detective novels were a precursor to the modern thriller novel, nowhere is this clearer than in this novel. Not only is this novel written in a fast-paced way that is still grippingly readable even today, but it also contains a brilliantly thrilling premise too.

Although I’ll talk more about the writing style later, one of the things that makes “I, The Jury” so gripping in comparison to other noir detective novels from around the same time is just how streamlined the plot is.

Yes, there’s still the traditional complicated web of criminal intrigue, but this is slightly more of a background detail and it is also explained more clearly than it would be in, say, a Raymond Chandler novel. In other words, the plot of this old novel reads a lot more like a noir-influenced modern thriller than a classic noir detective novel.

Yet, at the same time, this novel is about as noir as you can get. In fact, whilst reading the first couple of chapters, I actually began to wonder whether it was a parody of the noir detective genre… until I realised that all of the parodies were probably based on novels like this one.

Yes, this novel might lack some of the atmosphere and descriptive depth of a Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler novel, but if you want to see a distilled, somewhat simplified version of the noir genre (warts and all), then this book might be worth a read.

But, saying all of this, the story’s simplified plot works really well on some levels. Although most classic noir detective writers tried to show the complicated, messy reality of crime and detection, this novel has a much more stylised plot that ensures that the reader is never confused. In other words, it’s written more like a modern thriller novel. Every now and then, there will be a moment of drama or violence that helps to keep the story moving quickly. Likewise, there are even occasional recaps where Mike sits down and thinks about the case.

In terms of the writing style, it is surprisingly similar to the “matter of fact” style that you’d expect to see in a modern thriller novel. The novel is narrated by Mike Hammer and, as such, the narration is the kind of gruff, fast-paced “tough guy” narration that goes well with this kind of character.

Yes, this does rob the story of some of the descriptive atmosphere of other vintage noir detective novels (seriously, many of the relatively few detailed descriptions in this novel are of women that Mike is attracted to). But, it means that this story’s writing style is a lot more readable and fast-paced than the average vintage noir detective novel.

As for the characters, let’s just say that it’s a well-known fact that Spillane originally envisaged Mike Hammer as a comic book character. If you’re expecting complex, well-written, realistic characters here – then you’re going to be disappointed. In other words, the characters are a collection of stereotypes. And, yes, “stereotypes” is probably the right word to use.

Whether it is the cartoonishly “hyper-manly macho man” protagonist, pretty much all of the story’s female characters and/or the utterly cringe-worthy way that the story’s African-American characters are depicted, “stereotypes” is probably the best word to describe the characters in this novel. Yes, it’s a novel from 1947. But, novels with more nuanced and well-written characters existed back then too.

Thematically, this novel is rather interesting. In essence, it is an exploration of the subject of vigilanteism. The whole novel is spent following Mike’s quest for brutal vengeance, and the various ways he justifies this to himself, his police friends and the reader. Yet, when he does eventually find the killer and get revenge, the scene in question is shown to be grimly depressing rather than celebratory (despite Mike’s pronouncement that killing the criminal was “easy”). It’s a really clever way of emphasising that Mike is basically no better than the criminals he rails against.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is brilliant. Not only is this novel filled with carefully-placed moments of drama which ensure that the story never really slows down too much. But, in the omnibus I read, the novel is a gloriously efficient 147 pages in length too πŸ™‚ Seriously, I say this in many of my reviews, but I really miss the days when short novels were popular πŸ™‚

As for how well this seventy-two year old novel has aged, it has aged both brilliantly and terribly. On the one hand, the writing style is almost comparable to more modern thrillers and the story is still extremely gripping when read today. On the other hand, this novel is absolutely saturated with the very worst attitudes of 1940s America (eg: sexism, racism, homophobia etc..) and will be fairly cringe-worthy when read today.

But, on a slightly more cheerful note, at least some of the novel’s old-timey slang is absolutely hilarious when read today (eg: in a move that would probably impress Sigmund Freud, Mike Hammer keeps referring to his gun as a “rod”). So, yes, this book hasn’t aged entirely well…

All in all, whilst this certainly isn’t a perfect novel by any stretch of the imagination, it is a lean, gripping thriller that is astonishingly readable for a novel of this vintage. Yes, the characters are two-dimensional stereotypes, the plot is a little simplistic when compared to other classic noir detective novels and many parts of this story are utterly cringe-worthy when read today. But, despite all of these flaws, this novel still works reasonably well as a thriller.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get three and a half.

Review: “Word Made Flesh” By Jack O’Connell (Novel)

A couple of days before I wrote this review, I was waiting for some books to arrive and wondering what I was going to read next when I noticed my copy of Jack O’Connell’s 1998 novel “Word Made Flesh” propped up against a stack of DVDs near my computer.

It had been there for several years, perhaps even a decade. It had been a mere decorative item right up until that point. If I remember rightly, I found this book in a charity shop in Brighton sometime during the late 2000s/early 2010s. I bought it purely on the strength of the cool-looking cover art, the “18 certificate”-style logo on the cover (for my US readers, an “18 certificate” is the UK equivalent of a “hard R” or “NC-17” film rating) and the critic quote that likened it to “Blade Runner“. It seemed really cool.

Yet, it languished near my computer for years before I actually thought about, you know, reading it. So, yes, this review has been a long time coming.

So, let’s take a look at “Word Made Flesh”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2005 No Exit Press (UK) paperback edition of “Word Made Flesh” that I read.

The story takes place in a New England city called Quinsigamond. It begins with a description of a man called Leo Tani being cruelly murdered by persons unknown. Then, we see an ex-police taxi driver called Gilrein being beaten up by two gangsters who are looking for something they believe that Gilrein owns. However, they are interrupted by one of Gilrein’s cop buddies called Oster, who scares them away.

Oster insists on driving Gilrein to a derelict printworks where the local police (who are more of a gang than a law enforcement agency) now reside. Gilrein hasn’t returned to this building since his wife, Ceil, was killed by a bomb blast there whilst investigating a case. Oster tries to convince Gilrein to re-join the police, but Gilrein refuses and they part on unfriendly terms.

Meanwhile, another taxi driver called Otto Langer talks to a mysterious passenger called the Inspector. He tells the Inspector of his younger days in a European city called Maisel. He talks about how he belonged to a Jewish sect called the Ezzenes, who were singled out for cruel, violent, genocidal persecution by the city’s authorities.

A while later, Gilrein is still puzzled by the threats against him from the gangsters and about Leo’s murder. So, he decides to investigate…

One of the first things that I will say about this book is that, although it isn’t for the faint-hearted, it is an astonishingly good novel πŸ™‚ Imagine that Clive Barker, Neal Stephenson, William Burroughs and Raymond Chandler decided to sit down and write a novel together. If they did, the book they would produce would probably look a lot like “Word Made Flesh”.

In other words, this novel is a brilliantly unique combination of a disturbing horror novel, a detailed cyberpunk dystopia (without the computers), a work of surrealist beat literature and a complex noir detective story. And all of these different elements are blended together in a complex and seamless way that almost becomes it’s own new genre.

Still, when you start reading this book, it can be easy to mistake it for a horror novel. And a very potent one at that!

The story begins with a macabre flourish of extreme horror and chilling dystopian horror that will make even the most jaded of horror fiction and dystopian fiction readers wince and recoil with shocked and unsettled disgust. Yet, if you have both the stomach and the stoutness of mind for the first 40-50 pages, then the story begins to become more than just a shocking and deeply unsettling extreme horror story.

This story, like Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age” is a complex story that will require your full attention. It isn’t easy reading in any sense of the word, but it is well worth putting in the effort. Not only is the writing in this novel filled with atmospheric descriptions, historical/cultural allusions, realistic dialogue, respect for the reader’s intelligence and lots of brilliantly quotable turns of phrase – but this novel also has a wonderfully intelligent level of thematic and narrative complexity too.

Basically, if you can understand the labyrinthine plot of a Raymond Chandler novel, then you’ll be in your element here. If not, you might get confused. And, yes, you need to pay attention when reading this novel.

For example, the solution to the murder mystery at the beginning of the novel is never explicitly spelled out, yet the reader is provided with enough clues to work out who probably did it (and why). Likewise, unless you pay careful attention to various pieces of backstory, then some of the later events of the story may not make sense. This is a story that respects the reader’s intelligence and demands that you think about it.

Thematically, this story is really interesting. One of the major themes, consistent with novels like “Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson and some of William Burroughs’ novels is the idea of language and/or knowledge being a cross between a virus and a magical thing. In essence, “Word Made Flesh” is a story about stories (or a “metafiction” if you want to sound pretentious).

More particularly, it is a novel about the power of stories. This includes a woman whose entire life is shaped by seeing a film about a mysterious 19th century murder case, a man who repeats his life story to all those who will listen, a man who believes that he can hack people’s minds using language, a plague spread by a book, some fourth-wall breaking moments and a chilling tale about how an attempt to document an unspeakable atrocity (by turning it into a story) ends up inadvertently glorifying the perpetrator.

Another interesting theme in the novel is the theme of skin. This is probably more of a motif than a theme, but there’s a lot of skin-related imagery and events in this story. Although this is partially there to add an unsettling atmosphere to the story, it also possibly has some metaphorical significance too. This is because there’s one part of the story that talks about how people are separated by language, how everyone is alone because we only see others from the outside etc… So, presumably the emphasis on skin is related to this theme.

The novel also includes a lot of other themes (eg: religion, history, the nature of evil, mental health/PTSD, culture, authority etc..) too, but I should probably get on with the review.

The novel’s characters are extremely well-written and are a motley crew of washed-up, eccentric and/or morally ambiguous characters who are all unique individuals with realistic (if occasionally strange) motivations. They are all people who have been influenced or affected by their pasts in some way or another too.

This novel is also wonderfully atmospheric too. The story’s settings are left deliberately ambiguous, with the reader given enough information to picture individual locations – but with enough vagueness to make the larger “world” of the story seem like something unsettlingly strange and confusing. Along with the excellent writing (possibly influenced by writers like Neal Stephenson, Raymond Chandler and William Burroughs), this really helps to lend the novel a compelling atmosphere that will make you want to read more.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good. Whilst the story is a little bit slow-paced, the story’s atmosphere, intelligence and writing will ensure that it remains compelling nonetheless. Likewise, at 314 pages, this novel never really feels bloated. Seriously, most writers would be lucky to cram a story like this into 500 pages, let alone 314.

In terms of how this twenty-one year old novel has aged, it has aged extremely well. Not only are the novel’s moments of horror still extremely effective, but the novel’s themes and complexities are pretty much timeless. A lot of what helps to preserve this novel is the ambiguity about when it is set (eg: the future? the 1990s? the 1950s? etc..) – this lends the story a slightly timeless quality which means that it still holds up really well to this day.

All in all, this is a unique, creative and intelligent novel that I’m really glad that I read πŸ™‚ Yes, it probably isn’t for everyone. But, if you’re open-minded, if you don’t mind intelligent storytelling, if you aren’t easily-shocked and if you want to read something that is like a mixture of Clive Barker, Neal Stephenson, William Burroughs and Raymond Chandler – then you will absolutely love this novel πŸ™‚

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.

Review: “The Maltese Falcon” By Dashiell Hammett (Novel)

Although I read Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep” about 11-13 years ago, I somehow didn’t read Dashiell Hammett’s 1929/30 novel “The Maltese Falcon” until shortly before writing this review. How could I have been so foolish? Seriously, this is one of those books that I should have read a very long time ago.

So, with that said, let’s take a look at “The Maltese Falcon”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2005 Orion (UK) paperback edition of “The Maltese Falcon” (1929/30) that I read.

The story begins in late 1920s San Francisco, where a private detective called Sam Spade has a new client. His client, Miss Wonderley, is worried about her sister – who has run off with a man called Floyd Thursby and won’t talk to her. She suspects that Thursby is up to no good and is willing to pay Sam handsomely in order to investigate. Astonished by the money, Sam puts his right-hand man Miles on the case and asks him to follow Thursby.

However, later that night, Miles is found dead. Thanks to rumours about an affair between Sam and Miles’ wife, Sam falls under suspicion. Although a few of the local detectives take Sam’s side in the matter – Sam realises that, in order to clear his name properly, he needs to find the real killer. This, of course, will plunge him deep into a web of criminal intrigue…..

One of the first things that I will say is that this book is that it is to modern detective fiction what “Blade Runner” (1982) is to sci-fi cinema. If this novel didn’t invent the “film noir” genre, then it certainly did a lot to define, inspire and popularise it.

Just like how numerous science fiction films have been inspired by the masterpiece that is “Blade Runner”, reading this novel is a perfect education about the noir genre. And “The Maltese Falcon” is as gripping and refreshing to read in the 2010s as it probably was during the late 1920s. It is a timeless masterpiece. But, why?

First of all, it crams more detail, atmosphere and complex plotting into 213 pages than many modern writers would struggle to include in 400. It tells a tight, focused story that plunges the reader into a fascinatingly grim world of intrigue and danger. Although the story has many sub-plots and details, these are all there for a good reason and there isn’t a single unnecessary detail. Unlike the slightly confusing plot of Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep”, this novel will reward you if you carefully keep track of every detail. Everything happens for a reason.

Plus, almost every chapter ending and chapter beginning is used in an expert way. Like a lot of older books, this novel also has actual chapter titles too – which hint intriguingly about what is going to happen. Seriously, I miss chapter titles.

Secondly, this is one of the most human novels that I have read in a long time. Like with great films such as “Blade Runner”, this novel is an examination of the murkier sides of human nature. Not only do the characters all have well-defined motivations, but they also come across as realistic people too.

For example, although Sam may be the protagonist of the story, he’s not exactly an altruistic crusader for justice. He’s a detective because it pays well and because a rough, mean man like him probably wouldn’t do well in any other lawful occupation. Yes, there are some glimmers of honour and goodness in him, but he’s the kind of rough and dubious character that the world he lives in has turned him into. This novel is a timeless novel because it is a novel about human nature.

There’s a brilliant passage about a third of the way through this novel where Sam tells another character about a case that he once worked on. In this case, he’d been hired to track down a man who had abandoned his family. When Sam finally caught up with the man, he told Sam why he left. After narrowly escaping death from a steel girder that had been dropped from a building site, the man realises that the world is random and cruel. He realises that death could lurk around any corner and that he had to find some way to adjust to life again. He needed to go off and find meaning in life, even if this meant leaving everyone he loved. Then, he just settled into a routine again somewhere else. This is one of the most realistic, profound and deeply human things that I’ve ever read. It is also a manifesto, of sorts, for how the noir genre differs from traditional detective fiction.

Thirdly, this novel is gloriously atmospheric too. This novel is filled with carefully-chosen descriptions and details that plunge you into a much greater “world” than is shown in the story. Like how “Blade Runner” conjures up a giant futuristic mega-city from just a few rooms and a couple of streets, this novel gives you an in-depth glimpse into 1920s San Francisco from just a few carefully-chosen details and locations. There are so many fascinating quirks and details about this story’s historical “world” that really bring it to life.

For example, one of the small details that amused and surprised me was that a couple of the main characters roll their own cigarettes. This initially reminded me more of ’00s Britain than 1920s America, until I realised that not only was this possibly due to the poverty of the Great Depression but also because commercialism (eg: advertising, mass production etc..) was less of a potent force in America back then than it would later be. And all of this from just brief descriptions of people rolling cigarettes. This is what I mean by the novel’s “world” being much larger than what is shown on the page.

Fourthly, the novel’s narration has aged really well. Yes, if you’re used to modern writing styles, it may take you a little while to get used to the fact that Hammett describes everything in a little bit more detail. But, this novel is one of the most clearly-written early 20th century novels that I’ve read. Even the story’s old-timey historical slang usually makes sense from the context it is used in. And, for a ninety-year old novel, it almost reads like something that could have been written today. Plus, surprisingly, this novel has as much sex, violence and profanity as you would expect from a modern novel. Although this is often implied rather than shown, it comes across as remarkably modern for a novel from 1929/30.

Yes, of course, there are a few parts of the story that haven’t aged well. But, surprisingly, this 1920s/30s novel is actually less “politically incorrect” than some 1950s-70s novels I’ve read. There’s little to no racist language and the novel presents both men and women in a cruelly cynical, but relatively equal, way (eg: they’re both shown to be capable of good and evil, they both suffer and perpetrate acts of violence, they’re both shown to have emotions, they’re both shown to be stifled by traditional expectations etc…). Although this novel does contain some homophobia, this is relatively subtle when compared to some stories from 20-50 years later. So, yes, this old novel isn’t quite as dated as you might expect.

All in all, this novel is a masterpiece. It is as gripping and atmospheric today as it probably was in 1929. In just 213 short pages, it not only tells a complex (but focused) story that is filled with characters who seem real and alive, but it also gives you an in-depth glimpse into a fascinatingly dubious part of history. It is a “pulp” novel that says more about human nature than most “literary” novels could ever dream of. My only major criticism is that there isn’t a sequel to it. Then, again, this novel is one of a kind.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a solid five.

Today’s Art (16th December 2018)

Well, thanks to having a bit more time and feeling inspired, today’s late 1990s/early 2000s-style digitally-edited gothic/film noir painting turned out a lot better than I expected. Surprisingly, I actually ended up using some digital lighting effects (in combination with more traditional ones) in this painting too.

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“1999” By C. A. Brown

Three Quick Tips For How To Fake “Film Noir”-Style Narration

Since I write these articles quite far in advance, I was busy writing last year’s “film noir” Christmas stories at the time of writing this article. However, although I’ve obviously seen and read a few things in the noir genre, I would hardly call myself an expert on it. Still, one of the most difficult things to get right if you aren’t an expert on the noir genre is the narrative style used in many things in this genre.

So, here are a few quick tips for faking “film noir”-style narration in your stories:

1) Less is more: Simply put, film noir narration doesn’t actually have to be that different from ordinary narration. If you go overboard with clichΓ©d “film noir” narration, then it will come across as obviously fake pretty quickly.

So, just write ordinary narration – with the occasional use of short sentences, pithy metaphors and/or drily amusing observations. The thing to remember about hardboiled narration is that it wasn’t originally meant to be a stylish fashion statement. It was meant to be an engaging style of writing that was quick to read and quick to write – after all, a lot of old stories in the noir genre were published in monthly magazines for a mass audience.

As long as the content of your story (eg: private investigators, crime, gloomy lighting etc..) fits into the noir genre, then you can get away with using ordinary narration that just includes a few cleverly-chosen noir features. But, remember, less is more.

2) Keep it simple (but not too simple): Following on from the “ordinary” thing I mentioned earlier, one of the easiest ways to fake “film noir” narration is just to make your narration sound a little bit like ordinary speech. In other words, there should be the occasional long word or complex sentence when necessary, but the prose shouldn’t just be elaborate for the sake of elaborate.

In other words, keep it simple. But not too simple. Once again, remember that noir stories were originally meant to be popular entertainment for a mass audience. They weren’t meant to be books for children or books for highly-educated literary critics. So, if you go to either extreme, then you’re missing the point.

Basically, just look at one of the noir genre’s modern equivalents – ordinary thriller novels – if you need examples of this happy medium between sophistication and simplicity. An author who provides a good example of this writing style is probably Lee Child. He writes in a fairly hardboiled and “matter of fact” style, without actually writing stories in the noir genre.

3) Small details: One of the easiest ways to give your narration more of a “film noir” quality is to include a few mildly unusual small details. These should be things that are slightly unusual, but could realistically be expected to be seen in everyday life. Generally, things that seem like kitsch or ephemera tend to work best for this.

For example, the second story in my Christmas collection last year includes this descriptive segment: ‘My eyes rested on the ornate marble finish pen that took pride of place on my desk. After I’d filed off the “Ebenezer’s Floor Tiles” e-mail address on the side, it actually looked like I’d paid good money for it.

Don’t ask me why, but this sort of thing tends to create a wonderfully noirish atmosphere. So, focus on mildly unusual everyday details occasionally and this will help to give your story slightly more of a “film noir” quality.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

Four Rambling Thoughts About Making “Film Noir”-Style Art

Well, at the time of writing, I seem to be going through a bit of a “film noir” phase with my daily artwork. So, although I’ve sort of talked about this subject before (such as this article about pulp fiction covers), I thought that I’d return to it again. But, first, here’s a preview of one of my upcoming “film noir” drawings:

This is a reduced-size preview, the full-size drawing will be posted here tomorrow.

So, here are some rambling thoughts about making “film noir” art:

1) Visual storytelling: Simply put, good film noir art often tells a story of some kind. Even if it’s just a picture of a detective with a trilby hat, a trenchcoat and a revolver posing theatrically, then it still implies some kind of action or backstory.

The thing to remember about the noir genre is that, apparently, films in this genre used to just be called “melodramas” at the time they were released. In other words, they were films about dramatic events, dramatic actions and emotional drama.

You can also see a lot of these elements “turned up to eleven” if you look at old 1930s-50s pulp novel covers – if you ignore the sleazier examples of this type of art, then most old pulp novel covers tend to feature melodramatic scenes of people firing guns, bursting through doors, lurking ominously etc… If there’s one word (other than “garish” or “lurid”) that describes old pulp novel covers, it is action.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that your film noir artwork has to be particularly violent – but it should hint at some kind of story. Think of it as if your painting or drawing was a single frame taken from a longer scene in a film.

2) Source material:
Although I’m fascinated by the noir genre, I haven’t actually seen that many “proper” film noirs. In fact, the only “authentic” film noir I can remember seeing is probably the Bogart/Bacall adaptation of “The Big Sleep”. Even when looking online for second-hand DVDs of films in this genre, I was surprised at how (relatively) expensive they were considering their age. So, I haven’t actually seen much of the original source material.

However, of course, I’ve seen lots of things that are inspired by film noir. In fact, my favourite film – “Blade Runner” – is basically just a sci-fi film noir. This film has been an absolutely huge influence on my art and my artistic tastes, so I’ve absorbed quite a few “film noir”-style techniques “second hand” from this film. The same is true for all of the film noir parodies, pastiches, TV show episodes etc… that I’ve seen over the years.

What was the point of mentioning all of this? Simply put, it’s ok to learn most of what you know about the genre from second-hand sources. Yes, it probably isn’t perfect. But, by having a unique mixture of inspirations that have been inspired by film noir, your work will be much more likely to be a more unique interpretation of the genre.

3) Lighting: Simply put, the term “film noir” is French for “black film”. One key feature in a lot of film noir style art is the emphasis on darkness and high-contrast lighting. Of course, this style of lighting is nothing new – I mean, artists like Caravaggio were using it centuries ago – but it is something that is worth remembering when making film noir style art.

A good general rule for this (which works for lots of other types of art too) is to ensure that at least 30-50% of the total surface area of your drawing or painting is covered with either black ink or black paint.

This makes the lighting and colours appear brighter and more dramatic by comparison. Here’s an example of the technique in some of my non-film noir pieces of art:

“And Once A Palace” By C. A. Brown

“Derelict Sector” By C. A. Brown

“Scaffolding” By C. A. Brown

4) Monochrome or greyscale?: This is a bit of a tricky question since, although you can make film noir art in colour, it generally tends to look better if it is in monochrome (eg: containing no other colours than black and white) or greyscale (which includes black, white and grey).

Of course, the decision whether to use monochrome or greyscale is up to you. Generally speaking, greyscale tends to give your art more of a “cinematic” look and can also be useful for more subtle lighting. Monochrome, on the other hand, is perfect for harsh lighting and/or more stylised comic-book style art.

Both types of art have their merits and downsides, but if you’re new to making this type of art, then greyscale is easier to get right. Not to mention that, if you want to hedge your bets, you can always make your art in colour – then scan or digitally photograph it – and then remove the colours digitally.

To do this, just make another digital copy of your picture (so that you have a backup), open it in pretty much any image editing program. Then look for an option in your program’s “colours” menu called “hue/saturation” or “hue/saturation/lightness”. Once you’ve found it, then just reduce the saturation level to zero and… hey presto! ….greyscale art!


Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚