Shadows of late summer

Out of the past come the noir-ish entries for our latest mystery roundup: A "fallen woman" solves crime in Regency England, a French Resistance fighter hides out in Manhattan, and a respectable bourgeois ditches it all.

By Charles Taylor
Published August 20, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

In the current issue of the Believer, Nick Hornby writes that while he has friends he can count on to recommend the new highly touted literary fiction, he wishes he had friends who would recommend good thrillers to him. Clearly, Hornby's been hanging out with too high-toned a crowd.

But even in what people think of as the mass market, things slip through the cracks. So in this installment, I want to focus on some recent books from smaller presses. I'll begin with a note about a new series set to start making its way into bookstores next month. Hard Case Crime is the publishing imprint, and the idea behind it is to provide mystery readers with books that, in content and design, take them back to the pleasures of fast, mean pulp fiction. Each of the books I've seen features a newly commissioned cover painting done in the style of the old lurid pulps, and each is about the size of the books you used to see in drugstore paperback racks. What's most impressive, though, are the names attached to the series so far. Reprints from the likes of Lawrence Block, Erle Stanley Gardner and Max Allan Collins are featured, and among the authors who have contributed new titles are Max Phillips (author of "Snake Bite Sonnet" and "The Artist's Wife") and Domenic Stansberry (author of "The Last Days of Il Duce"). An early passage from Phillips' "Fade to Blonde" sums up the spirit these books hope to rekindle:

"Shade got up at once to shake hands with me. Just when I thought he was done standing up, he'd stand up some more. He shook my hand carefully, like he'd learned that hands break easy. He had a short nose and a pocked round face, and he really was a size. I'd put roofs on smaller things than Lorin Shade."

"Petty Treason: A Sarah Tolerance Mystery"
By Madeleine E. Robins
320 pages
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The mystery fans who ordinarily stay away from historical mysteries -- oh hell, let's face it, the ones who dismiss them as girly stuff -- might be tempted to pass over the second of Madeleine E. Robins' Sarah Tolerance mysteries. I hope they don't, because while the series owes something to the swooniness of the Regency romance genre, they're damned entertaining and the mush is firmly held in check.

Part of the pleasure of these books is that Robins has provided her sleuth with an irresistible origin story. Sarah is what was known in Regency England as "a fallen woman," having run off with her lover without the benefit of marriage. The usual career path for a woman in those circumstances when she finds herself alone (which Sarah does after her lover dies) is to become a prostitute. But Sarah, instead, becomes what she calls an Agent of Inquiry, providing information and protection for her clients. And since her lover was her brother's fencing instructor, Sarah is a master of the "small sword." The only relative that will have anything to do with Sarah is her Aunt Thea, who happens to be the madam of one of London's most prosperous brothels.

The plot of "Petty Treason" has Sarah hired to find out who bashed in the brains of a French chevalier in his own bed while the man's meek wife slept soundly in the next room. Needless to say, Things Are Not What They Seem. But the fun of the book is in following Sarah as she makes her inquiries around London, a setting Robins conjures up with the plummy visions of fog and cobblestones and hackney coaches that you want from a period piece. When Sarah deems it efficacious, she dons male drag for some of the dodgier parts of town. She's a terrific character with the pride and aplomb you relish in adventurers. Like them she can go anywhere and has an innate sense of honor, and it doesn't hurt that she knows how to handle herself in a sword fight.

Robins knows how to whip up a historical pastiche so that it neither violates the reality of the period nor strikes us as off-puttingly arcane. And the book's feminist messages are both clear and restrained. Robins is continuing in the tradition of the romance writers and melodramatists to whom feminist academics have turned their attention in the last few decades, appraising how those writers use their chosen genres to address specifically female concerns. But I can't imagine that the male readers who've gotten hooked on period adventure novels wouldn't fall under Sarah Tolerance's spell. Robins is writing a series that's shaping up to be a crowd pleaser in the best sense.

"The Blackbirder"
By Dorothy B. Hughes
235 pages
The Feminist Press at CUNY
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While we're speaking of feminist academics, fans of genre fiction owe a debt of thanks to the editors at the City University of New York's Feminist Press for the entries in their series "Femmes Fatales: Women Write Pulp." They've republished two books by Dorothy B. Hughes: "In a Lonely Place," the basis for the classic Nicholas Ray noir with Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, and "The Blackbirder," a wartime espionage tale. If we're lucky, they won't stop there.

"The Blackbirder" appeared in 1943 and, as plenty of books and movies did at the time, was punctuated by speeches meant to rouse the audience into an anti-Nazi fervor: "He could never have learned to live in a world dedicated to love of thy neighbor. Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. Man is created free and equal. Not some men -- Man ... There could never be any answer but to help achieve that peace. Even if it took a million years for it to come to pass, her own small effort would speed the day." The speech is a cue for the conventional manner in which the plot ties itself up, with the heroine sworn to continue the anti-fascist fight. The heroes of the 1940s were Victor Laszlo, one and all. But the atmosphere Hughes builds up before that climax partakes of a fear and an uncertainty that make those moments of grandiloquent heroism seem like empty show.

A friend of mine who was a boy in the '40s told me he never got over the end of World War II. During the war, he explained, he had a neighborhood; after, there were just a bunch of people living in close proximity. For Julie, a French Resistance fighter hiding out in wartime Manhattan, the war offers no sense of community. Keeping to herself, having no friends, no lovers, Julie fears every lingering look from a waiter, every odd car parked on her block. When an old acquaintance from Europe approaches Julie after a concert, and then winds up dead outside her apartment, she takes off on a cross-country trek that ends in New Mexico, amid a plot to smuggle refugees across the border.

What matters in "The Blackbirder" is the almost suffocating sense of isolation and paranoia. Some of Hughes' finest writing comes in the hours after that opening murder, as Julie tries to make it out of Manhattan. Whether Hughes is writing of Julie on a dead-of-night subway platform, a crowded department store where she tries to hide her bloodstained coat while she acquires a new wardrobe, the women's changing room at Penn Station, the sleeper car of a westbound train where she finds refuge, there is a dread of imminent discovery hanging over the book.

After a while, what you're reading begins to feel less like a description of someone hiding out from enemy agents (and we're not even sure if there are any) than a nightmare version of what life will be like if the Allies lose. It's a vision of life in which contact with others has been cut off; revealing who you are or thinking of what you might be is impossible. It's a world in which motive and identity are hidden, smothered -- and betrayal is always a possibility. The heroine of Hughes' thriller can't trust anyone. For her it's as if the Nazis had stepped into the shoes of Pullman porters, coffee-shop patrons, passengers in club cars, taxi drivers. "She didn't like this questioning," begins one passage that makes the paranoia explicit. "Maybe he was a naive young British flyer; maybe not. Gestapo agents, disguised above suspicion, had been instrumental in placing Fran in internment. There were Germans who could pass for British in Whitehall..." And so "The Blackbirder" becomes, in some way, the story of the last free woman left alive.

The arc of Hughes' tale is, of course, how Julie discovers her allies in the fight. The meat of it is in Hughes' masterstroke: setting in free, wartime America the kind of story that has only been done in the setting of Germany or occupied France -- and making the feeling and fear of living an entirely secret life no less real. "The Blackbirder" is unaccountably powerful.

"Monsieur Monde Vanishes"
By Georges Simenon
174 pages
New York Review Books
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With more than 400 books to his credit, Georges Simenon is not a writer whose entire body of work is going to come back into print. But more are available now than have been for some time. Some of his Inspector Maigret mysteries are being reissued in handsome paperback editions by Harcourt. And New York Review Books has added several non-Maigret Simenons to its excellent series of reprints.

The latest is the 1945 "Monsieur Monde Vanishes," which, in the slim Simenon tradition, is taut and ruthlessly economical. Yet it also manages to elude nearly every genre convention it appears headed for. The novel's antihero is Norbert Monde, and that name, with its clashing echoes of podgy provincialism and bland cosmopolitanism, sums him up perfectly. A successful businessman married to his second wife (his first ran out on him), Monde reeks of bourgeois respectability. The novel is about what happens when one day he simply decides to walk away from it all.

"There was no inner conflict, no decision to be reached, indeed nothing was ever decided at all," Simenon writes to signal us that he is not going to provide some motivation -- women, business woes -- for Monde's flight, not even a compulsion. Monde acts on a gray little whim, winding up in Marseilles, eventually in the company of a woman whose lover has abandoned her and who, in the pulp parlance Simenon avoids, has been around the block a few times.

Reversals of fortune follow, even an encounter with someone from Monde's past, and none of it is wound up into "plot." But it isn't aimless either. Simenon is too compact, too precise a writer to make Monde's experience anything as expansive as a celebration of freedom, and he's too aware of ambiguity to make Monde's decision a conscious rejection of respectability, or even the realization that he doesn't give a damn. It is, instead, a portrait of a man's contentment -- which is a different thing from happiness -- in shabbiness and ordinariness, in having absented himself. In one passage, Monde watches the gamblers in a club:

"Many of them, almost all of them, looked like Monsieur Monde's former self. Their bodies were well cared for, their skins rosy, their chins smooth-shaven, they were dressed in fine-quality cloth and beautifully fitting shoes, and they were all mature enough to be people of importance, often indeed to be overburdened with responsibilities. They had offices, employees, workmen; or else they were lawyers and doctors with a wealthy and large clientele. All of them had homes, wives, and families. And all of them, every night, at a certain almost mystic moment, were irresistibly drawn from their chairs, as though under a spell. Nothing could hold them back."

That Monde, finally, cannot see his present self in them is, in a book of no expectations, what passes for a triumph. He's a man who doesn't have to pretend to be a sleepwalker to give in to his impulses. This is noir that aims to dispel shadows, the ones inside the hero.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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