"You know what? The bastard blows me out of the water. This guy writes Maine like Ardai writes New York. If you're not reading him, you don't know what you're missing." --Chris F. Holm, author of "The Collector" series, The Killing Kind, and Red Right Hand.

"A refreshingly new voice in noir." --Ed Kurtz, author of Nothing You Can Do and The Rib From Which I Remake the World.

"A glorious boilermaker of noir and East Coast gothic. The action is taut as a sprung snare and Bagley tightens the screws with every page." -- Laird Barron, author of Swift to Chase and Blood Standard.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Book Review: HARDLY KNEW HER by Laura Lippman

Hardly Knew Her by Laura Lippman
Introduction by George Pelecanos
William Morrow, $23.95
October 2008

A quick glance through my list of favorite authors reveals that I mostly read books by men. That’s not to say I hold to the Penzlerian notion that women are incapable of writing noir. Ladies like Vicki Hendricks, Megan Abbott and Christa Faust write some of the hardest, darkest crime fiction you’ll ever encounter. Non-crime greats Flannery O’Connor and Annie Proulx have influenced my own work. When I thought about my favorites recently, it troubled me that women were a clear minority. I don’t—at least I like to believe I don’t—pick up or dismiss a book based on the author’s gender. So lately I’ve been making a conscious effort to read more books by women.

Which brings me to Laura Lippman and her short story collection, Hardly Knew Her. I’m a latecomer to Lippman fandom, having previously read just two of her novels (In a Strange City and Every Secret Thing), but I’m trying to make up for lost time. Hardly Knew Her reprints sixteen short stories and delivers a brand-new novella, “Scratch a Woman.” The latter is an amazing piece of writing that Lippman herself describes as “a straight-up homage to James M. Cain.” There are stories about prostitutes, stone-cold soccer moms, snooping babysitters who find more than they bargained for, cheating husbands, drug dealers, and every one of them cuts deep. “The Crack Cocaine Diet” and “Scratch a Woman” are about as noir as noir gets. The title story is a perfect combination of heartache and small, secret triumph. There is darkness (a pair of female Mardi Gras revelers tearing a tough guy to shreds in “Pony Girl”) and bitter humor: Her father was so gullible that he could be duped by Mennonites (from “Hardly Knew Her”). Lippman has a keen eye for society’s quirks and minor faults, as well as its flat-out nasty side.

Hardly Knew Her is one of the finest single-author collections I’ve read in a long time. Get it. Read it. Find some guy who only reads male authors, make him park his ass in a chair and read it. He’ll thank you before he finishes the first story.


sandra seamans said...

I have a question for you Patrick. Do you think women noir writers try too hard to make a story darker and dirtier? Maybe trying to make a point that they can write just as dark as the guys. I tried to read Vicki's story in Storyglossia but it just plain turned my stomach about a third in ( I had the same problem with Harry Crew's Celebration). I've also been trying to read Allison Brennan's See No Evil. The mystery part is great but when she changes to the killers' point of view it turns into soft-core porn. Maybe it's just my age that's reacting to these stories but I was wondering if others find this the case with woman's noir or any noir, for that matter, as many of the noir writers seem to be peddling porn as part of the story or are these just isolated instances.

I'm just trying to get a handle on the scope of noir here, not trying to start a male vs female thing.

I write dark, but steer clear of the perverted sex stuff and I'm just wondering if I'm spinning my wheels trying to write noir.

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

Sandra: Good questions. I think a lot of women authors are still marginalized by publishers and book retailers, so maybe some do feel they need to crank up the shock factor to get attention. Crime fiction still seems to be very much a man’s game; I’m not saying it is right or that I agree with it…I’m just saying. Like you, I don’t want to get into a battle of the sexes with this. But it would be interesting to learn how many women feel they have to work harder to get the same sales, reviews, whatever as male writers.

Marijane Meaker wrote under the manly name of Vin Packer. Howard Hawks hired Leigh Brackett to write the screenplay for The Big Sleep because he’d read her detective fiction and assumed “Leigh” was a man’s name. But she kicked ass and Hawks used her again on Rio Bravo (and, I think, some others). I think Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky and Marcia Muller had to prove themselves “capable” of writing hard-boiled stuff.

One of the things I like so much about Vicki Hendricks’s work is that the violence and sex are so matter-of-fact. They feel like integral parts of the story rather than things chucked in for titillation. I don’t know her personally, but I don’t get the impression she’s trying to “outshock” the men. I’ve never read Allison Brennan (not really into the serial killer/forensic thriller stuff), so I can’t comment on her books.

sandra seamans said...

Thanks, Patrick. You're right about Hendricks. Her short story evolved from the character and who she was. I was just uncomfortable reading it, which is probably just an old lady thing. The Brennan book is my first experience with her. See No Evil is basically a PI book so perhaps that's why the killers' sex scenes jarred so much for me. I've read the Grafton's and Paretsky's and they don't go down the sexual side alley. Of course it doesn't help that where I live you can't find a noir book. I asked the librarian if they had any Ken Bruen books and she said "who?" so most of what I can find is at used book sales (no books stores closer than 50 miles) I have a long wish list of author's for my kids who know how to buy and sell on the internet.

I would like to hear more from some of the lady authors out there, too. And if they feel they have to be more shocking in their crime fiction.

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

Sandra: I'm in a similar situation with bookstores and the libarary. But my librarian has done a great job of borrowing books from other libraries for me. Thanks to her, I'm steadily working my way through a long list of authors. Inter-library loan is a wonderful thing.

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

"The libarary." Huh. I ain't no hick.