Noir and La Femme edited by Ian Whates (Newcon Press, 2014)
(originally published in Vector 277)

Ian Whates, through Newcon Press and the Solaris Rising series, has established himself as a key editor in UK short fiction and I, like a number of authors, have reason to be grateful for his generosity. But it is clear from his introduction that putting together these books was difficult. As Whates notes in Noir, these two volumes started as a single project “to publish a collection of stories each featuring a femme fatale” and, even when that restriction fell by the wayside, he struggled to produce” a volume that hung together with a definable identity.” I think the evidence of the struggle remains visible. There are good stories here, but neither book coheres into something more than the sum of its parts.

This was particularly obvious with Noir. My expectation, not unreasonably, I think, given the book’s title, was that these stories would relate to ideas of film noir. However, the majority of the book consists of more standard dark fantasy and horror fare. It took me some time to adjust my expectations.

There’s something of the detective story in EJ Swift’s ‘The Crepuscular Hunter’ – which opens the volume – but after a promising start with a mysterious entity brutally stripping victims of their privacy in a media saturated world, the story takes us into virtual reality for a conclusion where anything is possible and, therefore, the stakes seem diminished. The relationships never properly resolve themselves and the end left me shrugging not shuddering. The second story, ‘Gross Thousand’ by Adam Roberts, plays games with the implications of biblical mathematics as a social worker interviews a client who believes they can see who is saved and who is damned. ‘Gross Thousand’ is short, understated and the cold breeze of the conclusion brings a chill.

I have an instinctive suspicion of stories about the magic of books and bookshops. They always strike me as self-aggrandizing, coming with the sense of authors shouting ‘Look how amazing my job is!’ So, while Donna Scott’s ‘The Grimoire’ does nothing wrong in itself – it is a perfectly serviceable story– it also failed to win me over. I found the magic books unconvincing and the bookshop owner’s transformation unlikely. Emma Coleman’s ‘The Treehouse’ felt juvenile in the wrong ways. The protagonist has the whiny quality of a grumpy teenager whose idea of paradise involves picnics, a talking cat and a band of animal musicians. There’s too much messing around with shadows at the start and the conclusion didn’t really make sense, with the protagonist getting the escape she wanted and then reacting in horror. By sharp contrast, Paula Wakefield’s ‘Red in Tooth and Claw’ takes the Little Red Riding Hood story to Hollywood with some style. This grandmother is fierce, but I wanted more meat. I also enjoyed ‘The Private Ambulance’ by Simon Kurt Unsworth, which has the feel of a good fireside ghost story, with an atmospheric build-up and clean, direct prose. As with most ghost stories, the revealed phantasm is a little disappointing but it’s still a memorable journey. Next came two stories about serial killers – ‘Bite Marks’ by Jay Caselberg and ‘Inspiration Point’ by Marie O’Regan – both are well constructed and will find many admirers but neither were for me. I find the tendency to fetishize killers problematic and while Caselberg at least has his murderer face their comeuppance, the O’Regan story turns a pair of monstrous predators into some sort of heroes – that’s a step too far for me.

The best two stories in Noir come back-to-back. Paul Graham Raven’s ‘A Boardinghouse Heart’ is very fine indeed – compact, dense and intelligent, it is more-or-less everything I’d hoped for when I picked up this collection. It’s a detective story – or at least it’s a story with a detective in it – set on the slippery streets of a richly realised city. The protagonist, as should be the case in all good noir stories, is hopelessly out of his depth and beset by those more powerful and cleverer than he is. The most effective element is the way in which the story immerses you in a city, gives it history and heft, yet never burdens the reader with weighty exposition. I also liked its refusal of any heroic narrative. It’s a fine achievement and worth the price of admission on its own. Simon Morden’s ‘Entr’acte’ could hardly be more different – both the setting and the set-up are preposterous: a superfluous private investigator on a corporate-run moonbase finds himself drawn to help a beautiful woman who has lost her husband in some time-travel, Bond-villain-style hokum. Morden revels in the essential silliness of the set-up and draws the reader into it, writing with impressive pace, wit and gloss. ‘Entr’acte’ is fun and even squeezes in an unlikely emotional punch.

I also enjoyed ‘Silent in her Vastness’ by James Worrad. I liked the idea: the abandoned University of California campus is to become a work of art, with the aid of Chinese money, a small nuclear device and some mannequins. I liked, too, the way the artist gradually crumbles, though his final sacrifice, while it works dramatically, felt an emotional stretch too far. Paul Kane’s ‘Grief Stricken’ is another serial killer story – this time with an unlikely mental health twist as Detective John Lomax hunts down the doctor apparently responsible for the death of his wife. I didn’t buy anything in this story, the portrayal of the protagonist’s breakdown, the ‘fridging’ of the female character or the showdown in which an experienced cop faces a dangerous killer without back-up.

The final story in Noir is ‘The (De)Composition of Evidence’ by Alex Dally MacFarlane. It’s cleverly done as a murder is revealed by the words on a rotting piece of skin and it has a certain chilling elegance. It is essentially the working through of a smart idea rather than a story but it is a very good idea.

La Femme promises tales with strong female characters and opens with a cracking story, ‘Palestinian Sweets’ by Stephen Palmer, set in a transformed London that has imported the ancient conflicts of the Middle East. There are some good ideas here – the transfer of secret information through scents shared via complexly designed meals, the struggle of one generation to leave behind the conflicts of the past and a well-handled love story. My only quibble is that we see so little of, Ghinwa, the female character, and that’s all through the male protagonist’s eyes. It is a very good story but it’s hard to see how it meets the ‘strong female’ criterion. Francis Hardinge’s ‘Slink-Thinking’ is even better. I didn’t expect to like a ‘talking animal story’, but this clever re-imagining of the noir detective as a hapless (ghost) dog being manipulated by the smooth charms of the house cat and taking a beating from the big boss (the ghosts of a broiled hamster and his gerbil henchmen) to save his master’s life, is cleverly done. More convincing than it sounds in summary, my only quibble is that it’s in the wrong book.

Next was ‘A Winter Bewitchment’ by Storm Constantine, the longest story in either book. It is a story of romantic pursuit or, perhaps more accurately, the story of the pursuit of romance, set in a fantasy world with hints of a sanitised, pre-war Confederacy. It’s a story of rich people behaving frivolously and I’m certain there’s an audience for whom the gowns and magical shenanigans are catnip. I’m not in that audience. I appreciated the slickness of the writing and recognise the richness of the setting but never warmed to it. It felt too distant, cool and settled.

‘Softwood’ by Andrew Hook is odd – Apricot, a mathematician and codebreaker – allows herself to be locked in a small underground facility in a government base, believing she is running a mysterious ‘number station’. Nothing about this story made sense: the locking up of Apricot; her sudden and total, mental breakdown; the fact that this results in the cracking of a code that has resisted all other attacks; nor the ending, in which her bosses don’t appear to have noticed that their agent has suffered a massive mental breakdown. There are good moments, but I couldn’t see the logic.  Adele Kirby’s ‘Soleil’ is a spy romp featuring Soleil, an artificially intelligent robot, hunting Eclipse, a rogue artificially intelligent robot. The female protagonist is ‘strong’ in the sense that she wears a dress that ‘made every woman subconsciously tug down or hoist up her own dress as appropriate, and made very man want to dig his fingers through its sleek shining folds to experience the terrain of the taut body below’ – and she does kung fu. There’s a fight and a resolution and then Eclipse and Soleil go off to be a robot Adam and Eve on Earth. The ending suggests this is the start of something bigger, but it lacks substance.

‘Haecceity’ is the property of ‘thisness’ – that which distinguishes the specific from the general – and a story by Stewart Hotson, though I’m not entirely sure why he chose the title. The story opens with the investigation of an explosion, at the centre of which is an unharmed woman. There follows a police interrogation in which the woman reveals she has the power to leap between alternate timelines – though this power has odd limits (she can be in two places simultaneously, arrange wildly complex strings of events, but not have two guns to jam at a key moment) and then she escapes. The talky core of the story doesn’t make the most of the initial, interesting, set-up.

John Llewellyn-Probert’s ‘The Girl With No Face’ has the feel of something from the 1930s. A fleeing female gangster stumbles into the home of a mad scientist with a laboratory in the attic and his deformed, insane son locked in a dungeon below. The ‘twist’ is hardly surprising but there’s pleasure to be had getting there. Jonathon Oliver’s ‘High Church’ is the tale of a female priest taking on forces of reaction and malevolent magic in the Church of England. It works quite well, though I wasn’t sure how seriously we are meant to take the ending. Maura McHugh’s ‘Valerie’ makes a case for acceptance and tolerance in those who dress or love differently from the majority. McHugh’s position is never in doubt, so there’s no sense of attempting to convince naysayers but perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps it is enough to offer consolation and a sense of fellowship. More seriously, the element of the fantastic in the story is feels unnecessary and tacked on. ‘Trysting Antlers’ by Holly Ice has a cheating man get his comeuppance thanks to a feisty protagonist and her hacksaw. It’s not quite as gross as it sounds, since the story features a world where men behave like stags, complete with antlers. It’s both likeable and smart.

I really wanted to love Ruth EJ Booth’s ‘The Honey Trap’ – it is sharply written, has a great setting, an interesting young protagonist and a strong core idea. Set post-environmental collapse, the story of a gifted home fruit grower getting talent-spotted and offered the opportunity to escape poverty and realise her potential is well conceived and delivered effectively. And I did love it, until the last two pages. I’ve read it several times and I still can’t work out precisely what happens or why. Perhaps it’s my fault.

The final story in La Femme is ‘Elision’ by Benjanun Sriduangkaew, which is excellent. Set against the background of a star-spanning theocracy that feels thought through and rich, Kita-Ushma is a former operative who gets dragged back into the machinations of the church. There are traces of cyberpunk in the story of a mutating video revealing murder and corruption, but the strangeness of setting and technology and the complexity of the character interactions are very well handled.

Like all anthologies, Noir and La Femme force the reader to accept the crunchy with the smooth in their reading, but when they are good, they are very good. Many of the stories that didn’t click with me had qualities that were obvious.  I found it frustrating that neither volume quite hangs together as a strongly themed anthology, but that may not bother other readers as much. Read individually, or without pre-conception, there are a number stories within these covers that are worth your time.


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