Noir is the new black

Noir is the new black

Jefferson Chase delves in to some under the radar reading material

Whisky & Culture | 14 Apr 2006 | Issue 55 | By Jefferson Chase

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More often than it should, the best writing is that which flies under the radar screens of self-appointed literary experts. Case in point: paperback-original ‘noir fiction’ in the United States. Reissues by the Black Lizard Press have helped revive interest in writers such as Jim Thompson, David Goodis and Cornell Woolrich. And the list doesn’t stop there.Nearly all the Black Lizard reissues I’ve read have been worth the trouble, including Richard Neely’s Shattered. Originally published in 1969 by Ace Books under the much better title The Plastic Nightmare, this is a paranoid, erotic thriller reminiscent of early Brian DePalma or Christopher Nolan’s excellent Memento.Blockbuster director Wolfgang Petersen adapted it for first Hollywood feature, which should have increased Neely’s fame. It didn’t. An Internet search reveals only that Neely was born in 1930, worked in advertising and, in the word’s of one blogger “has a cult-like following among certain fans.” The story opens with the amnesiac victim of car accident, Dan Marriott, about to have the bandages cut off his surgically reconstructed face. His wife Judith whisks him straight from the hospital off to a recuperative vacation – and seduction – in Mexico. The problem is he has no memory of his relationship to her.The mouth that closed on mine was soft but insistent, parted lips brushed with the salt and dampness of the sea. My eyes popped open and as quickly squeezed shut. My hand released the cigarette, jerking up as if to ward her off but remained on her soft shoulder, slowly squeezing it. She reached back and fussed for a moment with the narrow top of her bikini. The strip of hot-pink cloth snapped away, drifting to the sand...I wrenched away, feeling an inner congealment. Fear? I looked into eyes that were suddenly remote.What’s great here is the way the first-person narrator’s lack of memory detaches him from his body, rendering what should be a steamy situation impersonal, alienating and, ultimately, uncanny.In a detail that’s perhaps a bit too revealing about the male psyche, a sip of a dry martini does more to jog Dan’s memory than Judith’s physical charms. When he returns home, he begins to suspect that his marriage may not have been a picture of domestic bliss.The upstairs consisted of three bedrooms and two baths. Judith had not offered to show me around, heading directly for the master bedroom at the front of the house. Entering the large square room, I was struck with surprise. From the satin-covered bed to the silken draperies, from the quilted chaise to the cosmetic-strewn dressing table, the room was utterly feminine. I had the impression that no man had ever so much as crossed the threshold.In fact, it turns out that their relationship was good as over – and that Judith was driving the car during the horrific accident, from which she escaped with only minor injuries. Later, the two of them are invited for drinks by their best friends, Jeb and Ginnie. Brandy for the men, whiskey for the women. Jeb recalls Judith as being nothing than a casual cocktail-party flirt, something that Ginnie, in a moment alone with Dan, challenges.I said flatly, “No, I don’t believe it. I believe there was another man. Or men.” Ginnie gulped her drink. “Man,” she said across the rim of her glass. One man.” I felt my scalp tingle. “Did I know him?” Ginnie stared into my eyes with hypnotic intensity, as if willing me to remember. “Yes, Dan, you knew him. You met him in Acapulco. His name is Ridge Standish.” In the world of hardboiled fiction, it’s always the toughest cookies who drink whiskey – Dan must piece this together before he can recall the demons from his past.Shattered is unusual for the genre because it’s set in upperclass suburbia, but the manicured lawns, comfortable sofas and well-stocked sidecars don’t make it any less creepy. Neely’s world is what the original title says it is: a plastic nightmare in which betrayal lurks behind every cool smile and very cold cocktail.
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