Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Christa Faust's noir world

Christa Faust's new novel from Hard Case Crime, Choke Hold, opens with some questions:
Do the things you've done in the past add up to the person you are now? Or are you endlessly reinvented by the choices you make for the future? I used to think I knew the answer to those questions, Now, I'm not so sure.
Boiling noir down to a simple definition is a mug's game: it's got too many facets and allows too much room for creative reinterpretation for such an exercise to be anything more substantial than a barstool time-passer. But by nearly any definition, those questions would be near the heart of noir, which has always been concerned with how we bury, reconcile, lie about, and live through our pasts; throw in a dose of postwar pop existentialism that gives you the idea of reinvention--and the shakiness of edifices (truth, honor) that long seemed solid--and you've got the building blocks of noir.

Faust gets it, in other words, and Choke Hold lives up to its opening. That opening is actually looking back, to the events of her first novel, Money Shot (2008), which introduced reluctant heroine (and former porn star) Angel Dare, who spent that novel trying to escape from Croatian sex traffickers who mistakenly thought she'd stolen their money. Money Shot falls into the subset of noir novels that show a protagonist thrust into mortal danger and surprising himself with his own ruthlessness. That "himself" was intentional: part of what's fun (and important) about Faust's book is that it's another weight placed in the ever-so-slowly balancing scales of noir, a genre whose greatest weakness has long been its masculine focus and attendant misogyny. Dare's no classical feminist, but she's a strong female character who insists on being in complete control of her destiny even before things go south--and in fact, once they do, she wrestles with frustration over (and tries to escape from) her temporary dependence on a male bodyguard. Eventually, she does, and she turns out to be the toughest person in the book.

Choke Hold picks up a few years after the events of Money Shot, and it's immediately impressive if for no other reason than that, in a way that's reminiscent of Richard Aleas's novels, Faust makes her character live with the consequences of the decisions she made in the first book. Dare survived her killers, but she lost the life she knew. Anything less would have been a cop-out, and untrue to the overall feel of these novels, one in which there's no false sense of security: when bullets start flying, people die, including bystanders, supporting characters, and good guys.

Dare has lost her livelihood, and we leave the world of porn behind for a new subculture: mixed martial arts. Crime novels are a great vehicle for pulling back the curtain on areas of contemporary life that outsiders rarely see, and this pair of books offers detailed, and fairly gruesome, portraits of both those worlds and the tolls they take on young bodies. As Dare gets inadvertently drawn into trying to save a young MMA fighter's life (to say nothing of her own), we meet sleazy gun nuts, south-of-the-border fight promoters, and punch-drunk white knights, in out-of-the-way locales whose sordidness is palpable. My favorite moment along those lines is when a forger--whom two earlier violent sleazeballs have described to Angel as too dangerous for her to deal with directly--turns out to be a quiet, melancholy gay painter of hyper-realistic cowboy portraits.

Faust shows us a world where money and psychological need distort and destroy people; where a fear of commitment is reasonable because the people and things you love will be taken away from you; where there will never be a shortage of men willing to point a gun, slam shut a van door, or drive a prisoner away without giving a thought to where she'll end up. Through two books, that world has brutalized Angel Dare, and she's fought it to a draw. It's not a world you want to live in, but I look forward to the next time Faust guides us through it.

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