"Year of the Lizard" Celebrates Noir Writers, Past and Present

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Jason Starr, it would seem, is the perfect author to help kick off Vintage Crime/Black Lizard's ambitious 2003, 13th-anniversary campaign, "The Year of the Lizard."

"I started reading the original Black Lizard reissues of Jim Thompson and other 'noir' writers back in the late '80s, before Vintage acquired Black Lizard," said Starr, a New Yorker whose fifth novel, Tough Luck, is a January Vintage Crime/Black Lizard trade-paper original. "And those books really turned my head around."

It was long a desire of Starr's, he said, to have his work appear under the imprint of the trendsetting paperback house, which reissued titles by such crime-fiction past-masters as David Goodis and Charles Willeford. "I guess you could say that once I realized I was never going to be signed by the New York Yankees, being published by Black Lizard was my greatest dream," he explained.

Starr, 36, was born in Brooklyn, studied English and creative writing at Binghamton University, and got an M.F.A. in playwriting from Brooklyn College. His first creative efforts were absurdist plays (some of them, produced off-off-Broadway) in the manner of Beckett, Dario Fo, and Durenmatt. Then Starr discovered the noir fiction of Jim Thompson and David Goodis, and a new road opened.

Drawing on his own experience in telemarketing, Starr wrote his first novel, Cold Caller (1997). His second book, Nothing Personal, involved an advertising executive and a compulsive gambler. Fake I.D. concerned a would-be actor working as a bouncer.

"I guess you'd call these characters 'anti-heroes' in the Patricia Highsmith mode," said Starr. [Highsmith is another Vintage Crime/Black Lizard author.] "You root for them, sort of; but it makes you uneasy."

Without benefit of an agent, Starr sold world rights to his first two works to No Exit, a U.K. house specializing in modern crime-fiction; No Exit in turn sold U.S. rights to Cold Caller to Norton, who brought the book out in trade-paper in the States.

After acquiring an agent, Starr signed a two-book deal with Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, which published his thriller Hard Feelings in 2002 as the trade-paper house's first original novel. Its release was heralded by an enthusiastic quote from Black Lizard's editor-in-chief, Edward Kastenmeier: "Reading Hard Feelings was like the first time I read The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson: eerie, disturbing, and blackly comic."

Starr said Tough Luck is a departure for him: It features a more sympathetic protagonist, a Brooklyn teenager lured into trouble by manipulative characters. And it's a "period" novel, taking place in 1984: "I did a lot of research, to get all the TV shows and sports events mentioned correct. Everything like that in the book actually happened on those days, though that might not be apparent as you read it."

Starr (who's also written a screenplay of Nothing Personal for a project in development and a script for a forthcoming Halle Berry drama) has signed another two-book deal with Vintage Crime/Black Lizard.

Though he can imagine having his work someday in hardcover, the well- and widely reviewed author said he loves being published in paperback: "Going back to the days of the 1950s Gold Medal books, and even earlier to the golden age of pulp detective fiction, paperback really has always been the preferred mode for reading this sort of book."

And Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, he thinks, continues to set the gold (medal) standard for the field: "I love the slick way they packaged the old masters like Hammett and Chandler and Cain, and now the way they're adding to their list with European authors such as Ruth Rendell, Henning Mankell, and Eric Ambler. I think it's great the way they're expanding."

That growth has been overseen by editor Kastenmeier, ever since Vintage Crime bought Black Lizard from Creative Arts in 1990.

"We acquired a number of titles from them," Kastenmeier recalled, "including most of Jim Thompson's backlist, and some Charles Willeford and David Goodis. It was a wonderful addition to what we already had in the Vintage Crime series: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Chester Himes. So by bringing the two together, we felt like we had the best of two generations of crime writers; we were off and running. At about the same time, we began to publish the works of Andrew Vachss. And over the years, we've built up our crime list and been very excited about it."

More contemporary authors brought into the Vintage Crime/Black Lizard stable, and who'll be spotlighted in "The Year of the Lizard," include Swedish author Henning Mankell ("One of the bestselling mystery writers throughout Europe," said Kastenmeier, "and an absolutely riveting writer; he really writes literary novels that happen also to be crime novels, I feel."); Ruth Rendell (under her own byline and writing as Barbara Vine); Highsmith (whose Ripley's Game will be issued as a tie-in with the forthcoming film starring John Malkovich); Nicola Griffith; and Michael Dibdin.

The house's future plans include bringing out Charles Willeford's Hoke Mosely mysteries. And Kastenmeier said he hoped, in time, to introduce a newer generation of readers to Ross Macdonald (already well represented in Vintage Crime/Black Lizard): "We reissued all of Raymond Chandler last summer, and it was very successful for us; we were very pleased. And I want to find a similar way to sort of bring more attention to Ross Macdonald."

From the sensitive private-eye books of Macdonald to the gritty contemporary tales of Vachss, from the hardboiled classics of Chandler to the psychological suspense of Rendell, Vintage Crime/Black Lizard would seem to contain a number of sub-genres beneath its widening umbrella.

"There is a fair variety there," Kastenmeier agreed. "But I think all of the books are noir or borrow from noir. We've sort of remained grounded in what we originally did -- the great noir writers -- and we're trying to bring that up to the present."

And then Kastenmeier added: "It's just really books that we love -- books that really spoke to us." --Tom Nolan