Crack by James W. Hall from Best American Noir of the Century – review

best american noir of the centuryReviewed by Nigel Bird

Crack was first published in Murder and Obsession in 1999.

It wasn’t written that long ago, then, yet it has an old-fashioned quality about it.

It has some delicious description and a gentle pace that goes along with its setting. It seems to amble along early on but soon begins to accelerate, smoothly shifting through the gears as it accelerates to the end.

“Crack” is written in the first person, telling the tale of a talented American professor working abroad in the Spanish part of the Basque Country.

It is not the glorious Spain he imagined, but an industrial region with “a taste in the air like old pennies and a patina of grime dulling every bright surface”.

His life changes on the day he notices light pouring through a crack in a wall.

If, on the other side, there had been an elderly couple cleaning their dentures, the story would have been utterly different. What he sees though, is a beautiful young girl, nina pera – peach girl, “simply the girl who destroyed me.” What’s really going to destroy him, of course, is not the girl, but his obsession.

His description is wonderful, teasing like the girl herself as she plays with her body and her reflection. “She was achingly succulent, blindingly juicy. At the time I was twice her age. Double the fool and half the man I thought I was.”

She has a daily routine that the professor soon discovers and before long he’s neglecting his duties so he can catch the train that will get him home for the girl’s daily appearances.

And it’s not just the girl that he can’t resist. He’s fascinated by the whole family – the ripe and juicy mother and the gangster dad seem just as gripping.

As readers we have to see what he sees. There are moments when it’s the kind of thing we might like, the sort of material Anais Nin might serve up as an entree. Problem is there are things we don’t want to witness, things that we’d be better off hiding behind the sofa with our fingers in our ears when they came around.

By the story’s climax, I was guilty because of my complicity and because I too was an excited voyeur.

Work of this density is like a rich dessert – a little is amazing, a lot will make you puke. Had this been a novel, it might well have had me forgetting to put the book in my bag as I left the house. As it is, short and perfectly formed, it’s as stylish as you like, a story I’ll read again in order to savour the language and to work out how the author managed to create such intensity without me noticing the first time around. A great piece, worthy of inclusion in such a collection and something that might well offer a pleasing contrast within the book’s covers.


Nigel Bird has had fiction published in Crime Factory, Beat to a Pulp, A Twist of Noir, Needle Magazine, Dark Valentine, Pulp Metal, Static Movement and Crimespree Magazine. He won the Watery Grave Invitational contest at The Drowning Machine and has a story in Best British Crime Stories.

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