Essential Noir

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Essential Noir

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Redigerat: aug 9, 2006, 8:45 am

I am leaving shortly, but wondered if, while I was gone, you (group members) would feel like compiling a list of say, 10 or 12 books that count as "essential" noir. (With perhaps a couple of alternates, thinking of price.) I know you have the past reading experience, libraries, and so forth between you to come up with a marvelous, representative list. :) This would get the few of us who want to do it a long way toward our project of reading essential noir we haven't hit, as well as providing a basis for more discussion of the books and authors offered, and the 'whys' of choice, for the rest. Or you could opt instead to list ten 'essential' noir or hardboiled/noir authors, with best choices for each. My goal here would be to reach your closest approach to a consensus. (Obviously.)

Just a thought. :) I'll try to look in on you all while I'm gone; if that fails, I'll 'see you' when I get back. Have a great week!

aug 9, 2006, 1:27 pm

Love the inclusion of Durrenmatt

aug 10, 2006, 10:44 pm

I don't have time to check out Durrenmatt right now, nor some of the secomd list, but I'm delighted to see any ideas out, and they look like good ones (though I've read a few). I did enjoy Murakami, though I no longer have ANY of his books. What makes A Wild Sheep Chase, which is one I haven't read, noir, or even 'essential' noir?

Redigerat: aug 11, 2006, 5:18 am

a wild sheep chase because it's a detective story, because it uses some hardboiled conventions; first person, ciggies, booze, femme fatale. Murakami seems to be a big fan of chandler/hammet et al and this shows in his earlier stuff. Essential, maybe not, but a fun read

aug 11, 2006, 5:09 pm

Tartalom: A Wild Sheep Chase sounds excellent, whether it's essential or not. I'm glad you mentioned it!

aug 11, 2006, 5:10 pm

We could do 'modern noir' and 'essential/classic noir'... provided there were people interested. :)

sep 17, 2006, 1:32 pm

Seems to me that noir overlaps with the spy thriller (Graham Greene, yes, but also Eric Ambler; and, by extension, Alan Furst, a modern writer who writes only espionage thrillers set before and during WWII) as well as the private eye and hard-boiled genres. I tend to classify the more explicitly violent and sexual noirish treatments, such as those of James Ellroy (particularly his L.A. Quartet of novels: The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz) as "neo-noir"; not sure if anyone else will like this distinction or find it useful.

That said, and with an honest attempt at not repeating books that have been previously nominated, here are my suggestions:

W.R. Burnett -- The Asphalt Jungle and High Sierra, although I would argue for Little Caesar's inclusion as well: the book has a very noirish dénouement that doesn't quite come through in the movie version.

Eric Ambler -- A Coffin for Dimitrios (a.k.a. The Mask of Dimitrios; filmed as The Mask of Dimitrios in 1944, starring Peter Lorre)

William Lindsay Gresham -- Nightmare Alley (1946; filmed the following year starring Tyrone Power)

Raymond Chandler -- Farewell, My Lovely

William Faulkner -- Sanctuary (not sure about the sequel, Requiem For a Nun, as I haven't read it yet; from what I've read about it, I'd guess that it shouldn't be included)

B. Traven -- The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and the third book in his six-book Jungle series (which relates how the roots of the Mexican Revolution sprouted in southern Mexico among the Indians of Chiapas), March to the Montería

Jim Thompson -- The Killer Inside Me

Charles Willeford -- Woman Chaser (a.k.a. The Director; a quick novel about a heel who manages to make his dream movie, The Man Who Got Away; if made, this movie-within-the-novel would be one of the greatest noir movies ever made)

Joseph Hansen -- Steps Going Down -- a brilliant stand-alone thriller from the author of the 11-book series featuring gay insurance investigator David Brandstetter

Graham Greene -- Ministry of Fear; conversely (possibly perversely...), I don't consider his A Gun For Sale (filmed in 1942 as This Gun For Hire with Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake) to be as strong a candidate for noir classification

**Special honorary mention:**

Hubert Selby, Jr. -- Last Exit to Brooklyn

Joel Rose -- Kill Kill Faster Faster

Alan Furst -- The World at Night (the most noir-ish of his novels that I've yet read, and it seems to be a nod to Melville's 1969 film Army of Shadows)

Ian Fleming -- Casino Royale -- the only James Bond book that I know of that has a noir sensibility

Nathaniel West -- Miss Lonelyhearts; satiric, but with enough noir elements to satisfy most fans, methinks

Loren D. Estelman -- Whiskey River -- first in the author's series of historical crime novels set in and around Detroit, Michigan, this one is set during Prohibition and is a bit too light to be a true noir, but the gun battle between carloads of bootleggers on a frozen Lake Erie, lifted from Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky, is great fun

Mike Resnick -- Redbeard -- an early science-fantasy tale from the author set in a post-apocalyptic hell of the future, this short novel seeps noir from its pores

Chelsea Quinn Yarbro -- Darker Than Jewels -- one of the author's long-running Count Saint-Germain series, this one finds the Count, going by the name of Ragoczy, in the court of Ivan IV, styled "The Terrible;" here the reader and the Count discover that the worst villains in the world aren't always, or usually, supernatural; they're people

sep 17, 2006, 2:37 pm

wow - some excellent looking things to chase up there - thanks for the tips

Redigerat: sep 18, 2006, 10:12 am

A couple of other "honorary mentions" occur to me:

Richard Wright -- Native Son -- a bit too preachy, didactic and courtroomish for a true noir, it nonetheless contains elements of noir that make this book, IMHO, a better read than Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, a work that Native Son is often paired with in literature courses.

Harlan Ellison -- Memos From Purgatory -- a memoir of the author's undercover stint in a youth gang in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, NYC in the 1950s (he was gathering material for a magazine article on gangs), Memos contains all the raw material for a noir but doesn't quite become one. I tend to like Ellison's non-fiction better than his fiction, and this one is definitely worth a read.

Bill Buford -- Among the Thugs -- the author's memoir of his time spent with football (soccer) hooligans in England, including a hair-raising World Cup road trip to Italy that culminated in a "footie" riot being quelled by the Italian army (!), this is a jaw-dropping account of senseless violence, substance abuse, smash-and-grab thievery and rampant racism. Some of the details seem cartoonish or, at minimum, geared towards a Hollywood movie (like the football supporters who printed up business cards reading "You've just been pummeled by ____," which they leave atop the fallen bodies of their victims, or like one exceptionally violent, exceptionally dim -- and, all things considered, execptionally lucky -- hooligan who severely injures an upper-ranking police officer); but, again, here is the raw material for pulpy, hard-boiled tales a'plenty, even if the setting is a bit fantastical for American audiences.

Seth Morgan -- Homeboy -- the author's only published book, this novel is a bit too pyrotechnic to rest entirely within the grim confines of noir, but Morgan's flamboyantly inventive language and hellzapoppin' plotting keep this lurid tale of junkies, pushers, hustlers, whores, bikers, thieves, pimps, cops and baaaaaad mo-fos cracklin' until the somewhat disappointing conclusion. One of Janis Joplin's boyfriends and an ex-convict, Morgan abruptly ended his life and the life of his girlfriend by launching the motorcycle they were riding into eternity. Watch out for the yen shee baby....

Saburo Shiroyama -- War Criminal: The Life and Death of Hirota Koki (translated by John Bester) -- a biography/history of the erstwhile foreign minister and prime minister of Japan while it was in the grip of the militarists who was the only innocent man hanged by the occupying American forces in 1948, all because his personal ethics forbad him to defend himself or rat out the swinish Japanese officers who were frantically trying to save their own necks, this book shows how sometimes the noir and existentialist authors are cock-eyed optimists compared to what actually happens in the real world. The Nazis actually get to wear the white hat here due to their positive role in the Rape of Nanking (Nanjing), an atrocity which has yet to be recognized by the Japanese government.

**Unread by me but seems appropriate**:

Jack Henry Abbott -- In the Belly of the Beast -- a memoir of the author's stint in prison, he became a cause celebre among the glitterati and literati -- chiefly Norman Mailer and Susan Sarandon (who named one of her kids after him) -- who were able to get him released largely on the strength of his writing here. Just six weeks after getting out and finding himself the toast of the town in NYC, Abbott killed a man in a Manhattan diner when he was told that the restroom was for staff use only. Abbott was flung back into the jernt for life, Mailer had egg on his face for quite a spell, and in 2002 Abbott hanged himself, leaving behind a suicide note which has yet to be made public. If that ain't noir and/or hard-boiled, I don't know what is.

**Non-fictional background material:**

George Chauncey -- Gay New York: The Making of the Gay Male World, 1890 - 1940 -- if Luc Sante's excellent Low Life: The Lures and Snares of Old New York can be included, presumably as background material, I think that Gay New York deserves a spot too. Unfortunately the book, while extremely comprehensive and heavily footnoted, does not seem to include very much material on the intersection between the criminal and homosexual underworlds in the early 20th century (tantalizingly hinted at in W.R. Burnett's Little Caesar and developed a bit more fully in John Peyton Cooke's novelization of the Cleveland Torso Murders of the 1930s, Torsos: A Novel of Dark Intent) -- largely due to the lack of solid sources, I suspect.

Robert Lacey -- Little Man: Meyer Lansky and the Gangster Life -- an invaluable look at the classic gangster era in the United States and a biography of Lansky and his family, Lacey manages to touch upon such matters as the political origins of the word "gangster," the gangster/terrorist elements in the birth of Israel, and the role of anti-Semitism in building the American gangster myth (viz. "We're as big as U.S. Steel," the line breathed by Hyman Roth to Michael Corleone in The Godfather, Part II; the character of Roth is based on Lansky) while painting a seamy, compelling and almost unbearably sad portrait of Lansky's family that is every bit as devastating as the Corleone saga in the first two Godfather movies. Arguably more existential in tone than noir, it nonetheless supplies much useful real world background information to the noir and hard-boiled genres.

Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward, eds. -- Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, Third Edition -- I doubt if anyone, including the contributing authors to this volume, will agree with each and every review here (I for one am scandalized at the complete misreading given to James M. Cain's classic domestic novel Mildred Pierce and the positive review given to the Joan Crawford travesty) -- or agree that every movie included here should be included here; nonetheless, for anyone interested in the genre, this book is absolutely essential, and is copiously illustrated with some very nice stills.

sep 18, 2006, 8:41 am

Seth Morgan is an interesting inclusion, if he can enter the ever-broadening church of noir, I give you in return - The Grass Arena by John Healy - Homeboy meets Junky on the streets of London in the 60s / 70s

sep 18, 2006, 10:08 am

Tartalom -- that sounds like a very interesting inclusion. Would you nominate Layer Cake for inclusion as an essential or an honourary mention in the "neo-noir" category? (I've seen the movie, not read the book.)

Another nomination for background reading:

Donald Thomas -- The Enemy Within: Hucksters, Racketeers, Deserters, and Civilians During the Second World War (first published in the UK under the title: An Underworld at War: Spivs, Deserters, Racketeers and Civilians in the Second World War) -- not much more description should be needed with a title like that; here is an account of some of the source material informing the work of Graham Greene, Peter Cheyney, and such later dreck as the deadly dull movie Chicago Joe and the Showgirl. Thomas previously wrote the histories The Victorian Underworld and Cochrane: Britain's Sea Wolf, and has gone on to write some Sherlock Holmes stories. (He's written quite a bit of other things as well, but none of them seem right for inclusion here.)

sep 18, 2006, 12:08 pm

Just a very hasty response from me - Chandler - definitely The Long Good Bye, possibly The High Window. McBain - difficult to say - Let`s Hear it For The deaf Man, Hail Hail The Gang`s All Here, Hammett-Red Harvest, Wambaugh is worth a read, also John Ross MacDonald Blue City. Hope that helps.

Oh yeah -nearly forgot W Howard Baker aka W A Ballinger aka Peter Saxon aka William Arthur aka Bill Rekab - became editor of the Sexton Blake Library in the `50s, and introduced a more pulp-influenced style. Also introduced `new boy` writers like Jack Trevor Story and Martin Thomas (real name Thomas Martin.

Another oversight Hank Janson aka Stephen Frances - I have read one book he wrote under his own name, which I didn`t rate at all. Since then, I`ve read one of his Sexton Blakestories (written as Richard Williams) which I loved - was amazed to find it was by the same writer.

The weird thing is - why do so many writers use pseudonyms? Is it like musicians, i.e, they`re contracted to one company and use a different name to do workfor another company ?

14MikeCulpepper Första inlägget
dec 5, 2006, 5:48 pm

Possibly the first noir is Therese Raquin by Emile Zola. James Cain uses some of the book's elements in his work -- I'm not saying he ripped off Zola, rather that these elements are bedrock of the genre. Therese Raquin has been made into several movies (a new one with Glenn Close has been in the works for a while and may come out in a year or two), a drama or two, an opera, and a musical (by Harry Connick). Highly recommended to noir-lovers.

dec 5, 2006, 6:30 pm

There was a Masterpiece Theater version, or at least something on PBS many years ago that I really enjoyed. I can't remember the actress right now - does anyone remember?

dec 5, 2006, 8:38 pm

Kate Nelligan is probably the actor you are thinking of.

dec 7, 2006, 1:31 pm

Yes, Kate Nelligan. Thanks, cognito!

Redigerat: mar 29, 2007, 1:32 pm

I suggest "The Killer Inside" by Jim Thompson could be added to the list.

Redigerat: apr 16, 2007, 9:15 am

Cornell Woolrich has surely got to be included in any list of noir fiction.I'm thinking of The Bride Wore Black ,Rear Window, Phantom Lady ,Waltz into Darkness and Rendezvous in Black in particular.Also in a great collection of short stories and novellas called Nightwebs there are some of his finest tales.

dec 14, 2007, 9:54 am

Ah, I was dying to chime in with the works of Cornell Woolrich until reaching message 19. Nice call on that. Few, if any, writers of the period had more film noir adaptations taken from his work than Woolrich, and for good reason.

mar 19, 2008, 1:09 am

The Maltese Falcon by Hammett
The Continental Op by Hammett
The Conjure Man Dies: A Mystery Tale of Dark Harlem Rudolph Fisher
Books by Chester Himes, with the protagonists Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson.
Novels by Iceberg Slim, including Trick Baby
Nathaniel West Day of the Locusts

mar 19, 2008, 1:13 am

We mustn't forget John Carroll Daly, often called the father of hard-boiled crime fiction.

apr 10, 2008, 10:17 pm

#14 I'd add "La Bete Humaine" to Zola's noir
novels. Also some favorites: Dorothy B Hughes,
Helen Nielsen, Horace McCoy, Charles Williams, Harry Whittington, Patricia Highsmith and Francis Carco.

Redigerat: feb 25, 2011, 5:18 pm

The Friends Of Eddie Coyle by George V Higgins (1970) is without a doubt one of the greatest noir novels of all time.

I would also add:
The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson (1952)
Shoot The Piano Player by David Goodis (1956)
You'll Die Next by Harry Whittington (1954)
13 French Street by Gil Brewer (1951)
Cruel Poetry by Vicki Hendricks (2007)
The Asphalt Jungle by WR Burnett (1949)

plus two little-known gems:
The Gambler by William Krasner (1950)
Street 8 by Douglas Fairbairn (1977)

Street 8 is a great noir tale that takes place in Miami during the pre-cocaine cowboy days, when Cubans were moving into positions of power in all levels of the city. Most Florida crime novelists will tell you that this novel had a big influence on them. I wrote a full review of it on my website. To check it out, go to

feb 18, 2012, 3:45 pm

Miss Callaghan Comes to Grief


White slavery and racist language! ;-)

maj 20, 2012, 2:30 pm

Seem to be some loose definitions of "noir". Not sure I'd classify Native Son as noir unless you were going by the extremely broad definition I've seen categorizing it as "a guy, a blond and a gun." Come to think of it, I don't think there was a gun involved in Native Son.

Saw Raymond Chandler mentioned but don't think anyone said The Big Sleep, which is certainly his most famous work and would have to go on any list of essential noir. And Mickey Spillane has to appear on any list of influential hardboiled writers, I think.

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