Noir novels have always been at the very heart of crime fiction, so much so that the hard-boiled style of early pulp fiction is coded into the genre’s DNA: the lone streetlamp, the fedora, the curl of cigarette smoke and the dame behind the frosted glass.
Ever since its conception, there’s always been something undeniably, well, cool about noir fiction. It’s the era of bakelite phones, Hollywood in its Golden Age, of massive prosperity and austerity (often within the space of a few city blocks). Noir isn’t about right and wrong, good and evil – it’s about the shades of grey.
Noir’s focus wasn’t those in authority: the wealthy, or the highly educated and politically influential. In noir, it was the common people who were the stars, guided by their own moral compass for good or ill, but always in all too understandable directions. Noir is about people living hand to mouth on their wages and their wits, and is written for those same people. For those with state educations and street smarts, where right and wrong aren’t a case of morals but rather the thickness of your wallet or the weight of your purse. Pull up a bar stool and get yourself a drink for this beginner’s guide to modern and classic noir.
Now, this wouldn’t be a guide to noir if it didn’t mention its king, Raymond Chandler, and his fantastic Marlowe novels. But if you’re here, then odds are you’ve already read a couple of them.
For something a little different, Peter Cheyney is a must, especially This Man is Dangerous, the first of his Lemmy Caution novels. Lemmy Caution is a G-man who works too hard, lives too fast and doesn’t give a damn for consequences, and when he sets out to foil the kidnapping of a rich heiress, there’s little that’s going to stand in the way of him and his tommy gun.
On the subject of kidnapped heiresses, there’s no doubt that in its day James Hadley Chase‘s No Orchids for Miss Blandish was a shocker, its depiction of sexuality and violence almost unprecedented in Britain at the time. Naturally, many of those shocked British readers rushed out to get a copy, and it was a great critical success that was later made into a film of the same name.
If you enjoy a good old-fashioned revenge thriller, then The Luxembourg Run by Stanley Ellin is the book for you. When David Shaw turned his back on his Ivy League education and privileged life, the last thing he expected was to be betrayed and left for dead by the crime syndicate he’d fallen in with. But David Shaw won’t take it lying down. He returns home to claim his vast inheritance, dusts off his brains (he can speak six languages) and sets out to take down the three bosses of the Syndicate. Safe to say, it gets bloody!
Now to one of the most celebrated noir titles of them all, the masterpiece that is Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. Sam Spade is widely considered the prototype for the noir detective, and finds himself both the hunter and hunted in this mystery, which will leave fans of hard-boiled detective fiction on the edge of their seat. What’s more, the film adaptation (starring Gregory Peck and Mary Astor) is a noir classic, and achieves that Holy Grail of being (almost) as good as the book.
For fans of The Ghostman by Roger Hobb, you can’t go wrong with ‘the best crime novel ever written’ (Elmore Leonard) The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins. Brilliantly written in sparse prose, we follow Eddie, a man on the wrong side of the law with only a week to choose whether to sell out his friends to the feds or face a prison sentence. With crackling dialogue on the down-and-out bars of Boston, you’ll see that Elmore Leonard wasn’t mistaken.
Finally, on to John D. Macdonald, author of The Executioners, a novel you’re most likely to know as Cape Fear. In addition to this classic, we recommend his gripping thriller, The Last One Left, in which the explosion of a yacht in the Bahamas apparently kills six people and compels Sam Boyleston, an attorney from Texas and the brother of one of the victims, to investigate the circumstances. After the disaster, the yacht’s burned captain was temporarily marooned on a small island, and soon it becomes apparent that one person is ruthlessly manipulating events . . .