Saturday, March 27, 2010

Hardboiled/Noir: The Writers Part Eight

The last ten or fifteen years have seen a real resurgence of talent in the noir world. I wouldn’t want to speculate on the social or political climate that gave birth to this neo-noir, but something is definitely happening—the disaffected, disenfranchised protagonist has made a serious comeback. While most of these new writers have only a fleeting acquaintance with the bestseller charts, they’ve all at least developed formidable cult followings.
If I didn’t know better, I’d say we were in the midst of a third Golden Age of Noir… but I’ll let you decide for yourself. Check out these turks.

Jason Starr
A seriously formidable noir talent, and perhaps the purest noir writer around these days. He's been compared favorably to Thompson and Cain, but he strikes me as more Brett Easton Ellis-- if Ellis wrote darkly funny noir novels.

Hard Feelings
Nothing Personal
Cold Caller
Fake I.D.

Ken Bruen
Irish-born, Bruen’s novels usually chronicles the instability and unrest of his native country. His series character, Jack Taylor, is a disgraced former cop, alcoholic and drug addict. Serious noir, but with a good dose of black humor, they are some of the most emotionally devastating books you’ll ever read.

The Guards
The Killing of the Tinkers
Once Were Cops
Killer Year
The Dramatist
The Magdalen Martyrs

Reed Farrel Coleman
His books are usually set in his native Brooklyn, and are bursting at the seams with street-level ugliness and black humor.

Tower (w/ Ken Bruen)
The James Deans
Empty Ever After

Allen Guthrie
Another Scottish writer, Guthrie does blackly intense psycho-noirs where the boundaries between sanity and madness grow increasingly thin. Brilliant, brutal stuff.

Two-Way Split
Kiss Her Goodbye
Hard Man
Kill Clock

David Zeltserman led the pack of new noir writers right into the new century with his very particular dark and twisted vision. You need to read him.
Small Crimes
Bad Thoughts
Fast Lane

Albany-based Vincent Zandri made a big noise with his first two novels, then sort of dropped out of sight until just recently, when his newest novel appeared in the small press—less a reflection on him as a writer than on the perilous state of publishing these days. His work is highly concerned with questions of morality and identity.

As Catch Can
Moonlight Falls

Megan Abbot is regarded as one of the best female writers of noir ever. She has an honest, incisive voice with shades of Woolrich and Goodis, taking noir conventions and turning them on their ear by giving them a new perspective. A major new talent.

Bury Me Deep
The Song is You
Die a Little

Christa Faust, a former stripper and fetish model, isn’t afraid to go to the dark places. Her style is sharp and fast and beautifully self-assured. She’s terrific.

Control Freak
Money Shot

Duane Swierczynski has a great sense of the absurd that flirts along the edges of nihilism, and a really original vision.
The Blonde
The Wheelman
Severance Package

Charlie Huston is another noir writer with a terrific imagination and a distinctive voice emerging from the world of comic book writing. His books are huge fun.
Caught Stealing
Six Bad Things
The Shotgun Rule
The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death

Philip Kerr is known primarily for his stunning “Berlin Noir” trilogy, featuring Bernhard Gunther, a conflicted police officer during the Nazi regime. Brutal, thought-provoking stuff.

March Violets
The Pale Criminal
A German Requiem

Ray Banks is another brutal Scot talent:
The Big Blind
Saturday’s Child
Sucker Punch

Dennis Tafoya is a brand new talent in the world of noir, but his first novel is as self-assured as any pro.
Dope Thief

The resurgence of interest in noir has affected the varied world of comic books as well. Here are the three guys most noteworthy in the field:

Ed Brubaker
The man most responsible for proving that comics can transcend super-heroics and depict hardboiled/noir every bit as well as straight novels. He infused Batman and Catwoman with superior noir creds before turning to more traditional crime stories in graphic novel format.


Brian Azzarello
Another brilliant comic book writer, he’s heavily influenced by Jim Thompson and David Goodis, but his dialogue is pure Hammett. The new Vertigo Crime line of graphic novels kicked off with an Azzarello title.

Filthy Rich
Johnny Double
100 Bullets

Frank Miller
The third and final comic writer on our list. He’s inconsistent as a writer, but deserves recognition for the stunning and brutal series of Sin City graphic novels he wrote and drew.

Sin City
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
Sin City: That Yellow Bastard

This renewed interest in noir can, to a large extent, be credited to the awesome Black Lizard reprints of the 1980’s. Under the guidance of Barry Gifford, they brought out tons of great novels from the whole spectrum of the crime fiction underground and made them accessible to everyone. Gifford should be awarded a sainthood or something for that effort.
Black Lizard was eventually purchased by Random House and merged with their “Vintage Crime” line; but for some reason Random House decided to let almost the entire Black Lizard line go out of print, with the exception of the Jim Thompson titles. After that, they began focusing on more mainstream mystery and detective fiction.
Fortunately, in the ensuing years, many smaller publishers have taken up the mantle. Hard Case Crime is the most visible and successful of them, and they’ve taken it one step further: along with all the great reprints from the likes of Wade Miller, Day Keene, early Lawrence Block, etcetera, they also make a point of publishing new writers in the tradition, like Jason Starr, Ken Bruen, and Christa Faust.
Stark House is also doing great work putting out lost noir classics, as is Disruptive Press and several others. New Pulp Press focuses on new writers, but they just recently put out an old Gil Brewer. We readers of the genre owe all these small publishers, big-time.

So there you have it: a history of the genre we love in eight easy installments. Noir is a very loose term, of course; it’s always in flux, always changing. Even as it looks backward and gains inspiration from all that’s come before, it’s the most forward-thinking of all literary genres… okay, maybe science fiction looks forward even more, but you know what I mean. It changes. Just when you think you’ve got it defined, it grows out of its old threads and embraces new concerns.
One thing all great hardboiled/noir has in common, though, is its concern with the human condition and the darkest impulses in our souls. Because if we can’t acknowledge those things about ourselves, we can never tame them, right? As long as there are humans who wonder about their place in the world, and ponder the void, we’ll always have noir.

I owe a debt in writing this to various essays and commentary by Ed Gorman, Dave Zeltserman, and Bill Pronzini, as well as numerous other sources all over the web and in print.
If you have comments or suggestions (I’ve probably neglected about a hundred great writers!) feel free to contact me at

No comments:

Post a Comment