Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Hardboiled/Noir Writers Part 5

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

Here are some of the other great talents that emerged in the Golden Age of Noir:

William Lindsay Gresham wasn't prolific by any means, but his 1946 novel Nightmare Alley is still well-regarded as a twisted, bizarre noir that gave readers an uncomfortably close look at the depraved world of the carny circuit. Tightly written and very, very tense.

Irving Shulman. He started off as a writer of tough stories and ended as a screenwriter for Warner Brothers, where he wrote the screenplay for Rebel Without a Cause. Noteworthy novels:

The Amboy Dukes
Cry Tough
The Square Trap

In latter years, Ira Levin would write Rosemary’s Baby, The Boys from Brazil, and The Stepford Wives, but he’s on this list primarily for one novel, his first. A masterpiece of noir.

A Kiss Before Dying

Bruno Fischer was an active Socialist who actually ran for office in New York. When he wasn’t directly involved in politics, he wrote great crime novels. Amazingly prolific in the ‘40’s and ‘50’s, he suddenly stopped writing until the ‘80’s, when he produced his final novel. Here are just a few:

Fools Rush In
The Restless Hands
House of Flesh
So Wicked, My Love

Elliot Chaze was a newspaperman who occasionally wrote novels. In the ‘50’s, he wrote three, but only one of them, Black Wings Has My Angel, was a noir. It’s too bad he didn’t tackle the genre again, since he managed to produce a cult favorite. Some critics think it’s the best book Gold Medal ever put out.

John D. MacDonald is hugely important in both noir and hardboiled circles. For tightly-paced detective fiction with a very likeable hero, you can’t go wrong with any of the Travis McGee books. This list, however, focuses on his “non-series” work, all masterly-plotted and beautifully written. MacDonald was the consummate professional of noir.

The Brass Cupcake
Murder for the Bride
Judge Me Not
Weep For Me
The Damned
Dead Low Tide
The Neon Jungle
Cancel All Our Vows
All Those Condemned
A Bullet for Cinderella
Cry Hard, Cry Fast
April Evil
Death Trap
Cape Fear (aka, The Executioners)
One Monday We Killed Them All

William P. McGivern was another one who went on to do teleplays in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s. He wrote convincingly about cops skating on the edge of moral corruption as well as heisters and professional criminals.

Shield For Murder
The Big Heat
Oddsa Against Tomorrow
Rogue Cop
Night Extra

Ed McBain was the creator of the best-selling ‘87th Precinct’ police procedurals. The first few in the series, at least, were great examples of hardboiled, told, for a change, from the point of view of honest cops (honest cops? In hardboiled/noir fiction? You’re kidding me, right?).

The Blackboard Jungle (as Evan Hunter)
Cop Hater
The Mugger
The Pusher
The Con Man
King’s Ransom

So you may have noticed a distinct lack of the female voice in the genre throughout the decades. Noir was a boy’s club for the most part, no question. There may as well have been a sign on the door saying No Girls Allowed. But a small handful of brilliant women writers broke in anyway, and showed the boys a thing or two about how to get it done.

Patricia Highsmith was a master (mistress?) of high tension and brutally cynical prose. Her heroes were invariably amoral sociopaths, and her brand of humor was so dark as to completely blot out any light whatsoever. She was well-known as a first-grade misanthrope, and it shows in her work. A really terrific writer; if you haven’t read her, do it now.

Strangers on a Train
The Talented Mr. Ripley
The Blunderer
Deep Water
Little Tales of Misogyny
Slowly, Slowly, in the Wind
A Game for the Living
This Sweet Sickness
Two Faces of January

By the 1950’s, Dorothy B. Hughes had stopped writing to settle into married life, but throughout the ‘40’s her work was extremely popular. She wrote several books, but three in particular are considered benchmarks in the genre:

The So-Blue Marble
Ride the Pink Horse
In a Lonely Place

Vin Packer was the pen name of the prolific Marjane Meaker, who is remembered mostly today for launching the so-called "lesbian pulp" underground movement of the '50's. In truth, though, the vast majority of her remarkable books had nothing to do with lesbianism. They were solid noir with complex characters and a notable sense of non-conformity.

Come Destroy Me
Whisper His Sin
The Thrill Kids
The Young and the Violent
Dark Don't Catch Me
3 Day Terror

Helen Nielson was the only female writer of the ‘50’s who contributed regularly to Manhunt and other digest crime magazines of the time, and her novels were every bit as bleak and nasty as the boys.

Obit Delayed
Stranger in the Dark
The Crime is Murder
False Witness
Seven Days Before Dying

By the early ‘60’s, the explosion of noir fiction was winding down. One of the last of the old school to make a significant mark was Donald Westlake. Under the pen name Richard Stark, Westlake wrote the terrific series of books about professional thief Parker. Brutal and fast-paced, they are some kind of benchmark in noir. I can’t recommend them highly enough. Here's just a few.

The Hunter
The Man with the Getaway Face
The Outfit
The Mourner
The Score
The Jugger
The Seventh
The Handle
The Rare Coin Score
Deadly Edge

Lawrence Block was coming up at the same time as Westlake, and in fact the two men were great friends. While Westlake disguised himself as Stark, Block took on multiple pen-names and wrote in a wide variety of styles and genres. Through the early '60's, he wrote a solid string of noirs that, fortunately, have seen print again in recent years.

Grifter's Game
The Girl with the Long Green Heart (aka Mona)
Death Pulls a Double-Cross (aka Coward's Kiss)
You Could Call It Murder (aka Markham)
A Diet of Treacle (aka Pads are for Passion)
Deadly Honeymoon

The individual impact of Lawrence Block wasn't over, however, and neither was Westlake's. More about both writers when we come to part seven.

But before that:
Next Wednesday, a brief diversion into... Espionage Noir!

Go to Part Six


  1. Levin is a great writer, his efficient style and unexpected storylines really kick ass, no matter what genre he wrote in (and he wrote in quite a few).

    Westlake/Stark's novels are all pretty good but the Parker series really are a cut above the rest.

    Thanks for all these, the whole series you've been doing has been aces.

    Moody Writing

  2. Thanks, Mood. It's been fun to write, so far.

  3. Great post, Heath, and I'm glad to be included. I went to college with Bruno Fischer's son Adam, but never met the father. Haven't seen a reference to him in ages. Helen Nielsen and Dorothy B. Hughes were the two most toughminded women writers of their time, along with Marijane, whom I just met a couple of months ago. If this is part of a series, I'll have to read the ones I missed—and come back for the ones yet to come.

  4. Hope you enjoy the rest, Mr. Block. It's a labor of love...
    I first read Helen Nielsen just last year, when I got my hands on "Best from Manhunt", which contained some of the best stories I've read. Wish someone would put out a massive collection from the magazine, the way they've done with Black Mask.

  5. Hi! Heath Lowrance...
    Nice list...I would also add "The Father Of Noir" to the list..."Cornell Woolrich."

    [Tony D'Ambra from over there at "introduced" me to him [Woolrich.]

    I'm quite sure that you have added him [Or rather Woolrich's books]to your list...I have to go back and revisit your previous list.]
    Thanks, for sharing!
    deedee ;-)

  6. Great link, DeeDee, thank you. And I did indeed cover Woolrich, back in Part Three.

  7. That was cool of Mr Block to leave a message.

    Would be great if you could add a twitter/+1 sharing link thingy so it would be easy to retweet your posts (did I make any sense there?)


  8. Mood, that's actually a good idea, I'll see if I can get my primitive caveman head to work that out. In the meantime, don't stop sharing and retweeting!

  9. Another great post, Heath. I especially like the covers.

    I read Nightmare Alley recently and I thought it stood up really well.
    The other writer of this period who is worth a look, if you have not already covered him is R W Burnett, who did The Asphalt Jungle, amongst others.

    But for me nothing tops the first series of Westlake Parker novels. I've written about my love of those books here:

  10. Andrew, you've got good taste. I did in fact cover Burnett, in part two, I think it was.
    Re: Parker... if some cruel bastard told me I could only read books by one author for the rest of my life, the first thing I'd do is ask him why he's such a bastard. The second thing I'd do is choose the Parker books.

  11. Great list, but calling Travis McGee likable is a bit of a stretch. He is a real bastard, which is part of what makes him so interesting. Overall, however, the early non-McGee books are superior.

  12. Dat, I think ole' Travis is still pretty likable, despite his capacity for bastardy-ness-- compared to the protagonists in some noirs, he's practically a saint!