Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Hardboiled/Noir Writers Part 7

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six

--The Ones Who Carried the Torch--

Hardboiled/Noir never really went away. Although the Golden era ended in the early ‘60’s, there were still plenty of writers who loved the form too much to let it die, and many of them made lasting contributions and continued to add amazing diversity and vision.

The hardboiled school, especially, thrived in its own way through the seventies and eighties. There were many great detective writers in that period—some more hardboiled than others—and by the mid-eighties a small renaissance had taken place.

The Travis McGee books by John D. MacDonald continued to sell well, and McGee’s tough guy sensitivity (so at odds with earlier tough guys) rubbed off on his contemporaries. Robert Parker’s books about Boston P.I. Spenser took the genre in a new direction, featuring a hero who loved literature and philosophy, respected women, and used violence only as a last resort.

Female writers of detective fiction began having a serious impact. Sue Grafton and her protagonist Kinsey Millhone hit the bestseller charts with A is for Alibi and a whole alphabet of mysteries after; Sara Paretsky broke sales records with her series about female private dick V.I. Warshawski, starting with Indemnity Only.

But while these developments were a good sign for society as a whole, it’s debatable whether or not the new sensitivity was good for the soul of noir. The thing that defined the genre had always been a sort of disaffection, a—dare I say it?—existential angst.

But even when it looked as if the hardboiled world might suddenly go softboiled, there were still writers of vision down there in the trenches, dredging up all sorts of savory ugliness. Here’s a few of the most noteworthy:

James Crumley proved hugely influential on the detective story writers who came after him with his books about alcoholic dick C.W. Shugrue, and another brief series about a character called Milo Milodragovitch. Here’s a few to start:
The Last Good Kiss
The Mexican Tree Duck
The Wrong Case
The Dancing Bear

George V. Higgins debut novel startled readers with its crisp, realistic dialogue and almost laconically depicted action. He wrote several fine novels throughout the '70's and '80's, but he'll be most remembered for his first, The Friends of Eddie Coyle.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle
The Digger's Game
A City on a Hill

Edward Bunker brought to his fiction his own life experiences as a convicted bank robber and drug dealer. He was the real deal, and his hardboiled prose jabbed relentlessly at the hypocrisy that Bunker saw inherent within so-called "straight" society.
No Beast So Fierce
The Animal Factory
Little Boy Blue
Dog Eat Dog

Bill Pronzini is mostly known for his terrific series about the Nameless Detective (who first appeared in 1971), Pronzini is also a noted scholar of the hardboiled school and a terrific editor. Fortunately for us, he’s still writing tight, solid hardboiled masterpieces. Here’s a few by him:
The Other Side of Silence

Joe Gores: Like Hammett before him, Gores turned a brief career as a P.I. into a convincing career as a detective story writer. He’s mostly famous for his D.K.A. series, but also for the screenplay to the movie “Hammett”.
Spade & Archer: a Prequel to The Maltese Falcon
Glass Tiger
Cons, Scams & Grifts

Lawrence Block made an impact with his clever and fast-paced noir novels in the '60's (see Part Five), and in the decades that followed he created many memorable series characters, such as Evan Tanner, Keller, and Bernie Rhodenbarr. But his greatest impact began in 1976 with the first Matt Scudder book. These are my favorite P.I. novels, although Scudder isn’t strictly a P.I. They are intense, bleak, and tightly plotted, and Scudder is one of the more intriguingly damaged protagonists you’ll ever read about. Here's a sampling:
Time to Murder and Create
The Sins of the Fathers
Out on the Cutting Edge
When the Sacred Ginmill Closes
In the Midst of Death
A Stab in the Dark

Like Block, Donald Westlake hit it big at the tail end of the second Golden Age of Noir. As Richard Stark, he wrote the one-of=a-kind series about Parker, the icily amoral professional thief(again, see Part Five). But throughout the seventies, eighties, nineties and 00's, Westlake also penned some of the most clever and funny "heist novels" ever written. Near the end of his career, he made a return to edgy noir under his real name, turning out a handful of books that assured his legacy would never die. Here's a handful of highly-recommended noirs by this master, from the beginning of his career to the end.
The Mercenaries (aka The Cutie)
Pity Him Afterwards
Somebody Owes Me Money
The Axe
The Hook
Put a Lid on It

Ed Gorman is a treasure; one of those old-school workhorses who seldom lands a foot wrong in his plotting and pacing. His books are models of what solid detective fiction should look like, especially his series about Jack Dwyer. A sampling:
Grave’s Retreat
The Poker Club
Rough Cut
Breaking Up is Hard to Do
The Midnight Room

Loren Estleman: You'd think the whole "private dick" thing would be totally played out by now, but Estleman infuses it with new life every time while maintaining its best traditions. Maybe I’m biased, being a Detroit guy, but Estleman’s Amos Walker novels are sharply observant, funny, and paced faster than a Detroit freeway. For the pure P.I. story, the line goes from Chandler to Ross MacDonald and right to Estleman. He’s also penned a terrific series of crime thrillers taking place in various eras of Detroit’s history. Here’s a random sampling:
Motor City Blue
Every Brilliant Eye
Poison Blonde
Nicotine Kiss
American Detective
Whiskey River

Derek Raymond has been called the Father of English Noir. His concerns as a writer seem to have been particularly existential. He's most famous for his series of "Factory" detective novels.
He Died with His Eyes Open
The Devil's Home on Leave
How the Dead Live
I Was Dora Suarez

Max Allan Collins is most notable for his Nate Heller series of P.I. mysteries. What makes these books worth reading, aside from Collins dead-on voice and great plotting, are the fact-based historical twentieth-century murders each novel is built around. Apparently, Heller was around for every major crime committed in the 20th Century. Try these:
Angel in Black
Dying in the Postwar World
True Crime
True Detective
The Million Dollar Wound

Next time: More writers who kept the flame burning, and the Age of the Door-stop Thriller.

go to Part Eight


  1. Westlake had a real breadth in ability, from funny whimsical to cut your nuts off brutal. A great writer.


  2. I have Dora Suarez on my shelves. Someday I am going to get to it. Sacred Ginmill is on my top five for sure.

  3. You have a done a great job of providing a really smart overview of the hardboiled field.

    I'm honored to be included. By the way, the first Nate Heller in almost a decade -- BYE BYE, BABY (about the death of Marilyn Monroe) -- comes out this week.

  4. Thanks, Mr. Collins. I've been anxiously looking forward to the new Nate Heller, so that's great news. Thanks for commenting.