Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Multitude of Favorites 8: Classic Noir Writers

This is probably the most difficult genre for me to pick only four or five writers from, as it's the one I feel most passionately about, so I'll probably cheat a little bit.

When I say "noir", I might mean something different from what you mean. For me, it's all about those brilliant, hard-working scribblers of paperback originals, back in the '50's and early '60's. You can make a solid case for Cornell Woolrich being a master of noir, or James M. Cain, and I wouldn't argue the point-- but the crop of hugely talented workhorses who emerged to fill the racks at local drug stores across the country, those guys really, really speak to me. And they've honestly been the biggest influence on my own work.

Here are the ones I personally just can't do without:

Charles Willeford. His nasty sense of humor, his sense of irony, his willingness to go to places in his fiction where very few dared to go, make him a sort of literary hero to me. Willeford seemed to have no fear, and his famous quote, "Just tell the truth, and they'll accuse you of black humor," still resonates. My favorites are THE BLACK MASS OF BROTHER SPRINGER (also known as HONEY GAL), THE WOMAN CHASER, HIGH PRIEST OF CALIFORNIA, and PICK-UP.

Jim Thompson. In recent years, there's been a bit of a backlash against Thompson from critics who are falling all over themselves in their eagerness to point out Thompson's flaws as a writer. You know what? Fuck those guys. Yeah, he wasn't as consistent a writer as some of his contemporaries, but when he was ON, when he was ON... no one could touch him. He wrote brutal, funny, tragic and surreal novels that transcend any genre and stand up beautifully today as fully-realized studies of madness and lust. A few I really love are POP. 1280, THE GETAWAY, THE GRIFTERS, A HELL OF A WOMAN and SAVAGE NIGHT.

David Goodis. Cain and Woolrich not withstanding, it's my opinion that Goodis IS noir. His novels were the bleakest, saddest and most moving of the period, almost all centered on losers and has-beens obsessing over the things they couldn't have and barreling full-tilt toward oblivion or destruction. A few that really got under my skin are BLACK FRIDAY, SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER (originally published as DOWN THERE), THE BURGLAR, and CASSIDY'S GIRL.

John D. MacDonald was the hard-working man of noir. He was hugely prolific for decades, but the stuff he wrote in the '50's and early '60's was powerful because of its connection to things most readers could relate to; a lot of it took place in the suburbs and the middle-class working world. He was great with character and tension and could always be relied on for fast-paced novels you just couldn't put down. I'm a big fan of: A BULLET FOR CINDERELLA, CRY HARD, CRY FAST, and ONE MONDAY WE KILLED THEM ALL (what a great title!).

The reason I don't list Cain or Woolrich here: Cain only wrote one novel I'm crazy about, THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE. The others are fine, but not brilliant. And Woolrich, well... he's important in the development of noir, yes, but reading him is a challenge. He's like the Lovecraft of noir-- a little ponderous, a little hysterical, a little melodramatic. I'm not really a fan. Let the stoning commence.

Now here's where I cheat a little bit. Picking those four as my all-time essential writers of noir is easy enough, but there are SO MANY others I really love and I NEED to mention them, because they are fantastic and you have to read them. They are:

Peter Rabe.
Charles Williams.
Day Keene.
Gil Brewer.
Wade Miller.
Vin Packer.
Helen Nielsen.
Harry Whittington.
Chester Himes.
Patricia Highsmith
Lawrence Block.
Donald Westlake.

You're not going to go wrong with any of those names.


  1. I've read all these folks but John D. MacDonald is my favorite, with Charles Williams close behind. Somewhere I have a box full of Gold Medal paperbacks.

  2. Nice list. And thank you for putting my similar feelings about Woolrich into words - "The Lovecraft of Noir."

  3. Excellent post Heath. You picked all the essential guys with,for me, Goodis,Thompson and Willeford the holy trinity. It's interesting to see a name,Helen Nielsen,of which i have never heard any mention and that doesn't happen too often. Need to check her out.