Showing posts with label noir writers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label noir writers. Show all posts

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Hardboiled/Noir Writers Part 10

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine

Not since the 1950's have we had such a flood of talent in the world of dark crime fiction. But for all that, noir has, for the most part, remained a relatively underground phenomena, nurturing itself down there in the dark and damp. These writers have chosen this for themselves, and one can only assume they do it for love of the genre. Here are some more of the modern Masters of Noir.

Anthony Neil Smith keeps writing wonderful, sleazy noirs with beautifully constructed and labyrinthine plots, and I for one can't get enough of what he's doing.
Yellow Medicine
Choke on Your Lies
The Drummer

Victor Gischler, like Joe Lansdale, writes wonderfully in multiple genres, but for our concerns here I'm focusing on his pitch-perfect, tight-as-a-drum crime novels. Gischler writes like a madman, and you stand warned that addiction could soon follow:
Gun Monkeys
The Deputy
Shotgun Opera
Suicide Squeeze
Pistol Poets

Tom Piccirilli is fearless and intense and will shake the shit right out of you. There's an honesty to his work that is rare, even in the circles of crime fiction writers we've been discussing. If you want characters and situations that will stay with you long after you've read them, try Piccirilli.
Every Shallow Cut
The Coldest Mile
Short Ride to Nowhere
A Choir of Ill Children
The Last Deep Breath

Lynn Kostoff has a uniquely literary voice. I realize that's a vague statement, but read him and you'll see what I mean. He's a master of understatement and sly nasty humor, and you could be half-way through one of his books, enjoying the hell out of it, before you even realize you're reading a genre work. Kostoff is a modern master and I wish he'd write more.
A Choice of Nightmares
Late Rain
The Long Fall

Charlie Stella could well be our next Elmore Leonard, except that we still have Elmore Leonard. Whatever: Stella is a superstar, an amazing writer with a dead-on ear for dialogue, screwed-up criminal protagonists, and break-neck pacing. There's never a single wasted word, let alone wasted scene, in a Charlie Stella novel. He sets a new benchmark, this guy.
Charlie Opera
Johnny Porno
Jimmy Bench-Press

Charlie Williams pens the black-as-pitch but funny-as-hell adventures of Royston Blake, the maniacal bouncer/half-baked tough guy/ne'er-do-well of the town of Mangel. These books are amazing fun, and unique in that Royston narrates in his hypnotic lower-class Brit dialect. I always find myself reading them out-loud.
Booze & Burn
King of the Road
One Dead Hen

Scott Phillips writes brilliantly crafted noir with a wicked sense of humor. His books all have that uneasy feeling that it could all fall apart any moment, but Phillips is totally in control, and just gets better and better with every book.
The Ice Harvest
The Walkaway
The Adjustment

Roger Smith comes from South Africa, and before turning to noir fiction he wrote screenplays. That background is evident is his work: fast-paced, steeped in the blackest shadows, staying true to the noir vision. He's a major new talent.
Dust Devils
Mixed Blood
Wake Up Dead

Vicki Hendricks writes full-on, uneasily sexy fiction that draws comparison to James M. Cain and other creators of steamy, tragic noir. Her work is raw and fierce, and highly recommended.
Iguana Love
Cruel Poetry
Miami Purity
Sky Blues

You might be surprised at my inclusion of Dennis Lehane here, since he could easily be catagorized with all the "doorstop thriller" authors discussed earlier. His books are invariably looong, and he also has a startling tendency to make best-seller charts on a regular basis. But here's the thing that lets him out: Lehane's books seldom seem to drag, despite the length. Chalk it up to his skill with pacing, his insight into real human doubts and concerns, and characters that you are really, truly interested in.
Shutter Island
Mystic River
Gone, Baby, Gone
A Drink Before the War
Moonlight Mile

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

Ed Brubaker is 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 is another brilliant comic book writer, heavily influenced by Jim Thompson and David Goodis, but his sizzling dialogue is purely his own. The new Vertigo Crime line of graphic novels kicked off with an Azzarello title.
Filthy Rich
Johnny Double
100 Bullets

Frank Miller is 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

Jason Aaron currently writes two of the finest ongoing comic series out there. He's tough-minded, unsentimental, and deeply committed to brutally honest character development.

... and you know what? That little survey of modern noir writers really only scratches the surface, and doesn't take into account so many other writers who've only recently made the scene with a single novel, and who could very well wind up having a tremendous impact. It's hard, if not impossible, to gauge an author's skill and vision based on a single work, although it's not unheard of for someone to write a single book that knocks everyone senseless and never follow up with a second.

I can tell you this much, anyway: there are several of them out there that I intend to keep an eye on. I expect great things.

So there you have it: a history of the genre we love in ten 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. 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. 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, Cullen Gallagher, Geoffrey O'Brien, Dave Zeltserman, and Bill Pronzini, as well as numerous other sources all over the web and in print. Thanks also to Lawrence Block, Brian Lindenmuth, and everyone else who offered corrections and clarifications on the fly.

If you have comments or suggestions (I’ve probably neglected about a hundred great writers!) feel free to contact me at

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Hardboiled/Noir Writers Part 9

Part One Part Two Part Three Part Four Part Five Part Six Part Seven Part Eight

--The New Noir--

The 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. They also published, on occasion, more contemporary writers in the tradition. 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've also put out some old Gil Brewer. We readers of the genre owe all these small publishers, big-time.

All the new interest in old noir has led, in the last ten or fifteen years, to a real resurgence of new talent, all inspired to some degree or another by the old masters. 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 writers.

Jason Starr. A seriously formidable noir talent, and one of the purest noir writers around these days. He's been compared favorably to Thompson and Cain, but he's every bit in the tradition of Bret Easton Ellis as well.

Panic Attack
Hard Feelings
Nothing Personal
Cold Caller
Fake I.D.
The Follower
The Pack

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
The Dramatist
The Magdalen Martyrs
The Devil

James Sallis is most noted for his series of novels about Lew Griffin, atmospheric noirs usually set in and around New Orleans. Sallis is also a musician, which is apparent in the spare, almost musical, melancholy phrasing in his work. He's a unique talent.

Long-legged Fly
Black Hornet
Death Will Have Your Eyes
Cypress Grove
Cripple Creek

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
Walking the Perfect Square

Allan Guthrie. A 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
Savage Night

Dave 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, sort of dropped out of sight for awhile, but then recently came roaring back with a steady stream of tight noirs that consistently top the Kindle charts. His work is highly concerned with questions of morality and identity.

The Innocent
Moonlight Falls
The Concrete Pearl
The Remains

Megan Abbott has an honest, incisive voice with shades of Goodis, fairly dripping with sensual detail, taking noir conventions and turning them on their ear by giving them a new perspective. A major talent.

Bury Me Deep
The Song is You
Die a Little
The End of Everything

Will Christopher Baer's novels about disgraced drug addict cop Phinneas Poe are wildly anarchic and existential tragedies, exploring bizarre themes of urban myth and redemption, just out of reach.

Kiss Me, Judas
Penny Dreadful
Hell's Half-Acre

Christa Faust is a singularly original writer, and her books have all the action, dark humor and sleazy characters of an old Gold Medal.

Money Shot
Choke Hold

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
Secret Dead Men
Fun & Games

Charlie Huston is another noir writer with a terrific imagination and a distinctive voice. He's been equally successful writing comics. 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 private detective trying to operate during the Nazi regime. Firmly in the Philip Marlowe tradition.

March Violets
The Pale Criminal
A German Requiem

Ray Banks's novels about Cal Innes are required reading if you want a sense of what can be done with the modern P.I., and for those who find Rankin a bit long-winded, Bank's concise voice and relentlessly tight plotting are a welcome antidote.

No More Heroes
The Big Blind
Saturday’s Child
Sucker Punch (aka Donkey Punch)
Beast of Burden

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 Wolves of Fairmont Park

Next Wednesday, I'll wrap up our summary of the new Masters of Hardboiled/Noir, and look to the future of the genre, in Part Ten.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Hardboiled/Noir Writers Part 8

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

--More Who Carried the Torch--

Throughout the seventies, eighties and nineties, hardboiled fiction held on, despite the industry's best attempts to make it soft and easy. It's because of the few writers who held tight to the hardboiled vision that we're now enjoying a new resurgence of interest in noir.

Here are some more essential talents who carried the torch:

Walter Mosley started his writing career with a terrific run of books about Easy Rawlins, a black P.I. in the L.A. of the 1950’s. Very noir, with writing as rich and evocative as Chandler or Ross MacDonald.

A Red Death
White Butterfly
Black Betty
Little Yellow Dog
Devil in a Blue Dress

James Ellroy is the mad dog of modern crime fiction. He doesn't write thrillers so much as crime-ridden historical epics, examining the darkest corners of the 20th century. His books are benchmarks in the genre—humorless, bleak, violent and cynical. Also, amazingly well written.

L.A. Confidential
The Big Nowhere
Killer on the Road
Brown’s Requiem
The Black Dahlia
Blood's a Rover

Andrew Vachss wrote what was perhaps the most brutal ongoing series in the genre these last few years, the novels about the obsessed Burke. Stark and focused. Vachss is an outspoken advocate for abused children. His non-Burke novel “The Getaway Man” is one of the purest modern noirs you’ll ever read.

Blue Belle
Hard Candy
The Getaway Man

I don’t need to tell you about Elmore Leonard, do I? Amazingly prolific and one of the finest writers working today. Much has already been said about his dead-on dialogue and seedy characters. To list all his great books would take pages, but here's just a few that I can heartily recommend.

The Hot Kid
Riding The Rap
Out of Sight
Pagan Babies
Toshimingo Blues
Maximum Bob

Joe R. Lansdale is, quite simply, the man. His style is distinctly Texas Noir, wry and funny and dark. He writes wonderfully in multiple genres, but when he ventures into noir territory, he’s especially awesome. Lansdale is a good reason not to kill yourself. Here are a few gems:

Savage Season
Cold in July
Mucho Mojo
The Two-Bear Mambo
The Bottoms
Sunset And Sawdust
Vanilla Ride
Devil Red

Surprisingly, one of the best writers of tough-minded noir these days is seldom if ever marketed as such. Cormac McCarthy isn’t the first name you think of when you think of the genre, but his books are tight, spare, and punctuated with sharp and unexpected doses of violence. Amazing stuff.

No Country for Old Men
Blood Meridian
The Road
The Crossing

--Door-Stop Thrillers--

The end of the 20th Century saw the beginning of the Age of the Door-stop Thriller-- that is, crime or mystery novels that are very long and very dense. Until then, the thriller by it's very nature was short and tight-- a quick read for a sleepless night-- but the market had opened up finally to longer works, written by authors with clearly literary concerns... sometimes.

Other times, they were just looong books.

Regardless, these writers appear consistently on best-seller charts, have massive readerships, and are practically cottage industries-- crime fiction straight enough to appeal to the masses but just noir-tinged enough to have appeal to readers with darker tastes.

One of the most popular and influential of these door-stop thriller writers was, and still is, James Lee Burke. His novels about Dave Robiecheux are densely plotted and the language is lush and Faulknerian. They may suffer from 'sprawl', but Robiecheux is a great example of a deeply flawed hero, trying to deal with his inner demons while tracking down the bad guys.

Black Cherry Blues
A Morning for Flamingoes
In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead
A Stained White Radiance
Crusader’s Cross

John Connolly made a big splash with his first novels about Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker, an ex-cop haunted by the brutal slayings of his wife and daughter. Like James Lee Burke, Connolly's books are often well-padded with extemporaneous filler, but his voice as an author is layered and colorful, and the crime thriller backdrop is sometimes shot through with a strange dose of the supernatural.

Every Dead Thing
Dark Hollow
The Killing Kind
The White Road

Lee Child is most notable for his series featuring tough hero and force of nature, Jack Reacher. Like many other modern suspense writers, Child has a tendency to go longer than the story can maintain, but his books are more violent and intense than most series characters these days. Very hardboiled.

The Killing Floor
The Enemy
One Shot
The Hard Way

Ian Rankin has been called the master of ‘Tartan Noir’—which goes to show you that the media loves a silly label. Like some of the other modern writers I just mentioned, Rankin's work is sometimes puffed up with filler. Regardless, his novels about Inspector Rebus are very well-written and relentlessly bleak.

Knots & Crosses
Hide & Seek
Tooth & Nail
Strip Jack
The Black Book
Mortal Causes

Next Wednesday: Part Nine: The New Noir.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Hardboiled/Noir Writers Part 4

Part One
Part Two
Part Three

Today, Gold Medal Books is regarded as the greatest of all the paperback original publishers, and with good reason. Others, like Dell, Ace, and Bantam, were all putting out solid noir stuff, but Gold Medal was the undisputed king of the genre, and the one most writers—and readers—of the time chose first.

To give detailed bios of every single writer of note who published with Gold Medal and the others would take far more room than I have here, but this brief survey is a who’s who of all-time great practitioners of the art.

One of the greatest was Wade Miller, although “he” was a “they”—Robert Wade and Bill Miller. They met in high school, collaberated on a number of projects, and eventually gave the world the Max Thursday series. In a very short period of time, they wrote a handful of really great noirs under the “Miller” byline, and were among Gold Medal’s best-selling writers.

Deadly Weapon
Kitten with a Whip
Branded Woman
Murder Charge
The Killer
Devil on Two Sticks
Guilty Bystander
Devil May Care

Steve Fisher was a writer who eventually made his way to Hollywood and started writing screenplays. Well into the 1970’s, he wrote for a variety of TV cop shows. His early novels, though hard to find now, are worth seeking out.

I Wake Up Screaming
The Hell-Black Night
Saxon’s Ghost

Charles Williams was one of a handful of writers who helped define what noir meant in the 1950’s, writing stark, unsentimental stories, usually about men falsely accused and on the run. Some critics consider him the quintessential Gold Medal writer.

River Girl
Hell Hath No Fury
A Touch of Death
Man on the Run
The Long Saturday Night
Hill Girl

Gil Brewer’s amazingly tragic life seemed to fuel a talent that was staggering. Recently, several different small publishers have re-discovered Brewer and put out affordable re-prints. Do yourself and favor and buy them.

The Vengeful Virgin
Nude On Thin Ice
Wild to Possess
A Taste of Sin
A Devil for O'Shaugnessy
The Three-Way Split
A Killer is Loose
Satan is a Woman
Play It Hard
Some Must Die

Day Keene was amazingly prolific, churning out one terrific crime thriller after another through the '50's. He had a very sly sense of humor and a gift for tight, fast pacing.

Joy House
Home is the Sailor
My Flesh is Sweet
If the Coffin Fits
Naked Fury
Sleep with the Devil
Bring Him Back Dead
It's a Sin to Kill

Lionel White wrote almost forty books, mostly for Gold Medal, many of them masterful examples of the "caper novel". Clean Break was the basis for the terrific early Kubrick movie, The Killing.

To Find a Killer
Clean Break
The Money Trap
Death Takes the Bus

Later in his career, Charles Willeford would create Miami P.I. Hoke Mosley, but his early non-series novels were pure psycho-noir at its bleakest, funniest, and most disturbing. A true indiviualist with little regard for the social constraints of his time, Willeford once said "Just tell the truth, and they'll accuse you of black humor." Black Mass of Brother Springer, especially, is worth seeking out. He's a personal favorite of mine.

The Woman Chaser
Wild Wives
High Priest of California
Black Mass of Brother Springer (aka, Honey Gal)
The Burnt-Orange Heresy
The Whip Hand

Peter Rabe: He wrote with clean style, and a voice that still seems fresh today. The best thing about Rabe was that he never wrote to formula: with any book of his you pick up, you never know what you're going to get. The only certainty is that it will be unpredictable and highly entertaining. One of the most original of the Gold Medal boys. Some of his work has appeared again in recent years, thanks to Stark House and Hard Case Crime.

Stop This Man!
A House in Naples
Kill the Boss Goodbye
A Shroud for Jesso
Murder Me for Nickels
The Box
Benny Muscles in
Anatomy of a Killer

Robert Edmond Altar is noteworthy because of the ‘strange factor’. Bizarro characters and an almost Southern Gothic flavor of psycho noir. Black Lizard reprinted them in the mid-80's. Good luck finding them now.

Carny Kill
Swamp Sister

Dan J. Marlowe came to the world of writing fiction late in his life, but in a short period of time managed to hit impressive numbers—both in the number of quality books he wrote and in number of sales, usually for Gold Medal Books. “The Name of the Game is Death” is considered one of the greatest noirs of all time.

The Name of the Game is Death
The Vengeance Man
Never Live Twice

Fredric Brown is known primarily as a science-fiction writer, but in the ‘50’s he wrote a handful of very highly-regarded noirs that were experimental in nature and existential in philosophy.

The Fabulous Clipjoint
The Screaming Mimi
The Far Cry
The Lenient Beast
Here Comes a Candle

They called Harry Whittington the "King of the Paperbacks", and with good reason. The guy wrote something like 180 books in about ten years, almost all of them distinctive for having as a protagonist a 'decent fella' on the run and facing overwhelming odds.

A Night For Screaming
The Devil Wears Wings
Web of Murder
Any Woman He Wanted
You'll Die Next

Chester Himes was the first black writer to make real headway in the genre with his tight and tough novels about Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones. Hardboiled Harlem noir with a deft social conscience. Great stuff.

If He Hollers, Let Him Go
The End of the Primitive
The Real Cool Killers
Cotton Comes to Harlem

Jim Thompson is the Golden Boy of Psycho Noir, though the last few years have seen a strange critical backlash against his work. It's true that he wasn't as consistent a writer as some of his contemporaries, but when Thompson was on his game, no one-- absolutely no one-- could touch him. His books capture better than any one else’s the world of the sociopath faced with obstacles he’ll stop at nothing to overcome, and the inevitable spiral out of control. His novels were bleakly comedic sometimes, always weird, and even the mediocre ones were never boring.

Now and On Earth
Heed the Thunder
Nothing More Than Murder
The Killer Inside Me
Cropper’s Cabin
The Criminal
Bad Boy
The Alcoholics
A Swell-Looking Babe
The Grifters
Savage Night
The Golden Gizmo
A Hell of a Woman
The Nothing Man
After Dark, My Sweet
The Kill-Off
The Getaway
Wild Town
Pop. 1280

Next Wednesday, more great talent from the '50's...
Part Five