Crowdsourcing The Essential Books: Noir

Last week, we crowdsourced your essential epic fantasy reads.

This week? It’s noir.


What is noir? That’s for you to tell me. Discuss it amongst yourselves.

Here’s the trick: in the comments, you drop your three most essential noir reads. They don’t need to be “classics,” but they should ostensibly get across the message — from you! — that says, “This is what I think noir is.” That’s your job. See you in the comments section.


  • You’ve referred to Blackbirds as Urban Fantasy but I always think of it as Noir. It is of course my favorite contemporary noir story.

    Gillian Flynn’s Go Girl gets a lot of well-deserved attention but I prefer her book Dark Places. Very dark, very noir, and of course it’s nice to see a woman take on the genre. You go Gillian.

    • …”and of course it’s nice to see a woman take on the genre…”


      -Money Shot by Christa Faust (mentioned below)
      -I-5 by Summer Brenner
      -Bloody Women by Helen Fitzgerald (also The Devil’s Staircase)
      -The Singer by Cathi Unsworth
      -Come Closer by Sara Gran
      -Miami Purity by Vicki Hendricks
      -Generation Loss by Elizabeth Hand
      -Cruddy by Lynda Barry
      -Die You Bastard Die by Jan Kozlowski
      -Driving Through the Desert by Donna Lynch

  • I define noir as novels which examine crime or ethics using a character which traditionally would have been a PD or cop but has sidestepped this in favour of perp, victim or random incidental.

    ‘The End of Alice’ A M Homes – Darkest noir as related by perpetrator; step by step the story unravels, inviting the reader to piece together the crime, but still not expecting Alice’s eventual fate. Or certainly not the method or motive.

    ‘Night Train’ Martin Amis – Parody of the hardboiled genre, and so much grimmer. Meditation on being human as being enough for suicide; fact of lead character being detective is incidental. The crime is self-annihilation and the reader sits on the jury and judges at novel’s end.

    ‘Live by Night’ Dennis Lehane – what is it to be good? Less Aristotle more Tony Soprano

  • 1. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
    2. The Moving Target by Ross MacDonald
    3. The Hunter by Richard Stark

    One of my favorite short stories of all time, which I think could easily be called noir (but which usually isn’t) is Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”

    Gotta give props to Frank Miller’s work, also.

    Is Noir more a matter of style or subject matter? Or is it a particular marriage of the two?

  • The Blonde on the Street Corner, by David Goodis. It doesn’t get any more noir than Goodis.
    The Hunter, by Donald Westlake writing as Richard Stark. Stark’s Parker novels are masterful, punchy, downright fun, and downright dark.
    Dope Thief, Dennis Tefoya. I’ve included this one as an example of really good recent noir.

    To me, private eye novels are seldom noir novels. They’re hardboiled, but not noir. Otto Penzler wrote a piece for the Huffington Post where he defined noir, and it’s pretty dead on in my opinion:

    “Pretty much everyone in a noir story (or film) is driven by greed, lust, jealousy or alienation, a path that inevitably sucks them into a downward spiral from which they cannot escape. They couldn’t find the exit from their personal highway to hell if flashing neon lights pointed to a town named Hope. It is their own lack of morality that blindly drives them to ruin. […] The private eye story is optimistic, even if the detective is not. A client needs help and believes that a generally shabby guy in a rundown office with a bottle of bourbon in his desk drawer will somehow find a way to solve the problem. Can you get more optimistic than that?

    Furthermore, this rather cynical figure–underpaid, disrespected, threatened, shot at, beaten up–has a code of ethics that guarantees he’ll do the best he can for his client, who’s probably lying to him anyway. A heroic figure stands at the center of the private eye novel; there are no heroic figures in noir fiction.”

    I’d love to include James M. Cain’s “Double Indemnity,” too. But I won’t. So I haven’t.

  • 1. The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain – The originator of the story of a man lured out of his depth by a scheming woman, a story that has been retold a thousand times since
    2. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler – Phillip Marlowe is the ancestor of most of the wisecracking detectives of the last seventy years.
    3. The Maltese Falcon – Sam Spade is the other ancestor of most of today’s detectives.

    Honorable mention goes to The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson.

  • Aha! We’ve talked about this on Twitter, of course, but noir is one of the most difficult to define genres there is. Noir is about good people making bad decisions, frequently fatal ones. It doesn’t need to be crime, or to feature detectives – in fact, hardboiled (which is detective crime fiction) and noir frequently get mixed up, possibly due to the influence of film noir. Film noir is something else again, but because a lot of film noir are adaptations of hardboiled crime fiction, you can see where the confusion can lie.

    The best book I can recommend is an anthology: The Best American Noir of the Century, edited by James Ellroy and Otto Penzer. This is of my favourite reads – a total eye-opener, and a real education into what noir fiction actually is.

    It’s also a great starting point for building a noir library, as each piece of short fiction is opened by an introduction to the author, summarising their important works. I must have picked up a dozen novels just from the recommendations in this collection.

    • See, this is interesting.

      Is noir “good people making bad decisions?” That’s one definition, and certainly not a bad one, but —

      I’ve read books I might consider noir that are about not-so-good people, certainly. Lots of losers, and sometimes a bad person occasionally trying to do good (and failing anyway).

      This is why I love noir. NOBODY REALLY KNOWS WHAT IT IS.

      — c.

      • I think one of the key features is failure – whether it’s good people making bad decisions, or a not-so-good person trying to do right and failing. Noir doesn’t have a happy ending – it’s about failure and self-inflicted character damage (whether the character is damaged in the first instance, or damaged by the actions of the story).

        I agree that it’s a fascinating genre, and being so hard to define is certainly one of the things I love about it.

        By the time I got to the end of The Best American Noir of the Century, I thought I had a handle on it, but that doesn’t mean I can actually put down a definition in words.

        I think you’d enjoy James Ellroy. His style reminds me a lot of your own.

  • Noir is people in peril, aware of their impending doom, yet unable to escape it’s clutches. Three examples are Kiss Me Judas by Will Christopher Baer, Twilight by William Gay, and American Tabloid by James Ellroy.

  • Resist all definitions of noir because for every definition of noir there will be great exceptions. Here’s proof that there is no one definition of noir, it can be broken up into sub-genres (for lack of a better term). Since there are different types there is no one thing it can be. But enough of that because I’ve long since decided to stop talking about what noir is and instead focus on recommending all of those great titles out there. So here’s three choices (that could change in five minutes):

    Pike by Benjamin Whitmer
    Lethal Injection by Jim Nisbet
    The Death of Sweet Mister by Daniel Woodrell

    • Resisting a definition: smart, wise, and largely, I agree.

      Just the same, you picked three books that you would call NOIR.

      Which means you have some kind of definition — some reason for picking these books.

      What’s the common thread? If not a definition, then something that connects them.

      — c.

  • You can randomly pick any book from the Hard Case Crime library and get great noir writing, but I have to give a shout out to Christa Faust’s two Angel Dare books, Money Shot and Choke Hold. They will kick your ass and then leave you tied up in the trunk of a car.

  • There’s a collection of noir shorts edited by James Ellroy and Otto Penzler entitled The Best American Noir of the Century. They’re referring, of course, to the 20th century. It moves in chronological order with the first story being from the 20’s and moving all the way up to the 90’s. Damn near every story in this collection is great, and it starts with an excellent introduction by Ellroy. And I normally skip intros.

  • Examples for me (mainly cause they fall into the broader range of stuff I read) The Bobby Dollar series from Tad Williams and the Dresden series from Jim Butcher. Urban Fantasy Noir but still they have that gritty feel to them. The title characters are taking the reader along for the ride.

    This is a different feeling than most other fiction where you are voyeuristically watching the action (almost like a peeping tom).

  • When I wrote a science fiction-mystery-thriller, I had noir in mind. Noir – to me – always had a touch of social commentary. It was never up front, but – c’mon – Marlowe wasn’t doing private investigations because in 1939 (the year The Big Sleep was written) he was bored with his lucrative career as a stock broker. Too true for James Crumley’s contemporary characters as well.

    In my cross-genre book, my troubled character lives in the near future (i.e., no ray guns). And my challenge was to speak of the new technology in the same day-to-day way Marlowe found out who was driving the car in front of the used & rare bookstore by looking in the “glove compartment”.

    So then for me the book that defines, is the bell-weather for cross-genre, science fiction noir is Jonathan Lethem’s “Gun with Occasional Music”.


  • I can see the “noir” (a novzzzzz- huh? wha? oh, yeah. a novel) v. “hard boiled” (a book where somebody does something to find something out) distinction, so – in @ghostfinder’s parlance – my book & Lethem’s are hard-boiled, and I’m cool with that.

  • To me, noir fiction (roman noir) is about broken people failing. It’s a world, not of white and black, but of black and pitch. It’s often conflated with the hard-boiled stories, but those are honorable (though flawed) knights wading through sin. Noir has no knights – just more pimps, users, and hustlers, fated to watch their dreams curl & float away like cigarette smoke in the alley light.

    THE KILLER INSIDE ME – Jim Thompson
    SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER (originally released as DOWN THERE) – David Goodis
    THE WOMAN CHASER – Charles Willeford

  • Since many of the “classics” have already been mentioned, I’m going to focus on neo-noir:

    Kiss Me Judas by Will Christopher Baer
    The Contortionist’s Handbook by Craig Clevenger
    All the Beautiful Sinners by Stephen Graham Jones

    I’m going to be publishing stories by CC and SGJ in THE NEW BLACK, the first anthology of neo-noir out with Dark House Press in 2014, and a collection of Stephen’s stories as well, AFTER THE PEOPLE LIGHTS HAVE GONE OFF. I still love reading Big Jim, Huston, and Ellroy, but there are so many new voices in noir—that’s what I’m reading these days.

  • Urdith: Thanks for the hat tip, though if asked I’d be more likely to define my books as hardboiled rather than noir. Mostly because the main character, like Marlowe and many other classic fictional dicks, manages to maintain her moral compass even while getting her ass kicked. I tend to define noir as stories in which people lose that moral compass, making the one bad choice that sends them and everyone around them into a downward spiral. To quote Ellroy, stories in which “everybody’s fucked.”

    James M. Cain, Day Keene, Jim Thompson pop into my sluggish, early morning brain as writers that do straight up noir in it’s purest form. Modern examples that occur to me, in no particular order: Gary Phillips THE JOOK, Megan Abbott’s QUEENPIN, and pretty much any one of Jason Starr’s crime novels.

    Also, fuck yeah Ben Whitmer. Wait till you guys get your sweaty little paws on his new book CRY FATHER, though I’ll leave it to you to debate whether or not it’s really noir.

    Meanwhile, here’s a great list of classic noir fiction through the decades from Al Guthrie:

  • A few not already mentioned (sorry, more than three, but what the hell):

    Dorothy B. Hughes’ IN A LONELY PLACE, RIDE THE PINK HORSE, and DREAD JOURNEY (most every discerning reader knows those first two books; but I so love the third, set on a train and one of the best depictions of Hollywood greed, sleaze, and the business, equally as much)

    Vicki Hendricks, MIAMI PURITY and CRUEL POETRY

    pretty much everything Cathi Unsworth has written

    Jean-Patrick Manchette’s THE PRONE GUNMAN, 3 TO KILL, and FATALE

    Massimo Carlotto’s Alligator novels as well as THE GOODBYE KISS, DEATH’S DARK ABYSS, and BANDIT LOVE

    Willam Lindsay Gresham, NIGHTMARE ALLEY

  • Favourite noir? Here’s three I really like:

    – GBH by Ted Lewis, wherein a London gangster tries to find the traitor in his midst, and pays with his mind. Lewis’s last novel, and black as they come.

    – Nineteen Eighty by David Peace. Third part of his Yorkshire-set ‘Red Riding’ trilogy, and one of the most heartless, heart-breaking books I’ve ever read

    – The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks. Not so much noir, more grotesque, but still in the same ball-park

  • The closest to consensus I have seen on noir from people who think about it a lot is very close to Adam Christopher’s definition, “it’s about failure and self-inflicted character damage (whether the character is damaged in the first instance, or damaged by the actions of the story).” I might buy that if it were not for the novels of Megan Abbot. She has several, like _Queenpin_ and _Dare Me_ that I think would be hard to argue are not noire, but they don’t have a clearly “bad” ending. The characters make seemingly “Bad Decisions” and often go from a semblance of normalcy to very dark places, but they also can seem more satisfied with where they end up then where they started. Especially the books with female protagonists. You could argue they “turn bad”, but they are also more free and empowered than when they started. I read them as a repudiation of the virtues of being a “good person.”

  • Hmm – may change my mind in 20 minutes but I go instinctively for:
    Stieg Larsson ‘Millennium Trilogy’ (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo etc)
    Ian McEwan ‘The Cement Garden’
    Dennis Lehane ‘Shutter Island’
    – better sign off before I list a different 3!

  • Just my opinion, but for me to feel a story is “noir” it needs a significant existential element, particularly in the nature of the morality of society. Not sure I can agree it needs a “bad” or “happy” ending, or even a positive or semi-positive motivation for the protagonist. That is why my choices for “essential” noir reads could easily be listed as “crime” reads:

    SLEEPERS Lorenzo Carcaterra
    FLOOD Andrew Vachss

  • As someone how loves my a bit of noir with all my fiction here are the first that occure to me.

    Black Daliah James Elroy
    Anything by Jim Thompson
    Devil in a blue dress Walter Mosley…. I’d also add in Do androids dream…. By PK Dick

    There are far too many good noir books…..

  • Here’s a few I haven’t seen mentioned yet

    A simple plan by Scott smith
    The cleanup by Sean Doolittle
    The cold kiss by John Rector

    Old school: Find me a Killer by Lionel White
    You’ll Get Yours by Thomas Wills
    Pretty much any shirt story by Cornell Woolrich.

  • Fast One by Paul Cain
    You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up by Richard Halas
    Anatomy of a Killer by Peter Rabe
    Total Chaos by Jean-Claude Izzo
    Fuckin Lie Down Already by Tom Piccirilli
    If He Hollers Let Him Go by Chester HImes

  • Hmmm. Noir is one step away from dystopia. Noir is set in a demi-monde. Noir’s characters have a pervading apathy that comes from caring too much at one point. The clothes are great, preferably influenced by 1930s gangster films. Which is an important point: the surface looks great, but peel that away and you get writhing maggots of evil and bad choices.

  • Caught Stealing by Charlie Huston

    Kiss Me Judas by Will Christopher Baer

    The Cold Spot by Tom Piccirilli

    These are the books that got me nipple deep into some noir.

  • I think my top three are:

    The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
    I Married a Dead Man by Cornell Woolrich
    The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain

    Honorable mention for Jim Thompson’s The Getaway, which has a spectacularly bleak ending even by noir standards.

  • I’ll jump out of the box, and list my top three noir comics. Some of the most interesting action is happening there, IMHO.

    1) 100 Bullets, by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso
    2) Scene of the Crime: A Little Piece of Goodnight by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
    3) Scalped by Jason Aaron

      • Yes, Richard, it truly is a masterpiece. Almost everything Azzarello touches turns to gold. His take on Hellblazer is also a very fine dive into America’s underground.

        Scene of the crime is also a wonderful noir-tale by another master, Brubaker. I was tempted to throw in his Criminal-series (5 parts) but this little gem stands on its own.

  • Just occurred to me that two of my favorite P. K. Dick novels could easily fit into the noir category: Voices from the Steet and Humpty Dumpty in Oakland. They each have that gritty, down-and-out feel and feature desperation and failure as central themes.

    • Did want to type too much without knowing if this works.
      LAC because even the Boy Scout has his price in the end.
      Winter’s Bone is as dark as any and because you don’t have to be LA in the 30s to 50s to be a noir.
      Long Goodbye because LA in the 50s is hard to beat and the story makes a bit more sense than the Big Sleep.

  • God it’s great to see all the love for Kiss Me, Judas by Will Christopher Baer.

    I wanna throw Drive by James Sallis and Sara Gran’s recent Clare DeWitt novels into the ring also.

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