I’ve been packing down the good, the bad and the ugly for a while now and I believe that assembling a foundation library is critical to appreciating noir fiction. Sort of a canon, as the literary gents say.
I don’t mention understanding, because noir is understandable at a gut level to the man in the street. The dean of noir, Otto Penzler, says that in noir there are no happy endings and we’re dealing with characters who are flawed, conflicted, and adrift in a hostile world. Penzler figures large in the assembly of noir anthologies, and an Amazon search of his name in the books section will produce 4,000 or better hits.
The golden age of pulps like Black Mask, Manhunt, and Dime Detective magazines-and a host of others- intersects nicely with the rise and decline of noir fiction and films, but as one can see from the publication dates of these anthologies noir is undergoing something of a revival, at least the classic noir short stories, novellas, and longer works.
One reason that the genre is heavily weighted toward short stories and novellas is that the people who were doing the writing in that particular time period were in the midst of the Great Depression and were scuffling to make a living. Pulps paid by the word-usually four cents-and a prolific writer could pound out quantity and submit their work to any number of pulp magazines. There simply wasn’t time to invest in developing a novel when the task at hand was to put food on the table and pay the rent. One of the most prolific writers of pulp fiction was Erle Stanley Gardner, one time district attorney with a gift for producing formulaic tonnage.
Note that this list of my personal choices leans toward anthologies because they offer the widest sampling of the literature that is out there from the greats like Chandler, Hammett, Cain, and Goodis to many other lesser known authors. There are a couple of novels in the list of special notes by Cain and McCarthy.
With the wonders of Amazon and Half Price Books at our fingertips or at a locale near you, assembling a collection like this can be done on a budget. But don’t feel wedded to it. Let your imagination be your guide.
Also highly recommended is the best bargain in noir scrounging there is, and that is a subscription to Scribd for about $8.95 a month. This gives you access to most, if not all of the justly acclaimed Akashic Noir series of anthologies and collections organized by locale. Milwaukee noir? They’ve got that. Montana noir? Got that too. And, of course, your public library. But there’s nothing better than hard copy in my opinion.
- Hard-Boiled: An Anthology of American Crime Stories (Pronzini and Adrian eds. 1995)
- Best American Noir Century (Elroy and Penzler, eds. 2010)
- The New Mammoth Book of Pulp Fiction (Jakubowski, ed. 2014)
- Hard-Boiled Detectives (Weinberg, Dziemianowicz and Greenberg eds 1992)
- The Highway Kind, (Millikin, ed 2016) (this gets high marks).
- Nightmare Town, Dashiel Hammett Stories (McCauley, Greenberg and Gorman eds 1999)
- David Goodis: Five Noir Novels of the 1940s & 50s (Polito ed. 2012)
- Paul Cain, Fast One (reprinted 2013)
- The Black Lizard Book of Black Mask Stories (Penzler ed. 2010)
- The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps (Penzler ed. 2007).
- The Big Book of Reel Murders (Penzler ed. 2019)
- No Country For Old Men, Cormac McCarthy (2005).