Further to yesterday’s post I thought I’d add a few classic noirs up here and why I think they’re so bloody good. Some are in yesterday’s list, with some explanatory notes as to why they’re included, but others are not and some are titles that people might not think are noir, but are. After all, noir’s an attitude as much as it is a style. Enjoy!
Double Indemnity: My favourite of all James M. Cain’s novels. It basically works on the old maxim of be careful what you wish for; and in this case the narrator ends up with everything he wanted, but ultimately realises that the price he has to pay is too high. Superbly written and paced, as dark and bitter as a double espresso, and with an ending so dark (when the hero discovers just how fatale his femme is) it will haunt you for days. The Billy Wilder movie is good, but the novel is off-the-scale brilliant.
Jack’s Return Home (Get Carter): Ted Lewis’ novel is a stone-cold classic. Brutal, spare, cinematic, and with such a bitter view of humanity that it could only have been written by one of life’s outsiders. The film is superb but the book is, once again, better. The ending is a lot more ambiguous than the film, but equally as dark.
The Getaway: Jim Thompson’s novel is a perfect blend of characterisation, action, story and lean prose. What makes it truly brilliant though is the ending. An ending so good, so utterly poetic, ironic and dark that you’ll be thinking about it for days; an ending that just simply can’t be filmed (which is why Sam Peckinpah, hardly afraid of the dark ending, didn’t bother to try in his film adaptation of the novel). Don’t bother watching the film (it’s not very good), just read the book instead.
I Was Dora Suarez: Derek Raymond’s fourth Factory novel moves from hard-boiled into pitch-black noir. It takes the narrator on a tour of Hell disguised as London, pits him against one of the most unpleasant and deranged killers ever to be committed to the page, and gives a picture of just how sleazy Soho was before it got all gentrified. The ending gives the hero no respite and no hope. However, this very bitter pill is sweetened by the narrator’s humanity and several very funny interchanges between him and his superiors in addition to a few blackly funny interrogation scenes. Warning: it is not for the faint of heart and is best read as part of the Factory series (though it does work as a novel in its own right).
The Spy Who Came In From The Cold: John Le Carre’s brilliant cold war spy novel is pure noir. The hero is a washed up spy who is manipulated by both his allies and his enemies. Double crosses abound, and the ending is savage in its bitterness, as the hero realises that he has been manipulated and that nothing is what it seems. The antithesis of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, showing espionage to be a vile and immoral business. If you haven’t read it yet, do so. It is brilliant.
The Secret Agent: Joseph Conrad was a writer way ahead of his time. And this novel shows just how far – it works on just about every level; as satire; as thriller; and finally as noir. The main protagonist, Verloc, is nobody’s idea of a hero (pornographer, secret agent, anarchist and idle layabout); his wife Winnie is a tragic figure, whose love of her brother and her need to keep the family together (the mentally slow and unstable, Stevie) ultimately leads to the act that will tear it apart forever. The tone is pitch black throughout and the ending is pure noir.
The Big Nowhere: The second novel in James Ellroy’s LA Quartet is by far the darkest and bleakest of his novels. Each of the main characters gets what they want, but ultimately it destroys them. Anybody with even the faintest hint of goodness is annihilated by Ellroy’s bleaker than bleak LA where only the bad survive. However, read it as part of the series, rather than as a one-off – it will only make you like it all the more
The Criminal: Probably the most underrated of Jim Thompson’s back catalogue. It deals with the rape and murder of a young girl in a small town. The local press boss turns the whole thing into a circus for his own gain and destroys the lives of quite a few people in the process. It is a novel of voices. It is a novel of power. It is a novel about the sheer futility of good in the face of evil. It is one of the darkest tales Thompson ever told and it is superb.
They Shoot Horses Don’t They? Horace McCoy’s painful and tragic novel is pure noir. It begins with the sentencing of a man for murder. The novel then jumps between the summing up by the judge and the man’s fateful meeting with a woman who is at the end of her tether. They enter a dance marathon along with a load of other young couples who are down on their luck during the depression. They enter for the $1,000 prize money and the free food. The marathon gets more and more nightmarish and the man’s dance partner more and more bitter until the final dance and its aftermath, when the the novel’s cryptic title is given its full meaning. It’s more drama than crime fiction, but it is a truly dark examination of humanity and deserves its place on this list
And should you read these and like them, you could also give my novel The Gamblers a go. It shares the dark sensibility of the novels above, but gives them a modern urban twist. Though I’m not promising it will be as good, mind you 😉 However, if you enjoy noir fiction I think you’ll like it.