~ by David W.
If you’ve been taking our Mystery Challenge, you’ve tried many different types of whodunits across a spectrum from cute to bleak, but all these stories have had one thing in common: justice has prevailed in the end. But what happens when there is no justice, or when even justice seems unjust? Noir happens.
“Noir” is one of those slippery literary terms, and many use noir as an adjective for anything with an especially gritty, dark or cynical feel. For purists, Crime Noir differs from Hardboiled Mystery in featuring stories where we identify not with a sleuth or protector, but with sinners and transgressors. James M. Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice epitomizes this kind of tale, drawing us into the doomed affair of the drifter Frank Chambers and his lover Cora, blinded by passion and locked in a desperate scheme to murder her aged husband. Other Depression era noirs are even darker, such as William Lindsay Gresham’s inky Nightmare Alley, set amidst the squalor of a circus side show where down-and-outers slave and struggle, or Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (Collected in the Library of America’s classic Crime Noir 2-volume set) in the dehumanizing hysteria of a dance marathon. These heart-rending critiques of our winner-take-all ethos read like the American equivalent of Greek Tragedy.
Later writers offered their own spins on noir, from the downcast minor key lyricism of David Goodis (The Moon in the Gutter, etc.) to the racially-charged violent conflagrations of Chester Himes (End of a Primitive) to the shockingly sadistically sleazy evil-doings of Jim Thompson (The Killer Inside Me, Pop. 1280) and the macabre psychological twists of Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train).
More recent noir classics include the French romans noir of Jean Patrick Manchette (Fatale, The Mad and the Bad); the demonically depraved British criminal tales of Derek Raymond (I Was Dora Suarez); the Ozarks-inflected gritty country noirs of Daniel Woodrell (The Death of Sweet Mister, Winter’s Bone); or the hard-as-nails historical Los Angeles Noir odysseys of James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential, The Black Dahlia).
Noir fans can find many other contemporary and classic titles among the Hard Case Crime Series, as well as the Stark House Noir Classics imprint and Akashic’s Global Noir story collections. For readers maybe not up for the prolonged darkness of full-length noirs, Otto Penzler and James Ellroy’s stellar anthology Best American Noir of the Century offers a diverse sampling of short stories that touch on every aspect of this hard-hitting genre about the criminal – and victim – in us all.