April 2010

Basic Black

20 Noir Essentials by DENISE HAMILTON

Give any group of serious readers and watchers of noir a chance, and they will be more than happy to weigh in on the genre’s foundational works—in fact, they’ll insist on it. But we wanted the definitive word, so we turned to Denise Hamilton to compile our Noir 101 syllabus. In addition to being a crime novelist, she is editor of the short-story anthologies Los Angeles Noir, which won the 2008 Edgar Award for Best Short Story, and the new Los Angeles Noir 2: The Classics. In other words, Denise knows noir.   —The Editors

[ 1 ] Fast One (1932), by Paul Cain
Cain—not to be confused with the better-known James M. Cain—was a pulp scribbler whose writing is the epitome of hard-boiled noir. Fast One is a novel in linked stories that first appeared in Black Mask magazine (1931–32).

[ 2 ] They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1935), by Horace McCoy
Published during the Great Depression, this novel reads as spare, modern and horrifying as if it came out yesterday. You’ll never look at the Santa Monica Pier the same way again.

[ 3 ] “Hot Water” from Darkness at Dawn (1988), by Cornell Woolrich
When a pampered movie star’s $15,000 gambling stake disappears, the fun begins, leading to car chases, scrambled identity, gas tanks filled with tequila and a grand finale in the Mexican desert.

[ 4 ] The Long Goodbye (1953), by Raymond Chandler
The Big Sleep might be better known, but this novel is the master’s most accomplished and nuanced work.

[ 5 ] Badge of Evil (1956), by Whit Masterson
Sinister, creepy, set on the edge of a corrupt U.S.-Mexico border town (San Diego), this is pulp noir at its best. Sadly, that hasn’t kept the book in print.

[ 6 ] The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) and Double Indemnity (1943), by James M. Cain
Read the books—then watch the equally terrific movies. Sex, violence, adultery and desperation never read so good.

[ 7 ] If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945), by Chester Himes
Himes’ bleak portrayal of WWII racism, existential despair, a marriage in freefall, labor unions, communists and interracial lust is a story that will stay with you.

[ 8 ] In a Lonely Place (1947), by Dorothy B. Hughes
A first-person psychological thriller told from the perspective of a male serial killer, the book includes one of noir’s most chilling first chapters. But the real crime here is that Hughes isn’t as famous as Cain, Chandler and Ross Macdonald.

[ 9 ] Devil in a Blue Dress (1990), by Walter Mosley
The first of Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series about an African-American PI and his violent sidekick, Mouse, is set in segregated, post–World War II Los Angeles.

[ 10 ] “I Feel Bad Killing You” (1944), by Leigh Brackett
This short story, reprinted in the just published Los Angeles Noir 2: The Classics, includes the most terrifying scene with a cigarette lighter that doesn’t involve any actual violence.

[ 11 ] The Zebra-Striped Hearse (1962), by Ross Macdonald
Set in the California Coast and Mexico, Hearse anticipates the youth culture and surf tribes that would define the ’60s. Many critics consider Macdonald the best wordsmith of the noir bunch.

[ 12 ] The Concrete Blonde (1994), by Michael Connelly
Connelly’s LAPD detective Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch, a brooding white-knight loner in the Chandlerian style, roams a sharply observed Los Angeles.

[ 13 ] Locas (1997), by Yxta Maya Murray
If noir tells the story of desperate people on the margins of society slowly spiraling out of control, who fits the bill more than impoverished, uneducated, sexually oppressed and (in some cases) undocumented Latina gangbangers in 1980s pre–gentrified Echo Park?

[ 14 ] Blade Runner (1982), screenplay by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, directed by Ridley Scott
Scott’s genius was distilling the visuals of Philip K. Dick’s classic sci-fi novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? to L.A.’s multicultural, futuristic essence and using the tropes of 1940s detective fiction to create a new hybrid genre: sci-fi-retro L.A. noir.

[ 15 ] Chinatown (1974), screenplay by Robert Towne, directed by Roman Polanski
Noir buffs could easily imagine Chinatown as one of Raymond Chandler’s long-lost novels. Instead, it’s a testament to the fidelity of Towne’s neo-noir vision.

[ 16 ] L.A. Confidential (1990), by James Ellroy
Read Ellroy’s archetypal saga of gangsters, rogue cops, corrupt politicians, crumbling idealism and sin and decadence in Hollywood—then watch the Curtis Hanson movie.

[ 17 ] L.A. Requiem (1999), by Robert Crais
The backstory of wisecracking PI Elvis Cole’s enigmatic silent partner, Joe Pike, is a noir tale to curl your toes.

[ 18 ] “The People Across the Canyon” (1962), by Margaret Millar; from The Couple Next Door, edited by Tom Nolan (2004)
A family in a bucolic canyon begins to suspect their new neighbors are up to nefarious activity after their daughter comes home with wild stories. Some critics praised Millar above better-known Ross Macdonald, her husband.

[ 19 ] Sharp Teeth (2008), by Toby Barlow
Several packs of down-and-out, dark, sexy, violent werewolves roam L.A.’s industrial back alleys, wreaking havoc. Told in lyric blank verse, this is hip, addictive paranormal 21st-century noir of the highest order.

[ 20 ] L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City (2009), by John Buntin
The interlocking true stories of gangster Mickey Cohen and onetime LAPD chief William H. Parker are told against a colorful Tinseltown backdrop of crooks, cops, vice and Hollywood stars. Once you’re done, track down Mickey Cohen’s sadly out-of-print memoir, In My Own Words.