Award-winning noir author Ken Bruen's latest hard-boiled novel is Green Hell, the 11th Jack Taylor novel. Bruen, the author of more than 30 books, picks his 10 favorite noir novels.
Any top ten list is bound to be divisive. So be warned that this is a highly personal one. These ten novels are, for me, the essence of noir and fulfill my own left-of-field vision of what constitutes the very best of the genre.
10. Dark Passage by David Goodis - Of special interest is how Goodis in 1946 sold the rights of this classic to Hollywood before it was even published. The movie tends to deflect from the remaining power of the novel, which is as fresh and dark today as then. Dark Passage has the same essential noir nucleus that would underwrite the noir template, a man unjustly imprisoned for the murder of his wife. If noir can be encapsulated within the narrow definition of bad things happening to a man and continuing to spiral down, then protagonist Vincent Parry is the very personification of this.
9. Sing a Song of Homicide by James R. Langham - From 1940, Sing a Song of Homicide is the first of two novels featuring a detective named Samuel A. Abbot and is notable for its dark humor. Noir novels that particularly appeal to me are laced with acid humor.
8. Cold Caller by Jason Starr - Dark as sin and with a wicked cutting edge of humor that Starr would fine-hone for his later award-winning novels.
7. The Lucky Stiff by Craig Rice - The title alone keys you in to the tone of this wonderful novel published in 1945. Rice was a pseudonym for Georgiana Ann Randolph Craig.
6. A Swollen Red Sun by Matthew McBride - One of the new breed of young guns storming out of factories and streets—no Ivy League privilege for these razor-sharp kids. This novel has it all: guns, corruption, immorality, all fused together in a blistering narrative.
McBride came to prominence with his debut novel, the wonderfully titled Frank Sinatra in a Blender. This, his second novel, comes fully noir, and is one of the finest accounts of how meth has spread across the Midwestern states like some bubonic plague. Demons from its use and the characters’ own demons fuse into an epic blend of one of the darkest, most humorous noirs of the past decade. Gasconade County as depicted here rivals James Ellroy’s Los Angeles for the sheer scope of its compassion and corruption.
5. The Shark-Infested Custard by Charles Willeford - This is a longtime favorite. Willeford said it was his own favorite of his novels. Set in the seventies, it describes four sociopathic swingers in Miami. Told in four parts, it begins with one of the characters needing sixty bucks to pick up a woman and an ensuing robbery that leaves two dead. The mayhem and hilarity continue from this. It is pure noir and reads almost like a Tarantino script. The title alone makes this minor gem worth tracking down.
4. He Died with His Eyes Open by Derek Raymond - Raymond’s Factory series novels are unlike anything being written then or now. They are a reading experience so bracing and lethal that you keep having to reread whole passages. Raymond’s own life is worth a whole book, and his exploits are the very essence of a noir caper. He described his novels as black narratives reported back from the trenches. Often referred to as the godfather of noir, he is the real deal. Never an easy read, he challenges the reader’s very constitution, and it is testament to his talent that in France, he is regarded as the noir writer. Edward Bunker once told me that the real noir writers are to be found in the catalog of Gaillemarde’s Série Noire. The French have an intuitive grasp of what real noir is, and Raymond has five titles on that list.
3. The Fever Kill by Tom Piccirilli - Tom Piccirilli has a CV that the old classic noirists would deem appropriate. He has written horror, science fiction, and fantasy, but he truly seems to have both his niche and true voice in noir. He has a restrained narrative that highlights the greats and a sly, almost passive sense of humor. The main character, Crease, is returning home. His father had been the sheriff until scandal brought him down and left Crease jailed, tortured, and kicked out of town. Upon his return, he gets his psycho boss’s mistress pregnant. And this is where it kicks into true noir territory.
2. The Whisperer by Donato Carrisi - A noir instant classic from Italy. Unlike a lot of noir novels, this has been a mega-success, with amazing sales across Europe. It is rare too in that it works as a superb thriller and has literary kudos to boot. The Whisperer’s narrative moves with utter frenzy and retains a compelling compassion . . . and some twists at the end are really breathtaking. Carrisi’s next novel didn’t quite live up to this startling debut, but if you write one classic, how badly are you hurting? I found this novel while browsing a store in Berlin, just before the hype would have prevented me actually reading it. I came to it cold and free of prejudice. Almost all of my choices on this list were books that, in that odd way, sang to me before I read them: a noir siren that seems to emanate quality and dark energy.
1. Killing Suki Flood by Rob Leininger - The opening of this novel is perhaps the most hilarious and noir chapter I’ve ever read. The main character, on the run with a camper full of booze and cash, comes across a gorgeous young woman stranded in the desert. He doesn’t exactly help her, but does slowly teach her how to change the tire on her sports car. He is a battered fiftysomething, and she is barely twenty and flighty as a desert wind. The most compelling and beguiling romance develops. The novel also contains one of the most excruciating torture scenes I’ve ever read. You will never quite hear a dripping tap with the same nonchalance again. Like Carrisi, Leininger never reached those heights again, and maybe the one golden nugget was their strength.