Noir fiction (sometimes also known as hardboiled fiction) is a subgenre of crime fiction that emerged in the United States in the early 20th century. It is characterized by its dark, cynical tone, its morally ambiguous characters, and its seedy urban settings.
Some of the common characteristics of noir/hardboiled fiction include:
- A cynical view of the world: Noir/hardboiled fiction often presents a world that is corrupt, violent, and dangerous. The characters are often flawed and morally ambiguous, and they often struggle to find justice in a world that is stacked against them.
- A focus on crime and violence: Noir/hardboiled fiction often features graphic violence and crime. The violence is often used to highlight the brutality of the world that the characters inhabit.
- A hard-boiled detective: The protagonist of a noir/hardboiled novel is typically a hard-boiled detective. This type of detective is tough, cynical, and world-weary. They are often ex-cops or private eyes who are willing to do whatever it takes to solve the case, even if it means bending the rules or breaking the law.
- A femme fatale: The femme fatale is a common character in noir/hardboiled fiction. She is a beautiful and seductive woman who often uses her wiles to manipulate men. She is often the source of the protagonist’s downfall.
- A seedy urban setting: Noir/hardboiled fiction is typically set in a seedy urban setting. This setting often reflects the dark and cynical tone of the stories.
There are some key differences between early 20th-century noir fiction and 21st-century noir fiction. The early ones tended to be more formulaic, with predictable plots and characters. 21st-century noir fiction, on the other hand, is often set in the present day and is more experimental in terms of its plot and characters. It also tends to be more diverse, with more female and minority characters.
Despite these differences, noir/hardboiled fiction of both periods continues to be a popular genre of crime fiction. It offers readers a dark and cynical view of the world, but it also provides them with exciting stories and memorable characters.
Some of the noir novels have become classics of literature. Titles, to mention just a few, like The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler and Double Indemnity by James M. Cain have entered into the English language, as familiar as titles like Gone with the Wind and To Kill a Mockingbird have.
Here are 30 of the great noir novels by the genre’s greatest writers:
The Maltese Falcon (1930) by Dashiell Hammett: Sam Spade, a private investigator in San Francisco, is hired by Brigid O’Shaughnessy to find a statuette known as the Maltese Falcon. Spade soon finds himself in a deadly game of deception and betrayal, as he is forced to choose between his loyalty to Brigid and his own moral code.
The Glass Key (1931) by Dashiell Hammett: Paul Madvig is a political fixer in a corrupt city. He is asked to help his friend, Senator Ralph Bancroft, win an election. However, Madvig soon finds himself in the middle of murder, betrayal, and political intrigue.
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) by James M. Cain: Cora and Nick, a young couple, fall in love and decide to murder Cora’s husband, Nick’s boss. However, their plan quickly unravels as they are drawn into a spiral of violence and betrayal.
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1935) by Horace McCoy: A group of down-and-out people compete in a dance marathon in order to win the prize money. However, the competition soon takes a dark turn, as the dancers become increasingly desperate and exhausted. However, Madvig soon finds himself caught up in a series of crimes.
The Big Sleep (1939) by Raymond Chandler: Philip Marlowe, a private investigator in Los Angeles, is hired by General Sternwood to find his missing daughter, Carmen. Marlowe soon discovers that Carmen is involved in a dangerous web of crime and corruption, and that her disappearance is linked to a series of murders.
Farewell, My Lovely (1940) by Raymond Chandler: Philip Marlowe, is hired by former flame Velma Logan to find her husband, Moose Malloy. Marlowe soon finds himself confronting a dangerous mystery involving blackmail, murder, and revenge, as he tries to clear Malloy’s name and protect Velma from those who want her dead.
Phantom Lady (1942) by Cornell Woolrich: Ralphie, a sound engineer, is framed for the murder of his wife. He sets out to clear his name, but his investigation soon leads him down a dark and twisted path. He becomes entangled in lies and intrigue involving a mysterious woman known only as the Phantom Lady.
The Killer Inside Me (1946) by Jim Thompson: Lou Ford is a small-town sheriff who is secretly a sadistic killer. He uses his position of power to prey on the weak and vulnerable. Ford is eventually caught, but he refuses to show any remorse for his crimes.
In a Lonely Place (1947) by Dorothy B. Hughes: A cynical private investigator named Dix Steele is hired to find a missing woman. However, Steele has to navigate a landscape of violence and deception. He is also suspected of the woman’s murder, and he must clear his name before it is too late. The novel is set in the dark and seedy world of Hollywood, and it explores themes of loneliness, alienation, and the dark side of human nature. In a Lonely Place is considered to be a classic of the noir genre, and it has been cited as an influence on many other noir novels and films.
I Married a Dead Man (1948) by William Irish: Ralph Cotter is a man who is haunted by his past. He is drawn into a dangerous affair with a woman named Norah Mulqueeny, and he soon finds himself in over his head. Cotter must find a way to escape the violence and danger before it is too late.
The Moving Target (1949) by Ross Macdonald: Lew Archer is a private investigator who is hired by a woman named Vivian Vance to find her missing husband. Archer soon finds himself caught up in a cocktail of criminal activities.
Rear Window (1954) by Cornell Woolrich: Jeff Jeffries is a photographer who is confined to his apartment after breaking his leg. He spends his time watching the people in the apartments across the courtyard. However, Jeff soon becomes convinced that one of his neighbors has murdered his wife.
After Dark, My Sweet (1955) by Jim Thompson: Jim Thompson is a private investigator who is hired by a woman named Kathleen O’Shea to find her missing husband. Thompson soon finds himself involved in violence.
Shoot the Piano Player (1960) by David Goodis: Charlie Kohler is a pianist who is haunted by his past. He is sucked into a dangerous affair with a woman named Lena, and he soon finds himself in over his head. Kohler must find a way to escape the violence and danger before it is too late.
The Grifters (1963) by Jim Thompson: Myra, Ray, and Jack Shafer are a trio of con artists who must work together to pull off a major heist. However, their plans soon go awry as they are betrayed by one another.
The Outfit (1963) by Richard Stark: Parker is a professional thief who is hired to rob a casino in Las Vegas. However, the job goes wrong, and Parker finds himself having bitten off more than he could chew. He must use all of his skills and cunning to survive and get out of town alive.
He Died With His Eyes Open (1971) by Derek Raymond: A nameless detective is hired to investigate the murder of a young woman. However, the detective soon finds himself surrounded by corruption, and depravity. The story is told in a dark and gritty style, and it provides a disturbing look at the underside of human nature.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) by George V. Higgins: Eddie Coyle is a small-time crook who is caught in the middle of a gang war. He is forced to work for both sides in order to stay alive. However, Coyle soon realizes that he is in over his head, and he must find a way to escape the violence before it is too late.
Butcher’s Moon is a 1974 novel by Richard Stark, the pseudonym of Donald E. Westlake. It is the third novel in the Parker series. Parker is hired to rob a casino in Las Vegas. However, the job goes wrong, and he must use all of his skills and cunning to survive and get out of town alive. The novel is set in a dark and gritty world of crime and violence. Stark’s writing is terse and economical, and he does not shy away from the violence of the story.
Chinatown (1974) by Robert Towne: A private investigator named Jake Gittes is hired to investigate an extramarital affair. He must uncover the truth about the case, even if it means putting himself in danger. The novel is set in the dark and corrupt world of Los Angeles, and it explores themes of greed, power, and the corruption of the American dream. Chinatown is considered to be a major classic of the noir genre, and it has been praised for its complex and suspenseful plot, its sharp dialogue, and its iconic imagery.
The Last Good Kiss (1978) by James Crumley: C.W. Sughrue is a sheriff’s deputy in a small town in Arizona. He is called to investigate the murder of a young woman. However, he soon finds himself in over his head, as he is drawn into the world of violence and corruption, that he’s investigating.
Grifter’s Game (1984) by Lawrence Block: Matthew Scudder is a private investigator who is hired to find the missing wife of a man named Teddy Wisher. Scudder soon finds himself floundering, as he is drawn into a world of gambling, drugs, and violence. He must use all of his skills and experience to find the woman and bring her home safely.
The Black Dahlia (1987) by James Ellroy: In 1947, a young woman is brutally murdered in Los Angeles. Two detectives, Bucky Bleichert and Lee Blanchard, are assigned to the case. However, their investigation soon leads them into a dark and dangerous world of the L.A. underbelly.
L.A. Confidential (1990) by James Ellroy: In 1953, Los Angeles is a city in turmoil. The city is rife with corruption, and the police department is no exception. Two detectives, Jack Vincennes and Ed Exley, are assigned to investigate a series of murders. However, their investigation soon uncovers a conspiracy of secrets and lies that threaten to destroy them all.
Devil in a Blue Dress (1990) by Walter Mosley: Easy Rawlins is a black private investigator in Los Angeles in the 1940s. He is hired by a white woman to find her missing husband. However, Rawlins soon finds himself grappling with racism, violence, and corruption.
In the Electric Mist With Confederate Dead (1993) by James Lee Burke: Dave Robicheaux, a Cajun detective, is investigating the murder of a young woman. However, Robicheaux soon finds himself in a morass of violence, racism, and the lingering legacy of the Civil War.
Darkness, Take My Hand (1996) by Dennis Lehane: Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro are private investigators in Boston. They are hired by a man named Joey DeMarco to find his missing wife. However, Kenzie and Gennaro soon encounter the world of organized crime.
No Country for Old Men (2005) by Cormac McCarthy: Llewellyn Moss, a welder in West Texas, becomes involved in a drug deal gone wrong. He is pursued by a ruthless killer, Anton Chigurh, who will stop at nothing to get his money back. Moss is forced to go on the run.
The Power of the Dog (2005) by Don Winslow: Bill Graves is a DEA agent who is investigating a drug cartel in California. Before long he is caught up in a the gang’s corruption and betrayal.
Gone Girl (2012) by Gillian Flynn: Nick Dunne is a man who is accused of murdering his wife, Amy. He must prove his innocence, all the while trying to piece together what really happened to Amy. The story is told from alternating points of view, which allows the reader to see the events unfold from both Nick’s and Amy’s perspectives.
And that’s our list of the 30 best noir fiction books. What’s your take on these – any surprises, or any hardboiled or fiction not on this list that you feel should make the top 30?