This week, The Best American Noir of the Century, edited by James Ellroy (author of LA Confidential) and mystery icon Otto Penzler hits the shelves and tries to break them with its 752-page heft. We suggest reading it and learning what a real man is. Then, check out Otto’s picks for the five best gun-toting, dame-chasing novels ever penned.
FIVE GREATEST NOIR NOVELS
1. Cornell Woolrich, Rendezvous in Black (1948). How dark is this? When a lovely girl is accidentally killed, her boyfriend decides to avenge her by finding the group of men he believes responsible and murdering—no, not them, but the person they love most in the world.
2. James Ellroy, L.A. Confidential (1990). Terrific movie, terrific book. It has an enormous cast of cops and crooks who compete to see who is more violent and corrupt. Even the few who seem like good guys are dangerously flawed, and there are no innocents in a Hollywood portrayed as Devil’s Island with makeup.
3. Jim Thompson, The Killer Inside Me (1952). Psychotic killers are a standard element of noir fiction, but few can match Lou Ford, the apparently dull-witted but friendly deputy sheriff who gently keeps order in his town. He struggles to keep his inner beast under control—but fails spectacularly. Don’t hold the lousy movie against this masterful novel.
4. Truman Capote, In Cold Blood (1966). Okay, maybe it’s not a novel, but it’s close enough not to quibble. One of only two books (the other is Joseph Wambaugh’s The Onion Field) that I wish I had never read because these true stories of senseless murder haunted my nights for years. The slaughter of the entire Clutter family by two idiot ex-cons is described so compellingly that one would think Capote was an eye-witness.
5. James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934). Lust and greed are the very heart of darkness in crime fiction, and Cain understood them at their basest level, in this novel as well as in Double Indemnity and several short stories. If sexy women (waitress Cora) couldn’t convince horny, dim-bulb guys (drifter Frank) to murder (her husband) for them, there wouldn’t be a noir fiction category.