I like to imagine some lonely guy back in the late-1940s or so, on his own in a small town or in a big city, living in a hotel by the railroad tracks or a roominghouse or a cheap apartment, or in an Edward Hopper painting.
Maybe he’s trapped in a dead-end job, maybe in no job at all, drifting from place to place, far from home, no family or friends, no hope, no future.
To kill the boredom he moseys over to the local newsstand or drugstore to peruse the paperback spinner rack. He’s looking for something short and sweet, something to get him through the night, sexy and violent, about a loser very much like himself, often told in the first person, whose boring life suddenly gets complicated by a Big Mistake.
On the cover there would be a scantily-clad buxom dame in a provocative pose. I used to buy those books for a quarter, the thicker ones cost thirty-five cents, at the newsstand on deadly dull Sunday afternoons in my small Midwestern hometown when I was 12 or 13, back in the early-1960s. I had to sneak them home and hide them in the basement and I felt robbed when often there wasn’t a single scene in the entire book that had anything to do with the cover art.
The peak years for Noir Fiction were from 1946 to about 1966. By then a man on his own was watching TV, like everyone else. Now he’s probably cruising Internet porn.
I think the first noir story would have to be that of Cain and Abel. Brother kills brother in a jealous rage, has to leave town. For some great noir writing, though it’s a little long for the genre, check out Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866). Noir has always been with us.
What we now call Noir Fiction used to be called Crime Fiction or Thrillers, before that it was Hard-Boiled Fiction or Pulp Fiction, a sub genre of the Mystery (which now seems to be called Crime Fiction).
Pulp Fiction began in about the 1920s in pulp magazines, crime stories published on the cheapest paper for an audience mostly male. Early novels by B. Traven (Treasure of the Sierra Madre) and W.R. Burnett (Little Caesar) were succeeded by masters of the Hard-Boiled genre, Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon), James M. Cain (Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice), and Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep), all of which became movies.
But Noir Fiction was really a child of the mass market paperback, which got its start after World War II. It was intended for an audience of men, and not educated men. In that pre-TV era you could go to the movies, listen to the radio, or pick up a magazine or a novel, and most adults, educated or not, could read, and did.
The noir hero, or anti-hero, was usually down on his luck, often a veteran returned from a war where he’d learned to kill or be killed, and when he got home and found his girlfriend or wife had deserted him, there were too many vets and not enough jobs, and he was broke and hopeless, out of desperation he turned to crime.
Maybe it involved robbing a gas station or a bank, a jealous murder, blackmail, or maybe he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time and lied and ran and had to figure it out later and redeem himself. And there would be a bad woman, a fatal woman, urging him on, using him as much or more in her own way as he was using her in his.
It was the nightmare of the American Dream. People came home from war to go to college on the G.I. Bill, buy or build a home, start a family, be successful, but this was a generation who had survived the Great Depression and a World War and were now facing a World War III and total nuclear holocaust at any moment. Happy times, but doom could be waiting around the next corner. People like reading about doom. Death and destruction.
The authors who wrote Noir Fiction weren’t writing for posterity, they wanted a paycheck. An original paperback, for Fawcett’s Crest or Gold Medal series, might pay $1000, maybe a little more, and rarely paid royalties past that first advance. There would be one big printing and rarely a second. If you wanted to make a living at it, you couldn’t spend more than a month or two writing an entire finished novel, one draft had to do, and you didn’t write a single word more than you had to, 60,000 words was considered enough.
Jim Thompson (Pop. 1280, The Killer Inside Me) was one of the greats. A bad drunk whose writing day you can often see rise and fall page by page from psychologically astute to potboiler trash, he cranked them out without giving it a lot of thought. David Goodis (Shoot the Piano Player, Dark Passage) is another great, maybe not as imaginative as Thompson but a better writer. Both had novels made into movies and some success writing for Hollywood, and remained popular in Europe in translations after they were forgotten in America.
The 1950s brought Mickey Spillane (I, the Jury), not even a very good writer but he sold millions of paperbacks with a lot of sex and violence, PG-rated compared to what is on TV now.
John D. MacDonald, most famous for his later Travis McGee mysteries, got his start in original paperbacks and published at least 78 novels. Someone once asked him in an interview what he would have done if no one had wanted to publish his books. He said he would have written them anyway and buried them in the backyard. Like bodies.
Lawrence Block (the Matthew Scudder series) and Donald E. Westlake (who wrote the Parker novels as Richard Stark) were so prolific they had to use pseudonyms and both turned into masters of the modern mystery.
There were women noir writers, too. Dorothy B. Hughes (Ride the Pink Horse), Vera Caspary (Laura), and Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley) wrote many novels. For a more contemporary woman noirist, read Vicki Hendricks (Miami Purity and others).
Beginning in 1984, author Barry Gifford (Wild at Heart) created the Black Lizard imprint for Creative Arts, later picked up by Vintage Crime, which re-released over 90 titles from the classic noir era. They are still the imprint for Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Ross MacDonald, Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Patricia Highsmith, and a few others but, sadly, most of the one-off novels that hadn’t seen print since their original and only editions have been dropped (see wikipedia.org for a full list).
In recent years, Charles Ardai’s Hard Case Crime series has reprinted a lot of long-forgotten titles from the golden years of Noir Fiction, as well as some contemporary noir authors. That series, too, has fallen on hard times, probably because he rejected my One Good Thing.
The future of Noir Fiction? Its popularity seems to ebb and flow. There was a burst of interest in the mid-1990s, after the success of the film Pulp Fiction. The recently successful trilogy by Swedish author Stieg Larsson, beginning with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, certainly has noir aspects.
We currently have all the ingredients for a resurgence right now–bad government, bad economy, bad wars, a general hopelessness about the future, an America lost on the dark side of the Force. Maybe, like every noir anti-hero has to do sooner or later, we’ll stop running and face it.
We certainly live in noir times.