There are literally dozens of great authors and great novels that could have been suggested as essential reading for this guide. The writer of the article went through agonising decisions over who to leave out and is more than aware that your favourite author probably hasn't been mentioned but feel free to start a discussion in the comments.
A (not-so-brief) Brief Overview of Hard-boiled and Noir Fiction
Part Four – Fear and Nostalgia in Los Angeles (1990s & 2000s)
There are currently many prolific authors working in crime fiction, whose names will not be mentioned, that occasionally find themselves labelled as noir by fans and critics alike and quite simply are not. They write about cops who have problems with their superiors or former military men with vengeance on their mind, they pile up the bodies and solve dark cases but they border on fantasy and as we’ve seen in the previous three parts to this overview true noirs are realistic and bleak with very few happy endings.
After assessing fifty years of noir and hard-boiled writing it becomes quite obvious that the fourth generation, the contemporary American hard-boiled and noir writer are yet to truly find their own unique voice or societal change to rail against.
If you accept that 9/11 changed the world completely in the same way that WWII and the threat of nuclear war did to previous generations we should expect a dramatic increase in distinct creative output from the next wave of authors.
What is clear is that, as with the rise in popularity of dystopian fiction, contemporary hard-boiled and noir authors are looking to their genre heritage and their countries past for settings and places to escape to. They are almost a lost generation, dreaming of a time when things were friendlier, less scary, less connected and invasive, that time when there was still some hope for the American Dream.
I discovered the work of Megan Abbott this year, she’s approximately 3 feet tall and specialises in reworking dark noir stories with a female centred twist. If you saw her on the street she'd probably be the last person you would imagine writing such dark novels. Her debut, Die A Little (2005), is set in 1950s LA and steeped in atmospheric suspense and voyeuristic appeal. She wrote four of these excellent period re-workings and then along came The End of Everything (2011) in which she updated her noir styling’s to teenaged girls in 1980s suburbia to amazing effect. It is a tale of lust, revenge, guilt, and my favourite four noir words; secrets, lies, passions and repressions.
Walter Mosley created the iconic hard-boiled hero Easy Rawlins in Devil in a Blue Dress (1990) and went on to write ten more books about his black private detective in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, ending with Blonde Faith (2007). Utilising the style of Chandler and MacDonald Mosley manages to craft top quality hard-boiled mysteries and blend them with analysis of the social inequalities of the time.
George Pelecanos is one of the most famous names from this list, especially for his time writing for the HBO series The Wire. He came to prominence however for his D.C. Quartet, a series of four historical crime novels set in Washington D.C.. He also created two fantastic hard-boiled series featuring first Nick Stefanos in A Firing Offense (1991) and then the pairing of Derek Strange and Terry Quinn with Right as Rain (2001) which has built him a reputation for his gritty depiction of street life and a focus on hard-luck criminals.
James Ellroy, the King of Sinnuendo, the Demon Dog of American crime writing, knows how to write bleak noir filled with hard-boiled characters like nobody working today. His work is generally set in the 1950s and 1960s, featuring densely plotted criminal behaviour from all sides of the law with his tone relentlessly pessimistic. Perhaps his best work (or at the very least the best place to start) is L.A. Confidential (1990) and should be followed up with the first part of his Underworld USA trilogy American Tabloid (1995). But nobody can describe him better than he describes himself:
“Good evening peepers, prowlers, pederasts, panty-sniffers, punks and pimps. I'm James Ellroy, the demon dog, the foul owl with the death growl, the white knight of the far right, and the slick trick with the donkey dick. I'm the author of 16 books, masterpieces all; they precede all my future masterpieces. These books will leave you reamed, steamed and drycleaned, tie-dyed, swept to the side, true-blued, tattooed and bah fongooed. These are books for the whole fuckin' family, if the name of your family is Manson.”Another black private investigator, Lew Griffin, got his start in The Long-Legged Fly (1992) by James Sallis, a novel that starts in the 60s and moves through to the 90s and would lead to five more outings. Sallis has his own way of writing these hard-boiled private detectives, they’re complex and often poetic in their structure. He would go on to create another great of modern noir, Drive (2005) about an unnamed stunt driver who also works as a getaway driver for criminals.
Don Winslow might be most widely known for his brilliant and brutal modern noir Savages (2010) but he also created the surfing private detective Boone Daniels in The Dawn Patrol (2008). Winslow is known for his adrenaline-fueled novels and unique prose style, his subject matter is nothing ground breaking but he entertains like nobody else in the genre.
That leaves us with only Dennis Lehane to draw part four to a close. Lehane might just be best known for his psychological thrillers turned in to Oscar bait movies but his six Boston based noir thrillers featuring male/female investigation team Kenzie & Gennaro are some of the best in modern hard-boiled crime writing. Their first outing A Drink Before The War (1994) set a high standard to live up to but he reached incredibly bleak heights with Gone Baby, Gone (1998).
I'll reserve special mention for another Brit, Philip Kerr, the creator of the Bernie Gunther novels. These books are a fantastic throwback to classic hard-boiled novels. Bernie starts as a private detective in Berlin as Hitler is consolidating his power and witnesses some truly awful things. His first three adventures are collected as Berlin Noir (1989 to 1991) and are well worth your time.
You can find me discussing books on Goodreads, discussing movies on Letterboxd, tweeting nonsense as blahblahblahtoby feel free to say hi.