The Best American Noir

of the Century

Edited by James Ellroy & Otto Penzler

1923 • TOD ROBBINS Spurs

1928 • JAMES M. CAIN Pastorale

1938 • STEVE FISHER You’ll Always Remember Me


1945 • DAY KEENE Nothing to Worry About

1946 • DOROTHY E. HUGHES The Homecoming

1952 • HOWARD BROWNE Man in the Dark

1953 • MICKEY SPILLANE The Lady Says Die!

1953 • DAVID GOODIS Professional Man

1956 • GIL BREWER The Gesture

1956 • EVAN HUNTER The Last Spin

1960 • JIM THOMPSON Forever After

1968 • CORNELL WOOLRICH For the Rest of Her Life

1972 • DAVID MORRELL The Dripping

1979 • PATRICIA HIGHSMITH Slowly, Slowly in the Wind


1987 • BRENDAN DUBOIS A Ticket Out

1988 • JAMES ELLROY Since I Don’t Have You

1991 • JAMES LEE BURKE Texas City, 1947

1993 • HARLAN ELLISON Mefisto in Onyx

1995 • ED GORMAN Out There in the Darkness

1996 • JAMES CRUMLEY Hot Springs

1996 • JEFFERY DEAVER The Weekender

1998 • LAWRENCE BLOCK Like a Bone in the Throat

1999 • JAMES W. HALL Crack

1999 • DENNIS LEHANE Running Out of Dog

2000 • WILLIAM GAY The Paperhanger

2001 • F. X. TOOLE Midnight Emissions

2002 • ELMORE LEONARD When the Women Come Out to Dance

2002 • SCOTT WOLVEN Controlled Burn

2005 • THOMAS H. COOK What She Offered

2005 • ANDREW KLAVAN Her Lord and Master

2006 • CHRIS ADRIAN Stab

2006 • BRADFORD MORROW The Hoarder

2007 • LORENZO CARCATERRA Missing the Morning Bus


The French word noir (which means “black”) was first connected to the word film by a French critic in 1946, and has subsequently become a prodigiously overused term to describe a certain type of film or literary work. Curiously, noir is not unlike pornography, in the sense that it is virtually impossible to define, but everyone thinks they know it when they see it. Like many other certainties, it is often wildly inaccurate.

This volume is devoted to short noir fiction of the past century, but it is impossible to divorce the literary genre entirely from its film counterpart. Certainly, noir most commonly evokes the great crime films of the 1940s and 1950s that were shot in black-and-white with cinematography that was heavily influenced by early-twentieth-century German expressionism: sharp angles (Venetian blinds, windows, railroad tracks) and strong contrasts between light and dark. Most of us have a collective impression of film noir as having certain essentials: a femme fatale, some tough criminals, an equally tough cop or private eye, an urban environment, and night …endless night. There are bars, nightclubs, menacing alleys, seedy hotel rooms.

While it may be comforting to recognize these elements as the very definition of film noir, it is as simplistic a view as that which limits the mystery genre to detective fiction, failing to accept the numerous other elements of that rich literature, such as the crime novel and suspense stories.

Certainly the golden age of film noir occurred in those decades, the ‘40s and ‘50s, but there were superb examples in the 1930s, such as M (1931), in which Peter Lorre had his first starring role, and Freaks (1932), Tod Browning’s unforgettable biopic in which the principal actors were actual carnival “human curiosities.” And no one is likely to dispute that the noir motion picture continued into the 1960s and beyond, as evidenced by such classics as The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Taxi Driver (1976), Body Heat (1981), and L.A. Confidential (1997).

Much of film noir lacks some or all of the usual cliched visual set pieces of the genre, of course, but the absolutist elements by which the films are known are less evident in the literature, which relies more on plot, tone, and theme than on the chiaroscuro effects choreographed by directors and cinematographers.

Allowing for the differences of the two mediums, I also believe that most film and literary critics are entirely wrong about their definitions of noir, a genre which famously — but erroneously — has its roots in the American hard-boiled private eye novel. In fact, the two subcategories of the mystery genre, private detective stories and noir fiction, are diametrically opposed, with mutually exclusive philosophical premises.

Noir works, whether films, novels, or short stories, are existential, pessimistic tales about people, including (or especially) protagonists, who are seriously flawed and morally questionable. The tone is generally bleak and nihilistic, with characters whose greed, lust, jealousy, and alienation lead them into a downward spiral as their plans and schemes inevitably go awry. Whether their motivation is as overt as a bank robbery, or as subtle as the willingness to compromise integrity for personal gain, the central figures in noir stories are doomed to hopelessness. They may be motivated by the pursuit of seemingly easy money or by love — or, more commonly, physical desire — almost certainly for the wrong member of the opposite sex. The machinations of their relentless lust will ‘cause them to lie, steal, cheat, and even kill as they become more and more entangled in a web from which they cannot possibly extricate themselves. And, while engaged in this hopeless quest, they will be double- crossed, betrayed, and, ultimately, ruined. The likelihood of a happy ending in a noir story is remote, even if the protagonists own view of a satisfactory resolution is the criterion for defining happy. No, it will end badly, because the characters are inherently corrupt and that is the fate that inevitably awaits them.

The private detective story is a different matter entirely. Raymond Chandler famously likened the private eye to a knight, a man who could walk mean streets but not himself be mean, and this is true of the overwhelming majority of those heroic figures. They may well be brought into an exceedingly dark situation, and encounter characters who are deceptive, violent, paranoid, and lacking a moral center, but the American private detective retains his sense of honor in the face of all the adversity and duplicity with which he must do battle. Sam Spade avenged the murder of a partner because he knew he “was supposed to do something about it.” Mike Hammer found it easy to kill a woman to whom he had become attached because he learned she had murdered his friend. Lew Archer, Spenser, Elvis Cole, and other iconic private eyes, as well as policemen who, like Harry Bosch and Dave Robicheaux, often act as if they are unconstrained by their official positions, may bend (or break) the law, but their own sense of morality will be used in the pursuit of justice. Although not every one of their cases may have a happy

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