Five Favorite Noir & Hard-Boiled Novels – The Stark House Contingent

9781944520687This Saturday, August 31st at 2PM we will be holding a discussion on BookPeople’s third floor to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of Stark House Press and their release of The Best Of Manhunt, the premiere crime magazine of the fifties and sixties. Authors Tim  Bryant, Josh Stallings, and Joe R. Lansdale will being joining. We also have two representatives from Stark House in on the discussion. Rick Ollerman is both an author at Stark House with books like Mad Dog Barked and Turnabout/ Shallow Secrets and well as their expert, contributing the historical and critical introductions to many of their reprints. Most can be found in the collection Hard Boiled, Noir, and Gold Medals, along with new essays. Jeff Vorzimmer is an author and editor, with The Best Of Manhunt being his latest project. We asked both of them to list five titles from their favorite noir and hard-boileds.

jeff Jeff’s Picks:

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

This was the book that got me hooked on Highsmith. Previously I’d only read Strangers on a Train, which, like Ripley himself, also features a psychopath. In Ripley, though we get an uncomfortably close view of a psychopath in a novel set on the Amalfi Coast of Italy, one of my favorite places in the world. It’s also been made into—not just one—but two great movies, one French and one American.

The Far Cry by Fredric Brown

Like most readers of pulp fiction, my introduction to Brown was through his science fiction, but I soon discovered his fantastic crime fiction. The Far Cry is a great crime novel set in Taos, New Mexico, in which Brown made use of his background as a skip-tracer. A man looking to get away from the city for a few weeks learns that a woman who stayed in the cabin he rents had disappeared eight years before and he quickly becomes obsessed with the case.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three by John Godey

The great New York City heist novel that’s been filmed twice. What an ingenious story line—hijacking a subway car! Whether you’ve seen either film, the book is well-plotted and well worth reading.

Swamp Sister by Robert Edmond Alter

I first came to Swamp Sister through Barry Gifford’s Black Lizard line of books in the 80s and I was instantly hooked, not just on Alter, but also the “swamp” subgenre of the 1950s and 60s crime fiction. Other great “swamp” books are Harry Whittington’s A Moment to Prey (Backwoods Tramp)—also published by Black Lizard—and Gil Brewer’s Hell’s Our Destination.

The Hot Spot (aka Hell Hath No Fury) by Charles Williams

Having read all of Charles Williams, I’m hard-pressed to pick one, but this one is a good example of his crime fiction. Williams was a Texan and, like many of his early books, this one is set in Texas. It features a heist and two love triangles and was made into a film shot in central Texas with Don Johnson, Virginia Madsen and the beautiful Jennifer Connelly in an unforgettable scene at Hamilton Pool.

obj692geo677pg2p22 Rick’s Picks:

The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain

This is James M. Cain’s seminal noir work and when I apply my definition of noir (I know you’ve heard ad nauseum; you start out screwed and end up screwed-er) this is the book that I tell people to read when they ask, “So, what is this noir thing?”

Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze 

I’m not as much on the bandwagon with this book as some people, and Chaze’s surviving family feels he wrote better books than this, but it’s certainly a compelling example of the ups and downs in a well-told noir story that trend in a disastrous direction up until its inevitable sort of ending.

One for Hell by Jada M. Davis

Davis published only two books in his lifetime, opting instead to follow the corporate path and take the safer money and look out for his family. But this book is what you’d get if you sparkled some fertilizer on Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me and allowed it to grow inside a summer greenhouse for a season. When it comes out it would swallow the Thompson book whole. Interestingly, the other book Davis published (The Outraged Sect) is almost a mirror image of One for Hell and because of it offers a fascinating analysis of why noir works as a form of literature. Stark House has also published the excellent coming of age story The Midnight Road and–when I catch up even more–a very tasty Gold Medal-esque home run called So Curse the Day as the centerpiece of an upcoming anthology. Assuming Jeff doesn’t use up all the good stories in his collections….

The Name of the Game is Death by Dan J. Marlowe

It offers another terrific trip through the noir landscape. In this case, the protagonist picks a name that’s as good as any other, Earl Drake, as he plans and commits his string of crimes. Being noir, of course things get more and more away from him, all the way through the grisly climax. Almost by definition, a truly noir book defies a sequel and though the ending of this book seems to adhere to the rule, Marlowe actually makes an exception and follows this book with One Endless Hour. Rather than having burned to death as we had believed after Name of the Game, Drake not only survives but plastic surgery gives him a new face. The first third of this book is a recap of Name of the Game and actually serves to transition into the character not only becoming the owner of the “Earl Drake” name, but Marlowe also making him a full-fledged government agent in a series of men’s adventure books. As a sequence, it’s fascinating, as is Marlowe’s personal story (amnesiac, slowly regains his memory, works with a convict/ex-con on future books) but aside from all that, The Name of the Game is Death deserves its position on the noir shelf, especially as a single book. Stark House did an omnibus edition with both The Name of the Game is Death and One Endless Hour.

The Eye of the Beholder by Marc Behm

It’s the story of a private investigator with a missing daughter who is surveilling a female serial killer and how this becomes a tragic obsession with him. Behm is in the top rank of French noir writers and this book was made into a movie (very different from the book, in a nowhere-near-as-good way with Ethan Hawke) and more recently a number of Behm’s novels have been made into graphic novels as well as found their way into new reprint editions.

As a bonus from left field, I’ll give you a complete unknown and dark horse. It’s more contemporary than classic, being published in 2002, and it’s by Hugo Wilcken, called The Execution. The simplified plot is about a man losing his girlfriend but as the story goes on, you see that what’s going on is the main character’s slow descent into insanity. It is a disturbing read.

You can order (most of) these titles from BookPeople online and hear more from Jeff and Rick when we host them on August 31st at 2PM for our panel celebrating the 20th anniversary of Stark House Press. 

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