Noir fiction's development
arose as the hardboiled genre focused less on private eyes, newsmen,
cops, and other crime solvers. The first major work to break away from
the tradition of the detective is W.R. Burnett's Little Caesar (1929).
This novel is about the rise and fall of gangster Cesare Bandello,
better known as Rico. In this work, the criminal aspects of the plot and
the protagonist are intertwined. There is never any question of the
protagonist's involvement nor any question that this is not a detective
The next major development in noir came with James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934). This work has all the elements commonly associated with noir fiction, particularly sex. The work characterizes the typical man/woman relationship in noir with the term "the Love-Rack" and with the characters of Frank Chambers and Cora Papadakis. This relationship is illustrated so well by Frank's statement: "Hell could have opened for me then, and it wouldn't have made any difference. I had to have her, if I hung for it." Cain is the most important writer of early noir. The Postman Always Rings Twice and other Cain novels like Double Indemnity, which was serialized in Liberty magazine in 1936, and Serenade (1937) were a major influence on many future noir writers. Other key works of early noir are Horace McCoy's They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1935) and Richard Hallas' You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up (1938).
By the close of the 1930's, all the elements of this sub-genre existed. But this type of hardboiled fiction was hardly predominate. Instances of early noir were isolated. The reason is because noir lacked a medium where it could flourish. Hardcover books and slick magazines had a limited demand for hardboiled fiction. Pulp magazines, which were a good medium for hardboiled fiction, preferred detective stories. Also, pulp magazines, like most magazines at that time, were reluctant to publish sexually suggestive fiction, and noir fiction is prone to sexual themes.
In the 1940's, noir fiction limped along. Cain, Burnett, and McCoy continued to write. Important works include High Sierra (1940), Past All Dishonor (1946), The Butterfly (1947), and Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1948). Also, the novels of Cornell Woolrich were a noteworthy development. Though his work lacks the conciseness and fast pace usually associated with noir fiction, his subject matter evokes those same feelings of despair and cynicism. Another important development was the instances of noir in film.
"Film noir" is not the cinematic counterpart of the "roman noir" or "noir fiction." The concept of film noir developed independently and has only an indirect relationship. As film critic Raymond Durgnat pointed out and many have echoed, film noir is not a genre, instead, it is a cinematic style that uses chiaroscuro lighting effects with black and white film to create dark, nihilistic mood. Because of this, films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) can be referred to as film noir without being part of the French concept of the roman noir. Likewise, movies like the Maltese Falcon (1941) and Murder, My Sweet (1944) are also film noir, even though the book versions of these films are not called noir, at least, not in America. On the other hand, other film noirs like High Sierra (1941), Double Indemnity (1944), Detour (1945), Gilda (1946), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Out of the Past (1947), and Gun Crazy (1949) are very much part of the American concept of noir fiction. In the late 1940's, there was an explosion of noir fiction films that foreshadowed the explosion of noir in print.
Noir came truly alive with the advent of the first line of paperback originals, Gold Medal Books. The paperback original provided noir with its medium. It was not as inhibited when it came to sex, and was willing to tackle this darker, more cynical type of fiction. It is not surprising that James M. Cain was able to publish Sinful Woman (1948), Jealous Woman (1951), and The Root of His Evil (1952) as originals when he had failed to sell them to hardcover or magazine markets.
A paperback original is a publishing term for a book that has not been previously released in hardcover. Fawcett Publications was a magazine and comic book publisher and independent newsstand distributor. They signed a contract with New American Library (N.A.L.) to distribute their Signet and Mentor lines. The contract prohibited Fawcett from publishing paperback reprints, but unfortunately for N.A.L., there was a loophole in the contract that allowed Fawcett to publish originals. It's doubtful if N.A.L. considered the possibility of Fawcett getting into the paperback business, but in 1949, Fawcett announced a paperback original line called Gold Medal Books. The move was one of the shrewdest in publishing history and created a new medium. Previously, paperbacks were just an extension of hardcover publishing, since they were almost exclusively reprints. Originals appeared occasionally before 1949, but were rare. With Gold Medal, who published around eight originals a month, the paperback started creating its own literature.
Though Gold Medal published some test runs in late 1949 and early 1950, the line didn't become fully operational until May 1950. Gold Medal's relationship with noir fiction developed slowly and didn't truly come into full force until Richard Carroll became editor in February 1951. Carroll had worked previously as a story editor in Hollywood. This is possibly why he was open to this dark brand of crime fiction.
Gold Medal was the leader in noir fiction, discovering writers like Charles Williams, Peter Rabe, Gil Brewer, Clifton Adams, John McPartland, Marvin Albert, and Vin Packer, publishing noted works by Harry Whittington, Day Keene, Lionel White, Wade Miller, Bruno Fischer, David Goodis, Benjamin Appel, Dan J. Marlowe, and eventually, Jim Thompson.
Gold Medal realized quickly that noir was profitable. House of Flesh (1950) by Bruno Fischer sold 1,800,212 copies; Hill Girl (1951) by Charles Williams sold 1,226,890; 13 French Street (1951) by Gil Brewer sold 1,200,365; and Cassidy's Girl (1951) by David Goodis sold 1,036,497. Soon, other paperback publishers like Lion, Dell, Ace, Popular Library, Beacon, Monarch, and Avon followed Gold Medal's lead. Lion Books, in particular, carved its own special niche by brining Jim Thompson to the forefront and publishing most of his early works.
The 1950's were the decade of the paperback original, but by the close of the decade, the book buying market had changed, affected by television, and originals began to wane in popularity. Some publishers like Lion Books ceased to exist. As the medium suffered, so did noir. In the 1960's, Gold Medal focused more and more on series characters like Travis McGee and Shell Scott.
In the 1980's, Black Lizard brought noir fiction back to the forefront. As interest spread, other publishers started reprinting noir classics and releasing new works of noir [Ray Ring's Arizona Kiss (1991) and Ed Gorman's Wolf Moon (1993) are good examples of contemporary noir]. This attention culminated in 1990 with the release of four films: The Grifters, After Dark, My Sweet, The Kill-Off, and The Hot Spot. With these films, a new concept of film noir was born. These movies lack the moody cinematic style of 1940's film noir. Instead, they are called noir because they were adapted from noir novels, three from works by Jim Thompson and the other from a novel by Charles Williams. With these films, the concepts and the terms noir fiction and film noir merge.
Though noir fiction is alive today, its boom years were during the 1950's and early 1960's. The following is a list of some of the best works from noir's golden years. These works defined noir fiction as well as any definition. Most were published as paperback originals though there are some hardcover novels (Dutton and Abelard titles) listed.
The Desperado by Clifton Adams (Gold Medal) -- Though a Western, this novel is a landmark of early Gold Medal noir. Set in Texas during Reconstruction, the story traces the subtle transformation of Talbert Cameron from battler of injustice to outlaw.
River Girl by Charles Williams (Gold Medal) -- Most early originals are less than 200 pages long, but this novel, at 277 pages, is an exception. Despite its length, it maintains the characteristic conciseness of style. Other noteworthy king-size noirs are Richard Gehman's Driven (1954), H. Vernor Dixon's Deep Is the Pit (1952), and Jada Davis' One for Hell (1952). River Girl also is a classic example of backwoods noir, which uses an Erskine Caldwell type setting to heighten the sexual overtones of the story.
Fools Walk In by Bruno Fischer (Gold Medal) -- Fischer specialized in protagonists with which readers can easily identify. His stories are not about heroes or anti-heroes as much as they are about the common man. This book is one of his best, telling the tale of a high school English teacher who attempts a good deed by picking up a stranded girl, only to find himself accessory after the fact to a payroll holdup.
The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson (Lion) -- This work is considered one of, if not the most important pieces of noir fiction. It earns that distinction because it broke new ground by providing an intimate portrait of a psychotic mind. Despite its status as one of the ultimate works of noir, it is usually not thought of a Thompson's best novel. That distinction usually goes to Hell of a Woman, The Getaway, or Pop. 1280.
Plunder by Benjamin Appel (Gold Medal) -- Appel is one of the early contributors to noir with novels like Brain Guy (1934). But unlike Cain and Burnett who wrote their best fiction in the 1930's and 1940's, Appel's fiction continued to improve. The two books [the other was Sweet Money Girl (1954)], that he wrote for Gold Medal, are Appel at his noir best.
The Brotherhood in Velvet by David Karp (Lion) -- One might assume that Jim Thompson was the most gifted writer to work for Lion Books. But a strong case can be made that the distinction belongs to David Karp. Karp wrote five books for Lion and then crossed over to hardcover markets where he received a wealth of critical praise, including a write up in 1957, in Current Biography.
Hell Hath No Fury by Charles Williams (Gold Medal) -- This book was the first paperback original to be reviewed by noted New York Times critic Anthony Boucher, who described it as "a most ingeniously plotted series of crimes, from a tricky bank robbery to an involuntary murder. The striking suspense technique (especially in a powerful scene of line-up identification by a blind witness) may remind you of Woolrich; the basic story, with its bitter blend of sex and criminality, may recall James M. Cain. But Mr. Williams is individually himself in his sharp but unmannered prose style and in his refusal to indulge in sentimental compromises."
Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze (Gold Medal) -- Chaze is an example of a writer who is not known so much for a body of work, but for an individual piece of noir fiction. This story about an armored car robbery is one of the most celebrated works of noir.
Savage Night by Jim Thompson (Lion) -- Charlie Bigger, alias Carl Bigelow, is a five foot tall, paid killer who is called out of retirement to kill a former mob pay-off man, Jake Winroy. While carrying out this crime, he falls in love with Ruthie Dorne. Like much noir fiction, love is first seen, by the protagonist, as something pure in a corrupt world, but then it gets all dirty.
Joy House by Day Keene (Lion) -- Day Keene was one of those writers who successfully made the crossover from pulp magazines to paperbacks. This novel tells the story of Mark Harris, who is hunted by both sides of the law, with few avenues of escape. Then, he finds refuge with two women, only to discover that he has jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire.
Hell of a Woman by Jim Thompson (Lion) -- A novel distinguished by its unusual duel ending. This story is about door-to-door salesman Frank Dillon who falls in love with Mona, a young woman who has been forced into prostitution by her sadistic aunt. The plot thickens when Frank conspires with Mona to kill the aunt and make off with $100,000 that is stashed away in her house.
Black Friday by David Goodis (Lion) -- Goodis is one of the blackest of noir craftsmen. The typical Goodis hero is a loser. In the case of Black Friday, the hero, Hart, is on the lam after murdering his brother in New Orleans. Fleeting to Philadelphia, he joins a gang of burglars, bringing his bad luck with him.
A Touch of Death by Charles Williams (Gold Medal) -- Lee Scarborough was an All-Conference halfback with a future, but a bum knee ruined it. He was a hero at eighteen and a has-been at twenty-five. Now, at twenty-nine, he finds himself at the home of a woman who calls herself Diana James, and she has offered him $120,000. All he has to do is pick it up.
To Find a Killer by Lionel White (Dutton) -- Occasionally a paperback original writer could establish a relationship with a hardcover publisher. White did with Dutton, as did the team of Bob Wade and Bill Miller (better known as Wade Miller) with Dodd Mead, under the Whit Masterson penname. Both White and Masterson wrote some of the best hardcover noir. This book, in particular, is one of the finest rogue cop novels ever written.
Pick-Up by Charles Willeford (Beacon) -- As paperback original publishers go, Beacon was one of the last rungs on the ladder, yet they still published some excellent novels, like this book about the relationship between an artist drawn to failure and his alcoholic girlfriend.
Clean Break by Lionel White (Dutton) -- An excellent caper novel by the undisputed king of caper novels. White is a genius at handling a cast of characters and characterizing them quickly and distinctly. This novel, about a racetrack heist, was made into the classic noir film The Killing (1956). Though both White novels cited here are hardcover, he also wrote a number of gems for Gold Medal including The Big Caper (1955) and Death Takes a Bus (1957).
Death's Sweet Song by Clifton Adams (Gold Medal) -- Joe Hooper had ambition, but no luck. He bought, on a GI loan, a motel along a planned superhighway. But when the project was scrapped, he found himself saddled with a failing business. Then Mr. and Mrs. Sheldon and a plan for a thirty grand payroll hold up pull into his tourist court.
After Dark, My Sweet by Jim Thompson (Popular Library)-- Ex-boxer Kid Collins falls in love with a beautiful widow Fay Anderson. She draws him into a kidnapping scheme. He is compelled to carry out the crime in an attempt to express his love and find some way to save Fay from herself.
A House in Naples by Peter Rabe (Gold Medal) -- While Jim Thompson and Charles Williams are best remembered for their first person narratives, Peter Rabe is a master of third person noir. In this novel, Rabe writes of Charley, an army deserter and black marketer, who must flee Italy because of a crackdown on illegal aliens. Traveling to Rome to obtain forged documents, Charley finds love, and a girl named Martha. He returns to Naples under a new identity, with Martha, and tries to find the happiness that has eluded him throughout his life.
Kill the Boss Good-By by Peter Rabe (Gold Medal) -- Tom Fell, crime boss, returns prematurely from a sanitarium to fight an attempt to take over his territory. At the same time, Fell must battle to hold on to his criminal empire and his sanity.
Man on the Run by Charles Williams (Gold Medal) -- Not William's best novel from that year, All the Way and Girl Out Back are better, but a noteworthy book because it is a great example of a "chase" story, a common formula in noir fiction. A chase story is a plot involving a protagonist who is running from the police, in an attempt to clear him/herself of a crime. In this case, Russell Foley, an accused cop killer, is on the run, when he gets help from Suzy Patton, the author of historic romances.
Kitten with a Whip by Wade Miller (Gold Medal) -- David Patton thinks he's alone. His wife, Virginia, and six-year-old daughter, Katie have left for a few days because Virginia's mom is ill. But when he comes downstairs that Saturday morning, he finds Jody Drew, a runaway from a juvenile home. Instead of calling the police, he tries to give her a break, making the worst mistake of his life.
The Last Night by John McPartland (Gold Medal) -- McPartland was one of the most promising writers to write for Gold Medal. His early fiction up to and including his hardcover novel, No Down Payment (1957) is uneven, but after No Down Payment, his next three novels show a marked improvement in craftsmanship. The Last Night was the last of the three and published after his death in 1959. It's about Pat Murphy, a court appointed lawyer and his battle to clear Rip Aldrich, a female beatnik, from a murder charge.
The Getaway by Jim Thompson (Signet) -- Doc and Carol McCoy are bank robbers and lovers. In many ways, this book is Thompson's most conventional story, yet it has an extremely unconventional ending. Which is why it's one of his best books.
The Devil Wears Wings by Harry Whittington (Abelard) -- Whittington, Day Keene, and Gil Brewer are favorites among noir enthusiasts because they are so prolific. They are like an endless reservoir of noir. Each lived in the St. Petersburg, Florida area, which is an interesting coincidence. This story is about Buz Johnson, an ex-Air Force pilot, who after the war started an airfreight line. When the business goes bankrupt, he begins drinking and ends up with a demeaning job as a flight instructor. Buz is desperately looking for a way out, when one of his students approaches him about a bank job. Buz is needed to fly the getaway plane.
The Three-Way Split by Gil Brewer (Gold Medal) -- Jack Holland, an in debt charter boat captain, discovers a sunken treasure and a way out of his dilemma, but then his father, a thorn in Jack's side, comes to town and, as always, trouble follows.
Cry Me a Killer by Garrity (Gold Medal) -- The cover blurb sums up the plot best: "I loved her enough to die for her, wanted her enough to kill for her. It didn't matter that I was a cop -- or that the man I had to murder was a gangland titan . . ." It's a James M. Cain type story with an honest cop as the killer and a vicious mobster as the victim. Garrity is a penname for Dave Gerrity, a good friend of Mickey Spillane. As a matter of fact, the book's dedication reads, "With a tip of the hat to the Mick."
The Name of the Game is Death by Dan J. Marlowe (Gold Medal) -- This book was later revised to create a series character. Make sure and read the original. The story opens with the main character, Earl Drake, robbing a bank with two partners. Earl is shot. One of the partners is shot and killed, but Earl and the other man, Bunny, escape with the loot. Earl tells Bunny to go to Florida with instructions to send him a portion of the money each week. Earl is supposed to meet him in Florida after Earl's had a chance to heal. Then one week, the money stops coming and Drake races to Florida to retrieve his share.
Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson (Gold Medal) -- An underlying question in much of noir fiction is the question of free will. Does a noir hero control his own fate or is his destiny already locked into place? For Sheriff Nick Corey, the answer is easy. He's part of the God's master plan, as is murder.
Tuttle, George. "What Is Noir?" Mystery Scene, 43(1994): 35,36,91, & 92.
Gifford, Barry. Introduction, Hell of a Woman by Jim Thompson. Berkeley, CA: Black Lizard, 1984.
Cantrell, Tom. "A Talk with Barry Gifford." Paperback Parade, 21 (1990): 35-41.
Schrader, Paul. "Notes on Film Noir." Film Comment, Spring 1972: 8-13.
Hackett, Alice Payne. 60 Years of Best Sellers, 1895-1955. New York: Bowker, 1955.
Boucher, Anthony. "Criminals at Large." The New York Times Review. 29 March 1953: 26
For many, noir was just convenient. They needed a term to distinguish writers like Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Charles Williams, Gil Brewer, Harry Whittington, Day Keene, Wade Miller, Bruno Fischer, Lionel White, John McPartland, and Peter Rabe from writers who wrote private eye fiction. It was all hardboiled, but it was not all the same. These writers were not so much in the tradition of Dashiell Hammett and Black Mask Boys, but instead in the tradition of James M. Cain and are part of the paperback original boom of the 1950ís.
My article was published online in 1997, first as a Geocities site, then Tripod, and finally, its current domain. At the time, I was experimenting with web design and needed content for a web page. This article is a spin-off of a piece I wrote in 1994 for Mystery Scene magazine. I had observed that the French use of the term noir was not identical to the American use of the term. For the French, roman noir is the hardboiled novel. The Americans hijacked the word noir, scraped off the roman and tacked on fiction and adopted it as something distinct. Americans seem to use the term to identify a type of hardboiled fiction where themes of loneliness, despair, sexual obsession, and hard luck are prevalent.
If I was to write this article today, I would write it differently. Noir is a growing concept. Plus, there are generalizations I made that I would fine tune. Still, I think the article is a useful contribution. As you sort out noir and its many meanings, I hope you too find it useful.
George Tuttle (2006)