You know you’re officially a mystery fanatic when you start reading books about books. Luckily, over the years many studies of hardboiled and noir crime fiction have been published to meet the needs of just these kind of fanatics. Here’s a short guide to some of the best.
1. “The Simple Art of Murder” by Raymond Chandler. A landmark essay by one of the genre’s titans, “The Simple Art of Murder” is still essential reading for anyone interested in the process of writing hardboiled crime stories. Chandler being Chandler, the essay is by turns insightful, witty, and infuriating. Curmudgeonly as ever, he casts a decidedly skeptical eye on the genre itself—at one point assuring the reader, “These are stern words, but be not alarmed. They are only words.” But his insights still hold up. Of Dashiell Hammett’s contribution to the creation of the hardboiled school of crime fiction, he wrote, “Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people who commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.” The essay originally appeared in an issue of The Atlantic Monthly but has since been collected along with some of Chandler’s short fiction in The Simple Art of Murder.
2. Hardboiled America: Lurid Paperbacks And The Masters Of Noir by Geoffrey O’Brien. This slim volume is an indispensible overview of the classic era of the hardboiled paperback. Equal parts history and criticism, O’Brien’s book captures the intersection of lust and paranoia (and sin and guilt) that gave rise to noir. He examines writers like Hammett, James M. Cain, Horace McCoy, Jim Thompson, David Goodis and more. Writing about Chandler’s “Simple Art of Murder” essay, he notes, “[It] gives some idea of the intense moral seriousness of Chandler’s approach to his craft, and of the unease he felt in the role of popular entertainer…Chandler’s nature was constantly at war with his chosen form.” O’Brien also devotes a chapter to the lurid covers that adorned many classic paperbacks, giving long overdue credit to artists such as James Avati, Tom Dunn, and Stanley Zuckerberg.
3. Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War; Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction; Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood by Woody Haut. No one has done more to document the lives and careers of crime writers than Woody Haut. These three books form a history lesson that extends from the golden age of the dime-store paperback up to the late 1990s. Pulp Culture is a fascinating look at the political environment that gave rise to writers on the left (like Hammett, who was called up to testify in front of Joe McCarthy) and writers on the right (like Mickey Spillane, whose books capture the Red Scare fever in its bluntest form). Neon Noir picks up after the Kennedy assassination and the fallout of the Vietnam war, a confluence of events that, Haut writes, changed crime fiction. “Contemporary crime writers,” he says “seeking to replicate life at street level, have created a genre whose predominant artifice is its apparent lack of artifice.” Heartbreak and Vine follows the misadventures of pulp writers in Hollywood, providing rich portraits of such fascinating figures as Goodis and Edward Bunker, and interviews with scribblers like James Ellroy and James Crumley.
4. The Street Was Mine: White Masculinity in Hardboiled Fiction and Film Noir by Megan Abbott. Writing about the figure of the self-reliant tough guy in her incisive book length study, crime novelist Megan Abbott asks, “why does this lonely figure so haunt mid-century America?” Building on the work of scholars like Judith Butler and Eric Lott, Abbott explores the “hegemonic presumption” that puts the white male squarely at the center of the vast majority of crime fiction. Abbott is one of the best crime novelists working today, but with this book she also established herself as one of the genre’s smartest critics.
5. Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson by Robert Polito. Hard as it may be to remember, there was a time when Jim Thompson had been mostly forgotten. That he is now widely regarded as one of noir’s great geniuses owes no small debt to this masterful biography by Robert Polito. In praising the book, James Ellroy summed it up nicely, “It reads like a great biographical novel—one life explored, dissected, and infused with a wealth of rich detail.” Obviously, the book is a must read for fans of Thompson, but it’s also an invaluable document about the travails of a working pulp writer.
6. The Big Book Of Noir edited by Ed Gorman, Lee Server, and Martin H. Greenberg. This anthology collects essays on noir film, fiction, comic books, radio, and television. It is absolutely indispensible. In its lengthy section on fiction (the longest section in the book) it contains virtually one-of-a-kind essays on such underrated (and in some cases nearly forgotten figures) as Gil Brewer, Peter Rabe, Donald Hamilton, and Charles Willeford. It also has overviews of imprints like Gold Medal, Lion, and Dell.
7. Crime Fiction by John Scaggs. Finally, if you want to try something distinctly scholarly on for size, try this slim volume from The New Critical Idiom series. In it, writer John Scaggs traces the roots of crime fiction back to biblical stories, through Greek tragedy, through Elizabethan revenge tales, into the English tradition, and into the American hardboiled tradition, identifying along the way various ahistorical modes that created mystery fiction as we now know it.
8. Let’s keep this list going. Please leave a comment and let us know if there are any other books on books that you think are essential reading for the crime fiction fanatic.
Read all posts by Jake Hinkson for Criminal Element.