10 of the Best Noir Novels of the 21st Century

Here we are, fifteen years into a new century, and many authors are churning out noir novels as essential as anything from its heyday. If you’re like me, when you think of the 90s, it feels about five years ago, but the last decade and a half comprises the entire publishing career of many authors, even though we’re about 80 years beyond the origin of noir fiction and about 65 years away from its golden age.

Here then, are 10 of my favorites from the new millennium. I won’t say they're the best because I certainly haven’t read every noir novel to come out since 2000, and I’m hoping someone out there comments about another book they feel passionate about, so I can find new titles to add to my reading list. Comment away and tell me what I missed.

1. The Cleanup by Sean Doolittle (2006)

The hallmarks of noir are the sad sucker, the femme fatale, some very bad decisions—The Cleanup has them all. Working night security at an Omaha supermarket is about as low as a man can sink. He might as well have been thrown off the hay truck about noon. Doolittle is the king of suburban noir and he’s never been blacker than here in a timeless tale that of the desperate side of a man’s soul seeking redemption and a slice of what passes for happiness in his snowbound flatlands world.

2. Dope by Sara Gran (2006)

A blazing, first-person narrative that gleefully takes you into the gutter with Josephine, recovering drug addict and newly minted amateur P.I. Set in the 1950s, this one could have been plucked off the shelves in that decade just as easily as now, except Gran is more honest, more brutal, and more unforgiving than many classic pulp writers. No happy endings here. But this is noir, so that’s no spoiler.

 

3. Small Crimes by Dave Zeltserman (2008)

A lot of noir protagonists fall into their predicament by bad luck, poor choices, or scheming forces at work against them. Zeltserman specializes in writing about characters who put themselves right in the fire, and never more so than with crooked cop Joe Denton. Denton seems hellbent on ruining his life, even after he’s given a second chance. And reading about his slide down is bleak, black fun.

 

4. The Cold Kiss by John Rector (2010)

One bad choice often leads to another. And Easy Street always seems one short step away. But we know it’s never that simple. Watching the disaster that befalls a down-on-their-luck couple who think they’ve hit the jackpot, is a slow spiral through small justifications for bad actions—always thinking one more indiscretion will be all that’s needed to set them up for life. But, oh, no. There is always one more loose thread to be cut. One more test of how crooked we are willing to get when staring temptation in the face. An instant classic.

 

5. Hell On Church Street by Jake Hinkson (2012)

Alongside the sad suckers and put-upon cuckolds of noir is the psychopath. Think of the (anti)heroes of The Killer Inside Me, Kiss My Fist, Grifter’s Game. Hinkson has created a despicable rogue who also happens to be a charmer, both to the people in the story and the reader. Southern-fried and Bible-thumping, this noir also contains one of the most noir sentences ever uttered: “So, you see, starting out I had good intentions.” That sums up the cynical world view as well as anything. Good intentions with skewed approaches lead to dark outcomes.

SEE ALSO: What Sleuth Are You?

6. Cemetery Road by Gar Anthony Haywood (2009)

Another candidate for the most noir line ever is this one from Cemetery Road: “I was given my first clue that what we were about to do could only end badly.” That’s one thing about noir. It doesn’t try to hide the fact that things will, indeed, go badly. In Haywood’s masterpiece of contemporary L.A., they go spectacularly awry. And it all starts with those damned good intentions again. This is a story about the failure to live down your past, and the fact that payback is patient and will always find you in the end.

7. Twisted City by Jason Starr (2004)

There is not a string of more perfect hardcore noir novels than the early work of Jason Starr. He churned them out like a Gold Medal writer on deadline, or more like someone who had to keep typing before the devil showed up to claim his due. Twisted City, Hard Feelings, Tough Luck, Cold Caller, Fake ID, Nothing Personal, Lights Out. I put all these novels in a series since they take place in the same moody world where nobody is safe and no one is clean, no matter how innocent.

Twisted City is the ultimate bad-luck noir. A simple twist of fate draws our protagonist into the worst week of his life, and on every page, you feel terrified that this could all happen to you tomorrow. Chilling. Nobody abuses his characters more than Starr. If there is justice in literature, Starr’s afterlife will consist of him being tortured for eternity by all the fictional people he has wronged.

8. Fade To Blonde by Max Phillips (2004)

Of all the Hard Case Crime books that could have made this list, I have a soft spot for this one. I’m due for a re-read, because while thinking about it, I could recall very little of the specific plot, but I still remember the feeling of being soaked in an old-school noir with a modern feel. Max Phillips may be a pen name. I’m not even sure, but this is homage that elevates itself above the realm of mere imitation and stands proudly on its own. This one won the Shamus award from the Private Eye Writers of America, and it’s easy to see why.

9. A Very Simple Crime by Grant Jerkins (2010)

I was reminded of Cornell Woolrich several times while reading this novel, and I consider Woolrich to be the master of the form. A small story, simply told, this novel progresses deliberately, but powerfully, forward. Second-guessing doesn’t even cover it. You can’t figure it out. It’s like mercury in your hands. Jerkins toys with the reader and each page is like taking another step deeper into quicksand.

10. The Ice Harvest by Scott Phillips (2000)

A modern classic of noir nihilism. These are nasty people doing nasty things and almost daring you to root for them. The crooks and shysters are small-time, but the stakes are high in their seedy little world. Best of all, the crimes are wrapped in a family drama of a failed marriage and a doomed man determined to make very bad decisions. There are double-crosses, femme fatales, and there hasn’t been a man more desperate to run after his big plans fail since Harry Fabian in Night and the City. This is midwestern noir at its ice-cold best.

Ten was hard to whittle down, so here are some more dishonorable mentions:

Abide With Me by Ian Ayris

The Ninth Step by Grant Jerkins

Drive by James Sallis

Die a Little , The Song Is You by Megan Abbott

Donnybrook by Frank Bill

Hard Cold Whisper by Michael Hemmingson

The Science Of Paul by Aaron Phillip Clark

Dark as Night by Mark T. Conard

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Eric Beetner is a hardboiled crime author of The Devil Doesn't Want Me, Dig Two Graves, White Hot Pistol, The Year I Died Seven Times, Stripper Pole At The End Of The World, Split Decision, A Mouth Full Of Blood and co-author (with JB Kohl) of One Too Many Blows To The Head and Borrowed Trouble. Award-winning short story writer, former musician, sometimes filmmaker, film noir nerd and father of two.

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4 comments
Terrie Farley Moran
1. Terrie
Excellent list. Special shout-out to Small Crimes by Dave Zeltserman
Marjorie Manharth
2. mmanharth
Oh, wow! This is how my Kindle gets overloaded!
3. karabekirus
Good list, but check out the following as well:
1. Pike - Benjamin Whitmer
2. The Hard Bounce - Todd Robinson
3. Last Call for the Living - Peter Farris
4. Tim Hallinan
Great list, Eric. Thrilled to see CEMETERY ROAD on it. What a mo-fo of a book.
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