12 Neo-Noir Authors Too Good Not to Be Crazy Famous
By Greg LevinSeptember 9, 2020
The best noir writers are as dark and dangerous and unpredictable as the stories they write. So buckle up, because we've got 12 authors you can't miss.
Some of the best fiction I’ve ever read—and I’m not just talking crime fiction—are noir and neo-noir stories that, for whatever reason, not enough people know about. And no, I’m not one of those people who, in an attempt to be cool, intentionally seeks out relatively obscure yet brilliant authors and books just so I can claim to have “discovered” them before anyone else has.
That’s not it at all. That’s not me at all. Truth is, whenever I finish a book by someone whom I find to be a noir master but who has somehow managed to fly largely or even just somewhat under the radar, it baffles me, irks me. For instance, there are passages in Will Christopher Baer’s Kiss Me, Judas that are so jaw-droppingly exquisite in their minimalism, whenever I re-read them today I get angry at the world. Granted, Baer did sort of drop out of sight not long after his last book came out, which could explain why he isn’t a household name among the larger reading public. But still, his going AWOL should have only added to his legend, right? It should have caused more than just his devoted cult following to wonder Where on earth is this magnificent scribe and who must I kill to read more of his work?
And the thing is, Baer is but one example of a neo-noir writer who’s simply too damn good not to be crazy famous—not that noir writers write noir to get crazy famous. It may actually be a good thing most aren’t crazy famous, since the best noir writers are as dark and dangerous and unpredictable as the stories they write and thus should probably be kept away from large crowds. And vice versa.
Regardless of whether it would be safe for them to have millions of screaming fans, the following twelve noir/neo-noir authors deserve that many fans—and more.
(NOTE: I’m well aware that Criminal Element’s readers are a savvy bunch, so I imagine many of you have heard of [and love] most or perhaps even all of the “unsung” authors I’ve listed below. But trust me, the average schmo—and even the average crime fiction schmo—has not. So, depending on where you land on the noir spectrum, either congratulate yourself for knowing your stuff, or rejoice in the fact that you have tons of fantastic novels and short stories waiting for you at the end of this piece. We all win!)
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Will Christopher Baer
I already mentioned Baer above and hinted how noir-ifically astonishing his writing is. The first time I encountered his work was on a beach in Mexico (because, like any true fan of noir, my idea of a “beach read” is different than most people’s). I was reading Kiss Me, Judas, and my initial thought after finishing the first chapter was that I had drunk too much mezcal in the sun and was hallucinating. Turns out, I wasn’t—the writing was simply that good, that gripping, that ethereal. The story that fresh, that darkly humorous, that HUMAN.
A nasty sunburn and two more mescals later, I had finished the book and immediately went online to order Baer’s two other novels in the Phineas Poe trilogy—Penny Dreadful and Hell’s Half Acre—so that they’d be waiting for me at home when my vacation was over. (The good news for you is all three novels are now available in a single paperback volume.)
Long story short, I loved Book 2 and 3 as much as I did Book 1. Long story longer, I still can’t fathom why there aren’t statues erected in Will Christopher Baer’s honor—or at least an International Holiday named after him.
You can’t talk about Will Christopher Baer and neo-noir cult heroes without talking about Craig Clevenger—Baer’s close friend and every bit his equal on the writing field. Clevenger has published just two novels—The Contortionist’s Handbook and Dermaphoria—but when you write two novels as good as those two novels, two novels is a treasure trove of novels.
When I finished reading Handbook, I was so inspired by the gorgeous, dangerous, lyrical writing, I couldn’t stop myself from reaching out directly to Clevenger and fanboying all over him. And it turns out, the man’s as humble and as generous as he is talented; he actually replied back—and ended up blurbing my novel Sick to Death when it was published later that year. [Insert image of me still pinching myself.]
Despite not having had a book drop (in the U.S.) in fifteen years, Clevenger has published numerous short stories and keeps himself busy writing (and teaching writing). His legions of devoted fans are clamoring for his next book—a highly ambitious novel that’s gone through a few title changes and unfortunately hit several publishing roadblocks. As someone fortunate enough to have perused the manuscript, trust me, it’s worth the wait. But granted—with an author as sharp and as skilled as Clevenger, the waiting is torture.
Many positive words have been used to describe Sara Gran’s work, but one of those words seems to occur more frequently than others: distinctive. I can count on just a couple of fingers the number of writers who are able to effectively meld grittiness, griminess, heart, and humor as well as Gran can.
The first book of hers I read was Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead (Book 1 in the brilliant Claire DeWitt series). I found myself both chewing my nails and laughing on every page—often just sentences apart. Mind you, the laughter her deft writing elicits isn’t the “Oh my GOD, that’s HILARIOUS!” kind; it’s more the kind of laughter that keeps you from crying or screaming, the kind that keeps your heart from jumping out of your body as the tension continuously builds. Funeral laughter. Car-crash laughter.
I’ve since read nearly everything Gran’s written and will soon be all caught up, which explains why I’m in desperate need of a manicure and have sore abs.
If you enjoy a kinder, gentler version of noir fiction … you’re going to hate Lindsay Hunter. Few writers pull fewer punches than Hunter, who has written mesmerizing tales about such quaint things as a woman putting her dog’s electric collar in her panties as a form of self-punishment; a mother intentionally leaving her problem-child at a playground and driving away; an obese, apathetic father searching half-heartedly for his missing drug addict son. You know, classic bedtime stories.
Unlike many writers who like to dance with disturbing topics and themes, Hunter hits the reader right square in the heart and the humanity rather than just go for the gross-out. You don’t get named an NPR Great Read and become a finalist for the Chicago Review of Books Fiction Award (like Hunter did in 2017 for her novel Eat Only When You’re Hungry) merely by writing disgusting stories. If you like your fiction brutally honest and pitch black—but not so black that no light can ever enter—you’ll love Lindsay Hunter’s work.
Even his author bio—just two sentences long—is the epitome of noir: “Laird Barron is an expat Alaskan. Currently, Barron lives in the Rondout Valley and is at work on tales about the evil that men do.”
Hits you right in the marrow, doesn’t it? Wait till you try his novels. Particularly his Isaiah Coleridge series (Blood Standard, Black Mountain, and Worse Angels), a classically noir trilogy that’ll knock your lights out yet keep you coming back for more. Reading Barron is like getting punched by Mike Tyson—you feel honored just to be in the presence of such a heavyweight and can’t help but feel thrilled to take his devastating right hooks.
Enough of me praising the hell out of Barron. He’d hate it. Instead, I’ll leave you with one of the most brutally beautiful passages in all of noir—the opening to Barron’s Black Mountain:
One lonesome winter, many years ago, I went hunting in the mountains with Gene Kavanaugh, a grandmaster hitman emeritus. Sinister constellations blazed over our camp on the edge of a plateau scaled with ice. The stars are always cold and jagged as smashed glass in the winter in Alaska. Thin air seared my lungs if I inhaled too deeply. Nearby a herd of caribou rested under the mist of its collected breath. We weren’t there for them.
You’ve heard of method acting; well, Canadian author Craig Davidson does method writing. To help him nail his gritty, visceral, and highly underrated 2007 novel The Fighter, Davidson went on a 16-week steroid cycle as part of his research and participated in a fully sanctioned boxing match to help promote the release of the book. (Two matches, actually—one for the Canadian release and one for the subsequent US release. Davidson lost both matches but gained the respect of many a reader and writer … and boxer.)
As excellent as The Fighter and Davidson’s other novel—Cataract City—are, his most critically acclaimed work is his first short story collection, Rust and Bone, which was a finalist for the 2006 Danuta Gleed Literary Award (a Canadian national literary prize that recognizes the best debut short fiction collection by a Canadian author). But don’t just take my or all of Canada’s word for how good Rust and Bone is; check out what transgressive fiction legend Bret Easton Ellis had to say about the collection: “Enough incident, shock, and suspense for a dozen books. … Filled with stories you haven’t heard before.”
Holly Goddard Jones
Some may argue Holly Goddard Jones doesn’t belong here—considering this article features phenomenal noir authors who’ve flown under the radar. Goddard Jones has received LOTS of critical praise from the likes of The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, and Publishers Weekly, not to mention from Gillian Flynn—who called The Next Time You See Me “an outstandingly good novel.” Still, I know a lot of readers and writers who dig crime fiction yet who aren’t familiar with Goddard Jones’ work—me included … up until recently.
Now that I’ve read her—including Girl Trouble (a painfully great series of short stories) and both of her novels—I can’t get her work out of my head. I’ll bet the same thing will happen to you once you dive into her work. Goddard Jones’ bleeds prose that’s as beautiful and poignant as it is heartbreaking and perilous. She has a way of building up an almost unbearable level of suspense, then letting you know everything’s going to be okay, then showing you she was lying about that last part.
In other words, she’s noir AF.
Remember how I said few writers pull fewer punches than Lindsay Hunter? Well, Kirino is one of those writers. In addition to the relentless tension in her blacker-than-midnight tales, Kirino often takes on complex social issues in her novels—holding a mirror up to society without smashing the glass over readers’ heads.
Seeing as how she’s HUGE in Japan, I almost didn’t include Kirino on this list of almost-famous authors. But fewer than half of her devastatingly good novels have been translated into English, and thus she’s not quite the living legend she should be in the West … yet. If everyone in the English-speaking world were to read even just one of her books—especially if that book was the exquisitely twisted Grotesque—Kirino would be a global celebrity.
Not only is Richard Thomas a fantastic neo-noir author in his own right, but he’s also edited and published short story anthologies featuring many of the other fantastic neo-noir authors highlighted here. And as if he wasn’t already doing enough to keep this badass sub-genre going strong, Thomas also teaches aspiring scribes how to write the kinds of stories that, well, are good enough to appear in fantastic neo-noir anthologies.
But today let’s focus on Thomas’ own writing, as it deserves everyone’s full attention. His 2015 existentialist thriller Disintegration certainly caught the eye of many a critic—as well as that of his fellow scribes. Irvine Welsh called Disintegration “a stunning and vital piece of work.” Chuck Wendig said of the book, “Sweet hot hell, Richard Thomas writes like a man possessed, a man on fire, a guy with a gun to his head.” And neo-noirist Benjamin Percy (featured here later) called Thomas “the wild child of Raymond Chandler and Chuck Palahniuk” after reading the book. And the thing is, Disintegration arguably isn’t even Thomas’ best book. That accolade may be more suited for Breaker, the novel that earned Thomas even more critical praise along with a spot among the 2017 Thriller Award finalists. And I haven’t even mentioned his three sensational short story collections (which I’ll leave for you to discover since I’m running out of space here).
I actually need to stop reading Brian Evenson. Every time I dive into one of his many books, I end up throwing it across the room out of jealousy over his skills—and my wife said we can’t afford to keep replacing my Kindle devices.
Evenson has an incredible knack for mashing up the best aspects of genre fiction with the best aspects of literary fiction and delivering indelible neo-noir tales that are as frightening as they are thought-provoking. His latest, Songs for the Unraveling of the World (which couldn’t be more aptly titled), contains some of the most daring and masterfully crafted short stories you’ll ever glue your eyes and drop your jaw to. If long fiction is more your jam, don’t miss Last Days—Evenson’s 2016 novel about a former detective who must literally give up his body to find the killer of a cult leader. Hells yeah.
And while Evenson may not be a household name, his work has caught the attention of and mesmerized all the heavyweight critics, including Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and The New Yorker—the latter of which nailed it when they said, “Evenson’s fiction is equal parts obsessive, experimental, and violent. It can be soul-shaking.”
Many folks from the UK think we Americans are idiots for what we’ve done to the English language. Many crime fiction fans from the UK think we’re even bigger idiots for us not all having recognized Cathi Unsworth—their Queen of Noir.
I get it. After reading Unsworth’s stunning work for the first time recently (I started with her 2013 novel Weirdo), I couldn’t help but feel unsworthy (sorry) of calling myself a real noir fan since it took me so long to discover her. How had I not heard of this author before? How has everyone not? The tension and suspense Unsworth builds is so visceral, readers are left feeling like they’re in the book rather than merely holding it. In other words, Unsworth really knows how to unspack a scene. (Sorry again.)
Weirdo was named one of the “Best Crime Books of the Year” by The Guardian, which is basically The New York Times of the UK—only with more proper English usage. Unsworth’s most recent novel, That Old Black Magic, is another noir stunner. I know this because I ordered and began reading it immediately after finishing Weirdo. And I’ll likely buy and read everything else this mega-talented author has written once I’m done. Yup, something tells me I’ll be unsable to resist. (Okay, somebody please stop me.)
His name is synonymous with versatility. Benjamin Percy is one of those rare writers able to shift effortlessly between and among genres—all while breaking rules within each to great effect. When he’s not writing a gripping neo-noir novel he’s busy on a post-apocalyptic thriller while working on a comic book while creating some of the most chilling short stories you’ll ever read.
So where to start if you haven’t read his work? Anywhere, really—but for the purposes of this piece, I’d say crack open a copy of his stellar 2015 novel The Dead Lands. Actually, who cares what I’d say; better you listen to a little-known author named, um, Stephen King, who offered the following praise for The Dead Lands: “[A] case of wonderful writing and compulsive reading. You will not come across a finer work of sustained imagination this year. Good God, what a tale. Don’t miss it.”
Um … STEPHEN KING, folks.
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As with all the lists I write for Criminal Element, this is not an exhaustive one; I’m merely exhausted. So please, by all means, chime in with some of your favorite noir/neo-noir authors you feel deserve a wider readership. (Super-extra bonus points if you list me.)