Most crime writers would agree that the noir genre has deep roots in crime fiction’s storied history. In the mid-twentieth century, pulp stories that sold for a quarter-cent per word paved the way for some crime fiction’s most classic novels, en route to eventually spawning the cultural phenomenon that is film noir. Today, many of those same authors are considered legends in the field.
But crime fiction’s seedy underbelly genre never really caught on commercially. The iconic Dashiell Hamett died relatively broke and sick, his body ravaged from years of alcoholism and smoking. When Jim Thompson died, none of his books were in print in the United States.
The American appetite for violence and love of a destructive anti-hero may have permeated the worlds of film and television, but books featuring that kind of protagonist have long struggled to find a mainstream audience.
These days, noir mostly exists in the back alleys of small presses, or corporate publishing’s low-to-mid-list gutters. But it would be foolish to assume noir’s lack of large-scale commercial success implies a lack of incredible books to read.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. There are plenty of fantastic modern noir novels that deserve a much larger audience, and more being written all the time. Here are 4 modern noir classics.
Hell on Church Street, by Jake Hinkson
Though this list isn’t in any order, per se, I’m starting off with Hell on Church Street for a reason. Not only is it a great modern noir novel, it’s one of the best noir novels ever written, in my opinion. It’s also a book that encapsulates the essence of the hard-to-pin-down genre. Jake Hinkson is pitch-perfect on every single note of this book.
Hell On Church Street is the tale of Geoffrey Webb, a textbook sociopath and conman who has grown up in the church. Upon landing himself a job as the youth minister of a rural Arkansas Baptist church, Webb sets his unhealthy sights on the minister’s underage daughter. To say this focus brings disastrous results does not give the plot justice.
Told in the first person point of view, Hell on Church Street provides an in-depth look inside the mind of a manipulative, shameless psychopath willing to do anything to cover his misdeeds. Jim Thompson himself could not have told the story better, and that’s really saying something.
The book has been through multiple independent publishers, including New Pulp Press and the controversial 280 Steps. Most recently it seems to have fallen out of print in the United States, which I find shocking. It would be a shame to lose this masterpiece to the annals of writing business fuckery.
I’ve heard that the book is revered in France, so at least there’s that. Much as I hate to recommend a used copy of the English version, do what you have to do to get your hands on this book.
The Contortionist’s Handbook, by Craig Clevenger
There are grifter novels, and then there’s The Contortionist’s Handbook. It’s unlike any grifter novel I’ve ever read. It centers on a drug addict conman who, upon overdosing, finds himself institutionalized and having to con and manipulate his way back out of a mental hospital without revealing his true identity.
Every once in a while a book this original comes along and turns everything I think I understand about successful plotting onto its head. Craig Clevenger weaves a twisted, engaging tale that will keep you guessing until the end.
Like Hell on Church Street, this masterpiece has also apparently fallen out of print in the United States. I wish I had words to explain how such a thing could happen, but in the writing business, all bets are sometimes off.
What Happens in Reno, by Mike Monson
I’ve heard many writers tout their noir novel as having “no redeemable characters,” and maybe they’re telling the truth, who knows. I certainly haven’t read them all.
But I can tell you for sure that Mike Monson’s What Happens in Reno has absolutely nothing resembling a redeemable character, from cover to cover. In fact, my favorite review of the book on Amazon reads as follows:
One of the worst books I’ve ever read. About a bunch of low lifes (sic) that all belong in jail. Not one redeeming quality in any of them.
Despite this lack of redemption, Mike Monson serves up the perfect pulp tale of alcoholic narcissism with a side of self-destruction, and a little self-loathing gravy poured on top to help it stick to your bones.
You’ve probably heard that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Well, what happens in Reno is a parade of atrocious, toxic behavior, all stitched together by some of the absolute worst imaginable decision making. And it’s a glorious read. Matt Hodges isn’t the alcoholic screwup we need, he’s the alcoholic screwup we can’t turn away from.
I recently heard Mike Monson say that he may be done writing novels, which is a shame. I’ve read most of his work, and though some books are more my style than others, What Happens in Reno deserves a spot on the podium of noir greatness. It’s a Coen Brothers film waiting to happen. My GOD, I want it to happen. No, really. Get at him, fellas, then shut up and take my money.
Cry Father, by Benjamin Whitmer
I’m gonna give some high praise here. Cry Father might be one of the best rural noir novels ever written. Benjamin Whitmer clearly understands the plight of the working class, and what happens to the people caught in the machine’s spokes day after day, year after year.
His hardpacked and fluid prose stamps out a desperate tale of fathers and sons and the effect that generations of desperation and violence can have on men. It will keep you spellbound from beginning to end.
And protagonist Patterson Wells’ letters to his late son throughout are touching as hell. I mean it. This book will disturb you with violence in one paragraph and touch your heart in the next. Cry Father deserves a lot more recognition than it gets. And again, it seems to be getting it in France, same as Hell on Church Street.
If you’re noticing a trend there, you’re not alone. I don’t know what that says about American publishing. I do know that I would love to go on a French book tour, as Benjamin Whitmer recently did.
What are your favorite modern noir classics?
I’d love to hear about your favorite modern noir classics. And yes, I do realize this list is a total sausage fest. That’s on me, though not on purpose. Tell me what I got wrong in the comments, and I’d love to hear your recommendations and opinions as well.