A while ago, I read a mystery, The Black Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black, featuring Philip Marlowe Raymond Chandler’s favorite private eye. Black is not the first contemporary author to use Chandler’s character. Before his death, Robert B. Parker, wrote a sequel to The Big Sleep. Parker also finished Chandler’s “Poodle Springs.” Private detectives, who wander between the law and the underworld, accepted by neither, are generally the main characters in noir mystery novels and films. “Oh, I wish I had a pencil-thin mustache, the Boston Blackie kind, then I could solve some mysteries too.,” sings Jimmy Buffett.
Boston Blackie, Sam Spade, Thin Man (AKA Nick Charles) are just few of the heroes, or anti-heroes if you prefer. But noir books and film didn’t all had private detectives as the main characters. James M. Cain’s short story “Double Indemnity,” featuring an insurance salesman who helps a woman, a ‘femme fatale,’ murder her husband by making appear an accident so she can cash in on the double indemnity clause on his insurance policy. Likewise, “The Postman Always Rings Twice, ” features a woman who wants get rid of her husband and cons a man into helping her commit the crime.
Early noir short stories, novellas, and novels was originally written for publishing in the pulp magazines as “Phantom Detective.” Noir authors who wrote for pulp magazines included Cornell Woolrich, Raymond Chandler, and Dashiell Hammett among others.
Dave Robicheaux, a modern creation of James Lee Burke, is a retired policemen who makes his home in the bayous of Louisiana, where crime is around every slough, and eventually leads Dave back to New Orleans, where he used to enforce the law. Burke’s Robicheaux novels have an atmosphere as dark as the 1930s and 1940s noir tales. I suppose one could argue the Louisiana swamps have a greater sense of evil than sunny California.
New Orleans was also the location of Ezlia Kazan’s picture, “Panic in the Streets,” a 1950 release. Richard Widmark stars as U. S. Public Health Officer charged finding a fugitive stricken with bubonic plague before he infects the city. The plot adds a new dimension to noir genre. The film was filmed on location, making New Orleans a character in the film in its own right.
Mickey Spillane introduced his character, Mike Hammer in “I the Jury,” in 1947. I seem to remember the paperback version being passed around when I was in the the eighth or ninth grade. I remember it had a salacious cover that would interest junior high boys. Spillane would go on to write over a dozen Hammer novels, including some finished by a friend after Spillane died in 2006.
“Spenser for Hire” was the tv version of Robert B. Parker‘s Spenser novels. Spenser, private detective who has frequent run-ins with the Boston underworld on the one hand and the Boston police on the other. Spenser’s sidekick Hawk, played menacingly by Avery Brooks on the tv series, is there when he needs extra muscle. Some readers think Spenser is a direct descendant of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade.
Walter Mosley is another modern writer whose main character is of the hard-boiled variety. Easy Rawlins is a black veteran, living in Watts section of Los Angeles. Mosley’s hero is a novice detective, who lives his life from the forties into the mid-sixties. In the later books he has the respect of the LAPD, who turns to him to solve some politically charged cases.
Kinsey Millhone, a creation of Sue Grafton, is another California based private detective. The main character of Grafton’s alphabet novels, is a female version of the hard-boiled detective. Kinsey’s stories are set in the late seventies and eighties, so she doesn’t have access to more modern crime solving techniques such the internet or cell phones. Like the private detectives of the forties and fifties, she brushes shoulders with people who live on the edge of polite society.
Dan Simmons reaches back to the time of Charles Dickens in his novel, “Drood.” Dickens’ friend Wilkie Collins narratives his fellow writer’s search to find a mysterious man he encountered after the train he was riding in wrecked. The two men’s search takes them to the dark demi world of London’s slums, including the infamous opium dens. The reader slowly realizes that Collins and Dickens are drug addicts and begins to doubt the reliability of the former’s narrative.
In 1997, The Library of America published a two volume set of American noir writing entitled “Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s & 4os” and “Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s.” These two volumes are a good place to start if you are not familiar with the genre. NovelList+ on NCLive is another resource to explore the noir genre.