Hard boiled

Five great noir novels from the post-Chandler generations.

David Bowman
June 28, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

You know what noir is. I do too. Noir is a gun and a bottle and a girl racing out of the city at midnight in a stolen sports car driven by a gambler wincing from a bullet hole in his left side, the wound bandaged by a money belt full of guilt, sex and bad karma.

The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper by John D. MacDonald

MacDonald, the last literate and unself-conscious pulp writer, was the first to explore the noir possibilities of Florida. All the titles in his Travis McGee series are precious junk. In this one -- part John Updike, part "Jane Eyre" -- the lethal Florida beach bum/sexual healer attempts to rescue a housewife held captive in suburbia by her hubby's mind-control drugs.


The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy

Ellroy indulges in every clichi of the genre (the two-fisted loner, the femme fatale, the twisted gunsel), but triumphantly reinvents each because he is convinced he is rebuilding noir from scratch. Hooray for delusion. In his best book, Ellroy fictionalizes the notorious true story of the murder of a Los Angeles whore (literally sliced in two), using the poor girl as a psychic stand-in for the novelist's own murdered mother.

Tapping the Source by Kem Nunn

Nunn created his own sub-genre, surfer noir. His first and best novel concerns a young hayseed from the desert who travels to Huntington Beach to find his lost sister, last seen in the company of a psychotic surfer. Imagine Huck Finn hanging 10 with a smoking gat in each fist.

Children of Light by Robert Stone

The most unloved child of all Stone's work (even editor Robert Gottlieb hated it), this novel contains the psychic framework of a good noir while simultaneously being the burnout death of the genre (despite noble attempts at resurrection by Jonathan Lethem ("Gun With Occasional Music") and Charlie Smith ("Chimney Rock"). Stone dispenses the crime elements offstage, and then wallows in drugs, suicide, madness, Oedipal failures and Mexico -- the traditional dumping ground for noir.


Blood Orchid: An Unnatural History of America by Charles Bowden

Bowden, part reporter, all poet, chronicles noir's transcendence from pulp fiction to real life in -- guess where -- Mexico. This one is about Mexican drug dealers and a pair of Sioux drifters and Prozac-influenced sexual despair.

David Bowman

David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."

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