There are literally dozens of great authors and great novels that could have been suggested as essential reading for this guide. The writer of the article went through agonising decisions over who to leave out and is more than aware that your favourite author probably hasn’t been mentioned but feel free to start a discussion in the comments.
A (not-so-brief) Brief Overview of Hard-boiled and Noir Fiction
Part Two – The Case of the Paperback Original (1950s)
In part one we looked at the birth of the genre as a more realistic type of literature in reaction to the traditional whodunit from Britain. The cynical approach towards life of the protagonist summing up the attitude of the hard-boiled hero and how the worlds of noir novels are never happy places where things go right.
We looked at Hammett and Chandler and Cain, the three pillars of the style that all who followed evolved from. Now we move on to the second generation of hard-boiled men who took advantage of a new publishing idea and the post WWII atmosphere of paranoia and fear.
Fawcett publications created the Gold Medal Books imprint in 1949 with the idea of publishing pulp novels directly to paperback formats. Paperback originals were published for the first time under this new imprint and very quickly became the home of noir fiction, the dark brand of crime writing that would go on to capture the mood of the general public.
At the end of WWII a new fear was brewing in the minds of America; images of nuclear warfare were embedded on the consciousness of a generation of people and McCarthyism via the House Committee on Un-American Activities hearings instilled a previously unknown universal paranoia to the people.
These two key developments combined to provide a hotbed for bleak, raw, sleazy, deranged, violent, uncompromising, chilling, and warped, existentially horrific noir fiction with novels selling in excess of one million copies on a regular basis and spawning numerous copycat publishing imprints.
The first name from this second generation is one a lot of people are already familiar with, Mickey Spillane; his first Mike Hammer novel was I, The Jury (1947) and continued to write in to the 50s yet it wasn't until the end of the era that he really came in to his own. Kiss Me Deadly (1952) was the basis for the iconic film noir of the same name and serves as a great introduction to a protagonist who is a complete and unashamed misogynist, unafraid of offending anyone, in stories that you jump on and ride like the wind through intrigue, fist fights, witty dialogue, sexual encounters and the inevitable denouement.
The other name that regularly gets mentioned as the obvious hardboiled heir to Chandler and Hammett is Ross MacDonald. The Moving Target (1949) was the first appearance of Lew Archer, a PI that would last through 18 novels to The Blue Hammer (1976). This series longevity alone makes MacDonald stand out from the field of hard-boiled authors but the growth of the character and the evolution of writing style from Chandler copycat to a writer who was as comfortable with poetic imagery and psychological insight as witty putdowns and biting sarcasm marks him as one of the true greats of the genre.
Gil Brewer is something of a forgotten man but he was prolific and popular in his time, having over 30 novels published in the new paperback original format. But to those in the know Gil Brewer is a treasure trove of 50s noir goodness. His protagonists are ex-soldiers, ex-cops, drifters, convicts, blue-collar workers, charterboat captains, unorthodox private detectives, even a sculptor. The plots range from searches for stolen gold and sunken treasure to savage indictments of the effects of lust, greed, and murder to chilling psychological studies of disturbed personalities. The Vengeful Virgin (1958) that was recently republished by Hard Case Crime and The Red Scarf (1955) are amongst the standout titles from his bibliography.
Another man you could make the same statements about is Day Keene, the pair seems to go hand in hand infact. Even more prolific than Brewer, Keene has left a lasting legacy of entertaining noir stories that occasionally border on genius. Hard Case have also reissued a Keene novel in Home Is The Sailor (1952), you may also enjoy To Kiss or Kill (1951) and Dead Dolls Don’t Talk (1959).
Charles Willeford is the author who found fame in the 80s with his Hoke Mosely series but he published High Priest of California (1953) at the start of the boom in paperback sales and quickly followed it up with Pick-Up (1955) whilst still enlisted in the air force. Charles Willeford, in his best works, puts art, aesthetic sensibility, critical acumen, morality, and American ideology on a dramatic collision course, he was known for his quirky nature and eccentric characters and his juxtaposition of humour and violence is said to have influenced a young Quentin Tarantino (but then what didn’t?)
The other big Charles of the period was Charles Williams and he really was a BIG Charles. In 1951 his debut novel sold over one million copies in a time when one hundred thousand was the norm and in 1953 he became the first paperback original to be reviewed by The New York Times. Widely praised by critics Charles Williams is to the paperback originals what Hammett was to the 30s. He is known for frequently satirizing his male protagonists' points of view, while implicitly reassessing the traditional genre figure of the femme fatale.
As mentioned previously about Woolrich, Williams was always more popular in France and only A Touch of Death (1954) and River Girl AKA The Catfish Tangle (1953) appear to be in print in English, a fact made even more shocking by the following statement made by pulp historian Woody Haut:
"So prolific and accomplished a writer was Charles Williams that he single-handedly made many subsequent pulp culture novels seem like little more than parodies."David Goodis is perhaps my personal favourite from this period (again he is widely available in French but not so much in English) his novels depicting the bleakness and darkness of lives in free fall, his words a statement of frustration, telling tales of gloom, depression and despair. Noir at its blackest. Down There AKA Shoot The Piano Player (1956) and Cassidy’s Girl (1951) represent him at his peak.
I’ve saved the biggest name, arguably the best writer of the bunch and possibly the most prolific for last, Jim Thompson. There are no good guys in Thompson's literature; everyone is abusive, opportunistic, or simply biding time until able to be so. His style and prose elevated his work above well written genre pieces and in to literature which resulted in him being dismissed as just another pulp writer by those that read the paperback originals. The Killer Inside Me (1954), is perhaps his most famous work and represents the first time the reader was treated to an intimate portrait of a psychotic mind whilst The Grifters (1963) was his most successful movie adaptation.
Part three will take a look at the end of the popularity of paperback originals and what happened to crime fiction in the 60s and 70s.
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