Good noir-style book series

I’m a huge fan of the noir-style dectective novels. People who know me well know that I consider Chandler the B.B. King of that genre (explanation provided upon request ;) ) and Hammet was no hack either. Modern day authors in that general tradition that I’ve enjoyed include folks such a James Lee Burke, and on a lighter note (much lighter, as in Marsalis vs. Miles Davis) Parker actually does a nice job.

So - my question is whether anyone has any favorites in the detective-noir genre? Preferably series.

Are you talking about Hard Boiled Fiction or noir fiction (kinda goes hand in hand but not necessarily).

Well, there’s the Lew Archer series by Ross MacDonald. Along with Hammett and Chandler, they are the ‘Big 3’.

If you like it more noirish, you have to read John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels.

There’s the Kenzie and Gennaro series by Dennis Lehane for something written fairly recent. Not quite as noirish as you seem to like but still good. I’ve read 3. The first was a gang war, the second about a serial killer and the third is the necessary damsel in distress book.

I’ve always liked the Harry Stoner novels by Jonathan Valin. He hasn’t written one in almost 10 years and the old ones are hard to find, but they’re good.

I can go on and on. That’s just some, definitely pick up the Travis McGee novels if you haven’t yet.

Well, there’s always Glen Cook.

Some books of the Watch, Terry Pratchett.

Check out George Pelecanos. He has a series of detective, sometimes noir-ish (esp. The Big Blowdown), novels set between the 30’s and 90’s in Washington DC. His latest, Hard Revolution, is particularly good. But I think my fave is King Suckerman, which is more of blaxoploitation movie in convenient book form. That’s the one about the pimp.

There was this great trilogy of Noir detective novels I read about a German detective in 1930’s Nazi-era Berlin. I would recommend those totally except I can’t remember for the life of me what they were called or who wrote them. Ring any bells to anyone?

Andrew Vachss. Grim, unrelenting, but so incredibly compelling that you can’t set it down. Shella is one of the best books of the 90s, I think, and a great starting place. His Burke novels are a long running series, and a new one comes out in about two weeks. He’s the only author where I’ll buy the hardcover and the trade paperback. Definitely worth a look.

Edit: Got the title wrong, 'cause I’m a dunce.

If you might enjoy something different, but still noir…When I was 14 (in 1984) my favorite book was The Owl, by Robert Forward.

It’s about a PI/revenge killer for hire, in contemporary LA, who suffers from a rare disease that keeps him from sleeping, and from needing to sleep. Countless enemies want to kill him, so he wanders around LA anonymously, 24 hours a day. He’s completely paranoid, thoroughly alienated from pretty much everyone, and yet strangely romantic (he narrates the book in first person). I won’t say anything about the plot, which is twisty and very noir in the sense that almost everyone is a bad guy somehow.

There was a shitty sequel in the 90s written by Forward’s son (as “Bob Forward,” with no indication it’s not the same guy). But the first one meets high standards as an original and unusual book.

I believe you are referring to the Berlin Noir trilogy (pretty original title :)) by Philip Kerr. Its comprised of March Violets, The Pale Horse, and German Requiem.

IMO Travis McGee has little if anything to do with noir. Lew Archer is vastly more noirish than Travis McGee, I second the motion for Ross MacDonald (aka Kenneth Millar/John Ross Macdonald); his Lew Archer is pure noir.

John D. Macdonald’s Travis McGee, however, is another kettle of fish entirely.

Travis McGee is an insouciant soldier of fortune who only works when he has to, and wealth comes easy to him whenever he wants it. He is super-competent at almost anything he turns his hand to, and in the rare cases where he isn’t an expert in something (usually it’s something academic or otherwise unmasculine) he knows people who are the masters. Really, what kind of noir character hangs out with a nobel prize winner in economics? McGee doesn’t struggle against the system, or against a world which is too harsh and too cold and too corrupt for him, he fights random bad guys because it amuses him to live his life that way. McGee has a large circle of friends and acquaintances, and though he chooses to live alone most of the time, that’s a choice which pleases him, not a choice he is forced to for some reason.

Travis McGee plots are extremely formulaic, and generally involve, in some order, meeting a girl, getting a job, finding a villain, fighting the villain, almost losing to the villain and often being tortured, defeating the villain, and losing the girl. These books would be extremely tedious if it weren’t for the philosophizing and the Meyer interludes, which really make the series, kind of like the Watson-Holmes interludes enliven what would otherwise be tedious and implausible mysteries.

Anyhow, noir heroes, when they are heroes at all, are lone friendless paladins who have nothing but their own moral code to fall back on in a world of cruelty and corruption. Typically they have lost a love either to death or disaffection, and have few if any friends in the world; even their pets tend to regard them with distrust. They are always poor, and are always willing to sacrifice their prospects in the name of their code. Whether it’s avenging a partner or merely following through on a promise to a client, a noir hero does what he has to do, goes home, and is sad about it afterwards.

How in hell’s name have we gotten to 9 replies with nary a mention of the king of noir fiction, the heavyweight champeen: James Ellroy.

Six novels (a seventh due out in a year or so) all with linked settings/characters/tone. Brilliant beyond words, it raises the bar (like Pelecanos) on the term “crime fiction”.

In order, Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L. A. Confidential, and White Jazz comprise the “L. A. Quartet” of novels. Set in the post-war boom of Los Angeles, meticulously researched, and compellingly, thrillingly readable. Ellroy then picks things up with his so-called “America Underground” trilogy. Less pure “crime” based, and more “political crime” based, this second series (which still slyly references the “L. A. Quartet” novels throughout). Ellroy has no problem naming names. In the “America Undercover” novels, American Tabloid , The Cold Six Thousand (and, presumably the next book, tentatively titled Police Gazette), major characters are JFK, RFK, Jedgar Hoover, Howard Hughes, etc. etc. Just great, great noir brilliance.

Ellroy writes noir in the purest sense. Finding a “sympathetic” major character in one of his novels is impossible. The protagonists are hateful bastards–in fact, in most of his novels, it isn’t clear who the protagonist (I’ll certainly not call these main characters “the good guys”) is until you’re at least halfway in, since the cops, politicians, and detectives are as big (or bigger) sleazeballs than the “criminals”.

James Ellroy. James Ellroy. James Ellroy. If you haven’t read him, with your interest in the field, I envy you your joy of discovery.

I respectfully disagree. Would you consider ‘The Maltese Falcon’ noir? Sam Spade is certainly not sad at the end, he avenged his partner sure, but more because he felt guilty that he was sleeping with his partner’s wife than because of any sense of honor or code; I can’t imagine Sam Spade sacrificing any prospects for a code. Travis McGee follows Sam Spade, not Marlowe or Archer. Then again, like I said, Hard Boiled goes hand in hand with Noir but not always. Maybe I’m confusing the two.

Edit: The character you describe suits Archer to a tee. Spade is the blonde devil, Marlowe is the slumming angel, Archer is the Christ figure. Not all noir characters need be like Archer; noir is as much the setting and the world that the character lives in as it is about the character. The character need not be a ‘noirish’ to exist in a ‘noir’ world.

I love Ellroy, but I wouldn’t call anything he’s written in the past decade or more noir at all. From White Jazz on, he’s been more experimental than anything else. If you were a pretentious fop, you might call it post-noir, as a lot of the characterizations and staccato sentence structure is sort of a hepped-up traditional noir. Though I can’t imagine too many traditionalists getting into something like The Cold Six Thousand.

BTW, where are you getting the information about a sequel to Cold Six Thousand? I’ve never been able to find any online info on what Ellroy is currently writing. I know there’s another short story/article collection coming out later this year, but that’s it. I thought this last series was capped at the two books.

Really? I mean let’s go ahead and call the 4 linked books of the “LA Quartet” pure noir. I mean, Bleichert, Vincennes, Buzz Meeks…jeez, what a collection of scumbags.

I guess I see Kemper Boyd (how perfect would Alec Baldwin be for that role? Except you’d have to find someone even taller to play Pete Bondurant), “Big Pete”, and Ward Littell (I always get stuck on who’d play him…maybe Costner with the weak chin and wire glasses, sort of a wussier version of the Jim Garrison character he played in JFK?) as perfect noir characters. I mean, of all of them, the guy with the purest motives is Bondurant–and he whacks some poor shmuck in the first chapter for Hoffa. They’re horribly flawed humans who by actions they cannot control set into motion events that go way beyond the orbits they envisioned. Admittedly, with the Hemingway-on-ephedrine prose of Six Thousand, Ellroy does get experimental. But I still see plenty that a noir-lover would enjoy. Plus, if you’ve followed Jimmy’s twisted and sickening post-war history of America this far, you’re gonna want to see where he goes with it.

Anyway, I got the info on Police Gazette from one of the fansites. Maybe, but maybe not. IIRC, it comes out now in 2005 or '06, and will complete the second trilogy, and weigh in at a hefty 1000+ pages. Apparently it ends when J. Edgar goes to that cross-dressing bi-curious g-man mixer in the sky.
EDITED TO ADD: Here’s the best info I could find on the web. Cut’n’pasted from

[i]THE LATEST: In an interview given to an Italian journalist to promote Destination Morgue, Ellroy indicated Police Gazette will likely conclude with the death of J. Edgar Hoover, further underscoring Ellroy’s often stated determination to steer clear of Watergate…He also sees a publication date of 2006/7…

The sequel to “American Tabloid” & “The Cold Six Thousand”; the concluding volume of “The Underworld U.S.A. Trilogy.” Said by Ellroy to span the years 1968-1973, encompassing Vietnam, the death of J. Edgar Hoover and the reign of President Richard M. Nixon. Ellroy also intimates we will “learn who really killed Sonny Liston.” The novel, like “American Tabloid” and “The Cold Six Thousand,” will be structured around a trio of central characters including the returning Wayne Tedrow Jr. From a page-count standpoint, Ellroy also vows the book will be the longest of the trilogy.[/i]

Also, you’ve heard that a movie version of Black Dahlia is in pre-production? Originally David Fincher was going to direct, but now it’ll be DePalma. Mark Wahlberg will be Lee Blanchard, Josh Hartnett is Bucky Bleichert, and Scarlett Johansson is Kay. No way they top the film version of Confidential, but I’m still looking forward to it. Shooting starts May 24.

I really like Ian Rankin’s series about a Scottish detective named John Rebus. (Although the first two aren’t really noirish the way the later ones are). Although it’s probably heresy to say this, to me they feel much more like Chandler than, say, Robert Parker does–Rankin even has plots like Chandler’s, that are way too complicated for their own good :D .

I’d agree with Miramon that the Travis McGee books aren’t noir, although not necessarily with his reasoning. For me, noir is all in the atmosphere, not something easy to pin down, so I can’t really say anything much more intelligent than they just don’t feel noirish to me. There’s not quite that same feeling of a corrupt world that the detective is barely holding at bay, even though he knows it’s probably futile in the end anyway (if that makes any sense)

But then again Robert Parker seems to me to be almost off the reservation too (based on the first three Spencer books, which is all I’ve read, he seems so light to me that it’s not really noir), so what do I know.


Yes, I think “Hardboiled” and “Noir” are quite different, even if they sometimes overlap.

I think in the book at least, that Sam Spade is a noir character. I admit I haven’t read the book or seen the movie recently, so my recollection may a bit off. I think Spade’s raison d’etre is avenging his partner, who turns out to have been a weasel, but who has to be avenged anyway. He rejects any potential wealth offered by the femme fatale, as I recall.

To be fair, let me link to This is not the point of view, I had in my original post, but on consideration it is probably more accurate. It defines noir as being a “film of death” in which morality is confused and motivations are ambiguous.

In my original post, I was referring to Chandler’s discussion of his modern detective in his essay on the subject (no reference at hand, unfortunately, but it’s in his collection of Marlowe short stories), which is where I got that paladin-like detective with a strong moral code who is always at odds with a corrupt world.

I believe the above link is a better definition of noir than mine, but either way, Travis McGee doesn’t count as noir, as there is no confused morality in those books, but clearly defined good and evil. There is some emotional and psychological ambiguity, but very little like the noir sensibility described in the above link.

I second the vote for Ross MacDonald and Glen Cook. Both excellent noir fiction. Nearly all of the MacDonald books were great with one or two exceptions (didn’t like anything w/o Lew Archer) and the first three or four ‘Black Company’ books were Cook’s best.