Eight noir novels to help fill your endless summer with a sense of overwhelming dread and paranoia.
Okay, so I’m the professor who wakes up three weeks before the end of the semester and hits everybody over the head with a pile of mandatory reading assignments that everybody has to crowbar in between midnight finals cram sessions and kegstands, but you know, only if they hope to make it out with a passing grade.
My list isn’t filled with breezy bicycle rides through rural Tuscany. Not a happy ending in the bunch. But let’s face it, unless you live in the fourteen square-block section of SoCal that stayed in the mid-sixties to upper seventies range this summer, you’re hiding in your goddamn house waiting for that flaming orb in the sky to duck under the horizon once and for all.
So here are eight books to help you run out the clock on this miserable sun-drenched summer. You can thank me later.
The Devil And Sonny Liston by Nick Tosches
If you aren’t hip to Nick Tosches, then you haven’t been paying attention. Tosches is the goods, folks. Nobody taps into the darkness, the real down-in-the-gutter darkness of the American underworld like Nick Tosches. Not James Ellroy. Not Rex Banner. Nobody.
Tosches delivered this definitive tome on the life and death of Liston back in 2000. Not only is The Devil and Sonny Liston exhaustively researched and incisive, but it gets you there in high style. From Liston’s rough-and-tumble upbringing, to the Phantom Punch, to Liston’s death from a heroin overdose in 1970, few sports figures have lead a more tragic or storied life than Liston.
Excerpt: “The Devil gave, and the Devil took away. For Sonny, had the Devil not given to him in the first place, there would never have been anything to take away: because you could be the best, toughest, killingest motherfucking fighter in the world, but without the Devil it did not much matter a good goddamn, because it was the Devil’s ring.”
And The Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks by Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs
This 1944 collaboration between Kerouac and Burroughs, two of the three forefathers of the Beat movement, is more than just a literary curiosity or a good yarn by two future lessons seeking out their voices. And The Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks also exists as a document of a defining event that occurred at the dawn of the Beat.
In the mid-1940’s, a man named Lucien Carr introduced three writers to each other. Their names were Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg. A short time thereafter, Carr stabbed to death his lover of many years, a man named David Kammerer. Hippos documents the events leading up to that final, gruesome encounter, with Burroughs and Kerouac writing alternating chapters as the characters Will Dennison and Mike Ryko, respectively.
Excerpt (Burroughs): “I had the feeling that all over America such stupid arguments were taking place on street corners and in bars and restaurants. All over America, people were pulling credentials out of their pockets and sticking them under someone else’s nose to prove something. And I thought someday everyone in America will suddenly jump up and say ‘I don’t take any shit!’ and start pushing and cursing and clawing at the man next to him.”
The Dog Of The South by Charles Portis
You can stand in awe at the brillance of Charles Portis with a reading of True Grit, but if you want to go deeper into the catalog, pick up this hilarious, brilliant novel by one of the truly underappreciated titans of American letters.
The Dog Of The South was originally published in 1979, but did not become available in paperback until a 1999 reprinting that came as a result of an impassioned plea by Esquire‘s Ron Rosenbaum. Also reissued at that time were Portis’ True Grit, Masters of Atlantis, Gringos, and Norwood. Each and every one is worthy of your immediate attention, but this story, which follows a man attempting to hunt down his wife and her ex-husband as they cross the continent on his dime, may be the best place to start.
Excerpt: “We went roaring along like this for four or five miles, bumper to bumper, two hell drivers, and I was beginning to lose my stomach for it. I didn’t even know what the point of it was. The sheet metal was vibrating and resonating and it appeared fuzzy to the eye. Particles of rust and dirt were dancing on the floor. Candy wrappers were flying everwhere.”
The Big Over Easy: A Nursery Crime by Jasper Fforde
This one might not be for everyone. If you have a hard time stomaching punny silliness stretched over, say, around 400 pages, maybe skip to the next entry. For everyone else, this literally “hard-boiled” tale tracks private dick Jack Spratt as he looks into the fatal fall of one Humpty-Dumpty. Crime scene photos, autopsies, and everything else you’d expect out of a contemporary whodunit, slathered with a heavy dollop of goofiness.
Excerpt: “Humpty’s ovoid body had fragmented almost completely and was scattered among the dustbin and rubbish at the far end of the yard. The previous night’s heavy rain had washed away his liquid center, but even so there was still enough to give off an unmistakably eggy smell. Jack noticed a thin and hairless leg–still with a shoe and sock–attached to a small area of eggshell draped with tattered sheets of translucent membrane.”
Assassin of Secrets by Q.R. Markham (aka Quentin Rowan)
A tough find, this one. Assassin of Secrets is a ho-hum, pedestrian spy novel that happens to also be one of the most egregious examples of wholesale plagiarism in contemporary publishing history. It was released by Mulholland Books (an imprint of Little, Brown) last year with little fanfare, and almost immediately the shit hit the fan. Quentin Rowan’s dirty deed was revealed by a number of hardcore spy novel readers almost immediately upon its publication. The scandal that followed this silly little spy novel was soon being reported upon in the pages of The New Yorker. Rowan issued an apology, portions of which had also been plagiarized from other sources.
The best way to read Assassin of Secrets is with a laptop or Ipad at your disposal, so that you may plug whole paragraphs from the book into a search engine to find out who actually wrote them. On the whole, it is rather fascinating that Markham/Rowan was able to assemble the patchwork of purloined passages into a comprehensible plotline. Boring, but comprehensible. The question still remains: How did this thing ever get past the editorial staff of a major publishing house?
The excerpt below was chosen by flipping open the book at random and typing the passage under my finger into Google Books.
Excerpt (stolen and reworked, as it turns out, from Robert Ludlum’s The Prometheus Deception): “He opened the door a crack, it was clear. He raced down an empty corridor to the left, and when he reached a turning stopped, trying to orient himself. The eastern end of the clinic was to the right; that was the direction in which he would have to go to rescue Marijke.”
The Professional by W.C. Heinz
If you’re an up-and-coming pulp writer, and you’re looking for an example of top-notch hardboiled prose, let this serve as Lesson One. W.C. Heinz, among the greatest ever sportswriters, published this beauty back in 1958, and it stacks up against any other example of the form that came before or since.
The Professional follows Eddie Brown and his trainers as he seeks to become the middleweight champion of the world. In its entire 334-page length, you will find nary a wasted word.
Excerpt: “Boyd was stalking Penna now, always walking forward, feinting, jetting out to the left, that face never changing, trying to corner Penna. Penna was moving, awkward, too tall and gangling for a lightweight, too loose and without purpose, except to protect himself and punch when he saw the chance.”
Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon
Around the house, this is known as “the one I finished,” after repeated drownings in the thick soup of Pynchon’s prose in novels like Gravity’s Rainbow and Mason & Dixon. Don’t get me wrong, if you’re going to be defeated by a novel, there is no more enjoyable a piece of literature to quit on than Gravity’s Rainbow.
In 2009, a mere three years after issuing the massive and almost univerally baffling Against The Day, Pynchon had mercy on those who just wanted to read a good book, publishing the psychedelic detective novel, Inherent Vice. Vice follows perpetually stoned private eye Doc Sportello through post-Manson Los Angeles, as he gets tangled up in a web of lies and intrigue that have, in true Pynchonian form, ominous undertones. Also in true Pynchonian style, it is filled with goofy songs and stoner humor. Passages providing panoramic descriptions of the City of Angels are worth the price of admission all on their own.
Excerpt: “Weeknights down here weren’t too different from weekends, so this part of town was already all ahoot with funseekers, drinkers and surfers screaming in the alleys, dopers out on food errands, flatland guys in for a night of hustling stewardesses, flatland ladies with all-too-grounded day jobs hoping to be mistaken for stewardesses. Uphill traffic out on the boulevard to and from the freeway uttered tuneful exhaust phrases which went echoing out to sea, where the crews of oil tankers sliding along, hearing them, could have figured it for wildlife taking care of nighttime business on an exotic coast.”
The Getaway Man by Andrew Vachss
There aren’t many names that get my eyes rolling as fast as the name Andrew Vachss. Can’t take him. I know that he ran a maximum security facility for rotten goddamn kids. I know the guy writes from experience. I know the guy has a hardcore following. I know he fights the good fight and I know that he can write. It’s all the tough-guy packaging that turned me off to Vachss almost from the moment I became aware of him, and it will continue to turn me off every time I see his grimacing face staring back at me from the window at Barnes & Noble.
So, you can imagine the hard swallow I have to take before recommending The Getaway Man, this cool little pulp novel that Vachss put out in 2003 when he was apparently on a break from shocking the American psyche in a state of perpetual paranoia. The Getaway Man is a first person suspense novel told form the POV of a simpleton getwaway driver who gets mixed up with wrong broad. No torture. No psychos. Just a damn good book.
Excerpt: “I tried to tell her, but I think I got all confused. Vanishing Point is about a driver. A great driver, driving against people trying to catch him. All over the country. He’s not a robber or anything. Just a driver. And everybody knows he’s running, because there’s a guy on the radio who’s on his side. So the driver can listen to the radio himself, and the guy who likes him can tell him what’s going on. The cops are trying to get him, even regular ones.”
In closing, you can go to the beach, the movies, your neighbor’s barbecue. But chances are those places will be filled with morons who talk loudly about their cell-phone plans. What you could do instead is go to the library, stack the books listed above next to you, and tuck right in. At the very least, there will likely be air-conditioning.