Over the past several months, I have been reading the large Library of America omnibus volume entitled Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 40s. Included were the following titles:
- James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (filmed by Tay Garnett starring John Garfield and Lana Turner)
- Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (Sidney Pollack’s 1969 film of this starred Jane Fonda)
- Edward Anderson’s Thieves Like Us (made into a great Nicholas Ray film called They Live by Night)
- Kenneth Fearing’s The Big Clock (made into a great John Farrow film with Ray Milland and Charles Laughton)
- William Lindsay Gresham’s Nightmare Alley (another great John Farrow film, this time with Tyrone Power)
- Cornell Woolrich’s I Married a Dead Man (published under the pen name William Irish)
So many of the noir novels of the period were turned into classic films that I begin to think the whole genre is a mirror in which we as Americans see ourselves. Although the British are just as famous with their detective novels, it was an American who invented the genre with Edgar Allan Poe’s stories such as “The Gold Bug,” “The Purloined Letter,” and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” And while Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, and countless others were practicing their craft in Britain, their American counterparts created works that were more urban, more mean, and more essentially American.
Frankly, I came to the novels by way of the films. I was a collaborator (though in a minor way) with my friends Alain J. Silver and James Ursini in their genre-defining book Film Noir: The Encyclopedia published by Overlook Press. Other great resources are the same authors’ The Noir Style (also Overlook) and the Taschen Book entitled Film Noir.
Both the novels and the films generally tend to be excellent and well worth your time.