The best books from the golden age of American crime and noir

Andrew Diamond Author Of To Hell with Johnny Manic
By Andrew Diamond

The Books I Picked & Why

In a Lonely Place

By Dorothy B. Hughes

Book cover of In a Lonely Place

Why this book?

Unlike contemporary thrillers that portray killers as inhuman two-dimensional monsters, Hughes portrays Dix Steele as a human being gone horribly wrong. We see how his actions arise from feelings that most people experience as difficult and uncomfortable but that he experiences as intolerable, torturing, and unresolvable.

The novels of Jim Thompson and Patricia Highsmith are obvious descendants of this one. All three writers have insight and descriptive power that allow you to see, feel and inhabit some disturbing forms of human psychopathology. Hughes' female characters are strong, clear-eyed, and wise. They're the drivers of the story, not the victims. All her characters are fully drawn, and the tension builds consistently throughout. It's a hard book to put down, and you continue to feel it even after you've finished it.

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Black Wings Has My Angel

By Elliott Chaze

Book cover of Black Wings Has My Angel

Why this book?

In a tough prostitute named Virginia, escaped convict Timothy Sunblade finds the perfect partner to help execute the perfect crime. The extraordinary relationship between these two makes the book memorable. Sunblade is clear-eyed, thoughtful, disillusioned, sensitive, brutish, self-assured at times, and wavering at others. Virginia is wise, world-weary, sure of herself and what she wants, sometimes crazed like a caged animal, but always strong.

Chaze's atmospheric detail adds depth and presence to the story. The characters' arc is one of darkening fate and inevitable tragedy. Watching their slow descent is like watching a train wreck in slow motion. The characters continue to deepen throughout the story, all the way to the final page, and they stay with you long after you've put the book down.

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The Big Clock

By Kenneth Fearing

Book cover of The Big Clock

Why this book?

When news editor Earl Janoth murders his mistress, there's only one witness who can tie him to the crime scene. Janoth doesn't know who the witness is, but he knows everywhere the man went in the 24 hours before the murder, because the murder victim told him before he killed her.

Janoth is determined to find and silence him. He assigns reporter George Stroud to track the man down, not knowing that Stroud himself is the man he's looking for. Stroud is forced to assemble a team to hunt himself, knowing that when he's found, he'll be killed.

This is the best-plotted book I've ever read, both in concept and execution. Little details sprinkled through early chapters of the book keep coming back to have major significance as the noose tightens around Stroud.

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The Hot Spot

By Charles Williams

Book cover of The Hot Spot

Why this book?

Harry Madox drifts into a small Texas town with a plan to rob the local bank. He soon finds himself with two girlfriends. The young, sweet Gloria Harper brings out the best in him, while his boss’ jaded wife, Dolores Harshaw, brings out the worst. This a classic noir (and one of the best) in which a man's internal struggles spill out in the form of self-destructive loves and crimes.

Williams' characters ring true, and he provides good insight into their motivations and weaknesses. Dolores Harshaw may be the best femme fatale in all of crime fiction: seductive, conniving, compelling, manipulative, jealous, ruthless, intelligent, and unhinged. "The smart thing," Madox reflects after their first tryst, "was to get out of here and let her happen to somebody else." But you know he just can't resist.

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Pop. 1280

By Jim Thompson

Book cover of Pop. 1280

Why this book?

This violent, darkly comic novel describes the racism, injustice, hypocrisy, and meanness of small-town life in the mid-century American south. Narrator Nick Corey, a deranged homicidal sheriff, becomes increasingly unhinged as the story unfolds, spinning a tale that is bawdy, farcical, and harrowing all at the same time.

Thompson's psychopathic characters are always fascinating. His prose is lean and his fast-paced, impossible-to-put-down stories can be read in a single sitting. While the violence in Pop. 1280 can be disturbing, it's tempered with a good dose of humor. Rose's tirade about her lover, Lennie, has to be one of the funniest and raunchiest rants ever printed. How did Thompson get away with that in 1964?

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