Shoot the Piano Player

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Ten Essential Noir Novels

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I was in my early 20s and living in Reno when I went to the library and saw it on the new release shelf: Wild at Heart by Barry Gifford. It was the cover that made me pick it up and check it out. I read it that night and said to myself, “Goddamn, I want to write like that.” It was six months later that I went to a bookstore and saw a life-sized, black-and-white cardboard cutout of a crazed convict pointing a gun. On his chest were pockets containing novels with the same sort of black-and-white cover photos. The publisher was Black Lizard and the novels had names like A Swell Looking BabeThe GriftersNightfallThe Burnt Orange Heresy, The Hot SpotA Hell of a Woman. I’d never seen books like those before. They were short, under 200 pages, and dangerous looking. I’d just been paid and I had money so I bought four of them without knowing anything about noir or who the authors were.
I went home that night and read A Hell of a Woman, and the way I looked at novels forever changed after that. Those Black Lizard books were about psychologically damaged people trying to navigate a cruel, cutthroat world that didn’t want them in the first place. And they were written by what seemed to me psychologically damaged writers. It felt like I’d found a home. The novels were lean and tight and dark and desperate. Little did I know that Barry Gifford started Black Lizard. He was the person who helped bring Charles Willeford, David Goodis, and Jim Thompson back into print. Later, he helped me find the crazed convict cutout with the novels in his chest. How lucky is that? Here’s a list of some of my favorite noir novels:

1. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy

This Depression-era novel takes place during a dance marathon. A couple meet and the woman, Gloria, whispers into her dance partner’s ear that she’s suicidal. She has no family, she can’t find a job, and she wants to kill herself but doesn’t have the guts. The novel is steeped in the desperation of the Depression but also in the desperation of the contestants. Because everyone there wants to be famous. The novel is set in Hollywood and fame and stardom is everything, being discovered is everything. But underneath it all everyone knows there’s no real chance of discovery.

2. The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain

One of my favorite titles of all time. Another Depression-era novel that is at once sadomasochistic, racist, violent, and romantic. Frank, arguably a sociopath, is a drifter and he stumbles into a roadside diner to find the owners, Cora and her Greek husband Nick, are in need of help running the gas station. Cora and Frank begin an affair and it goes nuts after that. For those who like audiobooks, check out Stanley Tucci’s reading. It’s genius.

3. Savage Night by Jim Thompson

There was a time I had every Jim Thompson novel displayed in a shrine. But I loved Thompson so much I had to try and get my friends to read him and began giving them away. Jesus, what a mistake that was—they were hard to find. Never give your prized books to anyone. I picked this one because it’s mad. A vertically challenged hit man who wears elevator shoes is sent to a town to kill a person. He gets a room at boarding house and begins an affair with a woman who has a leg that ends at the knee with an infant-sized foot attached. Oh, and the hit man begins shrinking. Jim Thompson is pure mania. Just writing about him makes me laugh and feel sick at the same time.

4. Pick-Up by Charles Willeford

This one stopped me in my tracks. An alcoholic short order cook and an alcoholic, suicidal woman fall in love. He was once a painter who realized he was never going to be a great artist and gave up painting for drinking. When we meet him he’s spent years on the slide. The woman, who’s nearly at the bottom, inspires him to try again to be great. He gets his painting chops back only to realize he’s not great and never will be. Their lives tumble into a free fall after that. Pick-Up also has one of the most striking endings of any noir novel I’ve read.

5. Shoot the Piano Player by David Goodis

When I first read Goodis, he was just too much for me. In nearly every novel there’s a man who once, in a different life, was good, decent, rich, or famous. But the world took his life away and the man is left with nothing. He turns to booze and prostitutes or near prostitutes and he wallows in the darkness while at the same time hoping somehow to escape it. The crazy thing is when I read him again in my 30s and 40s, I discovered his desperation and nihilism brought me great comfort. Jesus, that says a lot about me. Shoot the Piano Player is one of my favorites and also a great movie.

6. No Bed of Her Own by Val Lewton

Lewton became famous as a horror movie studio head and script writer. But before that he wrote this single novel. Rose Mahoney stands up for herself at her typing job and is fired. But it’s the Depression and she can’t get another job. She tries everything she can think of but there are no jobs. Soon she is thrust into a world of darkness where desperation and hopelessness are the norm. She is forced to do whatever she has to do to get by. They say Lewton wrote the book in a couple weeks. Man oh man. This is an overlooked classic that really struck a nerve with me. A month doesn’t go by where I don’t think, at least for a moment, about Rose. It’s hard to find in the U.S. so look online in the U.K. for paperback copies.

7. Thieves Like Us by Edward Anderson

This is one I just stumbled upon. The great novelist George Pelecanos mentioned Edward Anderson and whenever he mentions a book I check it out. It’s the most crime-oriented title on this list. Three bank robbers escape prison only to drift back into the life. While hiding out, the youngest robber, Bowie, falls in love with Keechie, who helps her father run a gas station/repair shop. The two go on the run in a romantic yet doomed journey that leads to nothing and nowhere.

8. Wild at Heart by Barry Gifford

These last three are modern takes. I don’t want you to think I only like novels from the ’30s and ’50s. But this one is dedicated to Charles Willeford and in a lot of ways lives in that Black Lizard world. When Sailor gets out of prison, he is picked up by his girlfriend, Lula, and they go on the run. They are star-crossed lovers who never waiver, who always stick together. Lula’s mom, Marietta Pace Fortune, hires Johnnie Farragut to track them down and bring them back. It’s a classic. And it’s just the beginning. Gifford wrote about Sailor and Lula for their entire lives.

9. Die a Little by Megan Abbott

I can’t say enough great things about Megan Abbott. She has this ability to make you feel safe and protected while the world falls apart around you. Lora is close to her brother Bill, who works for the district attorney’s office. Bill falls in love and marries Alice, but Alice has a complicated past: drugs, prostitution, etc. Bill doesn’t know this but Lora suspects something is off and starts to investigate Alice. It turns out that Lora isn’t as clean as she seems and she slides into the darkness she’s trying to save her brother from. Abbott is a genius at pulling the floor out while you’re walking—you barely notice that you’re suddenly falling.

10. Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell

There’s such a desperate feel to Winter’s Bone. A community ravaged, yet employed by and surviving from the sale and manufacture of methamphetamine. Ree, a high school kid, is suddenly the head of her household. Her mother is mentally ill, her siblings are too young to help, and her father, a good meth cook, has suddenly gone missing. If she can’t find him, she’ll lose their house. The thing about Woodrell is he’s a genius with language. He plays with words and it’s breathtaking.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

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