edited by


with an introduction by


hough ton mifflin harcourt
boston • new york • 2010

Copyright © 2010 by Houghton Mifin Harcourt Publishing Company Introduction copyright © 2010 by James Ellroy all rights reserved The Best American Series® is a registered trademark of Houghton Mifin Harcourt Publishing Company. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage or retrieval system without the prior written permission of the copyright owner unless such copying is expressly permitted by federal copyright law. With the exception of nonprofit transcription in Braille, Houghton Mifin Harcourt is not authorized to grant permission for further uses of copyrighted selections reprinted in this book without the permission of their owners. Permission must be obtained from the individual copyright owners as identified herein. Address requests for permission to make copies of Houghton Mifin Harcourt material to Permissions, Houghton Mifin Harcourt Publishing Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York 10003. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data The best American noir of the century / edited by James Ellroy and Otto Penzler; with an introduction by James Ellroy. p. cm. — (The best American series) isbn 978-0-547-33077-8 1. Noir fiction, American. 2. Detective and mystery stories, American. 3. American fiction — 20th century. I. Ellroy, James, date. II. Penzler, Otto. ps648.n64b47 2010 813′.087208 — dc22 2010017204 Printed in the United States of America doc 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

“Stab” by Chris Adrian. First published in Zoetrope: All-Story, Summer 2006. Copyright © 2006 by Chris Adrian; published in Better Angel: Stories, by Chris Adrian, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. “The Hunger” by Charles Beaumont. First published in Playboy, April 1955. Copyright © 1955 by HMH Publishing Company, renewed 1983 by Christopher Beaumont. Reprinted by permission of Don Congdon Associates, Inc. “Like a Bone in the Throat” by Lawrence Block. First published in Murder for Revenge, ed. by Otto Penzler. Copyright © 1998 by Lawrence Block. Reprinted by permission of the author. “The Gesture” by Gil Brewer. First published in The Saint Mystery Magazine, March 1956. Copyright © 1956 by the author. Reprinted by permission of Marvin N. Lee and Mary V. Rhodes. “Man in the Dark” by Howard Browne. First published in Fantastic, 1952. Copyright © 1952 by the author. Reprinted by permission of Melissa Browne, Trustee. “Texas City, 1947” by James Lee Burke. First published in Southern Review, 1991. Copyright © 1991 by James Lee Burke. Reprinted by permission of the author. “Pastorale” by James M. Cain. First published in American Mercury, March 1928. Copyright © 1928 by The American Mercury, Inc. Copyright © renewed 1955 by James M. Cain. Reprinted by permission of Harold Ober Associates, Inc.

“Missing the Morning Bus” by Lorenzo Carcaterra. First published in Dead Man’s Hand, 2007. Copyright © 2007 by the author. Reprinted by permission of the author. “All Through the House” by Christopher Coake. First published in Gettysburg Review, 2003. Copyright © 2003 by Christopher Coake; published in We’re in Trouble by Christopher Coake, Harcourt, 2005. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifin Harcourt. “What She Offered” by Thomas H. Cook. First published in Dangerous Women, 2005. Copyright © 2005 by Thomas H. Cook. Reprinted by permission of the author. “Hot Springs” by James Crumley. First published in Murder for Love, 1996. Copyright © 1996 by James Crumley. Reprinted by permission of the Estate of James Crumley. “The Weekender” by Jeffery Deaver. First published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, December 1996. Copyright © 1996 by Jeffery W. Deaver. Reprinted by permission of the author. “A Ticket Out” by Brendan DuBois. First published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, January 1987. Copyright © 1987 by Brendan DuBois. Reprinted by permission of the author. “Mefisto in Onyx” by Harlan Ellison. From The Essential Ellison: A 50-Year Retrospective, 2005. Copyright © 1993 by the Kilimanjaro Corporation. Reprinted by arrangement with, and permission of, the Author and the Author’s agent, Richard Curtis Associates, Inc., New York. All rights reserved. Harlan Ellison is a registered trademark of the Kilimanjaro Corporation. “Since I Don’t Have You” by James Ellroy. First published in A Matter of Crime, vol. 4. Copyright © 1988 by James Ellroy. Reprinted by permission of Sobel Weber Associates. “You’ll Always Remember Me” by Steve Fisher. First published in Black Mask Magazine, March 1938. Copyright © 1938 by the author. Reprinted by permission of Keith Alan Deutsch. “Poachers” by Tom Franklin. From Poachers. Copyright © 1999 by Tom Franklin. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers. “The Paperhanger” by William Gay. First published in Harper’s Magazine, February 2000. Copyright © 2000 by William Gay. Reprinted by permission of the author. “Out There in the Darkness” by Ed Gorman. First published in Out There in the Darkness, 1995. Copyright © 1995 by Ed Gorman. Reprinted by permission of the author. “Iris” by Stephen Greenleaf. First published in The Eyes Have It, 1984. Copyright © 1984 by Stephen Greenleaf. Reprinted by permission of the author. “Crack” by James W. Hall. First published in Murder and Obsession, 1999. Copyright © 1999 by James W. Hall. Reprinted by permission of the author. “Slowly, Slowly in the Wind” by Patricia Highsmith. First published in Slowly, Slowly in the Wind. Copyright © 1972, 1973, 1974, 1976, 1977, and 1979 by Patricia Highsmith. Copyright © by Diogenes Verlag AG Zurich. Reprinted by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. “The Homecoming” by Dorothy B. Hughes. First published in Murder Cavalcade, 1946. Copyright © 1946 by Dorothy B. Hughes, Murder Cavalcade, New York: Duell, Sloan & Pearce. Permission granted by Blanche C. Gregory, Inc. “The Last Spin” by Evan Hunter. First published in Manhunt, September 1956. Copyright © 1956 by Evan Hunter. Reprinted by permission of Gelfman Schneider Literary Agents, Inc. “Gun Crazy” by MacKinlay Kantor. First published in the Saturday Evening Post, February 13, 1940. Copyright © 1940 by MacKinlay Kantor. Reprinted by permission of Layne Schroder, Lydia Kantor and Melissa Poplazarova and by agreement with the estate’s agent, Donald Maass Literary Agency, 121 West 27th Street, Suite 801, NY, NY 10001. “Nothing to Worry About” by Day Keene. First published in Detective Tales Magazine, August 1945. Copyright © 1945 by Popular Publications, Inc. Copyright renewed © 1973 and assigned to Argosy Communications, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission by arrangement with Argosy Communications, Inc. “Her Lord and Master” by Andrew Klavan. First published in Dangerous Women, 2005. Copyright © 2005 by Andrew Klavan. Reprinted by permission of the author. “Running Out of Dog” by Dennis Lehane. First published in Murder and Obsession, 1999. Copy-

right © 1999 by Dennis Lehane. Reprinted with permission of Ann Rittenberg Literary Agency, Inc. “When the Women Come Out to Dance” by Elmore Leonard. First published in When the Women Come Out to Dance, 2002. Copyright © 2002 by Elmore Leonard, Inc. Reprinted by permission of the author. “The Dripping” by David Morrell. First published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, August 1972. Copyright © 1972 by Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Reprinted by permission of the author. “The Hoarder” by Bradford Morrow. First published in Murder in the Rough, 2006. Copyright © 2006 by Bradford Morrow. Reprinted by permission of the author. “Faithless” by Joyce Carol Oates. From Faithless: Tales of Transgression. Copyright © 1997 by The Ontario Review, Inc. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers. “The Lady Says Die!” by Mickey Spillane. First published in Manhunt, October 1953. Copyright © 1953 by Mickey Spillane. Contributed by the Estate of Mickey Spillane. “Forever After” by Jim Thompson. First published in Shock, May 1960. Copyright © 1960 by Jim Thompson. Reprinted by permission of Vanessa Holt Ltd. “Midnight Emissions” by F. X. Toole. First published in Murder of the Ropes, 2001. Copyright © 2001 by F. X. Toole. Reprinted by permission of Sobel Weber Associates. “Controlled Burn” by Scott Wolven. First published in Harpur Palate, 2002. Copyright © 2002 by Scott Wolven. Reprinted by permission of the author. “For the Rest of Her Life” by Cornell Woolrich. First published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, May 1968. Copyright © 1968 by JP Morgan Chase Bank as Trustee for the Clair Woolrich Memorial Scholarship Fund. Reprinted by permission of Renaissance Literary and Talent.

The French word noir (which means “black”) was first connected to the word film by a French critic in 1946, and has subsequently become a prodigiously overused term to describe a certain type of film or literary work. Curiously, noir is not unlike pornography, in the sense that it is virtually impossible to define, but everyone thinks they know it when they see it. Like many other certainties, it is often wildly inaccurate. This volume is devoted to short noir fiction of the past century, but it is impossible to divorce the literary genre entirely from its film counterpart. Certainly, noir most commonly evokes the great crime films of the 1940s and 1950s that were shot in black-and-white with cinematography that was heavily influenced by early-twentieth-century German expressionism: sharp angles (venetian blinds, windows, railroad tracks) and strong contrasts between light and dark. Most of us have a collective impression of film noir as having certain essentials: a femme fatale, some tough criminals, an equally tough cop or private eye, an urban environment, and night . . . endless night. There are bars, nightclubs, menacing alleys, seedy hotel rooms. While it may be comforting to recognize these elements as the very definition of film noir, it is as simplistic a view as that which limits the mystery genre to detective fiction, failing to accept the numerous other elements of that rich literature, such as the crime novel and suspense stories. Certainly the golden age of film noir occurred in those decades, the ’40s and ’50s, but there were superb examples in the 1930s, such as M (1931), in which Peter Lorre had his first starring role, and Freaks (1932), Tod Browning’s unforgettable biopic in which the principal actors were actual carnival “human curiosities.” And no one is likely to dispute that the noir motion picture continued into the 1960s and beyond, as evidenced by such classics as The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Taxi Driver (1976), Body Heat (1981), and L.A. Confidential (1997).



Much of film noir lacks some or all of the usual clichéd visual set pieces of the genre, of course, but the absolutist elements by which the films are known are less evident in the literature, which relies more on plot, tone, and theme than on the chiaroscuro effects choreographed by directors and cinematographers. Allowing for the differences of the two mediums, I also believe that most film and literary critics are entirely wrong about their definitions of noir, a genre which famously — but erroneously — has its roots in the American hard-boiled private eye novel. In fact, the two subcategories of the mystery genre, private detective stories and noir fiction, are diametrically opposed, with mutually exclusive philosophical premises. Noir works, whether films, novels, or short stories, are existential, pessimistic tales about people, including (or especially) protagonists, who are seriously flawed and morally questionable. The tone is generally bleak and nihilistic, with characters whose greed, lust, jealousy, and alienation lead them into a downward spiral as their plans and schemes inevitably go awry. Whether their motivation is as overt as a bank robbery, or as subtle as the willingness to compromise integrity for personal gain, the central figures in noir stories are doomed to hopelessness. They may be motivated by the pursuit of seemingly easy money or by love — or, more commonly, physical desire — almost certainly for the wrong member of the opposite sex. The machinations of their relentless lust will cause them to lie, steal, cheat, and even kill as they become more and more entangled in a web from which they cannot possibly extricate themselves. And, while engaged in this hopeless quest, they will be double-crossed, betrayed, and, ultimately, ruined. The likelihood of a happy ending in a noir story is remote, even if the protagonist’s own view of a satisfactory resolution is the criterion for defining happy. No, it will end badly, because the characters are inherently corrupt and that is the fate that inevitably awaits them. The private detective story is a different matter entirely. Raymond Chandler famously likened the private eye to a knight, a man who could walk mean streets but not himself be mean, and this is true of the overwhelming majority of those heroic figures. They may well be brought into an exceedingly dark situation, and encounter characters who are deceptive, violent, paranoid, and lacking a moral center, but the American private detective retains his sense of honor in the face of all the adversity and duplicity with which he must do battle. Sam Spade avenged the murder of a partner because he knew he “was supposed to do something about it.” Mike Hammer found it easy to kill a woman to whom he



had become attached because he learned she had murdered his friend. Lew Archer, Spenser, Elvis Cole, and other iconic private eyes, as well as policemen who, like Harry Bosch and Dave Robicheaux, often act as if they are unconstrained by their ofcial positions, may bend (or break) the law, but their own sense of morality will be used in the pursuit of justice. Although not every one of their cases may have a happy conclusion, the hero nonetheless will emerge with a clean ethical slate. Film noir blurs the distinction between hard-boiled private eye narratives and true noir stories by employing similar design and camerawork techniques for both genres, though the discerning viewer will easily recognize the opposing life-views of a moral, even heroic, often romantic detective, and the lost characters in noir who are caught in the inescapable prisons of their own construction, forever trapped by their isolation from their own souls, as well as from society and the moral restrictions that permit it to be regarded as civilized. This massive collection seldom allows exceptions to these fundamental principles of noir stories. They are dark and often oppressive, failing to allow redemption for most of the people who inhabit their sad, violent, amoral world. Carefully wrought plans crumble, lovers deceive, normality morphs into decadence, and decency is scarce and unrewarded. Nonetheless, the writers who toil in this oppressive landscape have created stories of such relentless fascination that they rank among the giants of the literary world. Some, like Cornell Woolrich, David Goodis, and Jim Thompson, wrote prolifically but produced little that did not fall into the noir category, accurately reflecting their own troubled, tragic lives. Others, like Elmore Leonard, Evan Hunter, and Lawrence Block, have written across a more varied range of crime fiction, from dark to light, from morose to hilarious. Just not in this volume. If you find light and hilarity in these pages, I strongly recommend a visit to a mental health professional. Otto Penzler May 2009

We created it, but they love it more in France than they do here. Noir is the most scrutinized offshoot of the hard-boiled school of fiction. It’s the long drop off the short pier, and the wrong man and the wrong woman in perfect misalliance. It’s the nightmare of flawed souls with big dreams and the precise how and why of the all-time sure thing that goes bad. Noir is opportunity as fatality, social justice as sanctified shuck, and sexual love as a one-way ticket to hell. Noir indicts the other subgenres of the hard-boiled school as sissified, and canonizes the inherent human urge toward self-destruction. Noir sparked before the Big War and burned like a four-coil hot plate up to 1960. Cheap novels and cheap films about cheap people ran concurrent with American boosterism and yahooism and made a subversive point just by being. They described a fully existing fringe America and fed viewers and readers the demography of a Secret Pervert Republic. It was just garish enough to be laughed off as unreal and just pathetic enough to be recognizably human. The concurrence said: Something is wrong here. The subtext was: Malign fate has a great and unpredictable power and none of us is safe. The thrill of noir is the rush of moral forfeit and the abandonment to titillation. The social importance of noir is its grounding in the big themes of race, class, gender, and systemic corruption. The overarching joy and lasting appeal of noir is that it makes doom fun. The inhabitants of the Secret Pervert Republic are a gas. Their intransigence and psychopathy are delightful. They relentlessly pursue the score, big and small. They only succeed at a horrific cost that renders it all futile. They are wildly delusional and possessed of verbal flair. Their overall job description is “grandiose lowlife.” They speak their own language. Safecrackers are “box men” who employ explosive “soup.” Grifters perfect the long con, the short con, and the dime hustle. Race-wire



scams utilize teams of scouts who place last-minute bets and relay information to bookmaking networks. A twisted professionalism defines all strata of the Secret Pervert Republic. This society grants women a unique power to seduce and destroy. A six-week chronology from first kiss to gas chamber is common in noir. The subgenre ofcially died in 1960. New writer generations have resurrected it and redefined it as a sub-subgenre, tailored to meet their dramatic needs. Doom is fun. Great sex preceded the gas-chamber bounce. Older Secret Pervert Republicans blew their wads on mink coats for evil women. Present-day SPRs go broke on crack cocaine. Lethal injection has replaced the green room. Noir will never die — it’s too dementedly funny not to flourish in the heads of hip writers who wish they could time-trip to 1948 and live postwar malaise and psychoses. The young and feckless will inhabit the Secret Pervert Republic, reinvent it, wring it dry, and reinvent it all over again. The short stories in this volume are a groove. Exercise your skeevy curiosity and read every one. You’ll be repulsed and titillated. You’ll endure moral forfeit. Doom is fun. You’re a perv for reading this introduction. Read the whole book and you’ll die on a gurney with a spike in your arm. James Ellroy July 2009