Re Brian's comment below:
"If anyone asked me what the best noir novel EVER was, I'd have to go with
THE MALTESE FALCON. If 'noir' can double for 'nihilism' to you, 'nihil'
(German for 'nothing') is what you've got at the end of this book. Spade survives, but he doesn't survive untouched, and the body count among the rest of the cast of characters is considerable."
Although I don't think "noir" CAN in fact double for "nihilism" (though nihilism certainly CAN be an element of a noir piece), I'd have to go along with Brian's choice.
Which means, of course, that, since I have rendered my always infallible judgment, this discussion can now end.
A few runners-up:
Hammett's THE DAIN CURSE. Although it doesn't have the rock-em-sock-em action of RED HARVEST, nor the nihilistic ending of that excellent town-tamer novel, the twisted family history and the sequence of claustrophobic settings, the family home, the temple, the cave where the kidnap victim is hidden, the hotel room where the drug cure takes place, etc., and the sense of overall evil pulling the strings of events throughout, make this one of the darkest, most sinister of Hammett's works.
Cornell Woolrich's THE BRIDE WORE BLACK, perhaps his best novel. Though some prefer his recycling of the same basic plot in RENDEVOUS IN BLACK a few years later, I prefer this earlier version, which not only maintains the dark, sinister atmosphere that is the defining element of noir throughout, but throws in some great surprise zingers at the end. One thing he manages to do that I've never seen done anywhere else is alter the structure of the novel at the end. For the first four fifths of the novel, what we have is a basic inverted mystery, where we see the murder committed, know who's committing the murder, and then watch the detective try to track the killer down. The COLUMBO structure, if you will. In the last portion of the novel, against all odds, he manages to transform it into a whodunit. It also is one of the better-plotted of Woolrich's works, though that's damning with faint praise. Woolrich was never one to let logical plot
construction get in the way of whatever coincidence he wanted to bring in from left field to keep the suspense turned up. There's plenty of that in TBWB, but less than is usual with Woolrich.
Chandler's FAREWELL, MY LOVELY is perhaps the book that best maintains a dark, sinister atmosphere throughout (though some might argue for THE LITTLE SISTER or THE LONG GOODBYE). The sequence with Marlowe held prisoner in the hospital that is being used for an underground railroad station for criminal fugitives is probably Chandler's best noir set-piece. And it's no coincidence that the film version of this novel, MURDER, MY SWEET, is perhaps the noir-est of any Chandler adaptation.
It's not hard-boiled, nor even a little bit gritty, but Daphne du Maurier's REBECCA is probably the best single example of what I sometimes think of as "chick-noir." As with the Woolrich novel, the dark, sinister atmosphere, the sense of forboding, is maintained admirably throughout, even in sequences where Maxim de Winter and his young bride are enjoying themselves. A whole sub-genre of crime fiction, "romantic suspense," descends from this novel. And, once more, it's no coincidence that the film version is perhaps the noir-est of any of Hitchcock's films.
And since it was the root of this discussion, I actually admire Rogers's THE RED RIGHT HAND much more than others on this list. To me it reads like a Woolrich novel, only with a logically worked out plot. And, needless to say, it maintains that dark, sinister atmosphere that is at the heart of noir.
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