Author Top 5s - Christian Read's Top 5 Noir Novels

In Author Top 5s I'm inviting a number of authors to share top 5 lists somehow related to the genre they write. They'll be discussing things they love and how they've been influenced by them. Should prove to be interesting and hopefully we'll all pick up a few recommendations of good stuff to check out.

I've got Christian Read on the blog today. Christian's 'Lark Case Files' series is an awesome blend of horror, magic and hard-boiled noir. As one big feature of his writing I asked Christian whether he would share with us his top 5 noir novels.

I was recently asked to share my favourite noir novels.

But, here's the thing. Everyone has a list of noir and hard-boiled novels they dig on and you'll recognise most of the classics. Jim Thompson and James Cain and Chandler and Hammett and Woolrich or my beloved Traven. Or hit up the new school classics like Kerr's Berlin Noir, or the deranged mania of the brilliant Elizabeth Hand's latter books or William Gay's almost gentle murders.

Noir is more than just dark alleys, losers in hot hotel room, flies circling the rooms in dive bars and lonely men in empty hotel rooms, waiting on women who'll never call. Noir is losers and loners and a hunger in the belly and the certainty of betrayal. It's drinking alone at 4 AM. It's dragging the dark rivers of the heart. It's just the black. That's all it needs to be.

Here's five Strange Noir I like. You might like them too.

1. Hoodtown by Christa Faust

Faust is probably best known for Money Shot, a fiercely written story of an ex-porn queen on a bloody path of revenge. And make no mistake, if violent vengeance and a remarkably lurid cast are your thing, it's aces.

But Hoodtown is, I think, a minor masterpiece of fantastic crime. Anyone can give you hunting down scumbags but here's something fiercely original.  X is a rudo luchador, baddie wrestler. But it all went wrong and now she deals out punishment to masochist pervs for cash in the dark rooms of Hoodtown, a ghetto for Luchas. Someone is preying on the hookers of Hoodtown, killing them and taking their masks. The skin police, the unmasked upper class, treat Luchas like scum so it's up to X to solve all of this. But she's no investigator.

A genuinely weird book that draws on both the rich mythology and ethics of Mexican wrestling, as well as being a strongly plotted crime novel, it always gives me the impression of some weird animated film you watched drunk late at night and try to describe to a disbelieving audience. It's alive and tigerish with violence and sex and anger. I pay it that rarest of compliments: I can think of nothing else like it.

2. Confessions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas De Quincey

Unusual choice because, well, it was written more than a hundred years before the noir tradition rocked up. It's also a, probably at least partially, fictionalised diary about a kid who runs away from home and winds up on the gear. Well, in this case, laudanum. This is the original tale of opium dens and a city gone weird and savage under the influence of drugs. Of a broken psychology that gives birth to hungers that only madness can assuage. Of what it's like to go days without sleep, and to sleep only in nightmares. De Quincey was devoted in showing what the junkie life was, the invitation to crime and the sexy purr of self-annihilation nearly a century before Burroughs was born. 'Oh, the sublime attractions of the grave.'

3. And the Ass Saw the Angel by Nick Cave

Noir is often a thing that lurks in cities but there's a whole other tradition. Empty farmhouses. Long highways. Petrol stations in the desert and the circle of cigarette butts in the clearing on the mountain top.

Nick Cave might sing songs about flowers and the newspaper these days but once, his American Gothic and Biblical obsessions ran deep and found perfection here. Euchrid Eucrow, born from the baddest of blood, stealing some mythological juju from Elvis, is a mute. Down amongst the canefields, he communes with the angel spirit of his dead twin, navigates the cruel hobos and his crueller, utterly broken parents, spies on the local, doomed prostitute and falls in love with a little girl the religiously delirious community are grooming for some special destiny.

Written with a few voices, it mainly stays with Euchrid. A boy who cannot speak, who has only read the Bible to give him a language. Obsession, God, death and an aching promise of some terrible violences hang over the narrative. Genuinely brilliant.

4. The Man Who by Reed Stephens (Stephen Donaldson)

Pretty much my favourite fantasy novels are the remarkable Thomas Covenenant books by Stephen Donaldson. Donaldson is famous for two things. Demanding empathy for very, very damaged and fraught and unlikeable characters and remarkable language. Monsters and spirits are anile and telic and spit formications. There's a great interview where he says that the words shape the story, the ideas exist to support the language. 

In The Man Who books, he takes a fairly basic noir set up. A former policeman who drunk a career away, with a tragic past. He's halfway in love with his tough partner. What makes it interesting though, is the same demands for empathy for even the lowest of low lives and, eased down, but nevertheless, still extravagant language. A private detective thinking in terms like exigent and despite seems to rattle at first but soon hits a unique groove.

Hitting up some interesting cases, a rivalry between two kung fu schools being my favourite, it's as interested in being faithful to literature as it is to the harboiled genre.

5. Slow Chocolate Autopsy by Iain Sinclair and Dave McKean

Norton is trapped in London. He can never leave. But his consolation is that London is eager to share it's past. And secrets.

This is not a crime novel. But nevertheless, its grim and strange and deals with the same passions as any other noir. I'm not the first person to note the landscape as an actor in Noir but that's an overt theme here. Sinclair is the master of psychogeography, discussing and exploring how locale effects the emotions and thoughts.

Norton is thrown into history and becomes involved with the Ripper murders, with the death of morbid playwright Marlowe, the old territories of William Blake through an underclass impoverish by centuries of aristocracy.

The book is broken up by both elegant design and comic scripts designed by Dave McKean, at the height of his powers. Unsentimental with it's characters, with sex, with murder. Historical with contempt for nostalgia, this is a bit hard to find but it will reward anyone who likes it lightless and uncomfortable. For those who like their sentences delicious and brutal. And for anyone who ever wandered London, battered by ghosts.

Christian Read is a writer of novels, comics, computer games and other things beside. As you read this, is he is probably drinking whisky and writing some more. Find more about the 'Lark Case Files' books Black City and Devil City.