Introduction (to “The Best American Noir of the Century”)

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 prices 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 canonized 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 describe 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 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 officially 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

4 thoughts on “Introduction (to “The Best American Noir of the Century”)

  1. I had really enjoyed this text. It makes me wanna read some noir novels.

    I’ve been thinking that noir is our modern tragedy: the man trying to runaway from his destiny can only find the wrong woman in the the wrong place and, also, in the worst place.

    It’s a tragedy where violence ends in madness.

    Noir is the voice of the social leper.

    Greets from Mexico.

    also excuse my bad grammar.

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