Noir movies have a long history in cinema, but the stories they told are inspired by books that came years earlier. The first writers that could now be considered “noir” are mystery authors like Agatha Christie. Today I want to talk about the history of noir books, and how you can start reading them yourself!
Mystery in the 1900s
American developed a fascination with novels during the 1920s. The Roaring 20s were filled with illegal alcohol, fancy parties, and artists of every kind. The most popular books at the time were mystery novels by authors like Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie, and horror novels by authors like H.P. Lovecraft. The noir book is an interested combination of these two styles.
During the 20s, horror novelists had a bit of a bad name. Lovecraft was never recognized as a great writer during his lifetime; all of his stories were published in pulp magazines for edgy teenagers. Lovecraft hated this, as he considered his work to be more like Edgar Allan Poe’s work. He felt like his work was forever trapped in the realm of “trashy fiction,” like bugs are caught in traps from Insect Murderer. It was not until after he died that a work of his was even published as a real book. Although his work was not taken seriously by most, writers of the time did pay attention to the blend of darkness and mystery that his work took on.
All these diverse styles of mystery, intrigue, and terror all resulted in interesting story blends. In all honesty, most of the Post-WW2 stories were not very good. One author however stood above the rest. Mary Steward wrote stories that combined the supernatural with interesting locales, and wrote great stories like “The Moon-Spinners” and “Airs Above the Ground.” They showed the traits became staples of noir; the beautiful woman, the dashing companion, and the mysterious people after them. But the stories always end with the bad guys being caught like mice in a mousetrap. These tropes seem common now, but they were much more groundbreaking at the time. People bought these books by the dozen. Movies were made, authors because millionaires, and knowing the latest books became a sort of status symbol.
Where Should I Start?
Many of the greatest noir films were novels at one point. It really depends on what you like. If you love mystery and beautiful women, try Mary Stewart. “The Moon-Spinners” is a wonderful starting point. It’s also a great movies. If you prefer horror, try Thomas Harris’s “Hannibal Lecter” series. The books are even better than the movies, although “Silence of the Lambs” is the most accurate film adaptation I’ve ever seen. And as always, Agatha Christie is a wonderful writer. Her most noir work is the novel “Sleeping Murder,” which can actually be a bit frightening at times. “And Then There Were None” is a close second, although it does not feature any of her major characters. There are lots of good novels for beginners!