Monday, June 11, 2007

American Noir

I've long had an interest in the American Noir of the 1930s-1950s period and was particularly happy to find that The Library of America considers much of the work of that period worthy of being added to its list. In fact, I know of six volumes published so far: two collections of Raymond Chandler's work, two volumes from Dashiell Hammett, and two volumes entitled "Crime Novels," one covering the decades of the thirties and forties and another of work first published in the fifties.

In its own words, The Library of America publishes "America's best and most significant writing in durable and authoritative editions." I totally agree with that description and I've been collecting LOA books for a few years now, adding two or three a year to my shelves.

Today I've been reading Cornell Woolrich's I Married a Dead Man, a novel that is included in Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s & 40s. I plan to review the novel when I finish it because it is one of those "lost novels" that few people remember and that is a shame. But what I already find interesting is the great contrast between the quality of the volume from which I'm reading Woolrich's book (classy, full cloth binding, acid free paper) with the way that it was marketed in its earlier life.

Take a look at this 1949 cover:

Several of Cornell Woolrich's novels were published under the name of "William Irish," so no big surprise there. What makes me chuckle is how misleading this rather outlandish cover is about the book's plot, making it appear to be some kind of ghoulish horror novel when it is actually more akin to the kind of story that made Alfred Hitchcock famous. I wonder how many readers judged this book by its cover.


  1. I read Red Harvest by Hammett recently and quite enjoyed it. I've been thinking of reading The Maltese Falcon as well. Red Harvest was my first time reading that sort of fiction, American Noir.

  2. Sam, I'm looking forward to reading what you think of that Crime Novels anthology. I checked it out of my library once (after reading an intriguing career retrospective of Woolrich in a national magazine, the Atlantic I believe) but never got around to reading it before I had to return it. If your review is favorable, maybe I'll give the book another checkout.

  3. Hammett is definitely one of the masters, Matt. You should also check out Raymond Chandler and James Cain, too...great stuff. I'm revisiting a lot of their work and heading into some of the lesser known names at the same time. It's amazing to me how well these old stories hold up.

  4. Pete, I'm impressed with it so far because the selections seem to be a good combination of well known and lesser known novels and authors. Of the six novels in this collection, I've only previously read the one by Caine, The Postman Always Rings Twice. And of course, I remember the movie version of They Shoot Horses Don't They?.

  5. I really love that 1949 cover!

    I read a James M. Cain collection a couple of years ago. Published in England, so the spelling had been altered, which would periodically jolt me out of the American noir world.

  6. That must have been a bit of a jarring read, bybee. I really like Cain's work and this collection has gotten me in the mood to see what I can find of his and some of the others who wrote in that period.

    Those old paperbacks are very collectible today, mostly because of their covers, I suspect. I've seen this very book for sale at $8, in fact, which doesn't seem too outlandish a price considering its age.