50 Must-Read Noir Detective Novels — Barnes & Noble Reads

50 Must-Read Noir Detective Novels

Whatever kind of reading you like best in life, you can find your match in a good noir detective novel. Great stories with complex plots? Noir. Hilarious humor, albeit of a generally dark variety? Noir. Unforgettable characters? Noir. Breathless action? Noir again. If you’ve fallen behind the curve on noir fiction, now’s the time to get on board that train, because some of the greatest novels ever written have fallen into this beloved, chameleonic genre. Here are 50 noir books in no particular order that any fan of detective fiction should have on their shelves—and if you’re not familiar with the label, any one of these would be the ideal introduction to the genre.

The Killer Inside Me, by Jim Thompson
Thompson’s story of a small-town deputy sheriff is one of the most chilling depictions of a sociopath ever committed to paper. As the plot twists itself into an ever-tighter knot, you’re simultaneously fascinated and revolted by Lou Ford, a character that helped shape our modern conception of serial killers.

The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett
This is the novel that introduced the world to quintessential noir private eye Sam Spade, based in part on Hammett’s own experience working for the infamous Pinkertons. It contains much of the basic genetic material that has been mined ever since for that noir feel—from the world-weary private investigator willing to get physical (in every sense of the word) to the femme fatale to the seamy underside of dark secrets.

The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain
If the setup—young drifter meets beautiful young woman unhappily married to older man, whom they decide to murder for financial and romantic gain—is a classic, it’s because this fast-paced, lushly written novel made it a classic. Based on a real-life case, the book was banned in several areas of the country for its frank depiction of lust and violence, with a bleak ending that helped define the genre.

L.A. Confidential, by James Ellroy
The third book in Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet marks the point at which noir invaded the literary world and made a home for itself. Ellroy’s 1950s Los Angeles is corrupt, violent, soaked in lust and addictions, and populated by crooked cops and criminals. With its intricate plot and flawed characters, it’s much more than a violent story about violent people, following the career of three cops—ambitious Ed Exley, brutal Bud White, and slick Jack Vicennes—as they spiral into darkness.

The Ice Harvest, by Scott Phillips
A classic element of noir is the simple, perfect crime that is subverted ruinously by human nature. Phillips’ modern classic is the story of low-level crook and former attorney Charlie Arglist, who has a simple plan to make off with his mobster boss’s money in the middle of a Christmas Eve blizzard in Wichita. Charlie’s own poor judgment slowly unravels the scheme, however, leading him inexorably into an evening of violence and desperation, told in one of the funniest narrative voices in noir history.

The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler
Chandler’s iconic private investigator Philip Marlowe gets embroiled in a famously complex story involving blackmail, murder, pornography, and seduction—so complex that to this day no one knows who committed one of the murders described therein. Chandler’s rhythmic dialogue and sparse, gut-punch descriptions make this novel much more than the sum of its violent, cynical parts.

Winter’s Bone, by Daniel Woodrell
Woodrell’s modern classic at first might seem too cold and modern to be noir, but Ree Dolly’s quest to save her ramshackle house by either finding her good-for-nothing father or proving him dead is set up in classic noir terms. In the Ozarks, presented as a frozen wasteland of ice and methamphetamine, Ree must navigate a culture whose rules feel alien and threatening, relying on her wits and courage—and desperation. In other words, it’s noir.

Fast One, by Paul Cain
None other than Raymond Chandler had high praise for this “ultra-hardboiled” novel. George Kells is a rough-and-tumble gambler and gunman who just wants to be left to his own devices. When rival criminal and political cartels try to recruit him, he aims to stay out of it—but of course is sucked in after a series of double-crosses. And now Kells is angry and looking to take on all comers in this ferocious, bloody story that never lets up.

A Drink before the War, by Dennis Lehane
Lehane’s brilliant debut introduces private investigators Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro, hired by three politicians to retrieve photos from a woman named Jenna Angeline. While the city slides into one of its most explosive periods of gang warfare, Kenzie and Gennaro find themselves looking into sickening child abuse, terrifying violence, and a series of twisting double-crosses culminating in a victory that feels more like a defeat.

Double Indemnity, by James M. Cain
Cain returns with another classic based on the real-life case of Ruth Snyder, telling the story of an insurance agent who conspires with a bored, beautiful woman to murder her husband and collect the double indemnity payout on his life insurance. Filled with the sort of smart, world-weary dialogue and ink-black morality that defined the genre, with an ending that might just be the bleakest ever committed to the page.

He Died with His Eyes Open, by Derek Raymond
The first in Raymond’s Factory series introduces an unnamed police sergeant working in the Department of Unexplained Deaths, out of a building dubbed “The Factory” because of the efficient way the cops bring in, tune up, and turn out suspects. The narrator is a misanthrope knee-deep in the worst of humanity at all times, and it’s his determination to somehow bring the dignity of investigation to the “nobodies” at the core of his cases that makes Raymond’s brutal universe sing.

Kiss Me, Deadly, by Mickey Spillane
Spillane’s Mike Hammer is another icon of the genre, a wrecking crew of a man whose “own rules” attitude toward legalities and social niceties predates Dirty Harry by decades. Kiss Me, Deadly is perhaps the ideal Hammer story, as a chance encounter leads Hammer to turn his furious vengeance on the mafia—an organization that has become so entrenched and political it’s basically the establishment, and is thus vulnerable to the disruption of a violent, determined man.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson
Larsson’s first novel is a brilliant locked-room mystery, a study of an entire society, and a classic noir premise. Disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist is lured into investigating a decades-old cold case, and his efforts bring him face to face with what can only be called the banality of evil. Larsson gives the noir ingredients a 21st-century makeover—the femme fatale part is taken over by Lisbeth Salander, no pinup dame—and the result is a pitch-black noir story exposing the grimy underside of Swedish society.

The Glass Key, by Dashiell Hammett
This novel served as inspiration for the film Miller’s Crossing, and represents one of the greatest triumphs of noir writing, combining a corrupt society ruled by violence with the shifting sands of male friendship. Ned Beaumont, a gambler closely connected to a gangster, finds himself dancing a line between warring gangs and politicians, with an ending that’s noirishly bleak without being expected or particularly brutal.

The Crow Girl, by Erik Axl Sund
An example of a modern take on the noir genre, The Crow Girl is a violent story with an unreliable narrator. Detective Jeanette Kihlberg has the requisite messy personal life and cynical worldview for noir stories, and the crimes she finds herself investigating, involving mutilated, mummified children, explode into a horrifying and exhilarating exploration of generational violence, another classic noir theme.

Midnight Sun, by Jo Nesbø
Nesbø has established himself as a modern master of noir—specifically the Nordic Noir that has invigorated the genre in recent years. Midnight Sun isn’t as hardboiled as Nesbø’s Harry Hole novels, but the story of a low-level and unenthusiastic criminal on the run from his vengeful boss offers a flipped-script view of the traditional story that’s deeper and richer than most.

I, the Jury, by Mickey Spillane
The debut Mike Hammer novel could serve as a template for writing the perfect hardboiled detective novel. In a story involving a renowned psychiatrist simultaneously coercing her clients into drug addiction and assisting a crime syndicate with their prostitution and drug-dealing businesses, it takes that dark view of humanity and throws the wrecking ball known as Mike Hammer into it, ending with a typically extralegal and extra-violent conclusion.

Farewell, My Lovely, by Raymond Chandler
The second Philip Marlowe novel begins with Marlowe witnessing a murder—but since it’s a murder of a black man in 1940s Los Angeles, the police are content to leave the investigating to Marlowe himself. Typically for Chandler, the plot—constructed from previously published short stories—was less important than the style, resulting in the classic Chandler-esque dreamlike prose that makes the dark, violent storytelling almost beautiful.

Night and the City, by Gerald Kersh
Harry Fabian is one of the least sympathetic narrators in literary history, a morally blank criminal desperate to elevate himself into a position of power, wealth, and influence. Although he’s smart and his schemes tend to succeed, nothing Harry does coalesces into anything tangible, and his desperation grows over the course of the novel, as does the sense of amoral chaos in the world Kersh describes.

Payback, by Russell James
Drawing inspiration from the classics of the genre with dialogue that crackles with Hammett’s rhythmic style and dreamy prose that echoes Chandler, James tells the story of a Floyd Carter returning to London to bury his brother Albie, only to find himself dragged into his brother’s criminal world. A gangster pins Albie’s debts on Floyd, another urges him to consider a career in drug trafficking. Shot through with dark humor and a rising body count, James explores the consequences of living in a noir world.

Brighton Rock, by Graham Greene
Pinkie is one of the most dreadful and fascinating characters ever created, a fervent Catholic who possesses zero compassion or empathy, a violent criminal and sociopath who manipulates everyone around him. He finds himself squaring off with Ida Arnold, a woman who decides to expose Pinkie’s crimes solely out of a sense of rightness. Greene deftly explores the conflict between the noir protagonist’s bleak worldview and a more moral and upright approach, resulting in a rich, complex story that transcends classification.

Killing Floor, by Lee Child
Child’s first Jack Reacher novel remains a searing modern noir that builds from an inciting mystery to a bloody, violent ending. Upon arriving in a small town in Georgia, Reacher is promptly arrested for a murder he couldn’t have committed, leading the former military policeman down a rabbit hole of local corruption and into the classic noir setup of one man against a broken society.

A Rage in Harlem, by Chester Himes
Himes’ straightforward depiction of violence, criminal activity, and racial attitudes isn’t for the shy or squeamish. In this story of a luckless man swindled out of borrowed money and reaching out to Harlem cops Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson to help him get it back, the police are depicted almost as a criminal gang themselves—a concept shocking in the 1950s, though less so in the modern age.

The Blue Hammer, by Ross MacDonald
The final Lew Archer novel is considered by many to be MacDonald’s triumph, a story involving a long-dead artist, a priceless work, and the violence, deception, and mounting moral costs involved in plumbing the mystery surrounding it. It’s easy to see the whole story as an investigation of noir itself, a metafictional exercise that wonders out loud whether Archer, a prototypical noir antihero who helped define the genre, is the hero or the villain, and whether it matters.

Dope, by Sara Gran
Josephine Flannigan is a former junkie and prostitute in Hell’s Kitchen in this subversion of noir tropes. When a rich girl gets sucked into the junkie life and goes missing, who better to look for her than Joe, who could use the money and certainly knows the neighborhood. The mystery leads Joe to explore dark nooks of her world even she had somehow avoided, and leads to noir-typical betrayals, violence, and revelations that confirm everyone’s dark view of humanity.

Red Harvest, by Dashiell Hammett
Narrated by another of Hammett’s iconic characters, the Continental Op (based again on Hammett’s own experiences in the Pinkertons), this is a violent story from the title down. Finding himself in the corrupt, barren town of Personville (called Poisonville by the residents), the Op is backed into a corner by rival gangs, friendless and framed. He has to use his wits to set his enemies against each other—and his talent for violence as well.

Dark Passage, by David Goodis
Employing the rare completely innocent protagonist, Goodis tells the story of Vincent Parry, wrongly convicted of killing his wife and imprisoned based on the false testimony of a woman with a personal grudge. He escapes, undergoes plastic surgery to evade the police, and dives into the underworld to find the true killer, spiraling downward into desperation.

Devil in a Blue Dress, by Walter Mosley
Mosley’s debut introduces Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, a down-on-his-luck laborer in desperate need of money in 1948 Los Angeles. He’s hired to find a white woman who has gone missing, and as he becomes embroiled in a complex web of crime and duplicity—and is framed for murder along the way—Rawlins undergoes a transformation, evolving into the classic noir detective right before readers’ eyes in a story that puts the race issues of the time—and our time—boldly front and center.

A is for Alibi, by Sue Grafton
A modern example of a lighter, more mystery- than violence-centric noir, Grafton’s debut Kinsey Millhone novel has all the classic noir elements, from the unfaithful spouse to the false accusations, the frame-ups, betrayals, and smart dialogue. Grafton has written twenty-four more Millhone mysteries since, making this one of the most deeply explored fictional universes in literature.

Miami Purity, by Vicki Hendricks
Hendricks’ story of low expectations and murderous lovers comes very, very close to going too far, and then nimbly steps back each time. Sherri Parlay has just violently rid herself of an unwanted husband and decided to give up exotic dancing for a Day Job, applying at Miami Purity dry cleaners. There she meets mama’s boy Payne Mahoney and his domineering mother, who doesn’t like Sherri much. Payne likes Sherri a lot, however, and soon Mom is dead—and that’s when the story gets weird and violent.

The Deep Blue Good-by, by John D. Macdonald
The first Travis McGee novel (all of them color-coded for your convenience) introduces a young McGee, a character who will age naturally over the course of twenty-one novels and two decades. McGee represents an evolution of the noir detective, shedding much of the dark, grim loneliness in favor of a more hedonistic enjoyment of his bachelorhood, even as he finds himself constantly enmeshed in the plots of psychopaths like Junior Allen, the superficially charming thief, murderer, and rapist seeking a buried treasure in this first adventure.

The Bird Tribunal, by Agnes Ravatn
An outlier in the world of noir, this dense, foreboding story of a television personality, Allis Hagtorn, who flees scandal for a job as a caretaker in a remote village, includes a heavy dose of psychological thrills. She discovers her employer isn’t a sickly old man, but a middle-aged, taciturn, and somewhat disturbingly intense man named Sigurd. While his wife is away, Allis is to tend to the garden and his needs—but from their first meeting an uneasy relationship threatens to explode into something terrible.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle, by George V. Higgins
Higgins’ story, noted for its realism, is a brutal depiction of the midcentury Irish underworld in Boston. Eddie Coyle is an aging criminal caught between dying in prison and ratting out a connected associate. As he struggles to navigate a middle route between these two dangerous options, events outside of his control and knowledge slowly constrict into doom, proving there really is no honor among thieves.

Die a Little, by Megan Abbott
Abbott’s modern noir takes a different approach to an old setup: when spinsterish teacher Lora King meets her brother’s new wife, the gorgeous and mysterious Alice, you might expect her to be suspicious and hostile. Instead, she’s falls under Alice’s glamorous spell, too, and only slowly—and somewhat reluctantly—comes to worry about Alice’s missing pieces, ominous friends, and reluctance to answer questions. Abbott captures the hopelessly grim tone of noir without giving into clichés, reinventing as she goes.

The Bride Wore Black, by Cornell Woolrich
Inverting the usual noir paradigm, Woolrich puts us in the head of the titular bride, a woman who methodically and clinically assumes various identities specifically to murder a man, leaving behind mystified police. In other words, it’s a noir with the femme fatale at its center instead of the gumshoe, and it has got one heck of a twist that still resonates after all these years.

Altered Carbon, by Richard K. Morgan
Science fiction often crossbreeds with other genres, but rarely as perfectly as in this cyberpunk story of a future where sleeving in and out of bodies is common—and complicated. Takashi Kovacs is as pure an antihero as you’ll find, and for all the mind-bending technology and sci-fi concepts, at its heart this is a bloody, moody noir story.

Savages, by Don Winslow
Winslow’s story of two guys trying to reinvent the drug trade and falling into the familiar grinding vices of violence and betrayal that always thundering away in the background of a noir story is propulsively written (the first two words of the book are a profane insult) and filled with crazy twists that somehow work. It’s a bold reestablishment of noir’s fleshy, funky power in the modern day.

Faceless Killers, by Henning Mankell
Another character who has aged with each successive book, Kurt Wallander lives in a secret- and violence-laden Sweden that predates and somehow predicts Stieg Larsson’s version of the country. The morally exhausted Wallander and his team investigate the savage murders of a couple; the wife’s last word was “foreign,” which, when leaked to the press, sparks a series of attacks on foreigners. Mankell uses this setup to explore the seamy underbelly of modern society and the way everyone is complicit in it.

White Jazz, by James Ellroy
The final volume in Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet is as cynical and bloody as the first three, introducing LAPD lieutenant Dave Klein, who paid for law school by doing work for the mob. It’s work he continues to do as a police officer, and includes the occasional murder for hire. As is typical in classic noir stories, Klein is smart and capable, but finds himself dragged into a conflict out of his control, because when no one plays it straight, how can you trust anyone?

In a Lonely Place, by Dorothy B. Hughes
Shortly after World War II, Dix Steele roams the streets of Los Angeles. Claiming to be a writer in order to have an excuse to not have a job, Dix offers to help a detective friend named Brub hunt down a serial killer. But Brub’s wife and another woman begin to have their own suspicions about Dix’s intentions—and connections. The taut story offers a reversal of the noir template with a study of a misogynist and sociopath who isn’t always aware of the trap tightening around him.

The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett
Hammett’s final published novel is a bit more lighthearted than his other work, and other noir detective novels in general. Nick and Nora Charles set the standard for the wisecracking, witty romantic team solving crimes almost as a hobby, and while the people the couple encounter are grotesque and violent, the seaminess never seems to touch their perfectly tailored, hard-drinking selves.

The Grifters, by Jim Thompson
Thompson once again presents a version of reality in which nothing is truly good and love is not really real in this classic story of con artists who never even aspire to any sort of big score—rather, they’re intent on mere survival. That survival might cost them the most fundamental bonds people can have with each other, and Thompson once again implies that this is us—all of us—at our core.

A Simple Plan, by Scott B. Smith
One of the key elements of noir is the erosion of trust and affection when money—or survival—is introduced. In Smith’s brilliantly efficient novel, both come between three men who find millions of dollars at the site of a small plane crash, money they decide to keep. The plan is indeed simple, but fails to take into account the chance and randomness of the universe.

Strangers On a Train, by Patricia Highsmith
Patricia Highsmith is perhaps the only author on this list who could challenge Jim Thompson for sheer bleakness when it comes to her view of human nature. The premise—two strangers share their troubles and consider how they could commit the perfect crime by killing the people troubling each other, people they have no connection to, and the cascading events that follow after one of the men takes the idea far more seriously than the other—once again dives into the fundamental noir concept of the illusion of control, that the idea that you can guide events is laughable, and even deadly.

Pop. 1280, by Jim Thompson
Some regard Pop. 1280 as Thompson’s masterpiece, and it’s a gloriously disturbing book. Nick Corey is a lazy small-town sheriff with no greater goal than to indulge his appetites and stay the course, cheating on his shrewish wife and ignoring her mentally slow brother. But Nick Corey isn’t just a liar—he’s a man with such a profound lack of self-awareness he doesn’t even realize how evil he is. As the depth of his depravity slowly dawns on the reader, everything that has come before is recast in a new, more awful light, and the betrayals and violence that come later suddenly seem perfectly in tune with the grimy universe Thompson has created.

Galveston, by Nic Pizzolatto
Pizzolatto, creator of HBO’s True Detective, wasn’t so famous when his debut novel was published, but it’s still a gorgeously mean-spirited noir, following low-level enforcer Roy Cady—recently diagnosed with a terminal illness—who flees New Orleans when his boss puts a hit on him. Taking a young girl along for the ride, Cady heads into Texas, trying to hide out in Galveston’s fleabag bars. But Cady comes to realize that his decision to bring the girl along has doomed them both.

Savage Season, by Joe R. Lansdale
Lansdale introduces his characters Hap Collins and Leonard Pine, two middle-aged nobodies who work bottom-feeder jobs. Hap’s ex-wife recruits them to help her and a radical leftist group locate money lost in a wilderness no one knows better than Hap. At first Hap is impressed by the politics and wonders if he’s wasted his life, but as the betrayals and body count mount it becomes a story of survival, pure and simple.

Eight Million Ways to Die, by Lawrence Block
Block’s Matthew Scudder is a recovering alcoholic, ex NYPD detective making ends meet by working as an unlicensed private detective. He agrees to help a high-class hooker get out of the life, and is surprised when her pimp seems resigned to her retirement. Then the girl is found dead, and Scudder’s physical decline due to his drinking problem is paralleled with New York City’s decline, forming the ideal noir backdrop.

Donnybrook, by Frank Bill
The universe of Donnybrook is a barren, economically anemic Indiana and Kentucky, where men and women scratch out their lives in a swamp of crime, drugs, and violence—exemplified by the title event, a bare-knuckle fighting competition with a $100,000 prize. The brutality is endless and unforgiving, and rendered in painful detail.

Drive, by James Sallis
Sallis’ novel has all the noir elements, including a skilled protagonist (called only Driver) who isn’t worried about breaking the law (in this case, by using his stunt-driving skills to help criminals commit crimes) and who quickly finds himself in over his head and struggling not to understand, or to find justice, but merely to survive. With violence around every corner, the story is as gut-spinning as a car chase, and soaked in Driver’s existential malaise.

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