Hardboiled

Recently a fellow library employee was looking for some books to keep her company on a long plane ride. She took advantage of our “Looking for a good read?” form, requesting noir-like mysteries with “an engaging narrative, compelling characters, and an overall doesn't-insult-your-intelligence-ness”.

I was excited to answer this question because I love noir, and I love leading people to books. My first suggestion was Dashiell Hammett – his characters suffer, and his language really sings. Among his best works is Red Harvest, in which a nameless detective is called to the corporate town of Personville (the locals call it Poisonville) and becomes embroiled in byzantine back-stabbing. Our poor Continental Op always seems to think he’s one step ahead when he’s one step behind. The cast includes gangsters, union men and heartless capitalists. No one is better than Hammett at writing a sentence – every word pulls the weight of three.
 
A lesser known noir author is Chester Himes. His detectives Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson investigate crimes in Harlem. The language isn’t quite Hammett (nothing is, in my opinion -- not even Chandler), but it’s good, some of his metaphors really make you sit up. And this is popular fiction written in the 1950s by a black man about black people – a rare bird. The first book in the series is A Rage in Harlem.
 
One author that I did not suggest to my co-worker, but I will here, is James M. Cain. Cain was originally from Maryland (where he formed a close friendship with H. L. Mencken), but did not find his voice until he came out west. Western working people were his muse, and he wrote about them with a succinct and grim humor. His best books went on to be made into some of the greatest noir movies – The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, and Mildred Pierce.