Noir is hard to pin down. As Brian Lindenmuth mentioned in an article for Mulholland Books, “grappling with the question “what is noir?” has become its own annual rite.” Don’t fret: I won’t be doing that here. In fact, I’m writing under the premise that everyone reading this is sure they know what noir is the second they read it. Instead of discussing the genre, I’ll be discussing the authors I feel are at the top of the heap but aren’t as widely known as they should be. You know, the hidden gems that we share as soon as anyone brings up the subject. Yeah, this is as subjective as it gets, but that’s what the comments section is for.
1. Stephen Graham Jones – SGJ is not really what you’d call an obscure author, but he deserves to be here. The dude seems to collect awards, but 50 percent of the times I bring him up in conversation, I get open mouths and bovine eyes in response. The same could be said of folks like Will Christopher Baer or Benjamin Whitmer, but I had to go with SGJ because he’s more prolific that Baer and Whitmer put together. Jones writes crime, bizarro, and horror with the same result: superb novels. Besides the long list of critically acclaimed titles, he has an equally impressive list of upcoming releases. And while only one book is strict noir, The Least of My Scars, everything Jones puts out has enough darkness, weirdness, and violence to count as noir. Yeah, every time someone claims to love noir and doesn’t know SGJ, I take it as an insult. Consider his name here my grain of sand in the battle to change that.
2. Nik Korpon – Take the word gritty, dip it in blood, tie it to you rear bumper, and drag it around Baltimore’s dirties street for half and hour. The end result will be something akin to Korpon’s prose. His stories are classic noir in the sense that they’re about bad people doing awful things or terrible things happening to regular people, but they can also be unique, otherworldly beasts with the body of a monster and a head full of poetry. He constructs sentences that jump off the page and punch you in the nose. Hard. He can take a bunch of words you’ve read before and turn them into a new thing. I’ve read the best, so I’m hard to impress, but the first time I read Korpon, I asked the proverbial question “Who the fuck is this guy?” Korpon is the unheralded resident poet of the neo-noir scene, and if you’re not reading his work, you’re missing out on a ton of too-real, gripping, brutal fun.
3. Jeremy Robert Johnson – JRJ is a household name for bizarro fans and he’s slowly getting the recognition he deserves in the horror genre. Sadly, many crime fiction lovers are probably encountering his name for the first time here. That’s a damn shame. Johnson is one of the best writers out there regardless of which genre he’s pummeling into submission. He approaches storytelling with the precision of a surgeon and the ridiculous fearlessness of a meth head. His stories hover above the point where horror, bizarro, and noir intercept and finding theft, drugs, guns, blood, and vengeance in his tales is as easy as coming across parasites, surreal touches, and unfiltered weirdness. Sadly, JRJ hasn’t published a crime novel yet, but those who want to check out his work should drop a buck and pick up Hungry Fucking Animals: The JRJ Crime Sampler. Then they can join me in waiting for the novel. The good news? The novel, titled Skullcrack City, will be released in 2014 by Permuted Press.
4. J. David Osborne – Osborne’s debut novel was a dark, paranoid tale of violence and desperation set in the strangest Russian gulag ever. It kicks off with a bit of teeth pulling and gets progressively worse. It won the Wonderland Book Award and left critics looking for new ways to throw praise his way because none of the standard clichés worked. Then came Low Down Death Right Easy. It was all about lowlifes, bad intentions, working people, and lots of crime. JDO was the new name in neo-noir and he wasn’t going anywhere. Now, besides his own writing, Osborne is the editor of Broken River Press, a crime press that will start things off with five great books, two of them penned by authors on this list.
5. Jedidiah Ayres – F*ckload of Shorts and Fierce Bitches. Those titles should be enough to let you know he belongs on this list. Add to that his role as co-editor of both Noir at the Bar anthologies and the buzz that’s already surrounding Peckerwood, his upcoming release with Broken River Books, and what you get is a very talented author that will surely be on a lot of important lists in the coming years. It should be happening right now. The next time you read a formulaic thriller or some bland noir, remember that you could be reading this guy instead.
6. Todd Robinson – Almost everyone knows Robinson as the creator and Chief Editor of Thuglit, one of the best crime fiction magazines out there. Robinson spent years placing short stories in the best crime venues. Like other authors in this list now, he still hadn’t dropped a novel. He’s the guy who tells people their writing sucks on a regular basis, so the pressure was on. Like a sappy Hollywood movie, Robinson delivered. The Hard Bounce is one of the funniest crime narratives I’ve read and I can’t wait to read the next one.
7. Keith Rawson – Much like JRJ, Rawson is that guy whose novel those in the know are eagerly awaiting. His interviews, columns, and reviews are mostly crime-centric, but what lands him on this list is his short fiction. If you want hard, gritty, unforgiving noir that pulls no punches, check out Laughing at Dead Men, his short story collection from Snubnose Press. It’s dirty and dark and wonderful. Here’s the second sentence of the first story: “The wife’s having a dildo party.” Welcome to Keith Rawson’s world. It’s not a nice place, but you’re going to want to stay anyway, and that’s why folks should be talking about him.
8. Richard Thomas – If you want a neo-noir thriller, turn to Thomas. If you crave superb short fiction, Google Thomas (I’m sure there’s someone out there with that name). Thomas is the guy in every cool anthology out there. He’s the guy consistently placing work in the venues other authors bitch and moan about never being able to crack. As a bonus, you don’t even have to like noir to dig his work: he writes everything. Since publishing like a maniac was not enough, now he’s also responsible for whatever neo-noir comes our way from Dark House Press, an imprint of Curbside Splendor Publishing.
9. Clayton Lindemuth – There are too many authors trying to write country noir nowadays. Luckily there are also folks like Lindemuth that save the day for readers. In a landscape full of Woodrell wannabes and saccharine writing, he keeps it evil, unique, and brutal. Cold Quiet Country was the kind of debut novels that puts an author on the map, and many are looking forward to the next one in 2014. Great noir presents awful things using beautiful writing, and Lindemuth’s prose speaks volumes about how deeply he understands that.
10. Benjamin Whitmer – The first time I heard about Whitmer’s Pike, I was the one with the bovine eyes. I immediately fixed that by picking it up. It was sharp and vicious and beautifully written. It put Whitmer on my list of noir authors whose work I look forward to. It also made me realize the buzz around his work was deserved. “This is what noir is, what it can be when it stops playing nice–blunt force drama stripped down to the bone, then made to dance across the page.”
So, who else is there? Well, Eric Beetner, Jake Hinkson, Tom Pitts, Joe Clifford, and a few others, but lists can’t go on forever. Also, don’t think for a second I forgot about women. Who deserves more attention? Maybe Alissa Nutting. Why? Because Tampa made a lot of noise, both good and bad, but not enough reviewers called it what it really is: a hilarious, sharp, pornographic noir. Illegal sex, drugs, ennui, stabbings, blood, lies, revulsion, cruelty, it’s all there in spades. Folks are focusing on the underage sex, but at least she’s getting attention. The same goes for Megan Abbott and Christa Faust, so they’re names are here and not on the list. If you have some favorites that deserve more attention, share them. And if you’re not familiar with any of the authors on the list, go buy their books now even if it’s just to tell me I’m wrong.