Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing email@example.com.
Geek obsession: Classic crime fiction
Why it’s daunting: The roots of American crime fiction go all the way back to Edgar Allan Poe, but like science fiction, the genre exploded with the pre-World War II rise of the pulps, magazines like Black Mask and Weird Tales, which were printed on cheap paper, and written and published by people who were often after a quick buck more than they were interested in lasting, quality literature. Which means there’s a metric ton of the stuff out there, even if you focus solely on the golden age of crime fiction, and much of it is just awful—clichéd, tawdry tales penned by hacks. But just as H.P. Lovecraft’s horror stories lived alongside a mountain of garbage in their original magazine appearances, there’s gold to be found in the old-school noir stories as well.
Possible gateway: Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest
Why: Of all the many fine writers who made their name in the pulps, Hammett ranks among the very best, with a lean, diamond-hard prose style that’s part of the DNA of just about every important piece of crime fiction that came afterward. He’s also one of the few who not only wrote it, but lived it, and Red Harvest springs directly from his experience as a strike-breaking detective for the Pinkerton Agency in the 1920s. Also, and not inconsequentially, Red Harvest is a hell of a ride. Set in a corrupt Western mining town nicknamed “Poisonville,” the novel follows a tarnished, grizzled detective—never named, and known by fans as The Continental Op—who is hired to solve the murder of the son of the tycoon who supposedly runs Poisonville. In actuality, the town has been carved up by cutthroats and mobsters, and the Op decides the only thing to do is tear the whole rotten, stinking thing down by force, powers-that-be be damned. The book is short enough to be finished in a single evening, with a nonstop mix of gun-blazing action and eminently quotable, tough-talking dialogue. Here’s the Op, declaring that he isn’t going away easy: “Your fat chief of police tried to assassinate me last night. I don’t like that. I’m just mean enough to want to ruin him for it. Now I’m going to have my fun.”
(Red Harvest’s influence goes beyond hardboiled fiction, too: It was a direct inspiration for Akira Kurosawa’s samurai epic Yojimbo and Sergio Leone’s A Fistful Of Dollars, movies that were each hugely influential in their own right.)
Next steps: Every novel by Hammett and Raymond Chandler is essential reading, but especially good are Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (perhaps the most influential, acclaimed novel in the entire genre) and Chandler’s The Big Sleep (a close second). Read at least one novel from each writer (and Chandler’s essay “The Simple Art Of Murder”) before exploring further: These guys are Crime Fiction 101. After that, try James M. Cain, who perfected the noir tale’s twisted, dark, poisonous take on the love story in books like The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity.
For quicker takes that’ll also expose you to more writers, there are innumerable short-story collections of 1940s noir. An excellent recent one is The Black Lizard Big Book Of Pulps, an almost absurdly comprehensive (but cheap!) 1,100-page blockbuster that gives a great overview of the breadth of the genre as it existed in the WWII era, warts and all. (And as such, it’s more rewarding to randomly flip through it to find stories to your taste than to read it cover-to-cover.)
For more modern takes on hardboiled fiction, try (in rough chronological order): Patricia Highsmith, Donald Westlake (especially the books under his major pseudonym, Richard Stark), Elmore Leonard, Lawrence Block, Walter Mosley, James Ellroy, George Pelecanos, and Dennis Lehane.
Where not to start: Jim Thompson—author of The Killer Inside Me, The Grifters, and Pop. 1280—is another giant of the genre, who conjures a unique atmosphere of noirish corruption and Southern-gothic bizarrerie. But his novels also suffer from the alcohol-fueled velocity at which he wrote them, and generally fall apart toward the end, so save them for after you develop a taste for the genre. Likewise, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer books are masterpieces of brutal hardness, but time has only made his outlook, particularly toward women, more archaic and hard to swallow.