I’ll admit that until recently, I wasn’t too certain of the line separating the gothic from the noir as far as the American South is concerned. After careful thought, I found the distinction: though they both deal with moral ambiguity and cynicism and fatalism, when it comes to noir, we’re not just talking about ethics, we’re talking about the Long Arm of The Law. And even though noir is most famous for its origins in the 1930s California, southerners still have our share of run-ins with the Law Dawgs.
My favorite southern noir isn’t a novel at all…it’s the film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s play Streetcar Named Desire. What narrative can compete with a teacher accused of loving her student showing up at her sister’s house, where she finds Stella married to a blacked-out Marlon Brando fighting all his friends after losing in poker. He comes to alone in his apartment to realize that his wife and her sister have fled up to their neighbors’ place. “They’ll turn the hoses on you like the last time!” Eunice yells down, about their domestic dispute, but Stella still places that zombie hand on the banister and floats down to her beautiful, abusive man. Blanche, Stella’s sister, can hardly believe she’s going back to him and she starts out the door after her. That is, until Eunice guides her away, stating cynically, “I wouldn’t mix in this.”
That’s how it goes in the South sometimes…there’s something wrong, but because the law allows, our morals turn a blind eye to it. We are Eunice. We are Stella. We are Blanche, and we are absolutely Stanley.
It’s that fatal paradox that brings southern noir its own hellscape—the “murdahs in Savannah” that become comical so easily due to their macabre natures…how else can we talk about such atrocities except for with a wry grin?
Here are some ways. Eight, in fact. Eight books of southern noir to slake your thirst on this hot midsummer day…and we know you thirsty.
Young God by Katherine Faw Morris
Nikki watches her mom slip and die when she tries to jump off a cliff and into the lake below. To escape her mom’s predatory boyfriend, Nikki steals a car and drives up to her father’s trailer into a pack of dangerous men, pimps, drug lords, and fathers, with a backpack full of ecstasy. The style of this book is impeccable, as is the terse dialogue that truly wrings out a drawl.
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
In the 12 days that this book spans, Hurricane Katrina grows over the Gulf of Mexico. The 14- year-old, pregnant Esche and her three brothers try to prepare in the face of extreme poverty and a largely absent alcoholic father. Her brother Skeetah loves the pit bull that he fights, and he tries to care for her new litter as his own family all tries to hold themselves together against brutal odds.
Atlanta Noir edited by Tayari Jones
You probably know Tayari Jones from her own novels, like Leaving Atlanta and An American Marriage, both of which are southern noir, as well. In this collection, though, she has compiled some of the best noir stories of the decade, all set in and around Atlanta. You can’t skip this one.
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
When Camille Preaker has to return to her hometown in Missouri to report on a string of young girl murders, she finds out there’s a lot she doesn’t know about her own family. That includes her younger sister’s childhood illness and death, her younger half-sister, and especially her mother.
Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy
Ohhh, the horrors of Cormac McCarthy. I had a hard time just choosing one of his novels as southern noir, but to me, this one takes the cake. Somewhere in Appalachia, the pregnant Rinthy gives birth to her brother’s baby, and he promptly abandons the baby in the woods, telling her that the baby died of natural causes and had to be buried. Rinthy sniffs out his lie and journeys to find her incestuous lovechild.
The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O’Connor
Francis Marion Tarwater was kidnapped as a child by his hellfire-and-brimstone evangelist grandfather. When his grandfather dies, Francis wants to shake the identity of a prophet that his grandfather bestowed on him, so he runs to find his uncle, Rayber, and Rayber’s illegitimate, disabled son. Because Francis’s grandfather told him the disability was a curse on his uncle for his sinful ways, Francis does not bond well with his cousin Bishop, especially because the voice Francis hears in his head does not like him.
Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke
Darren Mathews is a Black Texas Ranger, and he’s ambivalent about growing up Black in East Texas. In this rural noir book, Darren travels north to Lark to investigate and solve the murder of a Black lawyer from Chicago and that of a local white woman.
Dear Martin by Nic Stone
In this young adult novel, Justyce McAllister walks over from a friend’s house in Atlanta to drive his drunk ex-girlfriend home safely, but when she passes out mid-struggle as a policeman pulls up, the well-intentioned Justyce is the one who gets in trouble. He gets arrested, specifically, and in the aftermath and rising conflict, Justyce starts writing a journal looking to Dr. Martin Luther King for answers. It’s an important book at any time, but especially at a time like this one.
I hope you enjoy these southern noir books, and if you know of some that aren’t on this list, don’t hesitate to Tweet at me @mkmcbrayer. Like Blanche DuBois, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.