7 Books That Epitomize Bookseller Noir

Dwyer Murphy, author of "An Honest Living," recommends books that capture the heady magic of walking into a bookstore

Photo by Hatice Yardım on Unsplash

Noir has long been obsessed with books—books as objects, as evidence, as repositories of the past, and occasionally as glimpses into other worlds of possibility. It’s no wonder, then, that booksellers often turn up in fiction, and especially in mystery. There’s something intoxicating about the turn a story takes when the characters walk into a bookshop. It’s the atmosphere, maybe, and the promise of secrets and knowledge, possibly forbidden. Of course, there’s also that bookish smell we all know, not to mention the sensation of flipping through old, sometimes brittle pages and preparing ourselves to be transported. 

Over the years I’ve come to think of these stories as their own sub-genre: bookseller noir. When I wrote my first novel, An Honest Living, I wanted to capture some of that ambiguous magic for my own characters, so I let them wander in and out of a lot of bookstores, getting tangled up in everyday mysteries, buying, selling, stealing, and recovering a few volumes themselves. While writing, I kept coming back to my favorite titles. Some are bona fide mystery novels, others are either adjacent, or I’ve found another way to shoehorn them in. Together, for me, they make up the peculiar world of bookseller noir.

Heretics by Leonardo Padura, translated by Anna Kushner

Padura is one of the titans of Latin American noir and perhaps contemporary Cuba’s most celebrated author. His enduring creation is Mario Conde, the romantic, history-obsessed man of the people featured in one of Padura’s most ambitious works. In Heretics, Padura explores the Jewish diaspora turned away from Cuba, a looted Rembrandt painting, Miami exiles, and Conde himself, ever at work on his great novel and also hitting the pavement as a part-time book dealer. The story proceeds with the usual flights of imagination and historical interrogation, in which Conde unlocks the secrets of another community’s experience in the vast Cuban tableau. What shines through is Padura’s profound love for his culture and an eternal willingness to challenge it.

The Book of the Most Precious Substance by Sara Gran

Gran, whose Claire DeWitt series was without a doubt a high-water mark in bookseller noir, came back this year with a new protagonist, Lily Albrecht, another rare books expert who finds herself caught up in the fervor around an occult volume believed to hold the secrets to an ancient form of sex magic. Does that sound pretty wild? Good, that’s the point. Gran is one of the most surprising, effervescent novelists at work in the crime field today. Her prose is electric, her characters eccentric, and her plots unfold in strange and illuminating patterns, especially when they pertain to old books. Here the action bounces between New York, Paris, Munich, and New Orleans, cities that carry long and complicated literary legacies, plus some dark cultural secrets.

Out of the Dark by Patrick Modiano, translated by Jordan Stump

An unrelentingly enigmatic, lovely novel, Out of the Dark follows the same pattern as most of Modiano’s work: an older man looks back on some mysterious encounter from his youth and its strange reverberations across time. Here, the narrator is a young man living on the edges of Paris, making enough for food and lodging by selling old art volumes to the bouquinistes. He soon runs into Gérard Van Bever and Jacqueline, an intriguing couple who claim to be replenishing their funds with a complicated roulette scheme at casinos around France. Our narrator begins a relationship with Jacqueline; while he continues selling off books, she locks herself away in hotel rooms in a drug-induced haze. With Modiano, it’s always about questioning the past. Memories are distorted and reshaped as time passes, and his subject soon evolves into something ineffable, always just beyond reach. For those looking for an entry point into Modiano’s work, Out of the Dark is one of the best. 

Those Who Knew by Idra Novey

Novey’s powerful novel operates on so many levels. On the one, it’s a story about a woman wrestling with trauma and regret; on another, a country faced with much the same dilemma; but it’s also a story about language itself, the ways in which it channels and absorbs culture. It’s only fitting that in the kaleidoscope of perspectives and voices, Novey brings us one from a bookshop, that repository of the island nation’s post-US-dictated life. And of course, the book also has a wildly compelling plot, as a woman searches for the truth about a politician who preyed on her in the past and looks to be doing the same with other young women in the midst of his rise toward higher office. Nobody writes politically conscious literary thrillers quite like Novey.

The Club Dumas by Arturo Pérez-Reverte

Lucas Corso is a simple man. A cutthroat rare book dealer, yes, but primarily he would like to be left alone with his books, his spirits, and his re-creations of Napoleonic battles—except that he has a very particular set of skills, as they say, and also a fever for rare books. In Pérez-Reverte’s epic mystery, Corso is on the trail of certain volumes of the occult, reportedly co-authored by the devil. Corso is a professional skeptic, but soon finds himself encountering forces beyond his understanding. If all this sounds familiar, it may be that you’ve seen the 1999 film adaptation, but rest assured, you can put the Roman Polanski-Johnny Depp duo far from mind and enjoy this story on its own terms.

The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling by Lawrence Block

Block is the quintessential New York City crime writer, still going strong on a decades-long run that spans series and genres. A few protagonists stand out from the pack, and first among them is Bernie Rhodenbarr, the careful thief who always seems to get tangled up with a dead body and who consistently funnels the profits of his burglaries into his Village bookshop. You can choose from just about any of the novels in the series and find the same exhilarating spirit, but I’d suggest starting with The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling. In it, Bernie acquires the bookshop and starts teaching himself the trade, and also, naturally, gets drawn into a robbery requiring an odyssey across a city populated by fences, racketeers, art experts, bartenders, friends, and foes. The story includes an elaborate heist targeting a rare volume that nobody seems to think has much literary merit, another nice twist on the genre and a wry wink to those of discerning taste.

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

How can you chronicle the history of bookseller noir without going to Chandler’s classic, the first Philip Marlowe novel? Marlowe is hired by one General Sternwood, whose younger daughter has been caught up with a disreputable bookstore run by a man named Abe Geiger, who Marlowe soon determines is running a pornography lending library and blackmail operation, and who, of course, winds ends up dead. It’s a wild, unruly, sometimes incoherent plot (which describes nearly all of Chandler’s work), and a completely revolutionary crime novel. Chandler’s style has been imitated but never quite equaled. Yes, there are a lot of similes, and the attitudes toward women and alcohol and the world may be outdated, but it’s the atmosphere that keeps readers coming back–that halting, dusky vision of Southern California where romance and cynicism mingle to produce something uncanny and unforgettable.

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