First bad news: This “century” of reprints goes back only to a smartly depressing 1933 vignette by Chester Himes. Second: It doesn’t include Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Cornell Woolrich, Horace McCoy, Roy Huggins (absences regretted in Collins’s brief Introduction), or Jim Thompson. What’s left, apart from anthology standards by Fredric Brown (“Don’t Look Behind You”), Ross Macdonald (“Guilt-Edged Blonde”), and Sara Paretsky (“Grace Notes”), is a middle range of hardboiled tales marked less by brilliance than by workaday professionalism. The crudeness of Spillane’s idol Carroll John Daly shows just how far noir has come from its shoot-’em-up roots; Donald E. Westlake and Stuart M. Kaminsky provide mild humor; Dorothy B. Hughes contributes a memorably miraculous backwoods resurrection; Talmage Powell, Marcia Muller, and Lia Matera show how big a heart can beat under that trenchcoat. Mostly, though, hoods and cops, private eyes and freelance avengers simply try to stay alive while they’re plying their everlastingly conflicting trades in the pages of Norbert Davis, Leigh Brackett, James M. Cain, William P. McGivern, Gil Brewer, Stephen Marlowe, John Lutz, Evan Hunter, Robert J. Randisi, Ed Gorman, John Jakes, Lawrence Block, Bill Pronzini, Benjamin M. Schutz, and both the editors. The highlights—John D. MacDonald’s beautifully matter-of-fact insurance investigation, Loren D. Estleman’s densely plotted twister, and David Goodis’s pitch-black little nightmare—show the genre’s characteristic alternation between bravado and despair.
Readers looking for the true highlights of this all-American genre, though, will need to look elsewhere.