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Library Gives Stature To Noir

“Pulp fiction” has gone legit.

The Library of America - which has previously anthologized the likes of Herman Melville, Stephen Crane, Willa Cather, Mark Twain and Edith Wharton - has taken a walk on the dark side with two new volumes celebrating “American noir.”

“Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 1940s” (Library of America, $35) and “Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s” (Library of America, $35) elevate the stature of such subversive writers as Jim Thompson, James M. Cain, Chester Himes, David Goodis and Charles Willeford.

It’s prescient timing for the two hardcover volumes, with noir back in the cultural news, thanks to the hard-hitting film adaptation of James Ellroy’s novel “L.A. Confidential.”

Ellroy’s forebears in crime writing in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s exposed the underbelly of American life, suggesting “that if you peeled back the skin of official America, this was the rottenness you’d find underneath,” says Robert Polito, who edited the two crime volumes.

Polito was tapped by Library of America after publishing “Savage Art,” his prize-winning 1995 biography of Jim Thompson.

In the wake of the Library of America’s recent Raymond Chandler collection, the crime novel collections “seemed to have a kind of urgency,” Polito says.

Polito, who directs the graduate program in creative writing at the New School of Social Research in New York, argues that noir novels represented a “marginal vision” of society when they were first published. But today he places them in the mainstream tradition of American literature (a la Poe and Hawthorne), albeit a tradition that “is very dark, and not really uplifting.”

In the novels Polito has chosen for the two volumes, the criminal mind (rather than the detective) is center stage. And Polito warns that readers may not be prepared for just how dark these books are, because we are more familiar with the movie versions. The novels in the ‘30s and ‘40s volume are “The Postman Always Rings Twice” by James M. Cain; “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” by Horace McCoy; “Thieves Like Us” by Edward Anderson; “The Big Clock” by Kenneth Fearing; “Nightmare Alley” by William Lindsay Gresham; and “I Married a Dead Man” by Cornell Woolrich.

In the ‘50s volume, the selections are “The Killer Inside Me” by Thompson; “The Talented Mr. Ripley” by Patricia Highsmith; “Pick-Up” by Charles Willeford; “Down There” by David Goodis; and “The Real Cool Killers” by Chester Himes.

How did Polito choose the novels? “Strong writing and literary experimentation” were two criteria.

“This is great writing by any stretch,” Polito says without hesitation. And this from a scholar who published “A Reader’s Guide to James Merrill’s ‘The Changing Light at Sandover’ ” before he became obsessed with Thompson.

Polito’s picks won me over. The two novels I decided to read - “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and “The Killer Inside Me” - feature writing as visceral, gutsy and just plain fun as anything I’ve read in a while.

Thompson’s wild “The Killer Inside Me” (1952) - narrated in the first person by a deranged killer cop - so knocked me out that I ran out and bought another Thompson pulp classic, “A Hell of a Woman” (recommended by Polito as the next thing a neophyte Thompson fan should read).

When Thompson died in 1977 all his novels were out of print. There has been a well-publicized revival of his work since the 1980s. But who would have thought the paperback king would be on the shelf in a handsome hardcover volume alongside the likes of Thomas Jefferson, W.E.B. Du Bois and Henry Adams, other Library of America alumna?