"The Best American Noir of the Century" is a collection of 39 short stories selected by author James Ellroy and Otto Penzler, who is also the series editor of "The Best American Mystery Stories". The stories were written 1923-2007, so I'm not sure which century the title refers to. Later decades are represented more heavily, which may disappoint some readers. Only 9 stories were written before 1955, during the peak years of hard-boiled fiction. There are 10 stories each from the 1990s and 2000s. I don't know if the sparse selection from the hard-boiled genre's strongest years is due to copyright issues or the editors' wish to promote newer material.
Casual readers may be surprised to find that no stories by Dashiell Hammett are included. He is, after all, the father of hard-boiled fiction whose Continental Op stories are still widely read. Otto Penzler explains in his foreword that he considers private detective fiction and "noir" fiction to have "mutually exclusive philosophical premises". In short, private detectives are too heroic, insufficiently flawed, and their vision of the universe not pessimistic enough for "noir". I don't think that dichotomy holds much water, myself. A principled detective can function in a fundamentally disordered universe, and there are plenty of fictional PIs who succumb to their baser impulses, in any case.
But they're excluded from this "noir" collection. The stories that are included are probably best described as having dark themes. Given Penzler's criteria, it's surprising to note that relatively few stories take place in a fundamentally disordered universe, and there are plenty in which the protagonist is acting as a detective. I would even venture to say that some are morality plays. Several stories that were written in later years take place in the 1940s. There are femme fatales and plenty of cruel ironies. The quality is generally solid and occasionally exceptional. There is a lot of good material here for readers who like their humor mocking and their cultures irredeemable.
Some familiar names whose stories are included are: James M. Cain, Steve Fisher, Mickey Spillaine, David Goodis, Jim Thompson, Patricia Highsmith, James Ellroy, Harlan Ellison, Joyce Carol Oates, Dennis Lehane, and Elmore Leonard. MacKinlay Kantor's 1940 story "Gun Crazy" is here. It's focus is different than the superb 1949 film noir of the same name, but it's very good. "Noir", as in "Série noire", was applied to fiction before film, by the way. It was (and is) a line of hard-boiled crime fiction. There seems little point in academics muddying the definition. In his bold introduction, James Ellroy says that "noir will never die -it's too dementedly funny not to flourish..." I like his attitude.