Friday, November 13, 2009

Newsweek on Noir

Over at Newsweek, Malcolm Jones examines the history of noir and how literary icons have recently begun to dip their toes in this blackest of pools:

In 1945, the literary critic Edmund Wilson penned an eye-rolling put-down of detective stories titled "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" His question (he was referencing a 1926 Agatha Christie title) was rhetorical, just a snide way of saying that crime fiction was worthless. But if he were around today to pose the same question, he might do so a little more gingerly. Or he might not ask the question at all, because the answer is so glaringly obvious: darn near everybody. ... Would those numbers be enough to make Wilson change his mind about crime writing? Probably not. As far as he was concerned, tripe was tripe. But if Wilson read some of the contemporary authors practicing in the genre he despised, he might not so quickly rush to judgment. ...

It's hard to say where this dystopic view first found root in American letters, but you see it as early as Poe and then again in Melville and Twain. It surfaces again during the Depression, when economic hopelessness cast a long shadow over the work of such writers as Horace McCoy (They Shoot Horses, Don't They?), James M. Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice), and Edward Anderson (Thieves Like Us). The French were the first to label the genre, in the '40s, but the stories and movies that caught their attention were mostly American, and hopelessness, futility, and, most important, failure were not supposed to be part of the American Dream.
Read the whole thing. Newcomers to noir will find helpful Jones' history of the genre and analysis of what makes it effective. ("In noir, you've got to care. ... It's not the mechanics that make noir work. It's the emotional core of the story that has to ring true.") And that emotion, of course, is despair at watching a protagonist inexorably plummet to his doom. Seems like a recipe for despondent nihilism, doesn't it? Only it doesn't have to be. No matter your personal philosophy, you can probably agree that humanity's natural state isn't utopic, that everyone has character flaws, that such flaws can lead to very bad things, and that all of this is worth tackling in our writing. If you find yourself nodding, then think about opening up noir's toolbox. It's got everything you need inside.

(Picture: CC 2007 by
dipster1; Hat Tip: The Violent World of Parker)


Chestertonian Rambler said...

It may label me as a bit of a sentimentalist, but I personally still love the Chandlerian Hero--the guy stuck in a pitch-black Noir universe, surviving by his ironic wit and his inexplicably persistent sense of compassion and honor.

Of course, maybe he's just a figure for the Noir reader (or author?) After all, Chandler's Marlowe isn't ever really the protagonist of his stories, any more than Conrad's Marlowe before him. Both are observers in a drama of rarely-interrupted human self-destruction, staring into the abyss and yet still persisting in their faith that humans, evil as they are, are worth caring for.

Unknown said...

I've always thought that a major part of being "noir" instead of just bleak crime drama was having a protagonist with a steel rod of principle at his/her core somewhere. (Often serving dual purpose as a Tragic Flaw, to boot!)

Loren Eaton said...


My experience with noir is quite limited (I'm only just now digging into the genre in any depth), so I've mostly only heard about Chandler from secondary sources. However, I love this classic similie from Farewell, My Lovely: "Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food."

Loren Eaton said...


There seems to be quite a bit of disagreement among fans as to what consitutes noir and what constitutes hardboiled. The latter seems to feature more sympathetic protagonists. Peter Rozovsky of Detectives Beyond Borders says the former has a protagonist who goes willingly to his doom. I don't think I've read enough of either to pass a judgment.

B. Nagel said...

I know next to nothing about written noir. And most of what I know of film noir is caricature (ever see the Whose Line bit?). And I think that same dark view and nihilism haunt litfic.

And yet . . .

It's a bit like that via negative you mentioned earlier. Actually, more than a bit.

Loren Eaton said...

It's a bit like that via negative you mentioned earlier. Actually, more than a bit.

That's how I like to use it, although noir vets seem to prefer the stuff that's completely amoral. Blood Simple's probably a good example.

That clip, by the way, is hilarious! "He was playing me like you play a fish." [shakes head]