Re: RARA-AVIS: Defining Hardboiled (and noir)

Greg Swan (
Sun, 07 Feb 1999 14:56:04 -0700 In the category of I-know-hardboiled-when-I-read-it, I couldn't resist
reading a comic book mini-series titled "Muktuk Wolfsbreath: Hardboiled
Shaman." Oddly, I felt the writer -- although clearly stretching the
formula -- correctly captured enough of the elements to merit calling his
story "hardboiled."

This comic book featured a tough eskimo shaman who made out-of-body trips --
including a sojourn to the land-of-the-dead -- to help a tribe solve a
problem which turned out to be a murder of sorts. He had a drunken
spirit-weasel as a sidekick. There was also a villanous woman with which
our hero had a love/hate relationship.

There wasn't much in the way of slang. Although the fantasy elements were
treated in a matter-of-fact fashion, even the most generous wouldn't say it
was realistic. The bad woman was corrupt and did hold some authority in the
tribe, so I suppose a generous person could conclude it had elements of
institutional corruption. Instead, it occurs to me that the "cynical
outlook" Gerald mentions more aptly describes the hardboiledness of this
particular story.

In the past, I've tended to go with the definition of hardboiled as suspense
stories about tough-guys. Now, I'm thinking Gerald may have something with
the addition of "cynical outlook." Reading more of Gerald's comments, I'm
not sure I'd go as far as to characterize the hardboiled hero as
particularly optomistic or even corageous. Instead, I think they're driven
by demons of their own making. In the case of Muktuk Wolfsbreath, it's the
love/hate relationship with the bad girl. (Come to think of it, I saw the
very same bad girls and relationships in Whitfield's Green Ice.)

For me, what shades a novel from hardboiled into noir is that, in noir, the
demon driving the protagonist pushes the hero toward self-destruction rather
than the almost life-affirming redemption-with-a-price I've come to expect
in hardboiled-but-not-noir fare. That's how Ellroy's Black Dahlia can be
both hardboiled (tough, cynical) and noirish (all the characters seem bent
on their own self destruction). That's why Highsmith's Amazng Mr. Ripley is
noir, but not hardboiled. As Ripley strives to be someone else he is
engaged in his own self destruction. (You can't be someone else unless you
get rid of yourself.) Yet, Ripley's anything but tough. Instead, he
strikes me as being almost the opposite: effete.

In conjunction with this discussion, one of the most interesting novels I've
read was Derek Raymond's He Died with His Eyes Open. Here, the tough,
cynical detective walks onto the scene at the conclusion of a noir novel.
The detective approaches a body lieing in the street. It's the corpse of a
man who has managed to destroy himself. In solving the murder, our nameless
detective is transformed from a hardboiled protagonist into a noir
protagonist. The way Raymond handles this subtle transformation is
absolutely brilliant. Throw out the last chapter of this book (what a cheat
that was!), and I think it could rank as one of the masterpieces of both
noir and hardboiled. Bravo!

Thanks to those who put Derek Raymond on the reading list and to Gerald for
a thought-provoking post.

Gerald So wrote:
> Hello, all.
> Long-time lurker, first-time poster. Defining parameters of the
> hardboiled novel has always interested me. I lean more toward Bill
> Denton's point that "there's more to hardboiled" than attitude and local
> color.
> I think the term "hardboiled" has to permeate an entire novel. It
> is a bleak, cynical outlook shared by all characters, not just the
> hero. The man fit to survive in such a world (the hero) is one whose
> courage and optimism are enough to counter predominant pessimism.
> Gerald
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