RARA-AVIS: Chandler, Hope, and the HB novel

From: Michael Sharp ( msharp@binghamton.edu)
Date: 27 Jan 2000

Thanks to whoever mentioned the connection between Chandler and the importance of "hope" in truly effective hard-boiled fiction. Chandler knew what he was talking about. However much we like to think of the stuff we read as bleak, dark, unforgiving, uncomprimising, etc., the best works would not be nearly as powerful as they are if they did not hold out some measure of hope (or even the possibility of redemption). Possessing the quality of hope does not mean having a happy ending, by any means. But if there is no hope, no OUTSIDE of the bleakness (or at least a fantasy of an outside), then the story has nothing to do, nowhere to go, nothing driving it. This is why Chandler is for me the paradigmatic hard-boiled writer
(though some think him soft) -- he better than anyone gives voice to the harsh, grinding sound of ideals set against "reality." Though he has a sense of humor and even, occasionally, a lightness that other "hard-boiled" writer don't (or can't), his writing always comes across to me as deadly serious, far more serious than most, because he's trying to say something deeply existential rather than trying to impress you w/ superficial shows of violence and profanity. I like both these things, but nowadays (I'm starting to sound old for a 30-yr-old man), among putatively "hard-boiled" writers, violence and profanity are largely ornamental and often obfuscate rather than illuminate the condition of the people in the story. Chandler may have written the same book seven times, but it was damned near perfect.


P.S. That bit about "ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances" is most often (in my mind anyway) associated with Cornell Woolrich, who is many things, but "hard-boiled" is not one of them. "Noir" maybe. But who wants to revive that tired "noir" v. "hard-boiled" thread? Not me.

Michael D. Sharp Assistant Professor Department of English State University of New York Binghamton, NY 13902-6000 Office Phone: (607) 777-2418 Fax: (607) 777-2408

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